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Do you think that has any relevance to the swing back towards extreme patriotism and right-wing politics in the US now?
I think one consequence of international solidarity getting set as a pattern was the disillusionment with the Soviet Union that followed and, ultimately, the fall of Russian socialism, but more the disillusionment, people dropping out of the movement and rejecting it as a model. We seem to have this peculiar – at least I think it's peculiar to the United States – tendency to look for a socialist model we can identify with. That was very strong in the Vietnam War. We sort of felt we had to establish the Vietnamese as perfect or the Cuban revolution as perfect or the Angolan revolution as perfect. Then when they were seen to be flawed – most clearly in the ‘80s with the Sandanista revolution – then there's this feeling of betrayal. There was a constant sense of investing in these revolutions something that was not there and could not be there and probably wasn't even desirable, and then feeling betrayed when there were seen to be flaws. I think I saw that in the Gulf War when people tried to find something to hang onto in order to support Saddam Hussein. You can oppose US intervention and imperialism without glorifying the victim of it. Saddam Hussein was a monster. He killed off all the communists in 1980. I had a lot of Iraqi friends who had to go into exile. He was very much obeying US directives. He really sold out to US imperialism, invaded Iran, and killed all the communists. There's nothing to admire in this man, but it still doesn't make it right for the US to create a major war to secure oil supplies. I don't think this desire to search for a perfect model comes from something in the American character – that we want things to be fast or perfect or whatever. I think it comes from this pattern that was set in identifying with the Soviet Union and a sense of betrayal that remains with us, and that going back and forth and back and forth.
So what's missing is a desire for a sort of homegrown version of American socialism?
Yes, and when people turn to look for the roots of American socialism, they too often turn to the founding fathers and the founding documents – what I call a form of the origins story. That's not what I mean by a rooted tradition of socialism. I know that the Wobblies fought for free speech but they were not so interested in the Constitution as a safeguard of their human rights and their right to speak and not have the government shut them up. They were anti-statist. They were anarchists. They believed that you don't have to have a constitution that says you have the right to speak up in order to demand that right or any of your rights. You don't need a document to say that. That is your right intrinsically. It's not something that just flows out of the Constitution. That's what they asserted. Of course they gave a lot of strength to First Amendment rights and laws for free speech by demanding them and fighting for them. I think they're very much a model we should look to as an indigenous social justice model that doesn't look back to the origins of the state as what we should identify with and adhere to and promote. I think a lot of people abandon leftism and militancy for liberalism thinking that they may be more effective if they were to compromise, or just to feel as if they were on the winning side for once, but you see, joining the winning side puts you back into a system. I think the electoral system is really a pit that people fall into when trying to make real change. I have nothing against campaigns like Nader's which are clearly to raise consciousness, not a serious bid for presidency, though I wish it would take some other form because it encourages people to register to vote and get into all these electoral arguments. I think the IWW was really right about politics in the United States. They understood it was a pitfall and in their constitution absolutely prohibited getting too involved in electoral politics. Members could vote if they wanted – and most of them voted for the socialist party candidate – but they were told not to invest their organizing skills or their energy into electoral politics and they didn't field candidates. I think we need to get away from that completely. Since the vast majority of young people between 18 and 25 don't vote, they're the main non-voters, and also many people of color are non-voters, that a strategy could be built to organize positively to boycott the vote. It's irrelevant and useless the way this society is constructed – and saying so would give credence to their instincts. These are not stupid people. They would be going against their own sense of what's real if they were to vote and they're right. When I said this in Stockton, a couple of people said, "Oh, this is the most important right we have, the right to vote." I know that in the civil rights movement it was important and I think it's probably still important in local elections. You can make a difference in your local school board or your local government, but on big national campaigns you have a choice between the lesser of two evils. It's one thing to compromise and find common ground on an issue and another thing to constantly demean yourself by supporting someone who's your enemy. I think it really drags us down and wastes a whole lot of energy. I think we could turn a passive resistance into an active resistance. It seems counter-intuitive. Rather than registering people to vote, why not organize a boycott of the vote? Jesse Jackson has been registering voters for almost 20 years now and it hasn't done anything.
Between your two memoirs, you characterize yourself extremely differently. In Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, you characterize yourself as an Okie – which is an outcast, sort of a negative term. In Outlaw Woman, you've ...
You're an outlaw – a very proud outcast. How and when do you think those changes took place?
I definitely think those stories are important. It certainly is one of the reasons I think it's important to tell stories, to write them down, to speak them, to share them. My father's stories were what developed in my mind a space for seeing things that generally people are not directed to see in this society. In my own family, those stories surrounded getting rich if you could, to marrying a rich man, trying to be president. Be a movie star or a sports star. Really poor people have these very vaunted ideas of what you can do in America if you really try. It's kind of a Horatio Alger thing. If you don't make it, especially if you're white, it's assumed that it was just your own fault, because you have all the opportunity in the world. I heard those messages; they were everywhere, but I also had these other stories told unwittingly by my father, you know, that perhaps this society wasn't something I really wanted to aspire to, because it's not right. I had a pretty strong working class identity. Only for a short period of time in my teenage years I was ashamed of being poor and would lie and say my father owned a horse ranch or something like that. This was in a very working class high school where the kids were poor, working class, blue collar, urban, but not rural. Being rural had a kind of negative image in Oklahoma. Rural people were assumed to be hicks and hayseeds, rednecks, and stuff like that. I was proud of my class background, but not so proud of being rural for periods in my life. I think that that pride wouldn't have been there without those stories and the model of my grandfather and the other characters my father told me about. Just knowing something is possible – that it's not just imaginary or some pipe dream – really makes a big difference. I think I really had that fighting spirit and I'm just very lucky that I became an adult as the ‘60s started and all of the social upheavals began. There was a place I could go to learn more and connect with others like myself. I think there are a lot of people like me throughout history and in every society who then have no place to go to for periods of time, who write poetry, or do something else, or else go crazy.