What Would You Die For? An Interview with Timothy Patrick McCarthy

by Matt B. on March 11, 2010

This week’s interview is with Tim McCarthy, Director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

You recently discussed “the future of protest” at Harvard Thinks Big, and you exhorted Harvard students to take up the spirit of protesters past.  Could you summarize your views?

The question I asked was, “Does protest have a future?”…I work on the history of social movements, particularly the history of radical movements in the United States, so I’m really interested in…what my colleague John Stauffer calls “passionate outsiders”…

What motivates the specific question about whether protest has a future? What’s special about this moment now?

Well, I think there are a couple of things that are special about it.  But…I think that this question—does protest have a future?—should always be posed….[T]he society that we live in has been given to us by people who have had the courage to stand up…and to protest the things that are wrong….Every generation needs to figure out how they will rise to that challenge.  And there are a lot of things that are really wrong in the world.

It’s important to remember that the world that we live in is not just shaped by people who are powerful….[I]t is also shaped by people who are powerless in lots of ways….But how do these folks come together to change society?…[P]articularly in democracies.

In this country…a couple of things [are] going on right now. One is the enormous energy that came out of the Obama campaign, which many people thought of as a kind of social movement of sorts (though I would argue that it wasn’t)….[W]hat do we do with that energy?

On the other hand…we also have a situation where we are as divided as a country politically—in institutions of power and way outside of these institutions of power—as we’ve ever been in my lifetime. The animus exists…whether you’re on the left or right.  And their frustrations are directed toward those who are in power….But I would also say that these institutions of power…are not functioning properly, or not functioning at all, because of the larger divisiveness in the culture…How do you get out of that?

On the other hand…because of our globalized new media world, we’re connected to one another and aware of each other’s lives in ways that we haven’t been in the past.  Look at the great empathy [toward] Haiti or Chile….Because of the global flow of information and images, I think the way we…connect to these kinds of things is probably different now than it was a generation ago.

…Then there’s the future….“What world are we going to give to our kids?”  I think that every generation needs to wrestle with and reflect upon that—not just on “What am I going to get right now?”

As a teacher, I feel that urgently….I have the privilege…to teach and reflect with and think deeply with the next generation. I’ve been teaching now for fifteen years at three different institutions. I now see my former students who are out there making change in the world, some of them for the good and some of them not so good. Many of them are still struggling to figure out what kind of lives they are going to lead, what kind of change they are going to make.

…I like to call this the “pedagogy of the privileged.” I have the privilege of teaching some of the best and brightest minds in the world. But this cuts both ways. On the one hand, there’s great opportunity there to help people figure out what kind of positive impact they’re going to have in the world….

But there’s another side….If we don’t ask these deeper questions—how we will confront and change the things that are wrong? what kind of lives do we want to lead?—then we will be sending people out into the world…to exercise power and privilege who have never gone through the process of reflecting about the moral and ethical and political dimensions of how they’re going to use their power and privilege.

I think there are two types questions an institution like this should ask. One is, “What do we aim for, and why?  The other is, “How do we get there?” I worry that we spend too little time on the first question and too much on the second.  To me, that first question is fundamental.  Before we can decide how to deploy policies effectively, we need to ask hard questions about what we value. And we need a spirit that encourages intense grappling with that question.

I agree. But let me put it in a slightly different way….I’m constantly [trying to get] students…to wrestle with two questions: One is, “What do you believe?”  And the second is “Why do you believe this?”  I want people to articulate what they stand for—what they’re willing to throw down for, what they’re willing to get arrested for, what they’re willing to die for—but also why they believe the things they do.

But we don’t ask these questions as much as we should….When we think about some of the people who inspire us, we see these questions answered.  Martin Luther King, Jr., could tell you what he would die for. Gandhi could tell you….Mandela could tell you….Mother Teresa could tell you.

…[W]e need to ask our students these questions more often.  If someone said to me, “What would you die for? What would you be arrested for?” I could tell them.

What would you say?

…[A]t the outset, broadly speaking, I would say justice. Ultimately, I am driven by equality, which is one of the reasons why I have such a complicated relationship with the academy….I think that institutions like Harvard are places that privilege hierarchy, because that’s how they function. People have specific roles to play, and those roles are often either privileged or subordinated to one another.

….I find that to be intensely problematic, and I am very uncomfortable with this. I am much more…of an egalitarian, and if I see equality…thwarted in various ways, that’s something that troubles me deeply.

For instance, one of the exhortations I had in my talk was that [the undergraduates] should be less worried about the loss of hot breakfast – which they are totally preoccupied with, which is foolish – and more concerned about the loss of jobs for those people who made hot breakfast. At the end of the day, Harvard laid off hundreds of people last year when the students were complaining about eggs and pancakes and the faculty was complaining that they weren’t getting an annual salary increase.

…Let me be very clear:  It’s not a human right to get an annual salary increase. It is, however, a human right to be able to have a job and be…fairly and justly compensated for that job. So when institutions are privileging one kind of complaint over another—whining over the loss of small perks and privileges rather than insisting on full and just employment—that’s something I feel compelled to speak on….

I’m also willing to go to jail for peace. I absolutely am willing to die for peace, which sounds weirdly ironic, right? But I’m a pacifist. I reject war, even so-called “just war.” I have gotten death threats because of the stance that I took in opposition to the Iraq war and…to the Bush administration’s war on terror, and I was “blacklisted” as “short of patriotism” by Lynne Cheney.…But I’m very proud of that. I’m much prouder of the stance I took in opposition to the Iraq war—standing up at that moment in history—than anything I’ve ever written or published.  I sleep somewhat easier at night knowing that I was on the right side of history at a time when that stance was not only unpopular but also widely viewed as “unpatriotic.”

That said, I know that’s not going to get me tenure, it’s probably not going to get me a job promotion, and it’s probably not going to earn me the respect of most of my colleagues. But I don’t care. That’s where I feel like I have a complicated relationship with places like this.  I hate the silences that institutions like Harvard sometimes require for advancement or survival or “success.”

That said, I also think it’s essential for us to articulate why we believe what we do, to explain and even justify our positions….I’m constantly trying to get my students…to wrestle with the question: “Why do you believe that?”…It’s not simply whether or not you support the death penalty, or whether or not you support welfare reform….These are policy positions that you can believe in passionately.  But…why?  For instance, if you are opposed to welfare—say, if you believe that poor folks need to get off the dole—I want to know why you believe that welfare creates laziness and dependency?…In other words, what about your experience…supports or undergirds the ideology that leads you to take this particular policy position?

We don’t often think enough about that. At the end of the day, these questions get into your personal experience, your political ideology, your worldview, which is directly shaped by your material and social experiences.  I don’t mean to sound like too much of a Marxist – well, maybe I do – but at the end of the day, why you believe something goes to the heart of who you are and how you act in the world.  Ideology is at the core of politics.

I was thinking about Jon Stewart recently.  Sometimes his analysis is sophisticated; other times, it falls short. But what’s so valuable to me about what he does is that he actually asks questions – and suggests answers – about what’s motivating public figures to do what they do and say what they say.

Well, let me give you two examples of things I care very deeply about. One is welfare reform. I was a graduate student at the time [of Clinton’s reforms] and I was living in New York when Rudy Giuliani was mayor….There were all these moves to cut welfare services and [other] services….

The whole movement for welfare reform was rooted in a discourse that denigrated and stigmatized poor people.  Almost nowhere in the debate over welfare reform—at least…among the powers that be in New York City or Washington—was there…any acknowledgement that poor people are complex and valuable human beings, just like all of us.

You never say that we need to get suburban parents off the dole and stop taking their kids to public parks on the weekends.  But public parks are tax-supported public offerings that people of all kinds rely on….We never say that middle class people—or rich people, for that matter—are on welfare because we don’t have an underlying sense that these folks are lazy or dependent or corrupt (when, if fact, they can be all of these things). But we do have an underlying sense that poor people are that way, particularly poor people of color, which is often implied in debates over welfare and the like.

And this is amazing, given the other narratives at work in American political discourse.  One is  the Horatio/Alger bootstrap narrative, and another is the way that politicians regularly make paeans to the hardworking decency of the average American. Now, granted that they’re usually pitching themselves at middle-class Americans…

…Horatio Alger tales were stories, largely, of white European immigrants who came to the United States and divested themselves of all the things that might have dragged them down, imbuing themselves with the so-called “American spirit” of picking themselves up by their bootstraps and moving from poverty to riches.

One of the reasons why Booker T. Washington, the great African-American leader of the late nineteenth century, called his autobiography Up from Slavery is because he was trying to intervene in this highly racialized discourse of upward mobility that presumed that European immigrants could rise from rags to riches but black folks couldn’t.

In a school of public policy, we need to interrogate our positions on particular policies by asking: “Why is it that you believe this?” What kinds of assumptions are you making based on your experiences—or no experience….[M]any people who favor welfare reform, or abolition, have never met a person on welfare, or a poor person, or a person of color….For the last nine years, I have run this program in Dorchester, a college humanities program for low-income adults.  Most of the students in my program….live at or below the poverty line.

There’s nothing in my experience with any of these folks…that would ever support a narrative of laziness to characterize them – not one. Resilience, courage, faith, love – all those things. Laziness? Not a person, in nine years, and hundreds of people have come through this program.  So I would challenge anyone who would base support for welfare reform or abolition on the premise that poor people are lazy, dependent, and corrupt.

So that’s one thing. The other issue is same-sex marriage. I just got engaged to my partner, and we’re getting married next year.


Thank you….I’m not as preoccupied with the gay marriage issue as some other queer people are.  Still, I do worry that the debate over marriage has crowded out other important LGBT issues….[M]arriage equality should not be the only, or even top, priority for the movement, but that’s another conversation. That said, I should have the right to marry to my partner anywhere I damn well choose. I love him, I am committed to him, and I want to spend the rest of my life with him. Just like my parents and grandparents.

…There are people who are opposed to gay marriage. Okay, fine. My response to them: “Why? You and your wife have a relationship. I have no authority or right to intervene in it…other than to say, ‘Congratulations. I’m happy for you. You found someone that you love and want to be with the rest of your life and you want to make that commitment….’”

And that’s all we want:  congratulate us on our loving commitment and step aside. But if you don’t think that we have the right to the same thing that you have—if you want to stand in the way of our human rights—then I want to know more about why you think that. I want to know what it is about my partner and me that makes you think you need or are entitled to a kind of “super citizenship.”  Why do you think it’s your democratic or regulatory duty to intervene in our relationship in a way that denies us the joy and love and recognition that you have?  That is arrogant and discriminatory, plain and simple….

In class, it’s unsettling to me when people say things like, “Well, I like XYZ strategy because I like market mechanisms.”  It seems to me that if you’re going to seek to influence policy, you’ve got to do more than just ‘like’ one policy over another.  You have to be able to say why.

And it’s deeply personal. That’s why my good friend Marshall Ganz’s work is so important. We all have stories, and those stories are what allow us to articulate and really put into words what we believe….

When it comes to markets, people take for granted that capitalism…exists and it always will. Very few people ever challenge the logic of capitalism any more….Adam Smith challenged the logic of capitalism more than most people do today….To paraphrase, he said, “The wealth of nations is determined not by the wealth of those at the top but the lack of wealth of those at the bottom.” He was talking about how capitalism produces economic inequality and how we need to recognize that as a way to critique capitalism from the inside. Nobody does that any more.

So [you hear that] the market [will fix] education, the market will fix social services, the market will fix health care and the media. Maybe that’s true, but there’s a lot of evidence – data, if you will – to suggest that it’s not true. Capitalism can be a very bad thing.

We learn early in API-101 that markets aren’t always particularly good at providing public goods.

…[I]n the health care debate, the thing that has driven me craziest is that the public option is seen as “socialism.” But the public option actually helps to make the free market more fair….[T]he public option is a government alternative within the free market of choices for health care. So it actually…increases competition by creating a public option among the range of options for health care that will help to drive down prices….

But the Democrats didn’t fight the socialism battle because they lack courage.  Once the Right said, “It’s socialism,” or “liberal,” or whatever the bad word of the day is, [the Democrats] ran for the hills. They said, “Well, we have to figure out another way to do this.”  Democrats love to run from a fight.

Right.  And the response is so easy.  It’s, “If you think that the public option constitutes socialism, then I assume you also oppose Medicare and public education.”

Or public parks—and schools and sidewalks and subways and snowplows.

Right. Yeah. That should be an easy argument to make.

…But again, it’s an argument that would require you to articulate a worldview about the role of government in our lives – particularly in the lives of people who are struggling – that the Democrats are unwilling to make, for the most part. I’m glad to see the President – who I like and admire very much, but am frustrated with at times – I’m glad to see that he is starting to talk about this. But the Democrats need to be able to say, “Look, there are millions of people who can’t afford health insurance. That is a reality that has been created largely because of the influence of capitalism on our health care system.” Let’s just say that—period—in public with people watching and recording it.

That is the reality. So we have to figure out how, as a government, which is supposed to be something that is collective and protective of the common good, we can pull together resources collectively to provide things for the most number of people who need them.

…But the Democrats are largely unwilling to say that….The Republican Party and conservatives are much, much more articulate about saying why they believe something. The Democrats have a harder time with this, because they are always running away from labels, from the battle. That’s why [the Republicans] win even when they are in the minority.

It’s the Drew Westen point – the Republicans have got a concise, four-point story about the country.  But it seems to me that there’s a way to reframe the debate that’s within reach right now. I interviewed Marshall Ganz two weeks ago for this column, and he made this great point, which is that Reagan was really successful at making the debate about the financing of programs rather than the human realities behind the programs.

That’s correct.

I think we need Obama standing up and saying loud and clear that we have tens of millions of uninsured people in this country, that we aren’t taking care of one another, that our fellow citizens are suffering in awful ways, and that that’s intolerable.

It’s immoral.

It can’t be a discussion in which we just throw ideologies at one another.

Because then it gives the Republican Party the ability, which they do now, to claim that they care about poor people. They’re claiming that they care about the uninsured. I mean, I’m sure there are Republicans who do care about the uninsured and poor people and people who are struggling, but many of them don’t. And the reality is that many Democrats in Congress don’t, either, which is another reason why they aren’t able to make the case as strongly as it needs to be made….

…I loved last week…when Nancy Pelosi…said, “Look, [Democrats] need to get behind this because this is the right thing to do, regardless of whether or not it hurts your reelection prospects.”

That’s it.

…[W]e should remember that people who have been most…radical and most courageous in taking a stance didn’t [always see their goals] come to fruition in their lifetime.  For instance, there was not one person [at the first Women’s Rights Convention] at Seneca Falls in July of 1848 [who was] alive in 1920 to vote.  We don’t always benefit in the short-term from being part of the long-term struggle.

Right.  I can’t speak knowledgeably about the details of the current health care bill, but in general, it seems like this is the sort of issue that’s worth staking your career on.  This is one of the big ones.  I’m amazed that the Democrats haven’t been able to muster a stronger rhetorical case.  The Republican solutions – cutting corruption, tort reform – still only address a small fraction of the problem, as I understand it.  Why aren’t the Dems dominating the rhetorical landscape here?

Well, it’s a rhetorical strategy…to seize on the [minutiae].  Take “reconciliation”….Reconciliation is going to fix some small debates within the bill. Reconciliation is not how [the Democrats] are going to “railroad the bill through the Congress.”

Most people don’t know these things. Most people don’t understand why we have a Senate bill and a House bill, why one is bigger than the other, why one bill has a public option and the other one doesn’t, or even what “reconciliation” [is].  I mean…people are too busy working their jobs or trying to get a job and trying to figure out how they’re going to pay for health care or how they’re going to get it if they don’t have it.

[The Republican] rhetorical strategy [is] related to magnification—which is to take something that’s little—for instance, Japan, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  That speech was all about taking Japan, an island nation, and turning it into an “empire,” a colossal threat to the United States. When we look at the language and the rhetorical strategies in that speech, it’s all about…magnifying [a] threat.

And that is what the Republicans are doing with health care – taking some of these small things and magnifying them, so that they’re so overwhelming we can’t possibly [address them]. They are making mountains out of molehills to ensure that everything will fall apart.

If that’s what Republicans are doing with regard to reconciliation, it seems like a really risky rhetorical strategy to me, particularly given their incessant threat of the filibuster. Again, the response could be, “Oh, you mean fifty-one votes shouldn’t be enough?  You mean a majority isn’t adequate?” It was amazing to me how the Republicans at the health care summit simultaneously tried to argue that the American people are opposed to the health care bill AND that passing the bill would represent a tyranny of the majority.  How can you have both?

Well, that’s the thing. Democrats need to turn [it around and say], “That’s [not] American. Tyranny of the minority, that’s the threat to our system.” But…they don’t have the courage to do that.

And there’s all this imprecision, these ad hoc standards invented on the go.  Using reconciliation twenty-one times for legislation you like is apparently okay, but using it to restructure a large portion of the economy isn’t.  No one articulates a principle as to why this case is different.  They just say so.  Well, why is this different?  What principle distinguishes this case from last time?

Exactly….[T]hat’s why a deeper historical and ethical understanding of our politics is necessary, beyond just focusing on policies and messaging. I know these things are important. But at the end of the day, we need to have a deeper context for understanding our politics, to pierce through the surface and go to the root of things.  That’s what “radical” means—to go to the root of things.  And that’s why I am a huge advocate of…ask[ing] the question, “Why do you believe what you believe?”  Ultimately, the future of protest—hell, the future of the world—will depend on how we answer this.

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