"Zaid Jilani on Georgia Politics and the Muslim American Experience" Transcript

Hi, everyone, welcome to The FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast, Episode Eight, for July 4th, 2014. I'm Mike Eidson.

This show delivers news and updates via interviews with activists around the state on the issues that you, the people of Florida, care about. This time, we’re looking to our neighbor, Georgia, and how it’s dealing with similar issues, like education funding, and later in the show, we’ll be talking about the issues facing Muslim Americans.

As usual, stick around for the end of the podcast to hear a list of actions, groups, and resources discussed on the show that can help you effect positive change.

Zaid Jilani was an investigative blogger for Think Progress, Republic Report, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, via the Bold Progressives Blog. His work has also appeared on Al Jazeera America, The Nation, Huffington Post, Salon, BillMoyers.com, and many other outlets. He’s also cautioning against the anointing of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for president on a tumblr account called

He is currently a student at Syracuse University and you can keep up with the causes and issues he’s advocating for at Zaid Jilani on Twitter.

Zaid, thanks for joining me today.

Great to be here.

You went to the University of Georgia. Can you tell me about the types of scholarships that used to be offered there, how that’s changed, and also what you think of the governor’s race between Nathan Deal and Jason Carter?

Yeah, so actually those two things, I would say, are fairly related, because I went to the University of Georgia, I guess it’s been five years since I graduated from there, and when I went, I basically had a full tuition scholarship. So, in the 1990s, then-governor Zell Miller championed and got through the Legislature something called the HOPE Scholarship. And basically what the HOPE Scholarship did was, if you maintained a certain GPA, you basically do not pay tuition in a public university, or you get, I believe, somewhat of a discount at a private university, although it’s still a much better deal to go to public. So during my time, going through the University of Georgia, that standard was basically a B average or a 3.0. I believe they moved it to 3.0 while I was there, but still, that was a fairly decent standard. It kept a lot of people going through college. It kept a lot of people from going to other states for college. There’s a lot of people that decided to go in-state for college just because of that HOPE Scholarship.

The problem is, I believe it’s been going on for three years now, the Legislature under the current governor, Nathan Deal, moved to change that scholarship and restrict it, pretty severely, by moving that GPA cap up, so now, you really can’t get a full scholarship, a full-tuition scholarship, unless you have a very high GPA, I believe it’s closer to 3.7 or 3.75. Otherwise, you get a reduced scholarship, which has created a mountain of debt for people. Thousands of students have left technical colleges, which are sort of the backbone of the working-class college community in Georgia. And we’ve seen especially large numbers of African American students leaving college or losing those scholarships, because they tend to come from backgrounds that are more disadvantaged. And that’s a very, very high GPA threshold to meet. I mean, I didn’t meet that threshold; a lot of people would not have met that threshold. So actually it’s been, along with normal tuition hikes that have been hitting, especially, the public universities, I mean, we’ve had a one-two whammy on students.

I think a big part of the reason that Jason Carter entered the race for the Democrats was because this was basically his first year in the Legislature, I think, when this was happening. He was sort of a freshman lawmaker and he was very strong in opposing these cuts. There’s a lot of Democrats who initially supported them under the idea that if they supported them, the Republicans wouldn’t make them as harsh, and they’d play ball. But he was not one of those Democrats that did that. He was very strong against them to begin with. And I think that really created an impression, statewide, that he was someone who was really strong on education. This, in addition to him opposing the huge cuts that have gone through for K through 12, which have been in the billions of dollars, have really created the backbone of his campaign, which is education.

He’s talking about how the fact that Georgia, which once led the entire country in financing higher education in the 90s, after funding the HOPE Scholarship, is now actually lagging behind the rest of the country. And that happened virtually under two Republican governors, particularly the current one. The last one didn’t cut the scholarship nearly as much.

So yeah, I think this has formed the backbone of his campaign. He’s talked about education more than anything else, and he has a background in education as well. His wife is a public school teacher. I mean, yeah, he’s a Carter, his grandfather was president, but he comes from a very middle-class background. He lives in a fairly quaint, middle-class home, his wife’s a public school teacher, he was a Peace Corp volunteer in South Africa, where actually he was a teacher in South African schools right after the end of apartheid, in the early 90s.

Education is a big part of his life, and a big part of what animates him to run for governor. I think that’s going to be a huge issue in the upcoming race.

Y’know, I saw something on PolitiFact recently that was going over Carter’s record and saying… they were kind of dinging Carter for saying Deal had the worst record on education ever, and I felt that was a little unfair from PolitiFact, because the point is, Carter is trying to restore a lot of the problems that Deal did, just by slashing and burning [the budget] like so many other Republican governors did. And I see a lot of parallels between Carter and Deal and what we’re having to face here with Rick Scott.

Also, another major issue with Georgia was… what do you make of the gun-law expansions that are happening now? People are allowed to carry guns into once unheard-of places, like airports and bars and stores. It’s a much wider scope now for where people can carry guns.

Yeah, so this law was signed into passage, basically at the very end of the Legislative Session. It was sort of on the minds of a lot of the NRA-types in the Legislature. And I believe it is one of the most extreme laws in the country now, on the books. There might be a couple of other states that do something similar. But basically, yeah, now you can carry a gun into a church, into any religious institution, into a bar, into a restaurant.

Now, those institutions can opt out of the law. For example, Target recently said that people shouldn’t be bringing guns into their stores, so you can’t bring them in anymore, but if the restaurant owner or the bar owner has not said anything, then by default you can assume that you can bring your weapon into those places.

And the law actually went into effect two days ago [note: this was recorded on Thursday, July 3rd], on Tuesday, and we’ve already seen a couple of incidents of people bringing their weapons into convenience stores, starting arguments, and having to call the police. I don’t believe anyone’s been hurt or killed as a result of this yet, but we’ve already seen a lot of tensions from this.

And it was a big priority, I think, of the NRA to get this law through, and unfortunately, Jason Carter did support passage of this law. I believe very few Democrats, if any, other than Carter, did support the passage of this law. But there’s been a little bit of polling done recently, and 60% of Georgians actually oppose it, so I think that may have been a bad call on his part if he felt like it was the right thing to do, as far as Georgians are concerned.

And a lot of the campaigning that is happening right now, where people are asking religious institutions and businesses to voluntarily, “Just, please, leave your guns at home,” because they still have their right to do that, as long as they affirmatively opt out. So I think that’s a lot of what’s happening right now.

But, unfortunately, given the Republican supermajority and the governor, it’s difficult for me to see the law actually being repealed any time soon. So I think a lot of it is at the grassroots level, sort of educating people about what this law does and how businesses should just say, “Okay, you don’t need to bring your gun in when you’re drinking at the bar. You can leave it at home or in your car, secured, whatever.”

Mm-hmm. All right, well, what do you think of any other campaigns this year in Georgia? I think you’ve been critical of Michelle Nunn for Senate, right?

Yeah. The thing about Nunn is that her father obviously had a very long and storied career in the Senate, very well known. My sense from her is that she was sort of drafted into the race, when she didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of interest in doing it. To me, it sort of shows.

If you contrast the way Carter is running and Nunn is running, Nunn seems to be giving out a lot of statements about, “Oh, we just want to work together, we should stop fighting, we should start working together, we should start getting things done.” She’s giving a lot of boilerplate comments, but she’s not as skilled in working out the policy details. Her campaign has been very underwhelming, in terms of how she’s putting the Republicans on the defensive. She’s not really criticizing them very much.

I mean, right now she has one candidate, David Perdue, who’s basically the Mitt Romney of Georgia. He’s cousin of the governor. He built his career on laying people off and outsourcing. And the other Republican nominee in the run-off is Jack Kingston, who recently made headlines by saying poor kids don’t have work ethic, and they should be working for their school lunches.

So she has opponents, I think, that are very, very receptive targets. But she has not been aggressive at all. And I think that’s just the nature of her campaign and her personality.

Whereas on the other hand, Jason Carter has been very strong in going after Deal, particularly on education, but also some other issues, where he’s been really weak, and really emblematic of the problems of Georgia.

So, I do think Nunn is hurting herself by campaigning this way, and she has right now about four months to turn that around. She is the nominee. But unfortunately, I think that’s a lot of what you see in these Senate races, is that the national Democrats tend to pour money into a candidate that they feel has a name, who has fundraising capability, but they haven’t really vetted how they will campaign, what their ideas are, the way that they go about it. Because I do think Nunn has been very weak in that, and I think if she doesn’t change her strategy a lot, she will lose in November.

I think Carter has a fairly good shot, 50/50, but Nunn, unfortunately, does not seem to be doing anything to convince people to vote for her, and she doesn’t have the benefit of running against a weak incumbent like Nathan Deal.

Right now, Kingston and Perdue are both running as sort of anti-establishment people. I don’t think that’s necessarily legitimate, but I think that’s the way they can do that, because they haven’t been in that Senate seat, and that sort of privilege, whereas Deal has been overseeing disaster after disaster, whether it was the snowstorm that they couldn’t handle, his ethics scandal that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, mass layoffs in the education system, cuts in tuition and scholarship. So I think that, unfortunately, Kingston seems like he’s in a pretty good place, and it’s hard to see that turning around without Nunn really changing her style in doing things, and really going on the offensive against him.

Okay. Also, in the past year or two you see more and more articles about which states out of the South could become progressive, like usually through the message of economic populism, like a fair wage, issues that really talk to middle-class voters. Do you see that happening in Georgia? I know, Carter, you just said he’s basically 50/50 with Deal right now, but in the next five or ten years, do you see Georgia leaning more towards a progressive message?

Well, it’s really interesting. So if you look at a racial map of the United States, and you look at counties that are majority Latino or majority African American, or significant populations, what you’ll see is that the Southeast, and that includes Florida, have massive minority populations, much larger than the Northeast, much larger than even parts of the Midwest, meaning that you have what are sort of the traditionally really strong Democratic Party voters, really strong progressive activist-coalition people, you have that population there.

The issue so far has been that the turnout has traditionally been very low. I think 2008 was a great peak-year turnout for those voters, but what’s interesting is that the demographics themselves have actually gotten more progressive since 2008. We have more immigrants, both from outside the country and from other parts of our country, especially the Northeast, have been moving in. We have more young people. I think our demographics are becoming more and more progressive, and I think the question on everyone’s minds in the Southeast, and that includes Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, especially those three states, is not if we’re going to see that progressive majority come into power, but when.   

So, some people are saying that will happen this year in Georgia -- and in North Carolina, that sort of backbone will be really strong, probably in the Senate race -- and it’s entirely likely that within four years, we’ll start looking at these states not as solid-red states, or even as conservative-leaning states, but closer to the politics of what we see in a state like Ohio, where the states are sort of veritable swing states. And, within a decade, we could be seeing them as solid, progressive blue states.

That’s almost entirely due to the fact that we’ve seen such a rapid demographic shift in these states, and I think we’ve seen legitimate Republican overreach. I mean, I think on every major issue, the Republicans in the state of Georgia have found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, in recent years, because they reached so far. They reached really far by cutting tuition scholarships. They reached really far by putting in the new gun law. They reached really far by attacking voting rights. They did a number of things where they just have not been savvy to the future voting base in the state of Georgia.

And it’s interesting that you bring up the issue of economic populism. My old boss, Adam Green, at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, always told this story about how he worked in the Senate race in South Dakota. And how he won over pro-life people and Christian conservative people by talking about economic populism.

But I think there’s another current there that’s very strong underneath, that’s also helping change this region, is that we have a younger group of people in the state that are not anti-gay, they’re not anti-immigrant, they’re very pro-racial equality. So, for example, they did polling in Georgia on people under the age of 30, and it was something like 60% of them support marriage equality, right? That’s a tremendous difference from the older people in the state, the generation above them.

I think that generational difference on social issues is starting to hurt the Republicans. Traditionally, it’s helped them. But now I think it’s starting to hurt them. And it’s really interesting: the same anti-gay bill that was moving in Arizona died in Georgia, without even passing, I don’t know if it even passed out of one body. And I think part of the reason was that young people were very upset about it. We were very vocal to lawmakers who were on the defensive about it, almost immediately. I mean, I had very long arguments on Twitter with the bill’s chief sponsor, and I think he was filling the heat. The same day he was arguing with me and a bunch of other people about it, he ended up pulling the bill.

So I do think there’s a collision of things here. There’s the traditional Democratic issues, which are, like, education, the economy, wages, working people, we have that group of people. And then we also have the immigrant population, and then we also just have the fact that young people in the South are much more socially tolerant and socially progressive than their elders are. And that stuff is creating a perfect storm so that, yes, you will see major shifts in the state, within all these states, within the decade, certainly, I can guarantee you that they will either not be Republican states anymore, or if they are Republican states, those Republicans will look a lot more like the Republicans in Massachusetts or New York, than they do the current ones.

Also, that kind of leads into how, from a grassroots angle, from the next-generation angle, that things are naturally evolving, but from the top-down angle, something you’ve often written about is how the Beltway in Washington, or the North, can kind of write off the South entirely, like, “It’s a lost cause, let’s forget about it.” Would you say that’s a fair characterization of what you’ve been, kind of, pushing back against, and also, do you think that perception is changing now, due to the things that you just mentioned?

Yeah, I think that’s always been the perception, in the sense that the majority of the people that work in the media and in the Democratic party politics are from the Northeast, or from California, basically. So I think a lot of their worldview has been focused on... they look at the South every presidential election and they see a solid red block there. And they see occasional crazy statements by people like Congressman Paul Broun, who will just say things, like, he called the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression.” I’ve never heard any Southerner call it “The War of Northern Aggression,” but Paul Broun’s out there saying things like that.

I think the extreme, headline-grabbing stuff from the South creates an impression on these people that’s very different than if you actually spent some time here, and you realize that all these states, everywhere from down to Florida, through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, all these states, have a progressive movement that’s under the wings of what’s happening right now. And that movement is on the cusp of changing things. And I think a lot of the reason that people from other parts of the country are giving us more attention -- for example, Chris Hayes on MSNBC is covering Georgia, probably giving it three or four segments a month, good segments -- is due to the elections. I think they see the fact that Nunn does have a chance, that Carter probably has a 50/50 chance. I think they’re reading that as a signal that the state is changing, right?

And my only comment on that is that people should have taken a more comprehensive look than that. There’s a lot changing in the state other than what’s just happening in the election. A lot of things determine elections other than just what people think, like a lot of it is just that a lot of people just don’t vote in midterm elections. So even if Nunn and Carter lose, it doesn’t mean the state’s not changing.  

For example, if you look at just Atlanta alone, the capital city of Georgia, it is one of the best places to have a minority business today. It is more racially integrated than New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Boston, Syracuse, most of the Northeastern cities. It has a mayor who I have many disagreements with, he’s much more of a sort of business-friendly Democrat than me, but someone who could easily be governor in four years (if Carter loses), Kasim Reed, who would be our first black governor.

So I think there is a lot of changes going on under the scene, and part of that’s also the Moral Monday protests that started in North Carolina but has spread to Georgia, and are likely going to spreading to Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina before too long.

There’s so much going on under the current here, that is sort of visible to us, as people living in this region and from this region, but I think that people outside the region should be looking at really closely and understanding that all of this is going to have some kind of outcome. It may not change the region into a southern version of Vermont overnight. But it is definitely moving us away from what I think the popular perception of the country is, which is we are all a far-rightwing cross between Ayn Rand and [Jerry] Falwell.

Okay, let’s switch gears a bit and talk about Muslim Americans. There was a perception in the way they were treated, because of the attacks on 9/11 and the build-up to the Iraq War, there were more hate crimes. There were more of all these things, but also civil rights issues. One thing I know that you’ve blogged a lot about was the New York Police Department spying scandal. So, what I’m trying to say is, what kind of civil rights issues are Muslim Americans still facing today? And how does it relate to -- what other kind of issues in the Middle East that connect to America, could you mention, that are relevant for the Muslim American community right now?

Well, it’s important for people to view this issue as multi-faceted, because there’s a few different things going on. The Muslim American experience in the U.S. has definitely had its challenges, and I think, in some ways, by some metrics, it is a difficult experience and does face significant issues.  

For example, Gallup does polling asking, “Would you vote for someone if they were a certain race or religion?” Virtually every group gets a lot of support, with the exception of two, which is Muslim Americans and Atheist Americans. This is not a challenge faced by any Christian sector or any Jewish sector, any other really major faith. But it is something Muslims face.

And also, you referenced what happened with New York City. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the NYPD very extensively spied on Muslim Americans simply because they were Muslim Americans, not because of any criminal suspicion. They infiltrated groups, had spies at kebab shops, all sorts of extensive, intrusive stuff. And it’s very likely that if Bloomberg had done this to a local synagogue, or a Christian youth group or something, it would have been such a scandal that maybe even he would have had to resign, right?

I think that stuff is reflective of the fact that we’ve had a lot of challenges and difficulties in the United States. That being said, I also think the Muslim American population is probably the most educated, the most wealthy, and one of the most integrated Muslim populations anywhere outside of actual Muslim countries, like Turkey or Indonesia or Muslim-majority countries.

And I think that, if you’re a Muslim in the United States, your rights are much better protected in many ways than if you were in Switzerland, which banned minarets, in France, which banned the burka, which doesn’t allow women to wear burka. Or some other countries which have criminalized some forms of speech.

Some liberals just cannot believe that we’re more progressive than Europe on some issues. [laughs]

Yeah, it is difficult! And also, what’s happening with Muslim Americans is, sort of, an echo of what’s happened with other Americans as they integrate into the country.

Jewish Americans faced a lot of this. I have friends whose Jewish parents didn’t go to the same schools as Christians. It was viewed as almost segregationist, right? And they don’t like to call themselves white, some older Jewish Americans, because they were mistreated so differently than, let’s say, Catholic or Protestant white Americans, that they don’t even see themselves as part of the same group. But today, Jewish Americans have a very high level of integration, very successful in the country, and they’ve faced a lot less discrimination than they would have, say, 50 or 60 years ago.

Same thing with Irish Americans and Catholics, right? When John Kennedy was elected, a lot of people were saying, “Well, is he going to be loyal to America or to the Pope?” Today, no one would really utter, I mean, very few people would utter that sort of sentiment, or at least they wouldn’t say it in public or out loud or in politics. But that was a common thing to say.

So I think what’s happening with Muslims isn’t too different than what happened with those previous groups. I think the great thing about America is it’s a country that normally overcomes those sorts of things. It’s like, yeah, every group has to have its hazing process of getting accepted, but as it happens, and I think it’s happening quicker and quicker, I think those groups become well-accepted.  

If you go back to the 1990s, I think it was ‘94, they did polling, it was like 48% of Americans approve of miscegenation. Only 48% of Americans even thought interracial marriage was okay. Today I think it’s over 87%, or even higher than that.


So I think that the speed that people are becoming accepted into the United States is increasing much quicker than it used to be. I don’t think Muslims are going to have wait decades and decades like Jews or Irish or Catholics or other people had to, to gain acceptance.

Now there is one wrinkle in all this. The U.S. does seem to be at war in Muslim countries for quite a long time, much longer than it was at war in the second World War, which obviously created a lot of difficulties for Japanese Americans. So I do think that’s an extra element to it, in that there is sort of a tension between Muslim Americans and other Americans, because we tend to be at war in Muslim countries right now.

There is some inkling of an idea that that may not be the case. The administration and probably future administrations are trying to pivot to Asia, is what they call it. We may have more foreign policy issues in East Asia and the Pacific in the future, but right now, anyway, I think the wars that we’re engaged with indefinitely have an extra element that makes it difficult for us to see a lot of the reconciliation between Muslim and other Americans, and everything else we’ve seen with other groups.

But I do think that that also has another side to it, which is the fact that, because we are at war -- you know, people say Americans learn geography because of every new country we go to war with -- well, I think that Americans also probably have taken a lot of pains to learn about Islam, and to learn about Muslim Americans, due to the conflicts that we’re in. And I don’t think all that learning is necessarily negative. I think a lot of people are genuinely curious, and they want to learn about the Muslim American experience, so that’s really what I embrace.

You know, growing up, even in the South, I faced very little discrimination, and even after the 9/11 attacks, I think the majority sentiment we got is that people would come to our family and tell us that, if anyone did anything to mess with us, let them know because they’ll take care of it. People were so neighborly about it.

Because your family’s Pakistani American, right?

Right. And this was something well known among our friends and family. So I don’t see what, something that we call Islamophobia -- you know, when I worked at Think Progress, we authored a whole report about Islamophobia. There’s a whole industry of people trying to stir up fear of Muslims. I don’t think that will be around forever. It really doesn’t feel to me like something that’s existential. It really does feel like the wave of fear and hatred other groups in the United States encountered... it has an extra element that makes it difficult, that the foreign policy of the country seems to constantly put us within war zones with Muslims, which doesn’t help, but even that, I think, will come to pass.

Y’know, my view is that I’m very optimistic about where America’s going with that. I think that, particularly with younger Americans, they just don’t feel the same sort of bigotry and prejudices that their parents do, and even with the younger Muslim Americans don’t feel the ethnic, sectarian, tribalistic sort of feelings that their parents do. I think most Muslim Americans -- I might be wrong about this, but I believe most Muslim Americans are first generation or second generation, right now. So, for example, I never had any problem with Indians or Indian Americans, even though Pakistan and India had three wars and they still have quite a bit of rivalry right now, a national rivalry. But I never had any problem with them, growing up. I would have Indian friends, and we would pretty much be just Americans. And, I think, we would just be Americans.

And I think that’s the main takeaway here: in the United States, at some point, everyone becomes American, no matter what group they’re in. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in other places in the world, and I think that’s something, like you said, that liberals should think hard about. There is a lot of success in integration here. And we see ugly things all the time, but I think our history is sort of a tome to the fact that we do, typically, overcome those things.

Well, for the fight for national security, or whatever you want to call it, I’ve seen you advocate for doing more police work with other countries, as opposed to, y’know, President Obama just decided to extend the war in Afghanistan for two more years.
Also, he escalated the drone program. Florida Congressman Alan Grayson held that hearing with the family victims of a drone strike. When you see how Republican ideas -- I suppose I could call them Republican ideas -- that got turned into bipartisan ideas: war, targeted assassinations, basically (the drone killings)... what do you think? Does that make the way to roll all this back even more difficult, now that it seems like both parties are on board?

With respect to that, I don’t think that this is necessarily unique to Muslim Americans. I think American foreign policy has been like that for a long time, with respect to a lot of countries and places. But I do think that that is an extra angle to this, in that, it’s very difficult to imagine, for example, that Guantanamo Bay would still be open, if the people there looked like Timothy McVeigh. Because people don’t start fights about, should we strip this class of terrorists of rights, but not this one.

I’ll tell you a story: I was working on my capstone project up in central New York, and I went to the New York State Senate, and they were debating terror trials in New York City, and these good liberal New Yorkers or whatever were basically arguing that New York City could not defend itself against having a terror trial, so they cut off funding to anyone in New York City that wanted to hold one. Which, to me, was just amazing, because this country has been trying terrorists since the beginning of time, in civilian courts, and they try rapists and murderers and serial killers and all sorts of dangerous people. That’s what the courts in place are for.

So, to me, it would be difficult to imagine all this going down if the terrorists were white Christian, which a lot of terrorists are, actually. Twice as many terror attacks have come from far-right Americans as Muslim Americans, since 9/11. And that debate never really happens, when it comes to non-Muslim terrorist suspects. So I do think the fact there is still a fair amount of fear, paranoia, and distrust around Muslims is impacting national security policy.

That being said, this didn’t start with Muslim Americans. The United States has typically been very militaristic since World War II, because that’s what it has in its toolbox. It has tons of hammers; every problem looks like a nail. It has a big military. It has a big intelligence service. It has a lot of allies that are also militarily powerful. And I think reversing that takes a conscious effort on behalf of people, to reject that sort of longer attitude and to also reject the Islamophobia that I think give Muslims a special target on their back, with respect to how you deal with challenges, dealing with them.   

If we do see more of a reset towards that, it would have to be a big priority of the next president, because I think that President Obama did resign himself to behaving in the same way as his predecessor in a number of ways.

I was at a fundraising party one time, and a colleague of mine talked to Neal Katyal, who was, I have to remember exactly what his role was, but he was working in the Department of Justice. [ed note: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neal_Katyal ] But he asked him, “Why are you guys continuing all this Bush policy?” And he said something like, “Well, it’s different when you’re in power, because when you’re out of power you can be critical of that. When you’re in power, you feel like you have to use all that.”

So I think a lot of people call this a deep state. There’s a way that government does things, that when you go into government, you just continue those things. It takes a lot of personal inertia to reject doing that, and I think Obama, his political philosophy, he’s very consensus-driven. I don’t think anything in his background really makes him a radical, like Fox News, whatever talks about him. I think he’s a go-along, get-along guy, for the most part. And I would hope that the next president who comes along does not have that attitude, because I think that personal attitude actually is very, very important in terms of how you confront things, like the fact that the United States is very militaristic, pretty much for decades and decades.

I think Jason Carter’s grandfather, Jimmy Carter, was the last president who very aggressively confronted that, and he wasn’t perfect either, but he at least had the mentality that America should actively shirk war, and we actually have not had a president since Jimmy Carter who has not gone to war at least once, which should tell you something about the way we’ve been going about this policy.

I do think we probably will not see a major shift on this under Obama; I think the next major move that he makes on foreign policy that may be positive is if he resolves something with Iran, if he has some good resolution with these talks. That may actually pave the path for the next president to sort of take us off this train, which I think is the best we can hope for. Which actually would be pretty good, because we’ve had very bad relationships with Iran, going back to 1979. So if he can get us somewhere to closer, normal relations with them, that would be good, as well.  


How does the media portray the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and what is the reality?

So I think a lot of the problem with how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is portrayed is, and I never really looked at it through this lense until very recently, to be quite honest, it took a lot of personal experience with this to really understand this, is that I think of lot of how it’s portrayed is just based on cultural norms and cultural attitudes.

For example, I think for people in the American news media, Israelis look like us, they talk a bit like us, they’re very relatable, in terms of the struggles they’re going through. A lot of Americans, especially after 9/11, imagine themselves as facing the same things as the Israelis. They have very random, horrific acts of terrorism, things like that. But I think what’s lost in the midst of that is the narrative of what has happened with Palestinians, and their dispossession. And if you go back a couple of decades, even Mitch McConnell, who’s the Senate Republican Leader, was signing letters critical of Israel, saying “You need to give up land for peace,” so on and so forth.

But I think, flashforward, post-9/11, especially with the rise of the Christian right, which is actually probably the biggest base of support for Israeli policy in the U.S. now, is the Christian right -- didn’t used to be that way, but that is I think the modern lobby -- but I think if you look at it now, a lot of it just is cultural bias. There is a big feeling that the Israelis are very similar to Americans in terms of a lot of their outlook and their lifestyles, and the Palestinians are just, y’know, backwards, savage, they’re just very religious, Islamic. And that does inform a lot of the reporting. It’s not so much that someone goes on CNN and they say something completely vulgar, like Palestinians are savages, they don’t say anything like that. But I think in the back of their mind, that’s what they’re thinking.

And that’s why, whenever there’s a flare-up, like there is right now -- there’s a huge flare-up right now -- you’ll likely see a long string of either Israelis on television or Americans who are very sympathetic to Israelis, explaining their narrative and their point of view, but you’ll very rarely see Arabs. You’ll almost never see actual Palestinians. And you’ll just continue to have a reinforcement of the Israeli narrative.

This way that it’s been presented has sort of destroyed our politics about this, in that I think it’s denying people the information that would make the situation really outrageous. For example, a lot of people have drawn the analogy with South Africa, including John Kerry, who recently drew the analogy in private, it wasn’t supposed to leaked, that he thinks Israel will be heading down the road to South Africa, if it doesn’t resolve things soon.

I wasn’t even alive during most of the South Africa movement, but reading back on that, I think a lot of what informed the way Americans and the rest of the West thought about that conflict was the fact that we had just had a civil rights movement in the United States. And I think the media was making a concrete and concerted effort to look at the conflict from the point of view of black South Africans who were being denied rights. And, there were a lot of black Americans who felt solidarity with those black South Africans; they tended to be the ones leading the anti-apartheid fight.

And I think the fact that Muslim Americans and Arab Americans haven’t quite reached that level where we have really good media and political penetration makes it difficult for us to be like, those people who are explaining what’s happening to Palestinians, explaining that their homeland is basically being destroyed by settlements. Y’know, it’s more or less land theft. And I think that’s what makes it difficult for us to have the same sort of South African-style moment where the world says, “No, you guys have to treat the Palestinians differently,” “Yes, you deserve safety from terrorism, but they also deserve basic human rights,” or statehood, or voting rights, or something equivalent.

And yeah, I really think that’s been a big problem in the United States, but I’m also hopeful that it’s changing. And I think the biggest thing that’s changing, honestly, is the internet. There aren’t just a few media outlets anymore. There aren’t just a few different ways to get your information or to register political protest. I think now it’s very easy for us to get the Palestinian narrative out there through alternative means. We haven’t… I don’t think there are more than two TV hosts, period, that are sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative. Chris Hayes on MSNBC is probably one of the best, but even he doesn’t cover the issue that much. But I do think the democratization of information is what’s going to break this issue, and eventually break this issue in Washington.

Because right now, in Washington, it’s basically viewed as a taboo to even say anything critical of Israelis, ever. You’re really just not supposed to do it. The primary reason for the Democrats is they feel like it would lose them donors. They think it’s a very important issue for donors. I think that’s exaggerated, but that’s their perception. And the Republicans have the Christian right coalition, which I think is probably more powerful in their party than it ever has been, but it’s losing power overall in the country. And I think it will be same sort of thing with the “pro-Israel” donors in the Democratic Party. They will also lose power over time, simply because the younger generation, particularly Jewish Americans, is not lock-step on this issue. There’s a lot of dissent there. And I think also, this issue, we will see some real dissent over time. I don’t think it can hold. It’s just an impossible situation to hold forever, as John Kerry and Obama have said.

I do think we will see progress eventually, but it starts with, I think, people with influence, whether they’re in the media or the political world, of starting to step up and say something dissenting from the sort of taboos that have been constricted on the issue.

Yes, and on the topic of media outlets being able to show the Palestinian point of view, you recommended on your Twitter feed FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS, that was on Netflix. I watched that, it provides a point of view that, like you say, you do not get in American media, hardly ever. It was very good.


Okay. Final question is, you started a new Tumblr called Inconvenient Truths About Hillary. The idea about this Tumblr is that, so often, whether it’s the presidential election, or governor, whatever the race may be, the party kind of pushes, or the media kind of pushes an anointed one, a phrase you have used and other people have used. Tell us why you started the Tumblr and why Hillary Clinton should be reevaluated.

I think there’s definitely a feeling, you’ll see this from media folks, you’ll see it from political folks especially, that Hillary Clinton already is the Democratic nominee, which is kind of interesting, because we have about two years until the nominating convention, right? And my perception is that Hillary Clinton has a lot of flaws, from a progressive point of view, and that progressives form much of the backbone of the Democratic primary process, as well as independents who will either vote in the Democratic primary or the Republican primary. So I started the Tumblr to point out a lot of Hillary Clinton’s flaws, both ideological and political, to show people that, actually, having a competitive race here, and having more candidates, would be beneficial. It would allow us to fight on a lot of these issues where I think Clinton won’t fight, it would allow people to have a lot of choices which they otherwise wouldn’t have, and I think it would be a real disaster if there wasn’t a competitive race on the Democratic Party side.

Certainly, in Georgia, with Nunn, I think we’ve kind of seen this. The Republican turnout in the primary was huge in Georgia, and most of those people are going to vote in the general as well. Whereas, in the Democratic primary, it was very, very little.

If we had a competitive race, where Democrats were arguing with each other, politely but firmly, about these issues, it would be engaging a lot of people, and people would feel like they would have a real role in the process.

If Hillary Clinton is just anointed, then I feel a lot of progressives will feel left out, a lot of independents who are quite skeptical of dynastic politicians, things like that, those people will feel left out, they might not participate anymore, and you won’t have the sort of robust debate you need to have for high turnout in 2016, and, y’know, a stronger candidate.

Going back to 2008, almost no one would argue that having a strong robust race on the Democratic side hurt the Democrats in any way. On the contrary, it probably made everybody feel like they got their point across, it had a lot of really good debates about a lot of issues, and I think the country and the party were stronger for it.

And I think the same arguments holds now, particularly because I think the Republicans are going to be very weak. They really don’t have any strong candidate on their side, so I think now’s a great time for the Democrats to have a debate about the future of their party, and that’s why I’ve been blogging on that Tumblr, just to show people that Hillary Clinton has a lot of flaws and a lot of liabilities, and that someone should step up to challenge her.

And my prediction, I can say it now, I think within a year, we will stop viewing her as inevitable. I think there will be a strong challenger in the race. I couldn’t tell you with 100% certainty who it would be, but I’m fairly certain it will happen. There is that real undercurrent there.

You like Brian Schweitzer and Bernie Sanders, right? I mean, I know there’s debate about whether both of them will enter the race, but they could both be good challengers, don’t you think, from a progressive point of view?

Yeah. I definitely think they both have qualities that would make them substantial challengers to Hillary. I don’t know if either one of them will definitely enter the race, but I’m fairly certain that they’re both thinking strongly about it. There’s probably other people. Some people have floated Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts. Other people have said the governor of Maryland will run, [Martin] O’Malley.   

There have been some other names that have been put out there, but I do think Sanders and Schweitzer are a little bit different, in that they’re both sort of anti-establishment, they’d both be running on primarily ideological grounds. I think other people like O’Malley and Patrick would be running more towards, y’know, getting a VP slot or getting a cabinet position, which I personally view as being less useful to the process. I prefer if someone ran to try to shift the debate a little bit and to change people’s positions, which I think people like Sanders and Schweitzer are much more likely to do.

Okay. Well thanks so much, Zaid Jilani, for joining me today, and thanks for all the work you do to promote progressive causes.   

Thank you.

All right, thanks.                                                       

Closing Segment:

There are many parallels to be drawn from Zaid’s descriptions of Georgia politics and national politics to what’s happening here in Florida, whether it’s the education funding battles with a Republican supermajority in the Legislature, how even progressive champions like Alan Grayson won’t actually criticize Israel, or candidates like Charlie Crist that are anointed by the media and members of the Democratic Party.

I also appreciate his optimistic view of a progressive transformation of the South and I hope he’s right. It depends on the actions of the progressive movements in each of those states and connecting good policy to the right candidates and getting out the vote.

You can keep up Zaid Jilani’s writing via his prolific Twitter account at Zaid Jilani https://twitter.com/ZaidJilani , and if you follow the links at the end of the transcript for this episode at FloridaProgressives.Com, you’ll see links for his columns, articles, and blogs.

And don’t forget to check out his new Tumblr at Inconvenient Truths About Hillary.

This music is by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com . It is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/   

FloridaProgressives.Com is the home to this podcast. If you want to give feedback, send me an email at michael.c.eidson@gmail.com , find me on Twitter at mikeeidson, or on Facebook by searching for The FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast. Thanks for listening.

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