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A History of the Many American Freedoms

Historian Eric Foner is a DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. His new book is an examination of the concept of freedom in the United States: "The Story of American Freedom" (W.W. Norton) He writes "the meaning of freedom is as multifaceted, contentious, and ever-changing as America itself." Foner is also the author of "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877."


Other segments from the episode on October 1, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 1, 1998: Interview with John Waters; Interview with Eric Foner.


Date: OCTOBER 01, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 100101np.217
Head: John Waters: The King of Bad Taste
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's usually with great affection that people refer to film director John Waters as the "king of bad taste." He earned his crown with his early work, such as "Pink Flamingos," in which the main characters vied for the title "the filthiest person alive."

When "Pink Flamingos" had its 25th anniversary re-released last year, Waters said: "it's hard to offend three generations, but it looks like I've succeeded."

Waters latest movies have more to do with making audiences laugh than offending them. Waters' comedies, like "Polyester," "Hairspray" and "Serial Mom" are, as he puts it, "about people who are nuts but think they're the sane ones."

His affection for these characters always comes through. His new movie "Pecker" is set in Baltimore, Waters hometown. Its stars Edward Furlong as a young man who takes pictures of everything around him. He creates an exhibit of his photographs on the walls of the greasy spoon where he works.

A New York gallery owner sees it, loves it, and suddenly Pecker's world collides with the New York art world, and his life is turned upsidedown.

I asked John Waters to describe the character of Pecker.

JOHN WATERS, FILMMAKER; DIRECTOR, "PECKER": Pecker is certainly an innocent for a John Waters character, but he's not stupid. And he's -- he's a local photographer in kind of a blue collar neighborhood in Baltimore; but is obsessed by taking pictures of every single thing around him, from the cheeseburger that's sizzling on the grill, where he's a short order cook, to his very strange grandmother who believes that statue of the Virgin Mary in her bedroom talks to her nightly.

All the things Pecker takes pictures with -- and he got his nickname from picking at his food as a child -- was what he thinks are completely normal. He's used to them, and he is merely recording for his own obsession the world around him.

So that is what Pecker is like. And he's still a good guy when the New York art world notices him. For all the right reasons -- they like his pictures for all the right reasons. They're not looking down on him. But they are taking his images out of context. And that is where the dreaded irony enters the picture and changes Pecker's life and his world around him.

GROSS: And what is so dreaded about irony?

WATERS: Nothing. I make my living from irony. Irony is paying for the cup of coffee that is sitting right here I'm drinking. That is what I sell.


But I -- I am the first to realize that irony is snobbery. Irony is a class thing. Certainly if you're so hungry, nothing is so bad it's good. Irony is infected in all American culture. It's the main thing in all cultural -- on television, in radio, everything. But so -- sometimes I get weary of it, but I'm being hypocritical myself, because I celebrate irony in all my movies; that's the main subject matter usually.

GROSS: How would you compare yourself as an artist to Pecker?

WATERS: Well, I never say the dreaded art word? I mean, that is up to history to decide -- not even your peers -- the real meaning of the word "art." I think I'm a film director and a writer, really. They're very different in some ways, because I knew the irony; I was in on it from the beginning. I wanted the New York world. I wanted show business to discover my movies.

And I made it not very heard. I mean, I sent them press releases. So it's not exactly like they stumbled upon it in the beginning.


But at the same time, the subject matter that Pecker takes pictures of, I may have taken those same characters and turned them into my own characters through writing them and exaggerating them in everything. I don't think Pecker exaggerates them or takes them and puts them into any other form than the form they exist in.

GROSS: And he was so interested in the details of his world. I have a feeling that you were kind of bored by the details of your world so you made up this kind of fictional world that was larger than life.

WATERS: Certainly. I -- whatever I was obsessed by -- and obsession was one of the first feelings I remember as a child; and not negatively. It's not like I couldn't step on the crack or I'd break my mother's back. I wasn't that crazy.

GROSS: Well, there might be a compulsion, anyways.


WATERS: Well, yeah, but I wasn't obsessed (unintelligible) where I had to, you know, have, like, tic syndromes and have to do things over and over, that kind of thing. But -- but I did get very interested in things that I knew from the very beginning no other children were interested in. And my interests made my parents nervous.

So I tended to keep it secret, and at the same time, I would exaggerate it and make it much more ludicrous and insane than it was in real life. So maybe I was bored. I was bored in school, certainly.

And it seems like after -- I learned how to read and write very, but I didn't learn much else that they're supposed to teach in school afterwards. But in junior high, I learned about scary girl delinquents that, really, I use much -- as much as reading and writing in my later work. And in college -- and in high school I learned about defiance and being against authority, which is certainly -- I also used in my movies.

But after grade school, my interests were very much discouraged.

GROSS: Can you think of something that obsessed you as a kid that later entered your work?

WATERS: Well, I've talked about it so many times, about car accidents. I used to play as a child, and I put it in "Female Trouble." And then people were wondering why I loved the movie "Crash," basically, but now I don't even look at a car accident. You know, once it ends up in my movies sometimes it's over with.

Certainly in "Hairspray," I was obsessed with this television show "The Buddy Dean Show" that came on in Baltimore. But the kids that were on it every day, I drew them and exaggerated and made insane biographies about how they stabbed the principal and stuff, just to try to amuse myself.

So those were two that come to mind certainly in the beginning.

GROSS: John Waters is my guest, and his new movie is called "Pecker."

The character is named Pecker because as a child he only pecked at his food.


WATERS: Well, my -- my director of photography said: why isn't his name Picker then? Which is a point. Certainly I knew that I was trying to have a title that I could push as far as I could go and get away with it. And I did get away with it; except in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where they refuse to run the title. But I don't think we're playing there anyway, so it really wasn't that much of an issue.

GROSS: What if your film was called "Pecker the Woodpecker," would they have not...

WATERS: Well, there was many titles -- I mean, "Octopussy"...

GROSS: But I mean...

WATERS: ... that one still shocks me.


GROSS: Right.

WATERS: How did they ever get away with that? Today I don't think you could. I mean, that one seems more offensive than any title, really. But I brought up "Free Willy," which I think is...


WATERS: Willy and pecker in a dirty way are the same kind of -- very close in meaning. It's just the English way to say "pecker." The Motion Picture Association of America initially turned it down, but only because they saw the title. They didn't know what it was or anything. We had a hearing, and they overturned it unanimously. They were very fair about it, actually.

GROSS: Do you like...

WATERS: I had to go to court. It was like O.J. You know, I had to wait in the other room and then come in, and they didn't look at me. And I thought: oh, God, I've lost.

GROSS: What did you have to say in defense of yourself in court?

WATERS: Well, we had lawyers who also talked. And then I gave a little speech saying that, you know, the word "pecker" is never found an obscenity. If you tried to talk dirtily with the word "pecker," people would laugh in your face. Men rarely refer to their penis as a pecker; it's a threatening word to men. It means little, in a way.

Women use the word, mostly to their kids, I think. I think it's a word that makes women laugh and men uptight. It's also, as I said, no child ever angrily carved the word "pecker" in his school desk. I mean, it's not a hostile word at all, I don't think.

And I said, in this case, the movie is about a young -- a young photographer who wants his good name back. And in this case, the good name is Pecker.

GROSS: Do you...

WATERS: And you know, we laughed. They...

GROSS: Go ahead.

WATERS: They came back in and they unanimously overturned it.


GROSS: Do you take a lot of pleasure in using a word that some people think of dirty -- as dirty. But on the other hand, it has -- it has different meaning than -- depending on the context, the whole color of the word is changed.

WATERS: Yeah, and I found the dictionary that I took with me that only had one definition. "Pecker: something -- a person who takes with food with a sudden movement of his head."

And I doubt anyone has said that word in that definition ever in the history of language. You know what I mean? Here -- how could you say it that way? I don't know what it would be; I guess is a bird is a pecker.

GROSS: A bird pecks at his food, yeah.

WATERS: Yeah, but "pecker," the word, it said "one who takes food with a sudden movement of his head."


And I -- I, you know, and it had no other definition, and I neglected to tell the MPAA that, really, the dictionary copyright was 1957...


GROSS: My chicken...

WATERS: ... when they couldn't put those kind of words in the dictionary.

GROSS: John Waters is my guest. And his new movie is called "Pecker."

Now one of the games in your movie -- I thought this was really a scream -- this is a game called "shopping for others." Would you describe how it's played.

WATERS: Well, it's really not an original idea. It came from my friend Greg Gorman, who plays himself in the movie "The Photographer." And he plays this game with his chef in Beverly Hills. And you go into a food store and you put in other shoppers' carts items that they would never ever buy when they don't see you; like, you put in Spam, a rich person; or, like, I don't know, Preparation-H to a muscle man; you know, things that they'd be really embarrassed to have in their cart. And then it causes anarchy in the supermarket, and it's a harmless form of food terrorism, really.

And I've done it, and people have done it to me in the Giant here when I came back home. So you have to now -- now I have to, every time I go to the supermarket watch my cart to make sure that somebody doesn't do it to me.


GROSS: So this is -- this is a game that two adults play now that you know, huh?

WATERS: Yes, and they go further. Actually, what they do that I didn't put it because I thought it might cause a dangerous trend, is they unwrap a candy bar and hand it to a child on the back of a cart when the mother isn't looking.

And then she turns around: hey, where'd you get that! -- smacks its hand and all. Put that back!

And the child's like: duh -- just sittin' there.


GROSS: A lot of the locales in your movie are, you know, diners and cheap bars. And one of the bars is called the Pelt Room, and it's a lesbian strip joint, with heterosexual male clientele. And so all of the men in the joint are always verbally abused by the lesbian strippers as they dance. It's -- it's very funny. How did you think this up?

WATERS: Well, I think, you know, basically, that one of the top male heterosexual fantasies is lesbians. And they believe that they're going to give them what they really need, when in reality that is the last thing they really need.

And Devine (ph) and I used to see a stripper at the Gay d'Burlesque (ph) in Baltimore, who this is based on; only she didn't even strip. She just came out nude. And she looked like Johnny Cash.


And she would look at the audience and say: what are you looking at?!

And they loved it. And I -- I never got over it. I've been talking about it for 30 years, so I finally put it in a movie.

GROSS: My guest is film director John Waters. His new movie is called "Pecker." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director John Waters. His new movie is the comedy "Pecker."

Now Pecker's grandmother, in your movie, is somebody who has, you know, a statue of the Virgin Mary, but she thinks the statue's talking to her.

WATERS: Well, she helps it along like a ventriloquist.

GROSS: Exactly.

WATERS: And she fools herself, really. She says "full of grace!" all the time. I think it's kind of reverent in a weird...

GROSS: Is that your voice, by the way, in the movie?

WATERS: It's not mine, no. It is Jean Shirley (ph), the actress who is playing the part. But of course at the end there is a real miracle, and that is a heavenly voice that I interviewed about 30 women over the phone for the voiceover...


... and it was like Dial-a-Prayer. They called me every 10 minutes and did the Hail, Mary for me. And I picked the voice over the phone.

GROSS: And did you know anybody who was like this, who had a statue of the Virgin and believed that she was talking?

WATERS: No, I did not know that, but I was a puppeteer when I was a child. In Baltimore, people have religious statues a lot in their window. I mean, you see them really a lot. And I think I just put the two things together. And my hobby is extreme Catholic behavior before the Reformation, and I have a lot of books about Mariolatry; the extreme, undue worship of Mary.

And I'm kind of obsessed by it, because the people that get into Mary are really into her. I mean, this is a cult. This is beyond Jim Jones, I mean. And there's a new cult that believes that Mary is better than Christ because she had him. And these debates, to me, are so strange and so surreal that I am very interested in it.

And it seems, if there ever is going to be a real miracle, it will be Mary. She appears more than anybody in phony ones, so why -- it goes -- thinking to think if there ever is going to be a real one that it will be Mary.

GROSS: You were brought up Catholic, right?

WATERS: Half-Catholic, yes. I went to private school and Catholic Sunday school, which is a real -- quite a combination, believe me, because they only have you one day a week, so they really got to get you there.


They only got you one hour, so the most extreme Catholic stuff they would tell you. And I remember as a child feeling like I was on Mars or something, you know, that all the nuns would tells us this stuff that I thought: my God, I've never heard these movies -- you know -- I'm not going to do any of this stuff. I'm six years old.


But -- you know what I'm saying? But they told me about all these mortal sins that I never even knew about, really. So they were my guidance counselor in filth, really.

GROSS: So this is how you got your interest developed in extreme Catholic behavior?

WATERS: Yes, yeah, by seeing it as a child and being amazed. I mean, they would say: you will burn in hell if you see these movies. How would I see these movies? I was six.

What, was I going to go downtown to a burlesque house at seven years old?


You know, I don't know how they thought I was going to get there, even if I wanted to see them.

GROSS: You've described yourself as making movies about people who are crazy, but think that they're sane. I think that's a pretty good description.

WATERS: Yeah, because so many people I know in New York are insane, and they're happy about it. And that's why they moved to New York, to celebrate that. And I would describe most of my friends that way. But to me, I make movies about people that think they're the most normal people in the world, but to me seem even more insane. And that's what interests me.

GROSS: Now, a couple of the characters in "Pecker" are homeless, and I'm wondering if you talk much with homeless people, and if there are any homeless people who you kind of adopted in a way, who you bring food for or hang out with and talk.

WATERS: Well, there was a woman that used to live with Edith Massie (ph) named Jean that was in some of my earlier movies. And...

GROSS: And Edith Massie is known to John Waters fans as Eedie the Egg Lady. Yeah.

WATERS: And Eedie took her in, actually. And that was the one I knew the best. And it was -- she would never let water touch her water. So she was like the Wicked Witch of the West. She washed in rubbing alcohol. And every night she and Edith would watch two separate televisions in the same room, the same show, because they kept it (unintelligible)


And she only -- she worked for Eedie, and, really, they tried to give her money, but all she wanted was Pall Mall cigarettes and a can of Spaghetti-os. So her needs were really not so much, and at the end, when Eedie died, she went back on the streets. And people offered to give her apartments and everything, and she would never ever do it. It was very, very sad, because she didn't believe Eedie died. And that was the only person that she would ever go inside and live somewhere with.

And she looked great. She looked like Sonya Raquel (ph) the designer. She had a great look accidentally. So I know that's probably very politically incorrect to think of homeless and fashion together, but in this movie, Pecker's mother tries to help the homeless by teaching them fashion sense.

And certainly some of the most expensive and the most eccentric designers today, there clothes are rags in a way. And it does look like homeless. So in the movie when the homeless people and the New Yorkers get together they're dressed alike. And they realize that, and they sort of celebrate that.

GROSS: Did Eedie take it the woman you were describing as an act of charity, or because she just felt emotionally connected to her?

WATERS: Eedie just like her. She helped Eedie. You know, she was kind of Eedie's assistant. And we all liked Jean. She was great, and the she ended up -- she was in "Desperate Living." And she used to come to all the Christmas parties, all the parties. She got real dressed up with a big Christmas corsage, and she was great. And it just was very, very sad. And I know that she's put away today somewhere in a place -- I hear she's OK. I know one person that visits her.

But when she was out, she would not go back in a place. You could not get her. It wasn't money. It wasn't anything. It was just, I think, that she felt cooped up anywhere else, so she liked sleeping on the street. And they wouldn't let her eventually.

GROSS: John Waters is my guest, and his new movie is called "Pecker."

I'd like to get some of your impressions of the Starr Report. I mean, a lot of people say it's almost something John Waters could have written. Have you been following this carefully?

WATERS: I have been following it. I don't think it's very witty. I think I certainly know people, and I'm not even saying myself, that have done worse. I'm not going to judge another man's private life. At the same time, I feel bad for him. I think he should go to Mortville, actually, which is the town in "Desperate Living" where you get sentenced to if you're so embarrassed by something that you've done.


But other than that, I guess, how can you not read about it? But I'm weary of it, and, you know, Linda Tripp to me is the one that should be in prison. I mean, with friends like that, no wonder she was doing that kind of thing in the White House. I mean, I don't know, the whole thing to me is bad, bad taste. I would never put any of those women in my movies, and I still really like Bill Clinton.

GROSS: I'm wonder, you know, as someone who does wear the crown as the king of bad taste, and someone who has, you know, challenged what most people consider the standards of decency, in -- in so many of your movies, particularly the early ones, do you think that the way the Starr Report has been handled is kind of changing public standards of good taste?

WATERS: Well, it's been handled in a completely political way, and using fear of sex in a political way, which is very Republican to me. Basically, the only good thing -- I have a friend that says this -- is that every person in America is talking about sex. I've heard my parents say things about sex to me more than they've ever said in their whole life.

I said on the Jay Leno show it's true that while people are so worried about their children -- what do we tell our children? -- just say she took patriotism to a new level, really.


You know, she honored her flag. You know, it's not the worst thing that could've happened. He wasn't bombing a country. They had sexual fantasies and they did them. I like sexual fantasies. I hope they keep these sexual fantasies, and 20 years later when they're in a, sort of, their marriage is a little boring, think of them, and it will perk up their sex life. That's the only good that I think they can use whatever happened for. And I hope they do remember it fondly.

GROSS: Here's what I'm wondering. You had to go to court to defend your right to name your new movie "Pecker"...

WATERS: Well, motion picture court. It wasn't like I was in handcuffs.


You know, I've always thought there should be a motion picture jail. But I wasn't threatened with it.

GROSS: Nevertheless, I mean, you had to bring in lawyers and fight for your right to name your new movie "Pecker." At the same time, you know, very explicit testimony was put on the Internet by the House Judiciary Committee; President Clinton testifying about intimate sexual details, shown on television. What does that make you think about?

WATERS: It makes me laugh that the Supreme Court may have to rule if oral sex is, in fact, sex. And that could be the final thing. And that will, you have to admit, a "Mad Magazine" day of the Supreme Court; that they will have to sit there in all their judicial splendor and decide if oral sex can be considered by the average man to really be sex.

It's insane to me. It is -- it is hilarious. At the same time, I'm glad it's not about me. I mean, everybody loves to read this stuff, but I'm glad it isn't my sex life that everybody in the world knows every single thing about. Every person's sex life is embarrassing. Everybody lies about sex, especially to themself.

GROSS: Do you see this story as a tragedy or a comedy?

WATERS: I don't see it as either. I certainly don't feel it as a comedy, because I never can laugh at people when they're embarrassed. I think that's the cruelest laughter you can have.

A tragedy? No. No one died. No horrible political movements have started. There's no oppression of people that like oral sex in the White House. It could be worse.

GROSS: John Waters. He wrote and directed the new film "Pecker." We'll take more in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: (AUDIO GAP) ... with culture today.

WATERS: The only kind of movies I have trouble with is romantic comedies, you know. They're not my favorite genre. When an audience goes "ooh," I start to cringe.


Nor am I alienated by anything. Just stupidity really is the only thing, and some have enough success that in my life I can finally isolate myself from that. I very seldom have to meet people that I would hate anymore, which is the only luxury you can really work for. It's much better than any material luxury you can ever have in your world -- is to never have to come in contact with people that would get on your nerves.

GROSS: When you see teenagers walking around with, you know, piercings all over their face, and God knows where else, and tattoos all over, was does that make you think about? Do you relate to that?

WATERS: I think -- I think they look cool, some of them. I think basically though -- I tell all the parents: don't care if they get piercing, that grows back. I mean, it's the tattoos that in -- I've said this before, it's true. Someone will make a fortune taking all those tattoos off this generation, because no matter how butch or how beautiful or cool you look at 20 with tattoos, I promise you at 50 you will look worn-out when you take your shirt off and you have a faded tattoo of barbed wire around your arm.


At 50, it will not be a good look.


But, and if I was going to -- if I was young I would have of course had piercings. I mean, I think the tongue I like, and I think the eyebrow is one is my favorite. But now they're branding. That's the new thing, you know.

GROSS: Right.

WATERS: I think piercing and eventually they're going to have (unintelligible) lips. I think -- do you remember that, like in National Geographic?


WATERS: That, I think, is the next thing that will be coming on the college campuses.

GROSS: It's kind of a plate in the lip extending the lip.

WATER: Yes, in the lip.

GROSS: John Waters is my guest and his new movie is called "Pecker."

You've been managing to make movies with happy endings no matter how improbably they are and no matter how they might seem to contrast with the larger subject matter. What do you enjoy about that, about finding the happy ending in this insanity that you're creating?

WATERS: Because if we can find happy endings to our own insanity, what a perfect life that would be.

I'm an optimist, a very guarded optimist. And I believe there are happy endings. And so I like to show them. My happy endings are not exactly what many people would think of as a happy ending.

But in "Pecker," I mean, really, the New Yorker and the blue collar sort of Baltimore people all get together and have a party at the end, and that's my idea of a perfect bar. If I could ever go to a blue collar bar where it was gay people, straight people, go-go boys, go-go girls, all classes of people, and Patty Hurst dancing on a table, I'm in heaven.


GROSS: And that's not the kind of happy ending where the audience would go, ah...

WATERS: Well, maybe some of my audience might go "aah," but I'm not sure in what way they would exactly mean it. No. It's not a "Sleepless in Seattle" ending, no.

GROSS: One of the people who you discovered was Rikki Lake, who starred in "Hairspray," and now, of course, she's as national celebrity with her daytime talk show, et cetera.

WATER: Right.

GROSS: And she's -- she's lost weight and gotten cosmetic surgery, and in a way I feel like she's repudiated the kind of character that you created around her; you know, someone who was considered, like, overweight and unattractive by certain mainstream people, but she was comfortable with herself and had such kind of (unintelligible) and was such a good dancer that she ended up being really attractive if you really saw her for who she was.

WATERS: I think she sold that part, and that was certainly the part of Tracy Turnblat (ph). I think physically she probably feels a lot happier when she's not fat. And I know from Devine dropping dead from being overweight, certainly health-wise, it is a good thing for her.

But when I see Rikki, I will be honest, she still tells me: look, I lost weight. I said: Rikki, I don't care. You know, I'm happy for you that you did, but you could weigh 200 or 80, but I don't really care about how much you weigh. You know, it has nothing to do with how I like you.

But I think she feels better about herself. I think she looks great. She was at the premiere in New York looking quite beautiful. And I think because she played Tracy Turnblat, that does not mean she wanted to live the life of Tracy Turnblat.

Certainly it was not good for her health to weigh 250 pounds when you're 20 years old.

GROSS: You've always been based in Baltimore, and some of the people you've always worked with like you still live in Baltimore; at least I assume they do because I know that a couple of them have been working for "Homicide," which is a TV series shot in Baltimore.

WATERS: Surely, my dearest -- my dearest Pat Moran (ph), who cast many of my movies -- and all of them, really -- and she won the Emmy the other week for best casting of "Homicide." Vincent Perenio (ph) who has done my production designs -- head production designer of "Homicide."

Behind the scenes, many of the people on the crew have worked with me in many, many of the movies, so, and "Homicide" is my favorite television show. So I think it is so great. Where I live is known for bad taste. "Homicide," you know, it's kind of the reverse of what the city 20 years ago would have wanted to be known for.

GROSS: John Waters. He wrote and directed the new film comedy "Pecker."

Coming up, historian Eric Foner on the story of American freedom.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: John Waters
High: Filmmaker John Waters. His latest film is "Pecker," about a young amateur photographer who becomes the darling of the New York art world. Waters other films include "Cry Baby," a juvenile delinquent love story set in the 1950's, which brought together such performers as Patty Hearst, Johnny Depp, Rikki Lake, David Nelson and Polly Bergen. Waters is known for his independent, off-beat films, such as "Pink Flamingos," "Female Trouble," and "Polyester." In 1988, Waters entered the mainstream with his popular film, "Hairspray."
Spec: John Waters; Movie Industry; Entertainment; "Pecker"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Waters: The King of Bad Taste

Date: OCTOBER 01, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 100102NP.217
Head: Eric Foner
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:32

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The American Revolution culminated in what the Constitution describes as "the blessings of liberty." Yet our nation conceived in liberty also had a growing slave population.

This is one of many contradictions that historian Eric Foner explores in his new book "The Story of American Freedom."

The book also examines the debates and struggles that have extended the meaning of freedom over the centuries.

Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University, and the author of books about the Civil War and reconstruction.

He writes that today when Americans are asked to define freedom they turn to the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment. Yet he says the Bill of Rights aroused little enthusiasm upon ratification and for decades was all but ignored.

ERIC FONER, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY; AUTHOR, "THE STORY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM": It's only in the 20th century, I think, that the Bill of Rights came to be seen as an emblem or as a defining characteristic of American freedom.

As I mentioned in the book, the 50th anniversary of the Bill of Rights in 1841 was unnoticed by anybody. The 100th anniversary in the 1890s, really, there were no celebrations. It was really in the 20th century and through the struggles of groups, for example, like the IWW and its fight for the right to freedom of speech; birth control advocates and how they were fighting against laws preventing the dissemination of information about birth control; and then a reaction against the Red scare of World War I; and the suppression of civil liberties and freedom of speech during World War I that a concept of civil liberties really central to American freedom began to emerge.

And then again in World War II it really -- it's in World War II that the government really promotes the Bill of Rights as a central element of American freedom in contradiction to the suppression of liberties by the Nazis.

So again, one of my themes, not only with the Bill of Rights, but many, many elements of American freedom, is that this is an evolutionary process. It's not that we established freedom at the time of the Revolution or the Constitution and we've been sort of working at its logic. This is history, in other words, and freedom itself has a history. And today it's much more central to our thinking than it was at many other points in American history.

GROSS: You mention that the IWW, the labor movement that was the Industrial Workers of the World, was really important to the fight for freedom of speech and the emphasis on the First Amendment. What do you think the labor movement did in terms of calling attention to the First Amendment?

FONER: Well, there were two ways in which the labor movement, I think, plays a central role in this history of ideas about freedom in the United States. One is just the right to organize, the right to strike, the right to picket, the right to hold street corner meetings.

There is a long history of freedom of expression in this country, but there is also a long history of repressing unpopular ideas and the IWW which was a radical, you know, labor group in the early part of the century, came up against local ordinances, sometimes state laws, making it impossible for them to organize, to mobilize, to hold meetings and propagate their views. And they violated those regulations. They went to jail sometimes, were very brutally treated in jail.

And they fought against these regulations in the name of freedom of expression. And these fights galvanized a lot of other people, who weren't IWW members, to realize that freedom of speech -- everybody believes in freedom of speech for themself. But that's not freedom from my point of view.

It's when you -- when unpopular ideas can be expressed freely that this kind of liberty actually operates. And the IWW was one of the first groups to forthrightly challenge these regulations on unpopular speech. And the other way in which the labor movement, IWW and many other play a role in this book, is by expanding what you might call a different element of freedom, which is economic freedom.

Economic freedom is a central element all the way through American history, but its meaning has changed many times. Today, economic freedom usually is invoked as an equivalent to the free market, lack of government regulations, not paying taxes, things like that.

The labor movement has always put forward a more substantive and positive vision of economic freedom, as in the 20th century having an American standard of living, having a voice in economic decision-making; economic security for ordinary people.

These are also definitions of freedom which the labor movement and others have put forward as an alternative to just the sort of free market vision.

GROSS: What did the birth control movement do early in the century to help define freedom of speech?

FONER: Well, the birth control movement in the early part of the century challenged laws which made it illegal to -- declared birth control information obscene, basically, and made it illegal to disseminate information about birth control. The Post Office particularly suppressed any mention of birth control devices or anything like that in newspapers or pamphlets that went through the mail.

And people like Margaret Sanger (ph), for example, were very important, again, in highlighting the repression of free speech in the name of morality, in the name of middle class propriety -- by the government, by the Post Office department, by local judges -- and really the right to disseminate this information.

Now, of course, it had a feminist tinge to it because the idea was women could not truly consider themselves free if they did not have the right to control their own childbearing.

And so it was not only freedom of expression, but you might say freedom of control of your own body, which the birth control movement put forward as an essential element of freedom. And I think people like Sanger and others played a very important role in expanding this notion of freedom to personal life, to private life, to intimate relations, areas for which it wasn't really intended by, let us say, the Founding Fathers.

GROSS: Now you write about World War I being very important in changing a lot of things in America and you say the wartime language inspired the sense of freedom and the desire for freedom for African-Americans.

W.E.B. DuBois called on Black Americans to close ranks and enlist in the segregated army to help "make our own America a real land of the free."

But then you say Black soldiers felt betrayed when they returned and that sense of betrayal helped spur on the movement for freedom.

FONER: Well, African-Americans have always had a somewhat different, you might say, experience and angle of vision about what freedom is than Whites.

I think this is a gross generalization which there are many exceptions to, but I would say White Americans, by and large, have always believed that freedom is something that they have and that someone is trying to take away, whether it is the federal government, the Trilateral Commission, Masons, conspirators, Communists. Somebody is always attacking our freedom.

Black Americans, because of their particular historical experience, tend to believe that freedom is something you have to aspire to. It's something that hasn't quite been achieved. It's some thing in the future. It's a process. It's a struggle. And wars have always been key moments in which to mobilize the population; the government puts forward very strong ideals of America as a democratic society. In World War I this was the war to make this world "safe for democracy."

World War II was fought for the four freedoms, according to President Roosevelt. And Blacks, you know, basically said: well, what about us? What about a little democracy at home for us? What about the four freedoms at home in a segregated society?

But the hope that this rhetoric would actually become meaningful for them led many Blacks to enlist in the armies and also to make very substantive gains. After all, emancipation came out of the Civil War.

World War I led to a tremendous sense of betrayal. Blacks fought in the segregated army. They demanded that the rhetoric of democracy be brought home. But, of course, the Wilson Administration had no interest whatsoever in doing that. Segregation didn't end. The disenfranchisement of Black voters didn't end.

In fact, very often in 1919, returning Black soldiers found themselves attacked by mobs. There were soldiers lynched in uniform.

It certainly seemed that the war to make the world safe for democracy somehow didn't apply to the South, in the United States, let's put it that way.

GROSS: Does the Constitution which you know so well ever feel at all to you like a tainted document because the Founding Fathers, when they talked about "we the people," or freedom for all, knowing that they were just really talking about White men.

FONER: Well, I think we have to take the Constitution as a starting point, not as a fixed document, which is always, you know, going to be the same. The meaning of the phrases -- the Constitution was written very ambiguously. There are phrases in there like "due process of law," or, you know, "freedom of speech," et cetera, which mean many different things at different periods in our history.

The Constitution is a sort of a general blueprint. It is not an absolute guide for action.

And I think we have to take the original Constitution as a beginning point, but also understand how many great struggles have taken place in American history of groups that were not included in the Constitution to gain the blessings of liberty, to gain acceptance into the realm of "we the people" and how those struggles have, as I said, changed what freedom is for everybody in this country, not just for the people themselves.

So the Constitution is a beginning point. It's not the end of American history, and it's not the end of our thinking about what America ought to be.

GROSS: Do you think it is fair to say that there has never been a point in American history where freedom for all could be taken for granted?

FONER: I don't believe freedom can ever be taken for granted at any point in history, American or otherwise. You know, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was an abolitionist who commanded Black soldiers during the Civil War, said "revolutions may go backward."

In other words, history is not just a straight line of progress. Rights can be achieved and rights can be taken away. And another often quoted sentence about freedom which has a lot of historical truth -- this was said by an Irish jurist in the 18th century: "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance."

In other words, it's not something -- you can never take your rights,, your freedoms for granted; and certainly the history of African-Americans in this country underscores that very well, because during the Civil War and Reconstruction, the realm of freedom was tremendously expanded for Black Americans. But in the generations after that, many of those rights were simply rescinded, taken away, and a whole new system of racial injustice was imposed.

So history doesn't, unfortunately, move in a straight line toward greater and greater freedom. Sometimes it moves towards lesser and lesser freedom.

GROSS: As we near the end of the century, what are the freedoms in America that you think are being debated now?

FONER: Well, I think that -- at the end of my book -- to be very modern and up-to-date, although I'm kind of a low-tech kind of a person -- I went to the Internet and searched for freedom using some search mechanisms. And I found what I guess you would suspect, anyway, that today the notion of freedom is very much associated with anti-government activists. These are militia units. They are people who don't want to pay taxes. They are free-marketeers.

And to some extent I think the notion of freedom has become denuded of many of its traditional meanings. I would like to see for the next century some older American traditions of freedom reinvigorated, such as freedom as economic security; freedom as liberating disposed people or people whom there is discrimination, liberating them from unjust restrictions on their lives.

Today, freedom is often posed against the government. But there have been many points in our history when government has been, as Charles Sumner the abolitionist said, "the custodian of freedom," where we -- disposed groups have looked to government activism to actually -- to actually expand their freedom. And I think we have to get away from this current notion that the way -- that freedom means getting government off your back.

You know, when Martin Luther King ended his great 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, you know, "free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I'm free at last," he wasn't just talking about paying low taxes, you know. He was talking about a vision of freedom as, you know, as equality, as empowerment, as dignity in the society, as really being treated fully as an equal human being.

And I think we have to try in the next century to think about ways, given the changes in the market and the global economy, ways to reinvigorate those older but still very American notions of what freedom is and can be.

GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest is Eric Foner. He's a professor of history at Columbia University, and author of the new book "The Story of American Freedom."

We will talk more after we take a short break. This is Fresh Air.


GROSS: My guest is Eric Foner, author of "The Story of American Freedom," and professor of history at Columbia University.

The House Judiciary Committee has a grave responsibility now deciding whether to go forward with impeachment hearings. And I'd like to ask you a little bit about your thoughts on this matter. You've studied American history for a long time. Do you think that we have impeachable offenses before us?

FONER: Well, of course, the -- nobody quite knows what the Founding Fathers meant when they put into the Constitution "high crimes and misdemeanors" as the grounds for impeachment.

I think it's fair to say they didn't have in mind exactly what's being considered today. And I think -- I don't see anything in the Starr Report or other such documents to strike me as impeachable offenses.

My opinion of -- I think the president has been revealed to be a rather sophomoric kind of character. But most people seem to feel that even lying about personal sexual matters is not a crime against the state. In other words, what the Constitution had in mind about impeachable offenses were abuses of office and crimes against the community, crimes against the state.

That's why Andrew Johnson was impeached during Reconstruction, because of a very principled battle over what the future shape of American society should after the Civil War, about Reconstruction, about the rights of Black people.

The kind of matters under consideration now, I think, really don't measure up to what the -- the process -- the very severe process of impeachment really was intended to deal with.

This does not mean one must admire the president's behavior, but impeachment is not the remedy -- it was not put forward as a remedy for every mistake, every stupid action, and every, you know, misjudgment by a president. If that were the case, every president in our history would have been impeached.

GROSS: What's your impression of how Kenneth Starr has handled his role of special prosecutor?

FONER: I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not a judge. And I certainly wouldn't like to have Kenneth Starr investigating me, believe me; not that I'm guilty of the acts that Clinton is, but I don't think that...

GROSS: That was going to be my next question. We were going to...

FONER: Well, one of the reasons...


.... well, what I'm saying is, one of the reasons there's a lot of sympathy for President Clinton, even among people who are kind of disgusted by his behavior, is that nobody would like to see their private life investigated in this way; that we still do believe that there is this realm of privacy.

That's why Clinton's testimony before the grand jury was put out on TV and the Internet, it turned people against Starr, because they just imagined themselves sitting there for four hours with some, you know, intrepid prosecutor investigating their personal sexual behavior.

People think that itself is distasteful.

And I think that's correct. You know, there are many precedents in American history for this. You can go back to a lesser-known figure, but very similar to Starr, Anthony Comstock, who was a special agent of the Post Office in the late 19th, early 20th century, who was -- whose job was to root out sin in society -- just like Starr seems to think its his job -- and who was one of the main prosecutors of the birth control movement, in trying to keep information like that from public dissemination; and arranged for the arrest of birth control advocates, et cetera; and also suppressing what was considered obscene literature, or poetry or novels or anything like that.

Just like Starr, Comstock, in the act of trying to suppress this material actually distributed far more widely than it would have really been before that, because he had to demonstrate how evil it was. And you get this -- the Starr Report to me is part of a long tradition in this country of what I call Puritan pornography -- where people who want to rout sin out from society create pornographic literature, basically where they can enjoy reading it but they don't feel they're sinning because they are actually trying to suppress someone else's sins.

So in the 19th century, for example, anti-Catholic literature often dwelled obsessively on mostly imaginary offenses that nuns and priests were committing behind closed doors, you know. And this would be widely distributed, and people who were completely upstanding middle class citizens would read this and get very titillated but they didn't really think there was anything wrong with it because this is -- we're trying to really rout out the sin of Catholics.

Same thing with Comstock and his expose and suppression of sexually explicit material in the early 20th century. And when I read the Star Report, it just put be back into those days. Somehow you think nothing ever changes.

Here's an upstanding, God-fearing moral man who is distributing the most salacious and pornographic stuff to a mass audience, but yet doesn't think there's anything wrong with that because his motive is to rout out sin from our society.

GROSS: I think a lot of Americans are wondering now: are presidents supposed to be a good role model, a man of good character? How important is that, or is the only thing that's important the kind of policies that they enact?

FONER: President's are role models, and whether we like it or not, people look up to presidents and they -- and children and adults -- and they do think that presidents should behave themselves in an upstanding manner.

On the other hand, most Americans, being adult, realize that no person is a saint, and that it seems that we look to presidents nowadays for political leadership and economic leadership; and that, I guess, is at what it should be.

It's very -- you know, we live in an age of expose which is far greater than anytime in our past. But, of course, everybody knows if we started investigating the personal lives of all the previous presidents, we would find many examples of, you know, of deviations from the straight and narrow course.

But you know, I think most people feel we elect a president to run the country, and if the president is doing a good job, I would much rather see Clinton criticized for his policies on welfare or gays in the military or heath care or whatever other public issue is facing the country, than this obsessive interest, you know, in his private sexual behavior.

GROSS: Eric Foner, thank you very much for talking with us.

FONER: My pleasure always to be here.

GROSS: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and author of the new book "The Story of American Freedom"

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Eric Foner
High: Historian Eric Foner is a DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. His new book is an examination of the concept of freedom in the United States: "The Story of American Freedom." He writes: "the meaning of freedom is as multifaceted, contentious, and ever-changing as America itself." Foner is also the author of "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877."
Spec: Eric Foner; United States; History; Justice; IWW; Clinton

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Eric Foner
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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