JULY 2013

Richard Rodriguez

[Journalist, Essayist]

“When a society doesn’t know what to do with its young, it’s in real trouble. When the young don’t know what to do with society—at the very least, revolutions start there.”
Three reasons why literature still matters:
The culture has been having a conversation among itself for centuries
Shakespeare can tell you why celebrity attracts
D. H. Lawrence will be with you when insects are biting you in Africa

The first time I interviewed the famed author and journalist Richard Rodriguez, it was a formal occasion: I came to his apartment in San Francisco with a list of questions on the subjects he’s accustomed to speaking about (immigration and education, chiefly). At a table, I struggled to find some space between back issues of the Financial Times and a pile of manuscripts, while he sat across from me, in front of a wall of books. On the second occasion, two years later, in the summer of 2012, I assumed it would be no different. I came to his place with another list and the same voice recorder, but, to my surprise, he greeted me at the gate and offered to buy me some coffee.

As we walked to a café a couple blocks away, he started asking about what I had been doing since we’d last spoken. I was studying investigative reporting across the bay at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. In a few weeks I’d be on a plane to Tanzania for a reporting trip. Inevitably, when you start telling people about your soon-to-be career in journalism, they have warnings to offer you, and this time was no different: jobs are scarce, the field is changing, he said. Best to carve out some sort of niche expertise, as he had done. And of course all that was stacked upon the usual litany of bad news for America’s twentysomethings, we both agreed, from a Himalayan range of debt to the diminishing value of a college degree. Had our nation become more difficult to live in or just more complicated? I wondered. It was nice to have someone successful interested, for a few minutes, in what I was doing.

Then we sat down, back to business. But as we talked about the big-picture questions about the fate of Western civilization, somehow the talk kept steering back to those more pressing questions about the future of my generation, and about journalism. So it was that I found myself in a discussion that was part interview, part friendly chat. I put my questions aside for another day.

—Alex Park

[“Why Am I Learning About Shakespeare?” and Other Questions Worth Asking]

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I read somewhere that the Great Wall of China is a tourist attraction now. It has no meaning within the psychological life of China, because China sees itself in the world, not as separate from the world. It’s so curious to think about all this, because you always think, studying history, that this civilization died because another army destroyed it. But you think of the Mayan civilization—it basically dissolved from within. Something happened within the life of the culture that it lost the confidence of its own life, its own future, its own meaning, and it just evaporated. It’s the most extraordinary thing, how that works.

THE BELIEVER: And you see that happening now, here?

RR: I see signs of it, yeah. It’s what I worry most about America. It’s that the country is growing middle-aged and afraid of its own metaphors, that we were a youthful society, that we were inventive, that we wanted a future that was different than our past. Now the impulse of our society is to protect the past and to see the future as a violation of, or a threat to the past.

I remember California the way it used to be, and everything is changing about that California. That changing of its own meaning is not being forced on it. It’s just coming, psychologically, from within.

I was very interested in the announcement by the Pew people this week that Asian migration has overtaken Hispanic migration. I think partly, in some way, the great change in America is that the Pacific is replacing the Atlantic as where we exist. And even that line from Redmond, Washington, down to North County, San Diego, where the real inventiveness of America now is, is all poised on the edge of the Pacific. Now, you could say that’s coincidental, but I’m not sure that it is. When you have a civilization that takes place within a particular geographical dynamic, you have to ask why. How does it feed on itself? What is the meaning of that horizon, that Americans have always seen as the end of their empire, now becoming the beginning of something quite new? I’m quite taken with that. My own sense is what’s happened in California is that the anxiety about finitude, about the end of a continent, has given birth to this notion of cyberspace, of a kind of infinite space through technology, through a sort of cyber-reality that can kind of circumvent the edge of the sea.

But at a real level, that is, at a physical level, clearly this country is beginning to see the next chapter. We are becoming more and more related to the Pacific. As someone who is related to Mexico, it is with some chagrin that I see that, because I’m so enthralled by the Asian success story in America in this last generation. But you can say there are all kinds of reasons for that success. Immigrants, say, from Vietnam, were better educated, as the Cubans were than other Latin Americans. Certainly, Vietnamese immigrants who came to America were better educated, in the majority, than Cambodians or Laos and so forth. But what we are really seeing, in the American context, is some parity of the Asian work ethic that is outdoing the American work ethic, and it’s really quite astonishing. This country was always the country predicated on the idea— it’s probably Protestant—that you could create yourself, that you could make your future. And now we’re seeing people who are using the same ideology, which they themselves are importing to the country with a dynamic that is so compelling that it is forcing Americans to wonder how they compete with it. I find that very exciting.

BLVR: But even while some Americans might feel competition with Asian immigrants, one could also say that when a person leaves China, becomes an American, and works for his or her own family here in California, we’re all the better for it.

RR: Oh, yes. You know, as a Mexican American, I’ve been saying for a long time that the difference between being Mexican and being Chinese, as I can see it, is that when you go to Harvard from a Chinese family, the whole family goes to Harvard. When you’re a Mexican and you go to Harvard, you betray the family. There are reasons why Mexico has these ideas about education, about advancing too far. The country was basically a counter reformation culture. It was formed by the Spanish against the northern Protestant rebellion. Learning can cause social fracture. Your people start expressing themselves. I want to say, “I believe,” you know, that sort of thing? And suddenly, the cohesiveness of the group begins to be threatened by the change. In some ways, five centuries later there are still many, many people who regard education as threatening to the social status quo. It’s not only Mexicans. I was just in Appalachia. There are a lot of kids—white, working-class kids—for whom education is betrayal. Now, I don’t feel that with Chinese families [laughs]. And in that sense, it’s really thrilling to see that, because in some ways it’s a vindication of my own life, but at a point too late in my life to matter.

My hope is that the Chinese example can motivate a lot of poor kids in this country with the idea that hard work works, because a lot of the kids will tell you it doesn’t work. They never had the chances, or their mother was on drugs, or their father was an alcoholic—whatever the reason—they went to a bad school. Well, you’re seeing success stories among Asian kids that are so astonishing, and the vitality of what they’re doing is so astonishing that I think it has to inspire other kids, or at least threaten them.

BLVR: But we live in this time now where kids are working very hard to get into college, then graduating with $160,000 in debt, while, at the same time, economists tell us that as a rung on the social ladder, a BA is today what a high-school diploma was a generation or two ago. College education just isn’t what it used to be, right?

RR: Well, I think it’s accurate; I don’t think it’s right. Just dealing with survival, I think what education gives you is a voice. It gives you a way of talking to a judge. When a policeman pulls you off to the side of the road, you have a voice. When you cross a border, you have a voice. When you are writing to express your opinions, you have a voice. Now, you can say, “Well, I can get that through high school.” Maybe. I’ve never regretted my English undergraduate education, partly because essentially what I learned—it wasn’t that I learned a series of novels, it’s that I learned the conversation of the culture, that the culture was having among itself for centuries. And I began to hear it, and I began to participate in it. Now, was that worth it? I don’t know. I wouldn’t have accumulated the kind of debt the kids are accumulating today. And when I go to visit a school, I always say to kids, “Listen, they’re paying me to come here. I’ll be here for two or three days, but you’re sitting here, and you better not play passive with me, because I’m your employee for the next two or three days. You better find some way to make me useful to you.” You know what I’m saying?

In that sense, it could be a very creative time where kids are beginning to demand, as consumers, that this course have some function. “I want to know why we’re doing this, why we’re taking this course. Why am I learning about Shakespeare? Why do I need to learn about Shakespeare? Tell me why. Before you go into Hamlet, tell me why I need to have this course.” You know what I’m saying? That’s not a bad thing for a student to say.

BLVR: To challenge his or her teachers?

RR: Oh, yeah. To challenge the curriculum. “Why am I reading this book instead of that book?” I was teaching one day at a prep school in Oakland. It was a very fancy school up in the hills. I loved the kids; the kids were just wonderful. They wouldn’t let me go, and they were really neat kids. These were high-school kids. And I was telling the headmaster as we were going out to the parking lot how wonderful these kids were. He said, “Well, maybe they are, but I worry about them because they’re being educated to a culture that doesn’t exist anymore.” This is fifteen years ago. “They’re being educated to write sentences and use language which basically doesn’t exist.” And I thought [laughs], Well, close the place down, then! If it doesn’t exist, what does that mean? Isn’t it your function to make it exist? Isn’t it your function as an educated man to change the world? Or do you just plug yourself in at the end of your education?

Steve Jobs basically created himself. I would argue that America created Steve Jobs, but that’s another story. I think America created Henry Ford, too—but there are certain impulses in the culture, an anxiety about quickness, about mobility. We want something and then we create this child who gives it to us. But Henry Ford didn’t just create a cheap way of getting away from your in-laws; he basically understood that there was something in us as a culture that wanted to be on the move, that wanted to get out. You could say he created the interstate freeway system, but basically American impatience created the interstate freeway system. You know what I’m saying?

Well, the question for you and for your generation is not whether there are jobs for me, but the question is, what do we want you to do that you can do—what do we not even know that we want you to do? And you better use your education to get an answer to that question.

Now, you should ask yourself, as an investigative reporter, why is it that the only journalistic enterprise that seems to be getting any kind of funding now is investigative reporting? What is investigative reporting? And why is that the last beachhead for journalism, as far as I can tell? Does that mean that all the other kinds of journalism sort of go away? Does that mean journalism has become adversarial rather than communal and reinforcing and so forth?

BLVR: I’d say investigative reporting has emerged recently as a way to explain how our political system and our economy work. We know certain people are powerful and that they have influence, but it’s about determining how that influence registers and what it looks like.

RR: OK, when you know the answers to the question, do you assume that society wants those answers, or cares about those answers? In other words, there’s a man named Sheldon Adelson down in Las Vegas who’s giving lots and lots. He’s in my new book because I had a friend who died in Las Vegas, and we drove down to see him in his last days. He died while we were there at a hospice. And it was on North Buffalo Drive in Las Vegas, maybe five miles from the strip. And I was looking around, and I said, “Oh, there’s the hospice. It’s the Adelson Hospice.” [Laughs] There are three of them in Las Vegas. They’re the best hospices that I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anything like them. There’s a room for your dog—you know, bring your dog when you’re dying? Not bad, yeah? There’s a room for your wife, or your girlfriend, or your husband, so they can hold your hand at night. There are sofas in your room, and a TV. It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything quite like this. So, I am already predisposed to like this guy Adelson. He doesn’t need any money; he already has lots of money, so how do you understand influence in a world where he is already more influential than most of the politicians he gives money to?

Now wait a minute. That’s a philosophical question. That’s not a technical, investigative reporting sort of question, you know what I’m saying? So, to answer that, it would seem to me you need some sort of historical, psychological, literary understanding of how people behave, of why they behave as they do. Do we know anything about the behavior of people who want to be around famous people? About why people want that? Is it always because I want their money, their influence, and so forth? Or maybe I just want to be around power. You know, what is that? I can tell you a lot of writers who write about that. I can tell you a lot of Shakespearean plays that are written about that. So I guess what I’m saying is that the questions of our lives right now are really the questions that educated people should be interested in, but they’re not interested in them. In that sense, this is the worst time to be young, because nobody has any answers for you, least of all your teachers. Everybody’s depressed, and nobody has confidence that what you’re learning is of use—not only to you, but to me, that you could give me something. I don’t think you know that. I don’t think you know what you could give me.

[On the Man in the Victorian House]

BLVR: As you say this, I’m reminded of my own worries about journalism as much of it moves toward a nonprofit model, funded—like much of literature and academia already is—by grants, awards, foundations, and benefactors who keep it existing because they think it should exist, but not necessarily because anyone has asked for it.

RR: If I find out, the next time I see you, that you’re teaching journalism, I think I’ll slit my wrists, because then it becomes merely a perpetuation of itself, without any external reason for it.

BLVR: I have different things to say about my own journalism program at UC Berkeley, but with MFA creative writing programs, there is this problem: “Come under my wing for fourty thousand dollars a year and you can be like me—successful.” And we think, Of course he’s successful; he gets to teach all of us, when in reality, he has to teach because he’s not successful at all.

RR: [Gives a thumbs-up] Yes, yes.

BLVR: So often, it’s as if these programs exist only to employ people.

RR: All right, except that you’re a consumer. You exist in a society where consumers exert a great deal of power. You can start asking those questions. The issue of education that’s not being deliberated right now is astonishing. There are careers to be made right now by asking those questions. You know, the guy who owns PayPal, Peter Thiel, he’s pretty good. He thinks what education is is basically the banks. It’s just selling you something, and it’s taking your money, and it’s not doing anything for you, it’s just taking your money. And it’s telling you that if you invest in this stock, “BA,” that it’s going to be worth something in five years. [Laughs] And it’s not worth anything!

A lot of the techies in Silicon Valley are arguing against the whole idea of a structured education system. But that’s because a lot of them are solitary creatures. They’re geniuses who didn’t become geniuses in a classroom. They became geniuses almost in spite of a classroom. That doesn’t work for all people. Basically what education is for a lot of people is a social experience. In other words, you and I are classmates. There was a lecture today on Thomas Jefferson, and it was kind of hard, I didn’t get the last part of it. And I say to you after class, “Did you understand what he was saying?” And you say, “Some of it,” and I say, “What exactly did he mean when he said such and such?” That’s how education happens. It’s not simply University of Phoenix, me sitting at a computer. It’s this interaction. It’s not only us talking about Thomas Jefferson, it’s us playing basketball together, and in the larger context of this social experience—eating, being dormitory roommates, you falling out of love with your girlfriend and me having to listen to the story of it. Education is that human process of feeling your body mature, feeding your mind with ideas that it never had before, or information you never had. You simply cannot do that on a computer. You can’t do that. You understand?

No one is explaining how that works. No one is explaining how journalism works. Did you see my piece on the death of the San Francisco Chronicle? I argued, basically, that the way this paper existed in the nineteenth century was that a group of men, your age, came to this city and basically told San Francisco something it didn’t know about itself. It told them about other people in town. It generated interest in people about themselves, basically. It told that man in that Victorian house what those people in that Victorian house were doing. Now, you can say, why should he be interested in them? Well, his children go to the same school; he’s paying taxes and these people are using those taxes. There are any number of reasons why. I think we’re looking at this backward; I don’t think we really understand the social function of institutions. And when we talk about the death of those institutions, we’re really not talking about those institutions; we’re talking about the social framework that gave life to those institutions. You understand?

Let me give you a really simple example: Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. There are several people at Fox News who had the idea of a conservative, really right-of-center television network, because most of the television networks were repetitive, they were sort of centrist-left institutions; they wanted something brash, rude, opinionated, kind of politically incorrect, and they knew they could create an audience, because the audience was already there. They could tap it. They could make it exist.

It’s this joint process. It’s me realizing you exist, and me realizing that in order for me to start getting your attention, all I have to do is start giving you Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. And then you create me; you create my power. “Yeah, there’s this show. Every night at five o’clock, this guy says exactly what I think.” You know? [Laughs] You think Fox News is dying? Rupert Murdoch might have troubles, but the enterprise is doing pretty well. I think newspapers are dying, his newspaper in London. I don’t know how the Post is doing in New York, and I think the Wall Street Journal will survive his death, probably, but I don’t think the next generation of kids is going to want to support it. [Pause] That’s what I’m saying to you. As a journalist, you have to figure out who your audience is and you have to create them. You’re not doing that.

BLVR: It’s hard.

RR: It’s very hard. But, you know, one of the things I like about you is you’re not shy to have coffee. But that means you start to look around, and you start listening to what people are thinking, and what they’re missing in their lives, or how they’re experiencing their reality, and you begin to become a voice they can respond to. You have to let them create you, is what I’m saying. In the interim, what’s wonderful about going overseas and doing investigative stuff is that it’s interesting for you. It makes you a bigger person, a broader person. Something interesting may happen to you in Africa, I don’t know. I hope it’s not dangerous but just interesting.

[Practical Applications]

BLVR: In Minneapolis once, I interviewed a kid whose mother was Eritrean and whose father was Ethiopian. Both his parents had fled war between their countries, and he said they had seen so much fighting that they were only interested in love now.

RR: [Laughs]

BLVR: It wasn’t even about burying the hatchet, so to speak, it was about not even acknowledging the hatchet anymore. There’s a freedom in changing civilizations.

RR: It happens. Somebody just walks away from a war. A guy goes AWOL. “I don’t want to define myself in these terms anymore. I want to find a reality other than the north and the south or the east and the west. I want to find some other kind of reality.”

BLVR: Maybe what you’re saying now is that we, in this present era, have become stuck in a reality.

RR: I think the Mayan Indians were right. I think we’re at the end of a cycle. I think the institutions that you and I relied on have sort of been exhausted, and they have to be rethought. I also think right now that there are so few ideas in the world that I live in—there’s a lot of information, but nobody’s putting it together. And if you have ideas about the world, about this street, about sexual relations, or any of it—ideas. And if you can express those ideas, there’s a future for you.

BLVR: And yet I think, if I have an idea, what am I going to do with it? Am I going to write an editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle, that—in your words—“dying newspaper”? Or should I put it on YouTube?

RR: No, don’t give it away. You ever give any fucking thing of yours away again, I will come and haunt you. Because ideas really are so valuable, to give them away means I don’t really have any imagination as to what they mean. Now, you can undersell yourself. You know, the reason I became a writer—I’m talking autobiographically—is that I wrote an essay, when I was at Berkeley, on education, called “Going Home Again.” I wrote it for a journal called the American Scholar. I didn’t send it to the American Scholar. A professor over at Davis heard me give a speech at an institute. I won a literary prize, I gave the speech, he said, “Can I see your paper?” I gave it to him. He said, “Can I see if I can get this published?” So he sent it to the American Scholar. At that time—this was about 1970-something—a lot of publishers read the American Scholar. And I put in my bio note that I was working on a book based on these ideas. So I got, like, twenty letters from publishers asking, “Is anyone publishing your book? Can we look at it?” and so on.

When you have something that is really fresh—if you said you had this really great piece on Lindsay Lohan, the subject matter would dictate where it could be placed. But if you said I have this really good idea about the meaning of investigative reporting, why is it the last branch of a dying tree? And you said to me, “Should I just publish this as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle?” I’d say, “No, I don’t think so.” I’d say, “Well, maybe we should give it to the Columbia Journalism Review.” They’re not great, but they’re not bad. And then when it appears, because not too many people read it anymore, maybe we should beat some drums. And maybe you should send a copy to me and say, “Did you see the piece that I did?” And maybe you should send a copy to them, and so forth. You have to become a sort of self-advertiser, OK? So, it’s a process of both aiming your idea to the format, or what we call now “the platform,” and then making use of that platform beyond its immediate audience to find its larger audience. You understand?

That essay in the American Scholar, I don’t know how many people in education read that piece, but I can tell you how many people in publishing read that piece, and that’s what mattered. You understand?

You might come out of Africa with this idea about water, or telephones, or sand—some concept, some idea. Then the task is knowing. There used to be this wonderful architect, a great, great architect named Louis Kahn. He designed some great buildings around the world before he died. But he used to go to these sites, these lots that he was supposed to build—say, the main government building in Bangladesh or someplace. He would sit there for days, in this empty lot, trying to figure out, what does this empty space want to become? Some day, when you have these ideas—which, you’re already having them—you should wonder, What does this feel like? Does it feel like a five-hundred-word essay? Does it feel like an essay of ten pages? Does it feel like a book? What does it feel like? What is it telling me? That’s how ideas exist. If your education didn’t tell you how to do that, then you’re not educated, because that’s what you’re supposed to do now, to listen to yourself thinking and to know how to do that.

BLVR: It’s as if now we’re caught in this binary choice, where on the one hand we have education that teaches ideas for their own sake, and on the other we have vocational training—how to operate levers and get a job. But what we really need is education that makes ideas and our imaginations practical.

RR: Yes. And we also need to think of ways of making what we know interesting to other people. I don’t know what your parents’ background is, but my parents were not educated people, so what I always had to do, at a very early age, was to make what I knew applicable to the world beyond the classroom. I knew that I could pair it back to my teachers, to books that they had told me to read. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I knew most people in the world had no idea about these books. That’s what my parents told me, because they had no idea of these books, they had no vocabulary of them, they had no interest in them. And so in some sense, from a very early age, I realized, this is not going to get you anywhere until you start making other people respond to it.

There are so many writers who I love, whose work I think about all the time. And the failure, my failure, and the failure of a lot of other people who read these people, is that we have no way of teaching other lives how important it is to know these writers, what they teach, which is not simply themselves. I think of D. H. Lawrence, who was a coal miner’s son. Lawrence wrote these novels. A lot of them were banned because they were so sexual. But the level of that sexuality is so primal—it has nothing to do with sexual organs; it has everything to do with skin. There’s a short story where this woman is cleaning a horse—it’s the most erotic thing I’ve ever read. And Lawrence does that all the time because he’s just so achingly in touch with life, you know? If he went to Africa with you, he would be there in the most sensual way, at the most inconvenient time, when the insects are biting you. That’s when Lawrence is alive. The trouble is there is nobody who reads Lawrence in the world now who can tell the world what that feels like, by and large. And so Lawrence is entombed in English departments. But if I was your age and I was going to Africa, I would take Lawrence with me. I’d take Shakespeare with me, too.

Richard Rodriguez Is God, OK?

BLVR: I live with my parents now, and on our shelf at home is an old, worn copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, which my grandfather carried with him while he was a lieutenant colonel in Burma…

RR: That’s wonderful.

BLVR: There are so few things one can bring while they’re a soldier, in the jungle, in Burma, and looking at it I wonder, sometimes, what books I would bring if I were going to be alone in the jungle for months on end.

RR: Or whether they would be books? I can imagine you saying, “You know, Richard, I want to bring some sketchbooks with me to Africa. I want to do some sketches of the trees, and insects, or whatever I see.” That’s good, too.

You read letters of the miners in the Gold Country in California in the 1850s. These men, from around the world, were by and large not well educated, but, as working-class people did in that era, they knew how to read. A lot of them had memorized the Bible, so their cadence had a biblical grandeur to it, even when they were writing to their wife, or their mother, everything had this kind of stature and nobility to it. It wasn’t email—“Hi, Mom,” that sort of stuff. It came out of some solid soul. I mean, that’s all I can say.

I’m God and I’ve given you this alternative, OK? You can live in 1958 and I can get you this job and you can be plugged into the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until you retire and die, and they’re going to put you on—what do you want to be on? The sports page?

BLVR: The business page. I’ll cover Boeing.

RR: [Laughs] So we’ll put you there and by the time it explodes and becomes something big, you’ll be right there. Or you can live now, when you have to invent the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, when you have to figure out your relationship to Boeing now that Boeing is in South Carolina. Do you want to invent your life or do you want to plug your life in? That seems to be the choice.

BLVR: The second option sounds the most alluring. But my instinct for safety says I would regret not choosing, then choosing, and while it’s the easy way out, going for the first option sounds like not making a choice.

RR: Well, that’s admirable in some way. The society needs you. We have this job, we need somebody to take it. You go to Spain now and youth unemployment is horrific. When a society doesn’t know what to do with its young, it’s in real trouble. When the young don’t know what to do with society—at the very least, revolutions start there. That’s how young people begin—“This fucking system doesn’t work for me”—in Greece—“so we’re not going to go with it.” That’s what the young come up with, too. Or else they invent something that has never been invented before.

BLVR: In our own country, of course, we had the Occupy movement. Did that resonate with you?

RR: Not much.

BLVR: Could you see why some young, unemployed people would go down to the encampment in their city and join that protest?

RR: Well, I can see the frustration. I can think of all kinds of things I would do if I were unemployed. I’d volunteer. I’d do food lines. That your parents let you live with them is, in some ways, a great freedom. It’s also not a freedom, because they’re always asking you what you’re going to be doing at the next step, but that does mean that you can take some chances. “I’m going to interview this guy in San Francisco today.” They’re not watching across the street to see that what you’re doing is of any use. There are a lot of things in the world; there are a lot of people you can meet, including at Google, if you want to interview people this afternoon. You don’t think so, but they’re available to you. And it’s really a matter of how much conversation you want to have with the world, and what you want to do with that conversation? This is a very interesting time for you.

I would worry, as your father, about Africa. But I’d also be proud of you. Steve Jobs was not a nice person. You know that? [A woman, a friend of Rodriguez’s, walks over to say hello, and describes her volunteer work at a nearby cancer center, fitting wigs and teaching makeup applications to women who’ve lost the color in their faces due to treatments. She walks away.]

Cancer center. Wigs. There’s a story there.

BLVR: A worthy life.

RR: Well, but I mean you could do a piece on hair, hanging around a cancer center for a few weeks, talking to women about what it means to be bald, to be naked. In their head. You know, guys who are losing their hair, you always see them cutting their hair down to a stubble, so they look bald but they don’t look bald. There are such complicated things to say about hair.

Nobody’s writing anything about anything right now! There are the most extraordinary things going on around us. Your generation is walking down the street with these machines in their ears. You know, there was a poll released yesterday that said most people would rather give up sex than give up their cell phones? Well, you’re living in that time, and that’s really interesting, your time.

BLVR: It’s hard to see the forest for the trees, sometimes.

RR: Are most of your friends of that disposition? That they’d hate to give up their cell phones?

BLVR: Maybe not to the degree you just described.

RR: I would like to know what most of your friends feel like—male friends—about women or girls. I don’t know that. I don’t know what you guys are thinking. I get interviewed a lot by high-school kids who are gay, because they’ve read something of mine. I’ll start the interview, “What is it like to be sixteen years old and be starting high school when you’re out already? What is that?” [Laughs] And they’ll say, “Oh, that’s nothing. You know, I go to the junior prom.” It’s amazing to me because that’s completely new, you understand?

Well, you have to realize that every generation is new to the one that is following you, and to the one preceding you, and you can talk to us sometimes. Don’t assume that I know. I don’t know what your life is. Some gringo kid says—I say, “What are you doing.” He says, “I’m writing a novel.” Do I say, “Well, why are you writing a novel and why is Alex not writing a novel?” No, I say, this guy has enough arrogance that he thinks he has something to say. You understand? The word is arrogance.

BLVR: And that’s something we should cultivate?

RR: I think you should breed the idea that you know things that I don’t, and that you can teach me something about any number of subjects. When I see you after Africa, I want to know what you saw, and I don’t want the research. I want to know what you saw. If you get thrown into a prison, I want you to tell me something about that. I want you to smell it for me. I want you to be scared for me, you know? That sort of thing. That’s what this is all about, the communication of your knowledge to me. You understand? When you’re really smart, you understand how much you can tell me and how much you need to tell me, because then you begin to understand me as much as yourself.

BLVR: But there’s that whole other part of knowing what the intermediary is between me and you. It’s not the Chronicle.

RR: Well, it’s reality TV. The only thing I read the Chronicle for, online, is that in almost all of its ridiculous articles, they have people writing in, all day. I’d love to know who these people are; are they all retired? [Laughs] And the way they talk, they insult each other, they know each other. Do they ever meet each other? What is this alternate newspaper being formed? Has anybody written about that? There’s a fungus growing on the American newspaper, this reader response. It’s not, by and large, very well informed. But do those letters sound different than the letters on the same subject in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? Are they less argumentative, more argumentative? What’s going on in that conversation? How did they refer to it in the old days of the letter to the editor? Any of that. Does anybody know anything about anything that’s going on? No. You don’t need to go to Africa; it’s right here! [Laughs]

Alex Park is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones. At the time of this interview, he was a student at Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, where he researched foreign direct investment in Africa and the Saudi defense industry.

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required