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Photographs by Stephen Laufer

When Do We Want It? Meow!: John Robbins at home in Soquel

Blowin' in the Wind

That seems to be what the peace movement is doing these days. But at a moment in time defined by the Patriot Act, crusades against antiwar dissenters and a firmly entrenched administration that may soon be looking for another war, there don't seem to be a lot of answers there. (Was Dylan pulling our leg or what?) Now, however, a trio of progressive thinkers headlining this week's 'Imagine America' event in Santa Cruz say they may be able to loan us a clue.

By Sarah Phelan

Above the door of John Robbins' solar-paneled farmhouse in Soquel there hangs a carved wooden sign. "May all be fed. May all be healed. May all be loved," it reads--three requests that seem particularly unlikely to be filled, given the tax-cutting, bomb-dropping, dissent-gagging policies of the Bush regime.

Robbins describes such policies as "the reptilian brain in action," but while he sympathizes that it's hard to be optimistic about creating a sustainable, just, compassionate and prosperous world right now, he warns, "We don't have the luxury of being cynical, beyond seeing through the facade to the deeper connections."

His comment about cynicism hits home, since it catches me wondering whether the man who walked away from the Baskin-Robbins family business to pursue what he calls "the deeper American dream" has the fixings for a BR Blast--one of those milkshakes with chopped up candy mixed up in it--stashed in his kitchen.

Probably not, given that Robbins' personal version of the deeper American dream includes authoring the bestselling Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution and advocating a revolution in thought that includes weaning Americans from "I'm free to consume as much oil and ice cream as I want" kind of attitudes.

To help spark this thought revolution, Robbins will be participating in "Imagine America," a May 25 event that's billed as "a public dialogue with three amazing visionary leaders." The others being spiritual luminary and bestselling author Marianne Williamson (see sidebar) and Democratic presidential nominee Dennis Kucinich, the congressmember from Ohio, who wants to create a Department of Peace, overturn the Patriot Act and get America out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization.

Political insiders say that Kucinich doesn't have a prayer of winning the nomination in Boston this July but that he could change the direction of the other presidential candidates' conversations. But while there will be political events in town while Kucinich is here--a $500/plate private dinner before the event, and a $50/ticket party/fundraiser at the Vets Hall afterward--Robbins stresses that "Imagine America" is not a political event.

"It's about creating a vision for a positive future, whereas Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and company dream of creating at gunpoint an imperial America, freed from all international laws and treaties," says Robbins. "Their unilateralism is so profound, they don't recognize the world community, but one does exist."

And while Robbins admits that the world community may not agree on all things, he believes it can move towards building the foundation of a sustainable global community, where social and economic justice are priorities.

"But instead of America using its huge power, influence and wealth to help create such a community, it's seeking this so-called homeland security, which is really the isolation and insulation of the wealthy. If Sept. 11 teaches us anything, it's that that is the insane way," says Robbins.

Chill Factor

Robbins also worries about the impact that recent attacks on antiwar celebrities--including Michael Moore, the Dixie Chicks, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, not to mention Marianne Williamson--have had.

"Marianne is a beloved speaker," says John Robbins, "especially among Unity churches. She was scheduled to speak at one in Houston, Texas. The contract was signed and it was a guaranteed sell-out, but she got canceled shortly after the war on Iraq started. The given reason? They weren't sufficiently confident she'd be supportive of the government."

Robbins worries that beyond the event itself, what was also silenced was each of those people who heard about it and thought, "If this can happen to Marianne Williamson, then what about me?"

"There's a great quenching of dissent. Those who criticize are called unpatriotic, whereas in reality it's our patriotic duty to challenge what we don't see as wise. But with the militarization of everything, incipient fascism is sweeping across the nation, and we have set in motion events which will have reactions. It's a tragedy that we've done that."

It is easy for some to say that because the war is over and the U.S. declared victory, the point of activism around it is moot. "So what did we win and what should winning mean?" asks Robbins. "These are the kinds of questions to ask if we want to reclaim our voices. And there's nothing more important than doing that right now."

Robbins, Williamson and Kucinich have already presented events similar to "Imagine America" in Kentucky--once in Louisville and once in Lexington, places which Robbins describes as economically depressed areas of southern Middle America, not the kind of places you'd expect to be on the leading edge of political consciousness.

"But the response there was terrific," he says. "This is not about isolating ourselves, being a cult, being separate, or living with indifference to the greater pain. The wisdom of spirituality is to find a way the heart can beat at one with the world, enter discussions with heart and souls intact to find a way through this. And the desire, the instinct to do that, is very strong."

As for the argument that a sustainable, just, compassionate world will cost Americans and their standard of living more than we're willing to pay, Robbins ain't buying none of that.

"You get a higher quality of life if you're breathing cleaner air and using hybrid fuel cells, whose emissions are akin to drinking water quality," he says. "We become inured to all the pollutants disturbing our climate and causing asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, etc. Also, pollutants greatly compromise our quality of life. Any toxicity pollutes our bodies and our souls, whereas diversity is strength, but right now, even that is being suppressed. But we're not going to achieve a higher quality of life by feeding our oil addiction, driving more SUVs and Hummers. Real quality of life involves energy independence, which is so critical. We're producing more carbon dioxide now than the planet has in the past 20 million years."

Shut Out But Not Shut Up

Robbins personally experienced the chill of patriotism after he emailed a parody of the "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" song which read, "If you wanna be a hero, and your IQ's really zero, bomb Iraq." It quickly became an Internet sensation and even got printed on the front page of London's left-leaning Daily Mirror, triggering 4,000 emails, most of which were positive, but which also included some death threats.

"I'm someone who speaks my mind, but even I felt this shutting down in my chest and belly, felt the gripping fear that said, 'Don't talk, don't say what you think, don't express what you feel.' That death grip is affecting us all, whether we're Susan Sarandon or Joe Bloggs, but it's really important that we not succumb. It may feel risky and frightening right now, but what are we alive for?"

The rhetoric against dissent, Robbins says, is approaching a fever pitch.

"Right now, environmentalists are being called ecoterrorists, and outspoken celebrities are being called traitors as if they are the equivalent of the suicide bombers that wanted to cause mass destruction," he says. "In reality, we're talking about people who are loyal to and want to tend to and administer the principles of this country."

Robbins believes that many Americans who depend on mainstream media--Fox, CNN, talk radio or even PBS sometimes--for their sense of what's going on are in despair.

"How could you not despair? But that's just a slice of what's happening. There's way more the media is not reporting, because that part is not part of the corporate agenda. The only reason people were supporting this war at all was the belief that Iraq lay behind Sept. 11, and that they had weapons of mass destruction and would use them imminently to blow us up, that if we didn't act now, we'd be committing suicide."

The truth, Robbins says, turned out to be far more complex.

"Saddam was a sadistic tyrant, no question. A brutal despot who seized control, and so getting rid of him was probably a good idea, but at what cost? To bring peace to the world? Or have we only guaranteed that Osama bin Laden will never again have to hang up the Help Wanted Sign?" Robbins says. "If we are serious about stopping terrorism, then our goal must be to reduce the level of fear, injustice and poverty in the world. The true weapon of mass destruction is poverty, and if we set about ridding the world of that, the world would support us and the support for the bin Ladens would evaporate."

Gagged with the Flag

One of the first things Robbins says he'd like to see is a rethinking of what patriotism and "being American" really means.

"Being American, according to the Bush administration, means doing what you're told, which is antithetical to democracy, and more like fascism. People who object are being gagged with the flag," says Robbins, who is, incidentally, strongly opposed to flag burning.

"It's symbolic of destroying the country. I've never liked it. I'm offended and insulted by it," he says of the controversial tactic. "And we aren't living up to the true American Dream. Instead, we've become imperial, aggressive, ignorant of people, abroad and at home, who are struggling, but there is great beauty in the original views of the founding mothers and fathers, and it's still there, underneath. I'm not proud of this government, but I don't want to burn the flag. Instead, I want people to stop stuffing it into other people's mouths and using as a gag. This is the country of Martin Luther King. There are a lot of great people here."

Speaking of King, Robbins notes that MLK always held that it's OK to hate the sin, the behavior, the policy, the oppression--but not the sinner.

"So rather than wasting our time on impeaching Bush, I'd rather celebrate the small heroes, many of them anonymous, who make everyday choices to move the world in a better direction and put our energy into electing someone who will take us in a humane, compassionate, sustainable direction. I understand the feeling of venting, but if we are acting on behalf of a higher vision, we should not indulge in hate. You can think your focus is to exterminate evildoers, but then you become as fundamentalist as those you seek to oppose. The only revolution really worth it is sealed in love. And I don't mean something gooey, sentimental and New Agey, but a fundamental respect for life and a willingness to find something of value in everything, to alleviate suffering and create a thriving and just way of life for people. We have to go forward."

As for the inclination of some to write off progress as impossible, Robbins feels that cynicism is a weakness particular to the left.

"The right is organized, and has no qualms about espousing moral values--that aren't mine, but at least they have some. Whereas the left has shunned that, and has been so cynical and disorganized that it hasn't been as effective."

Vegan Ventriloquist Vanguard

Which helps explain why Robbins is such a fan of Dennis Kucinich, whom he describes as "a prophet, an actual public servant, the only congressmember who has never missed a congressional vote--unlike Gephardt, who's missed 70 percent, or Kerry, who's missed 68 percent. But like any prophet, he's gonna get vilified in his time."

That vilification began early in Kucinich's political career, starting when he was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio in 1977 and opponents dubbed him "Dennis the Menace." Recently, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter called the 5-foot-5-inch vegan a "strange-looking little man." A Time magazine columnist on CBS's Face the Nation dismissed him as the leader of a "brigade of buffoons." New Republic designated him as a "fringe candidate." And after the first of the Democratic presidential nominee debates, New York Times columnist William Safire said he had been "zapped as leading Cleveland into bankruptcy."

Predictably, the mainstream media mostly have failed to mention what really happened in Cleveland 25 years ago, which was that Kucinich stood up the Enron of the time and fulfilled his election promise not to sell the city's municipal electric system--a position that cost him his career back in the day. But he relaunched it in the 1990s, with the symbol of his successful bid for office being--you guessed it--a light bulb.

"The reality is that Dennis saved the people of Cleveland millions, but the banks foreclosed," says Robbins. "It was clearly a tactic to manipulate him--they thought he'd cave in. He was told, 'If you sell, you'll be governor of Ohio in four years. If you don't, you'll be the laughing stock.' They did everything they could to force him. To me, Dennis is a profile in courage, that he didn't do that. Imagine what you could get from him as president. He won't be bought out."

Which, says Robbins, makes him about as different as you can get from the oil men in the White House giving massive tax cuts to the rich, while cutting essential services.

"It's symbolic that while Bush was cutting taxes on multimillionaires, parents in Spokane, Wash. were selling their blood so their children could get an education," says Robbins. "To me the level of greed is obscene."

Reminded that during the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, Sen. Joe Liebermann said, "No Democrat will be elected in 2004 who is not strong on defense," Robbins replies by questioning the definition of strength.

"If we equate strength with military spending, we see that Americans, who account for 5 percent of the world population, spend as much as the rest of the world on defense. So, it wasn't a lack of strength that caused Sept. 11 to happen, but a policy that ignores the needs of everyone but a selfish elite," he says. "There is no such thing as national security in a world where there is so little hope. This is what we call national security. We have to take seriously the brutality of the world in a way that protects us. There are other types of power--befriending, diplomacy, cooperation, but the only strength reptiles know is the ability to dominate. In reality, the rest of the world resents being dominated and will get us back."

Which is why Robbins is backing dark horse Kucinich, whose political star resurfaced when he authored a bill--two months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--to create a Department of Peace. The four-term congressmember from Ohio also led the failed battle to halt congressional authorization for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, and is currently the co-chair of the Democratic Progressive Caucus, along with Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee.

Running on an antiwar platform that includes universal health care and strengthened environmental protections, Kucinich is calling himself a Green Democrat, though some are questioning what they see as a calculated shift of position on abortion the minute he entered the presidential contest.

A Catholic, Kucinich once held an anti-abortion position, but today claims to stand firm on his pro-choice position, saying he changed his position because of criticism from female constituents and his concern for civil liberties, and that while he dislikes abortion, he never wanted to criminalize it, and if elected would only appoint judges who support Roe vs. Wade.

For now, his chances of being elected the next president of the United States of America do not look good by any stretch of the imagination. So far, he's only raised $173,000, which is less than any of the other nine candidates except Carol Moseley Braun, and it pales compared to the $7.4 million raised by Sen. John Edwards. And while he's piqued the interest of the antiwar crowd, better-financed candidates like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who's raised $1.7 million so far, are also running on a peace platform.

But besides being the only candidate in the running to have lived in hotels, slum houses and cars as a child, Kucinich has one unique factor going for him that could prove indispensable if he did win the nomination: He's a ventriloquist, which means if Bush were to refuse to debate him early on, he could dress his dummy up as Dubya and sit him on his knee.

Imagine America will be presented Sunday, May 25, 7pm, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 305 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets: $10/$20/$30, available by calling 831.420.5260 or 408.998.8497 or going online at www.ImagineAmerica.net.

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From the May 21-28, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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