Friday, October 06, 2006

Steve Beren, changer extraordinaire: Part II

[Part I of my interview with McDermott challenger Steve Beren can be found here. We take up the second half of the interview shortly after 9/11, when Beren had become convinced that the unity the country faced was temporary and was bound to be disrupted by an antiwar movement.]

[B]: Events early in 2002 justified my thought there would be a large antiwar movement. I'd said it on Oct 31, 2001—and it was brewing on campuses already. Far left groups were already doing their spadework.

[N]: Your background as an activist seems to have given you insight as to how this was going to go down on the left. I was curious--what do you think it was about your experience that gave you this ability?

[B]: I was not only an antiwar activist. I was a trained Socialist in the antiwar movement. We had to study not only Marxist thought, but the tactics and strategies of past antiwar movements. I took that to heart. It had previously not occurred to me that all wars had antiwar movements—there was a small one during World War II but a big one before it actually began, and I took a special interest in those who remained antiwar throughout World War II such as the Nation of Islam, Quakers, etc.

[N]: So you were a historian of antiwar movements--

[B]: And antiwar strategy and tactics. And I was a participant in the Vietnam antiwar movement. I've written and spoken about Kerry’s involvement. There's a plan: always bring religious people in, plus some disgruntled soldiers, and racial minorities saying there is injustice (for instance, the Nation of Islam in World War II didn’t want to fight against what they referred to as another colored race, meaning Japan). That combination appealed to a broad spectrum.

In the beginning of the Afghanistan war, there were rumblings in the media: there were rocky mountains, the British had failed there, the weather would be bad, this could be trouble. And back when John Kennedy had sent troops at the beginning of Vietnam the antiwar movement did it this way (in Vietnam, the Socialists supported the Communist takeover—but you don’t put that on a flyer, do you?) During the Cuban missile crisis what you’d say is that Kennedy is all concerned about Cuba, but he’s ignoring what’s happening in Vietnam. Or in Berlin. Then when he’s in Vietnam, you talk about how he’s ignoring Cuba. Ted Kennedy now talks about North Korea.

[N]: So these are strategies for all situations.

[B]: Yes, it's a rhetorical device. You go from one thing to another, to add negativity to the media and the academic world. Regular people don’t like war—who does?--we all hope a rumor of war is not true. And if we start hearing things to discourage us it feeds on that: “we can’t win anyway, and we should be doing something else that’s more important.”

[N]: So, what's your strategy for your Congressional campaign?

[B]: I'm running in a very liberal area in general. There's an 80% Democratic district, and a 75% Democratic district. McDermott has gotten between 71 and 86 percent of the vote when he's run [7th District].

But we’re gonna get way more votes than usual. In recent years the Republican party hasn’t even run an active campaign here; we'd announce we're not contesting it—the last time they did was 1980; we got 40 percent of the votes against McDermott's predecessor.

We decided to do it differently this time. We met with various Washington Republicans--eastern Washington is Republican, and you need better than usual Republican turnout in Seattle to win the state. I applied the Bush re-election strategy to the local election—which is to increase Republican turnout. I said, "What if we run an aggressive campaign, not a token? Start early and hit McDermott hard, play to win. Probably McDermott won’t lose but--but what if we got 30, 35 percent of the vote? It will help the statewide Republican candidates and generate enthusiasm for the other Republican candidates."

I’ve appealed to Republican activists and they are very excited about my campaign, the goal of which is to help Republican candidates statewide, and to grow the Republican Party in Seattle of all places. I want to take my expertise on war and foreign politcy, take on McDermott on his territory in Seattle, and have more people here change their minds on the war on terrorism, decrease the number of people in denial in Seattle, and realize it’s not a “so-called” war. I’ve gotten exceptional coverage in the major dailies here.

[N]: You’re bringing a lot of energy, motivation, and optimism to your campaign.

I want to go back to something--in my change process, reading was enormously influential—especially on the internet; reading a variety of sources. One thing I thought interesting in your story was the incredibly important role reading 1984 had when you were young—was reading a part of your later change experience?

[B]: To this day I deliberately look at Democrat and Socialist websites. I find it fascinating to see how people are thinking—you have to know what the other side says if you want to change minds.

I learned to read at age two. My father would deliberately bring me books on subjects I wasn’t interested in. If I was reading all about dinosaurs, he said I should stop reading about dinosaurs and he’d bring me books about airplanes, or baseball, and said, "You must expand your horizons." He was not an educated man, but at a very young age—I might have been ten—we were talking about Mein Kampf. He thought it was important to read it because you should expose yourself to views you find distasteful and don’t agree with--there’s something important about that.

That was my father’s way--he taught me to read and encouraged me to deliberately look at opposing views.

[N]: An important part of keeping your mind open so change could occur.

[B]: And it was annoying to fellow Socialists. I wasn’t just reading the other side in order to plan strategy but wondering "is that true?" And "what did newspapers say about it at that time?"

[N]: I have an idea that people who are able to change have always been critical thinkers in some way. That’s probably true of you. Even when you were towing the party line you were more of a critical thinker than many who were in there with you.

[B]: Nevertheless I remained a Socialist for 20 or so years, with a long slow evolution away from it.

That was the conclusion of the Beren interview. I found the last exchange especially telling and even moving--the description of Beren's father, encouraging (practically ordering) the boy to look at all sides, even those with which he disagreed. It was a foundation that allowed Beren to be a maverick who embraced Socialism and made it his life's work, but that same attitude kept his questioning mind open to other points of view.

Now Beren is throwing himself into his present campaign with the same vigor that marked his earlier dedication to the cause of Socialism. If the old saying (often attributed--perhaps erroneously--to Churchill) that anyone who's not a liberal at twenty has no heart and who's not a conservative at forty has no brain, then we can safely say that Steve Beren is a man with both heart and brain.

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