By (Almost) Any Means Necessary: Arianna Huffington Gets Radical
She is an impassioned advocate of civil disobedience and a stalwart opponent of the drug war. Mention child poverty in the U.S., and she not only responds with an outpouring of startling statistics, but outrage over how in this era of trumped up prosperity, we could leave so many behind. She sees a system desperately in need of campaign finance reform, with little difference between the two major parties, which she dubs the "pro-choice corporate party" and the "anti-choice corporate party." And don't even get her started on mandatory sentencing.If you had told me a year ago that all of the above would describe Arianna Huffington, the sharp-tongued, quick-witted diva of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution, I would have laughed out loud. Huffington first splashed onto the media's radar in a big way during her ex-husband Michael Huffington's failed 1994 bid for the U.S. Senate. By the end of the race, the California businessman had spent $28 million out of his own pocket and Arianna had demonstrated her considerable political prowess. The former Cambridge University debate club president always had the knack for constructing the kind of cogent arguments that made you wish she were on your side.Now, with her latest book, the inconceivable seems true. Proving that a good conservative can change her mind, "How to Overthrow the Government" (Regan Books/Harper Collins, Feb. 2000) lays out Huffington's incisive analysis of the U.S. political system and concluded with a rallying cry that a popular grassroots movement needs to be launched to reform the way the system operates. In the book, she comes across as something of a contrarian progressive, conveying the brand of populism-spiked independent thinking often found in her syndicated column. Her take on child poverty, for example, puts her firmly in the company of advocacy groups like the Children's Defense Fund; yet her skepticism about the growing use of anti-depressants carries a tinge of upright conservatism.AlterNet recently caught up with Huffington in Los Angeles as she was on her way to an appearance on CNN.ALTERNET: You talk a lot about how far we've strayed from the way a democracy is supposed to work. If a vital, free press is the watchdog of democracy, what do you think of the trend toward consolidation of media ownership that has been on a steady march since the Telecommunications Act of 1996?HUFFINGTON: I am very troubled by that because it not just what is covered, but what is not covered that is problematic. I know, for example, although this does not involve media ownership, that when Archer Daniels Midland had some of their executives convicted of price fixing in Chicago, it was very hard to get this covered on any of the political news shows, because ADM supports so many of them, including National Public Radio. I wrote a column about it at the time. So, I think the connection between ownership and money going to certain shows is very complex. And it's not just ownership. Influence can also be exerted through advertising or through sponsorship.We see this with the drug industry. I think, for example, the media has done a terrible job tracking the negative effects of antidepressants on children. They run three-page glossy ads on Prozac, illustrated with these childlike drawings -- the wilting tree that becomes a growing tree -- and there is very little written about the fact that we don't know what the long-term effects of these drugs are on children's growing brains, and that they have not even been approved by the FDA for pediatric use.ALTERNET: In your book, you use the drug industry as a case study of how money has corrupted the political process. The drug industry is an incredibly powerful political lobby, but why single it out?HUFFINGTON: I singled out the drug industry because the tentacles seem to reach throughout our whole political life, along with our [private] lives. I just mentioned the example of treating children with Prozac. I had real difficulties getting any member of Congress on the FDA oversight committee to help me get the information I needed to cover what was happening. I finally got one who was willing to take on the powerful manufacturers of Prozac, Eli Lilly in this case, which is one of the big corporate contributors and a huge soft money contributor.It's also because we're spending $40 billion on the drug war, and the drug industry is a partner in fighting the drug war. Until we recognize that there's a continuum between children addicted to legal drugs and then moving on to illegal drugs, we're never going to be able to understand how children get hooked on drugs.ALTERNET: You talk more in your book about the failures of the drug war, about how prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders as a result of its policies. Why wade into such controversial territory?HUFFINGTON: If you talk to people behind the scenes -- judges, law enforcement, members of Congress -- a lot of them will tell you that the drug war has been a failure. You see that drug use is up, the numbers of nonviolent offenders in jail are dramatically up, especially among minorities. It's a great indication of the bankruptcy of leadership that no presidential candidate addresses this, and that with the exception of a tiny handful of elected officials, like the governor of New Mexico, no elected official is willing to address the fact that the drug war is doing more harm than good, and at tremendous cost not just in taxpayer money, but in human life. Mandatory sentencing has to end; it is one of the most unjust laws on the books.ALTERNET: Are politicians simply afraid of being seen as soft on crime?HUFFINGTON: So many political leaders today are driven by their pollsters, by their consultants, by their focus groups, and unless something appears on the polling returns as a concern, they don't want to touch it. Yet the whole essence of leadership is to look around the corner and see what crises have been ignored, to identify the approaching icebergs before they're hit by the Titanic.ALTERNET: You are encouraged by the mass demonstrations at the WTO meeting in Seattle, in terms of it being a real grassroots political action. Why do you look at it this way, when others would call it a major disruption of government business?HUFFINGTON: Disrupting business as usual that's not for the public good is a great thing to do. On our Web site at www.overthrowthegov.com we have an 11-point manifesto of what citizens can do to take their government back. And the points range from hanging up on pollsters, because I believe that polling has really poisoned our political life, to some things that require a lot more commitment -- demonstrating at political rallies, civil disobedience actions, obviously nothing that involves violence. The majority of people who turned out in Seattle were not violent, even though the media kept its spotlight on the violence. And they were really effective. That's really the most important thing to stress, the effectiveness of civil disobedience campaigns. All these things we thought we left behind in the '60s are still powerful tools if we want to take our democracy back.ALTERNET: You write that part of the trouble with the system is that it essentially discourages leadership, instead driving politicians to rely on polls and where their next corporate donation is coming from. How do we regain moral authority in our leaders, and should examining "character" include the personal lives of our leaders?HUFFINGTON: I make it quite clear in the book that I think there has to be a sharp line drawn between private lives and public lives. Private lives, marriage and fidelity, and any issues that are part of the private realm, should not be part of the public debate. And I think that if the media continues to ask those questions, it's up to our political leaders to say, "that's none of your business."ALTERNET: Do you think it's really possible for a political leader to project moral authority without opening up his or her private life?HUFFINGTON: Moral authority has nothing to do with private morality. For me, the litmus test of public morality is the Biblical admonition that we will be judged for those who have the least among us. That is the only thing that matters to me, and it's the only thing that should matter to voters.ALTERNET: In your new book, we get to hear from a very different Arianna Huffington than the public got to know when you first entered political life. How did writing this book change you?HUFFINGTON: Part of it is that I had a lot of lives before my ex-husband ran for office, which is when a lot of people in politics got to hear about me. I have been writing about politics since I was 23 and I was living in England, studying economics at Cambridge, and then practiced journalism until 1980 when I moved to New York. And during that time I wrote a book about the crisis in political leadership in which I expressed many similar themes.As I say in my book, I have to admit I really believed Newt Gingrich when he said he would make fighting poverty a higher priority than balancing the budget. I really believed that this would be a very different Republican majority that would take on corruption and the corporate interests and the pork, and as I saw within literally a few months that this was all talk and rhetoric and nothing but business as usual, my columns have really been bathed in criticism of the Republican and the Democratic parties -- of the political class and the establishment really. So, I've been writing these things for a while, it's just that the book puts it all together between hard covers, and for a lot of people, you're right, it is surprising. For people who've been reading my column regularly, it's probably not so surprising.ALTERNET: Do you see any great leaders in the world today?HUFFINGTON: Right now, I'm really more interested in seeing a great movement. I really believe that it's going to take a movement, and that the movement will produce the leaders, like what happened with the civil rights movement. Right now, my emphasis is on helping build this movement.