Tim Robbins, Part 1

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 20, 2003, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is Tim Robbins. Great to have you here.

Tim Robbins: My pleasure to be here.

Paulson: I was looking at a Rolling Stone article about you written back in 1992, and I was struck by their description of you as “The sort of man who never stops moving.” And you may remember this, at the time, you said, “I’ll sleep when I’m 45.”

Robbins: Oh, really?

Paulson: You did.

Robbins: I got another — what — couple months to go?

Paulson: That’s right. You are by no means sleeping. You are as visible and, I guess, controversial as you’ve ever been, but not by design. In fact, the irony of the most recent flap concerning the Baseball Hall of Fame is that arguably your least controversial movie of all time, “Bull Durham,” was at the centerpiece of this controversy.

Robbins: Yeah.

Paulson: Did that just come out of nowhere at you?

Robbins: Yeah, they kind of drew me out. Actually, right before it happened, I was kind of depressed, and, you know, I was — you know, we had been organizing and speaking and marching — and, you know, millions and millions and millions of people marched around the globe to say no to this war, and we had a president that said, “Doesn’t matter what you say,” you know. “We’re gonna do whatever we want to do,” essentially. And so the war was — had already been on. I think it was, at that point, almost over or over, and I was depressed and wondering, you know, “Jeez, what’s, what’s next,” you know? “What’s next?” And, ah, got this letter from the Hall of Fame, and I was starting to write a response to it, and — but I had to go to rehearsal, oddly enough, of a play I was doing, “Letters of Dalton Trumbo.” How ironic is that? And I’m doing the reading with Paul Giamatti, who happens to be the son of Bart Giamatti, the late commissioner of baseball. So I walk into this rehearsal, and I say, “You’re not gonna believe this.” Then I read the letter to them, and they were stunned. So I get back from the rehearsal. It’s now about 6:00 at night, 6:30. And I get a call from my office saying, “You know what? The AP called, the Associated Press, and they want a comment on the letter.” And I said, “What do you mean, a comment? How’d they get that?” And it turns out the Hall of Fame had sent the letter to the AP wire and me at the same time.

Paulson: And we have to be clear about what that letter said. And this is a letter from Dale Petroskey, the Hall of Fame president, sending a letter to you and your partner, Susan Sarandon, canceling the event — canceling the tribute to Bull Durham, saying, “In a free country such as ours, every American has the right to his or her own opinions and to express them. Public figures such as you have platforms much larger than the average American, which provides you an extraordinary opportunity to have your views heard and an equally large obligation to act and speak responsibly.” What message was he sending you?

Robbins: “Equally large obligation to shut up when I don’t agree with you or if you don’t agree with the president,” which is a ludicrous statement. It’s a ludicrous idea of democracy, a ludicrous idea of free speech.

Paulson: And the suggestion was that you would — on this special day devoted to the very best baseball film ever made — instead spend your time talking about governmental policy?

Robbins: Yeah, I guess that’s what happens when you, when you stick around only people that agree with you, you think that those that disagree with you can’t talk about anything but that. I was looking forward to a weekend away from the politics and the war and to going — I was gonna take my two sons up there. I’ve been many times before to Cooperstown and never considered thinking or talking about politics in the Hall of Fame. Baseball for me is a respite. It’s a place where you can go and be sitting next to someone that is diametrically opposed to you in the ballpark but pull for the same thing — the pitcher to do well, your team to score a run. And that’s one of the beauties of baseball. It’s a, it’s a great force to unite us in times like this. And I was really disappointed, and I was astonished that it was not intended to be a cancellation and notification of me. It was intended to be a statement. By sending it to the AP wire, it was intended to be a broad swipe at us. By using the media, as they have so effectively done, to, I guess, teach us a lesson about opposing the president. And luckily for me, the AP reporter was practicing fair journalism that day and found me. And luckily for all of us, there was someone in my office at 6:30 p.m. when he called. And luckily for me, I was writing this response all day, and I said, “You know what? I don’t want to do an interview. I’ll send you the letter that I’m sending Dale Petroskey, and you can print whatever you want out of it.” And so, what was intended as a broadside wound up having a balance to it, number one, and then, number two, these sports writers across the country just went ballistic on Petroskey, on this attempt to make baseball a partisan issue. I wrote in my letter, “I didn’t realize that baseball was a republican sport, and I still don’t believe that to be true.” I think he has an agenda, this guy, and he, you know, he wound up with — kind of releasing a non-apology apology and basically saying, “You should have called us instead of writing the letter,” because — I guess because letters leave paper trails. But the phone call, no one would have found out about, I suppose. So I didn’t really buy the apology.

Paulson: He did say that he had inadvertently done what he hoped to prevent you from doing, which was to introduce politics into the Hall of Fame.

Robbins: He also said on a radio interview I heard that he doesn’t want pro-war sentiments expressed up there either, and that’s really funny, because a few months before that, he had had Ari Fleischer up to the Hall of Fame to talk about the war. So I think it’s — essentially, you know, he exposed his partisanship. He exposed himself to be a ridiculous kind of tool for this kind of terrible — the larger issue, this terrible tendency, when there is dissent, to try to characterize dissent as unpatriotic, which is very curious, because for — if you go back two years before that incident, for eight years, you wouldn’t hear a day go by when the right-wing talk radio and the right-wing television pundits would not be criticizing Clinton for something, including during the war in Kosovo — almost every day criticizing their leader. When they did it, it was patriotic, and when we do it, it’s unpatriotic. That’s clearly partisanship.

Paulson: And you look at the history of this country — the founding fathers were hell-raisers. They burned the British flag. I mean, it is the spirit of this country to always raise questions about your government and the way things are going. That’s what sets us apart.

Robbins: What’s curious about it also is that — it was really weird. They have the Senate. They have the Congress. They have the executive branch. They have the judicial branch. They have a majority of the Supreme Court. They got their war. They won it decisively. Why aren’t they happy? What more do they need? They have a majority. They should be able to achieve their agenda. Their agenda has nothing to do with the common man, nothing to do with the working person, nothing to do with the average Joe out there, and never has. But for years, they have been saying that they represent that person. So they get to the position of power, they have all three houses — they have the two houses, and they have the presidency. They don’t do anything. Why aren’t they doing anything? “Well, it’s because, uh, oh, uh, uh — it’s the celebrities that are against the war that are unpatriotic.” It’s so stupid. It’s such a distraction.

Paulson: When you talk about distraction, that’s not exactly a compliment to the American public if, in fact, they’re buying what you’re —

Robbins: But it’s not the majority of the American public, and we have to realize that. This is a very vocal minority. And the proof of that is that when the Dixie Chicks go back on tour, they’re sold out and they’re back on top even though all — there has been an amazing amount of agitation on the Internet and on radio and on Fox News and on MSNBC — amazing amount of negativity coming at those women. Didn’t work. Why didn’t it work?

Paulson: What I found surprising was Cumulus Broadcasting’s decision to ban all of their music. It wasn’t about banning a controversial song. It was about punishing someone who’d made a remark that many Americans were afraid of or troubled by. Or maybe a handful of very angry people were bothered by it.

Robbins: I think there’s more — it wasn’t the majority of Americans that were — it’s like, you advertise from the top down. It’s not like a grassroots movement, where there’s all of a sudden a groundswell of people that are angry at what she said and demanding some kind of retribution or change. It comes from the top. It comes from the power that says on the radio, “You know what? We’re angry, and so are you, and so should you be.” And you listen to them — it’s agitation. It’s like, “Here’s why you should be angry — because of this, because of this, because of this.”

Paulson: What motivates Cumulus to make that kind of blanket order?

Robbins: Because they don’t want any dissent, and the Bush administration does not want any dissent and will not tolerate any dissent, because if there is any dissent, it will expose something that could crumble. Given — if we really had a news media and a news structure that would really investigate some of these scandals — like the Enron scandal, which all of a sudden has gone away; like Halliburton and Mr. Cheney — there would be some very deeply troubling truths that we have to address as a public and as a country. But somehow, these things just kind of flitter away, and we start — but look how much — look how long that Clinton’s sex life dominated the news. It was like — I didn’t like the guy personally. Clinton, I was not a big supporter of. But can’t we move on? I mean, that was — do you realize we’re gonna spend more money — we will have spent more money investigating Whitewater and, separately, the incident with Lewinsky — both of those investigations — we will have spent more money on both of those investigations individually than any kind of commission to find out the truth on 9/11? Imagine that. You’re spending more to find out about an intern than you are about the most amazing and horrific tragedy in America.

Paulson: What’s driving that? I mean, is it — you know, you’re suggesting the press has gone to sleep on President Bush. But weren’t they tough on Clinton? Were they tough for the wrong reasons?

Robbins: They were tough for the wrong reasons, absolutely, I believe. I think there were a lot of other things they could have been tough on him about. But for some reason, that’s what sells. You know, sex sells, and it’s a — ooh — juicy scandal. But there’s much worse things happening. Why can’t we ask questions about 9/11? Why can’t we have a commission that we really, really investigate — we really invest money in? We don’t even want to start it. It hasn’t even started yet. Maybe by the time this is on, it’ll have started. But look at the budget of what they’re going to give that investigation. Compare it to the budget they gave Whitewater. It’s, it’s nowhere close.

Paulson: You know, you may be right. Maybe it’s a vocal minority that sort of is speaking out against “celebrities who speak out,” and maybe that’s where the real backlash is, but it does seem to me — I don’t see, from the boomer generation, what I might have expected. You know, the same folks who were around for Kent State and bought Neil Young’s “Ohio” and had a real activist mind-set for an entire generation — they don’t seem to have that anymore.

Robbins: I think you’re right. Well, some do. Some do. I know a few that do. But I think that overall, I think you’re right. I think that there’s a difference between those people that were protesting against the Vietnam War and the people that are protesting — or were protesting against this most recent war. And it’s a fundamental difference. And it’s in the difference, I see great optimism. I see that this movement is much more, at its core, a moral movement than the anti-Vietnam War movement. A lot of those guys and, to a large degree, a lot of the men were against that war because they didn’t want to go there.

Paulson: Right.

Robbins: They didn’t want to die there. They saw a real danger that they were gonna be called up to serve and also a problem — some of them — with the fact that they knew that they could get out of it and some of the other people couldn’t — a racial problem.

Paulson: Mm-hmm.

Robbins: Now, you talk to the people that are involved in the movement now and, in a connected way, in the WTO — anti-WTO movement and anti-sweatshop movement across the world — these people are really impressive, because they’re motivated not out of self-interest but out of a worldview and a common cause of — of looking at the world and looking at our position in the world and how we are involved in it economically and environmentally and, ultimately, spiritually. And that’s where the movement has its roots. And that, for me, is very encouraging, and I hold great optimism, because I’ve actually talked to these people and come to know some of them. And I believe it’s a movement that is a real grassroots movement, something that will be around for a long, long time. There’s no way to bust that kind of movement, because it has at its core a moral truth. And like other movements throughout the centuries in American history that have had moral cores, you can’t stop those movements. You can slow them down, you can arrest the leaders, you can marginalize people, you can ostracize celebrated people that are — that lend their voice to the movement, but you can’t stop the moral truth. It will never stop. It took 150 to 200 years to stop slavery in this country. It took 100 years for any kind of labor union movement to happen. It took 150 years of agitation for women to get the vote. These things don’t come overnight. This is — but what I’ve noticed about this movement: it’s for real.

Paulson: One of the great blessings in a country in which we have free speech is this marketplace of ideas, and the ideas, in theory, compete. And yet there are people watching this — and maybe not for long, but — who, who share none of your values and, you know, who would deride environmental supporters as tree huggers, and you’ve heard the whole drill.

Robbins: Well, it’s interesting that they go that direction. They go, “Well, he’s a tree hugger.” Well, you know what? I don’t like tree huggers either. You know, I think they’re pretty fu — it’s like, “What,” you know? There’s a big difference between tree huggers and ruining ecosystems that you need food from. It’s a very — it’s not even a Democrat, liberal, Repub — it’s an issue of food. And if you think about real environmentalists now, the ones that get this kind of coverage of the tree hugging kind of people and the weirdoes — well, that’s — I think for a reason, we’re seeing them. There’s real people that are working, for example, for labels in this country. Shouldn’t we label our food? Shouldn’t we know what we’re eating? Isn’t that a issue that goes across any kind of Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal — everyone wants to know what they’re eating. But for some reason, we have a situation where we can’t see what’s in our food. We can’t — we don’t know whether what we’re eating is genetically modified. We don’t know that the pea that we’re eating has been crossed with animal hair. We don’t know because it’s not in the product information. That’s an issue that could cut right across lines. I would advocate any of these democrats running to embrace that issue, because I know several conservatives that would vote for them if they would have the courage to take on the food — agribusiness.

Paulson: So in the marketplace of ideas, why did the liberals lose those arguments? Why — I think it was — I’m trying to recall the conversation. It was Bill O’Reilly who said something to the effect of — that conservatives tend to see the world in black and white, and liberals tend to see the world in grays and shades and that in an argument between the two, one message is much clearer and more emphatic, and that’s the side that wins. I don’t know if you buy that, but it just seems to me that people can fairly readily dismiss the views of others with a label like tree hugger. And does that suggest that people who are in the environmental movement haven’t made their case effectively?

Robbins: Well, no, it just suggests we’re in a more of a — I don’t know — hostile environment, where — you know, when you’re — as a parent, you know, it’s like, “Hey, no name calling, all right?” You know? If you want to engage in a dialogue, engage in a dialogue, but, you know, if one person’s gonna yell at the other and, when the other person’s making their point, the conservative host starts yelling at them — I’ve seen these shows. I see how it works.

Paulson: Right.

Robbins: It’s not a real free, open place for discussion. It’s “You come on my show, and I’m gonna yell at you.” And, you know, that’s why I don’t go on those shows. What’s the purpose? As far as who’s right and who’s wrong, you know, I think right now, it’s more who has the ability to spin? Who has the ability to say who’s right and who’s wrong? I know who’s right and who’s wrong. In any argument, I can tell. And there’s good points on both sides. And I think the major challenge for all of us is to find ways to, to find common ground. You know, the greatest blessing about the “Bull Durham” thing was that I got letters from every spectrum of the political landscape — from conservatives, from the left, from the right, veterans — all, in some degree, supporting me. Some saying at the same time, “You know what? I don’t agree with you, but you have the right to say it.” And some, very surprisingly — a lot of — a lot of veterans saying, “I totally agree with what you’re saying as well.” We don’t think — we’ve started — to think in black and white is to think, “OK, every single veteran you meet is gonna be pro-war.” Not true at all, and you know it’s not true. In fact, there’s — because these people have really been through war, a lot of these people are really opposed to this kind of enterprise, especially kind of preemptive enterprise, because they’ve been in the military and know what the code of ethics are in military enterprises. In fact, most of the people that were advocating for this war to happen were people that avoided service in Vietnam. Now, you figure that out. When Richard Perle and Wolfowitz and Cheney and Ashcroft and Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert all somehow got deferments, all somehow avoided service in Vietnam, and are the biggest advocates for war, my question is, if you’re so into it, why not do it when you were young when you could do it? Or is it something that you just want other people to fight for you? And for me, that’s a hypocrisy I don’t want to have to deal with. I never served, but I’m never gonna send anyone to battle without a rea — never gonna be in the position to do that, but I would never advocate for it either, because it’s not for me to do. I would much rather listen to the veterans in this kind of issue. But for some reason, we don’t. We listen to the professional politicians and, incidentally, these talk show hosts, all of whom skirted service in Vietnam. Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Snow, Savage — all these people somehow found ways to not serve, you know? They either got deferments or dodged the draft in some way. Come on. You know what? Let — I’ll listen to Oliver North. I’ll listen to him, because he’s been there. But I don’t want to hear all these other guys talking about how important it is to go to war when they didn’t have the guts to do it themselves.

Paulson: Would there have been any circumstances under which you could have supported the war in Iraq?

Robbins: I didn’t say a word during Afghanistan, ’cause I was a New Yorker, and I was pissed off, and I said, “I’m not gonna say anything.” People asked me to sign things, and I said, “You know what? I’m so angry right now. If my government wants to do this, I am, for the first time in my adult life, not gonna do a thing.” Because I’ve always — when I’ve protested wars, I’ve always had the moral argument with myself: “What would happen if we were invaded?” And for me, the moral argument was always: “It’s a different story. That’s a different story. ‘You come into my neighborhood, you mess with me, I’ll mess with you right back.’ I am not a pacifist. You come in my house and threaten my family, I’ll, I’ll kill you. I am not against the [Second] Amendment. I think you should have the right to have a gun. So when this thing happened in 9/11, I was — you know what? I was fine with it. If you want to go out and find al-Qaida in Afghanistan, you want to rout them out, go ahead and do it. And then I started hearing about the civilian casualties, and it weighed on me, but I said, “You know what? I’m so angry. I’m not gonna say anything.” But I knew there was only gonna be a matter of time before they were gonna start to try to justify other altercations. And this one was just outrageous. You know, all the buildup to it and the lies and the forged documents of nuclear capabilities and the term report from some student that Colin Powell read at the United Nations. And the rest of the world’s going, “What? These people are listening to this stuff? What’s wrong with the American public?” And I say to them, nothing’s wrong with the American public. Something’s wrong with the American media. Because they’re not getting them. They’re not calling them on those forged documents: “Excuse me, sir. You have just made yourself a fraud, and I am not going to support you anymore.”

Paulson: So what’s driving that? If the press has failed, is that corporate thinking in the newspaper environment?

Robbins: The press hasn’t completely failed. There’s ways to get information. There are reporters in — still in these newspapers trying to write their pieces. There is a way, through the Internet, to go to the Independent in London to get your coverage, you know, in Iraq. There is a way to read The Nation and the Progressive. And then when you read those, you can balance them against the other side, whatever right-wing thing — there’s a way to find the truth. But the major media — why is that happening? I wish I knew. I think it has something to do with the fact that we’ve had this deregulation. And the deregulation has led to fewer and fewer owners of media, and we have a situation where your weapons manufacturer owns a network. And that’s a dangerous situation to be in. You got to have a free press. And part of having a free press is having the ability to not have to answer to the people that you’re reporting on.

Paulson: Sure. I respect that point of view. You and I both know reporters, though, and in terms of being free spirits, they’re kind of akin to actors. I mean, they don’t roll over — the good ones don’t roll over and die.

Robbins: No, there are — and like I said, there are a lot of good ones still.

Paulson: And if they were sat on, they would tend to report to the journalism review or write a column about it. I believe it’s a principled profession.

Robbins: But where’s the unity in that profession? In other words, when Helen Thomas is kicked to the back of the room, the very next day, the first person that’s called on should say, “I defer my question to the back of the room, because you can’t — you attack one of us, you attack all of us.” There should be some kind of unity, but there doesn’t seem to be. There’s, like, a kowtowing to the power. “Oh, I don’t want to lose my privileges, so I’ll ask a polite question.”

Paulson: It’s been great to have you with us. Thank you so much.

Robbins: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.

Paulson: Our guest today has been Tim Robbins.

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