|A LITERARY PERSPECTIVE|
September 20, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining me are four novelists. Annie Proulx, whose 1993 work "The Shipping News" won the Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of "Close Range," a short story collection published this year. Gish Jen, author of a collection of short stories, "Who's Irish?", and two novels, "Typical American" and "Mona in the Promised Land." Charles Johnson, author of four novels, including "Middle Passage," which won the 1990 National Book Award. He has also written short stories and screenplays, and is Professor of English at the University of Washington. And Winston Groom, author of "Forrest Gump," the novel on which the film was based. His most recent novel is "Pretty, Pretty Girl, Such a Pretty, Pretty Girl," which was published this year. Charles Johnson, what would you like to hear candidates discuss and debate in this campaign?
CHARLES JOHNSON: Well, there are two issues that are most important for me. I would love to hear our candidates articulate their cultural vision for America in the 21st century, if they have such a vision, which I sometimes doubt. The reason I'd love to hear this is because, as we approach the 21st century, at the 11th hour of the 20th century, America is increasingly becoming a multicultural and multiracial society, but that raises the question, what will American identity be in the 21st century? What values do we share? What ideals, if any, do we have as one people, you now, indivisible under God? Or are we a people who are fast approaching a kind of cultural and ideological balkanization, so you'll have many Americans and many different kinds of America? Those are the kind of questions I would love to see our candidates answer, and they all raise another question, which is, what should education be? I think every one of our candidates is going to say that he is pro-education, he is an education candidate, but what does that mean? As a teacher, I have to ask that question of myself. Are we preparing our students in the 20th and 21st century just to be workers at different companies? Is education just vocational training? Or are we giving our students a broader, humanistic education, one that will make them very logical and rational people who are able to analyze what the candidates say, who can see a demagogue when a demagogue shows up, you know. Education: Is it going to be humanistic, one that helps all the different kinds of Americans who are coming to this country understand the history of this country and how we got to this point in time; or is it simply going to be, you know, vocational training to work in the computer industry or the tech industry?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, let me move on to Annie Proulx here, and I'll come back to you for more on that. Annie Proulx, what do you want to hear?
ANNIE PROULX, Writer: Well, I would like to hear the candidates occasionally discuss the problems of the rural areas of the country, those areas that are neglected and poor and out of the decision-making loop and often alienated. Some of those problems-- and this is a really short list-- would include water rights and water conservation; the controversy over the access to public lands; the lack of public transportation; poor medical services; appalling conditions on most Native American reservations; the need for decent, affordable housing instead of flimsy trailers that are prone to storm and tornado damage; inadequate communication services, which includes Internet link-ups and high telephone service charges. There's also an ancient and deep-seated resentment toward government itself, which could use some remedial care. Now, the urban areas and the federal government seem to regard rural America as economically backward, as without culture or the amenities of life. They see it as a source of extracted timber and minerals, as the source of steaks and corn, and its a nice place to visit on vacation, a wonderful spot-- the more scenic areas, that is-- to build a second home. But it's also seen as a place to dump the dangerous and unwanted detritus of civilization.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh. Let me go ahead, and I'll come back for more on that, too. Winston Groom, what do you want to hear? Do you share the concern about rural areas, that there's no attention to those problems?
WINSTON GROOM: Well, certainly there are problems there-- there are problems in urban areas as well, of course-- but it seems to me that... I have a couple of notions about what I'd like to hear candidates talk about, but an equally important question might be what you don't want to hear them... what they should quit talking about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What don't you want to hear?
WINSTON GROOM: Well, I think I would not like to hear much more about abortion because the President of the United States cannot do a thing about it. The Supreme Court has made its ruling, and the only thing the presidential... The president can do would be to try to somehow scurrilously pack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion justices. I think they should probably quit talking about campaign reform because no Congress is going to ever pass any meaningful campaign reform. They simply won't do it, and probably if they did, the Supreme Court would find it unconstitutional in the first place under the First Amendment. So there's a couple of things I would rather the candidates quit talking about and get down to what I think are real issues, one of which is our foreign policy, our national security, and the other is some meaningful tax reform.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you want to hear about tax reform?
WINSTON GROOM: Well, I think that the present tax system, to me anyway, is, it's a morass. It's a mess. People spend thousands of dollars a year having to hire accountants to figure out whether they're doing something right or wrong. I personally have had practically half of my income go to taxes, which I think is excessive, and I think there just are other approaches. The approach of a national ad volorum, a sales tax there -- there are all sorts of approaches, but you don't hear really a lot of talk about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Gish Jen, what do you want to hear?
GISH JEN: You know, I have to disagree with Winston Groom. I think that I would like to hear more about campaign finance reform. I think McCain is absolutely on the right track to making this a central issue. I think it is a huge issue for this country if we are going to start to restore some of our faith, not only in the government, but in the whole democratic process. I think Bradley is beginning to talk about this. I think, again, he's on the right track. I think that I would like to see the candidates discuss reinventing the American project as something we can all sign up for and believe in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean by that?
GISH JEN: What I mean is that we want to feel that this is an America that we want to be part of, that we can support. I think we want to feel that we're all voting. I don't think we want to see, you know, elections with 37 percent of the electorate votes and the rest of the people just are so disinterested they don't even care. And I think if we're going to reinvent the American project, we need to talk first and foremost about money. That does mean campaign finance reform. None of us can support a government in which, you know, the White House can be bought. And in addition, I think we need to be talking about class, that great taboo subject in America. I think we need to be talking about the fact that the top 1 percent of the country now controls 47 percent of the wealth. I think we need to be talking about the fact that the gap between the richest and the poorest in this country has doubled in the last 30 years. You know, I'd like to point out, of course, that, you know, income disparities led to revolution in China, you know. Where is it going to lead us? Do the candidates think that this trend is okay, and if they don't think so, what do they think can be done about it?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Charles Johnson, follow up on that, or I cut you off when you were talking about education. Go on about that.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Well, I, as a teacher, I'm just very concerned about which direction we're going with our schools and colleges, and how well we are preparing our students for the future. But, you know, I agree with everything...
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you want to hear a candidate say about that? What role would the federal government play that would make a difference in what you see happening?
CHARLES JOHNSON: Well, I think it's very important, at least for me, that a candidate, a President, have a vision, one that is coherent and consistent and complete, not one that is patched together from one poll to another. I do think that there should be a rock bottom, what we would call core vision, and I'd like to know what that is. But, you know, let me tag on one other thing here, because I'd like to agree with Winston about the importance of tax reform-- I feel very strongly about that-- and to raise one other issue, and that issue, which many of my friends are concerned about, is this tension that is developing between the evolution of technology and issues of privacy. You know, it's very difficult even to go to something like an ATM machine or to the supermarket and not find a camera on one's self; to walk down a street in America and not have on the street corner a camera, surveillance cameras, and so forth. There are reasons why for, you know, security we have this kind of surveillance, but questions of individual privacy I think are being... well, I think individual privacy is being eroded. You can take one piece of information from an American, such as a Social Security Number, and you can find your way back to all kinds of other pieces of information about that American, whether it be his financial status, you name it -- every business transaction that he's made. That's another issue I would like to see addressed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Annie Proulx, on the issue of the importance of rural life in this country, you went through the specific areas, but you really want a candidate to reaffirm the importance of America's rural areas, is that right?
ANNIE PROULX: I think it's something that politicians and candidates need to take a look at. It's a large part of this country. There are many people here. Many of the professed values of Americans are drawn from our rural past. But what I... the note I ended on, and it's something of concern to me, is that increasingly, rural areas are seen as a place to dump things. And the problem... and I would like to hear the candidates discuss what they would do to find safe and responsible solutions for the nuclear waste problem. It is a huge problem, it is worldwide, it is pressing. The case in point here, of course, is that there is a proposed hazardous nuclear waste incinerator that is to be built and operate West of Idaho Falls in Idaho, where radioactive particles would be carried on prevailing westerlies over Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and over a good many Wyoming residents. A lawsuit was just filed within the last few days against the DOE by private interested persons in the west of the state, maintaining that the citizens of the State of Wyoming were not adequately consulted during the permit process, and that the effects of incinerated particles on people living West of the... East of the incinerator were not considered.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I hate to interrupt, but we're running out of time here. And, Winston Groom, do you think that there's a special role for the artist, the writer in all of your cases, in helping craft a national debate about the things that you're most concerned about, taxes in your case, for example?
WINSTON GROOM: Well, I don't know that there's a special role for the artist in this, I mean, other than being an ordinary good citizen and a voter. I don't know what... I assume when you mean writers, what writers can do. We can write. We can write editorials or magazine pieces and things like that, but that basically represents our own opinions. I really think, though, that everybody here has been saying some very interesting things. The question I have is... and in some places obviously they can be dealt with Annie's question about what to do about this nuclear waste is a perfect, to me, a campaign issue because it is a, it's a terrifically difficult thing to deal with, and there's more and more of it every year. But what we writers can do, I don't know. We can go on TV shows like this and we can talk about it, or we could write about it, but I'm not sure if there should be one, you know, formal sort of thing that we could all get together and hold hands and march on the Pentagon or something.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Gish Jen, I want to get back to something that Charles Johnson said. What about a cultural vision for this country? Do you share his view there needs to be a new cultural vision, given the way that the country has changed?
GISH JEN: Yes. I think we are really ready to move past the culture of grievance and on to something else. I think the balkanization of this problem -- in this country is a real problem. If you go to the American campuses, you will notice that many of the students are living in theme dorms-- you know, the Asian Americans feel that they must live with the other Asian Americans; the African Americans feel that they must live with the African Americans. I think that this is really a problem and that this is something on which we need our leaders to lead. I will also like to say two things, since science and the arts have both been raised, and that is that I would love to see the candidates talk a little bit about bio-ethics. I think that so many advances that are being made right now in genetics are huge in their implications. I think that this is the atom bomb of our time, and I would like to hear what the candidates propose to do to kind of foster the deep thinking and the international cooperation which we are going to need to come to grips with some of the stuff that's going on, you know. We've produced a smarter mouse. You know, we really have to think about this stuff. And finally, about the arts, I would like to remind everyone of the JFK quote, you know. He said that, you know, "arts, the arts... the arts remind us of the basic human truths which will serve as the touchstones of our judgment." You know, I would like to hear what the candidates are going to do about the arts. You know, the fact if we look at plays like "Death of a Salesman," we depend on the arts to remind us who we are, or what we are, what we can become, what we're becoming. They are essential to us as humans. I would like to hear what the candidates are going to do to support us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Well, thank you all four very much for being with us.