SH: So, Okla, you recently wrote Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide, and are now working on a similar short book for Squint Books on Pope Francis. In the Bernie book, you manage to work in cool departures into sci-fi and the appeal of dystopian literature. Are you planning stuff like that with the Pope book? And is the Pope Francis book more difficult because he’s such a global figure?
OE: I have a chapter that is a theoretical interlude, as I did in the Bernie book, but this one appropriates certain aspects of Hegelian philosophy to describe a version of God that is different than the standard one. One of my main goals as a writer is to make really difficult philosophy accessible to a generally educated reader, and I do my best to take Hegel, who is famously dense and confusing, and make him comprehensible on the subject of the nature of God. I depart a bit from Hegel’s views, but I think I follow them to their logical conclusion despite disagreeing with his own final conclusions on the subject.
There is another connection between the Bernie book and the Pope Francis book—namely, I place both figures into the larger global and historical context out of which they emerged and in which they are active forces. I think this is, broadly speaking, a loosely defined reaction to neoconservative and neoliberal policies that have jeopardized the environment, financial stability, human rights, and world peace. I get into greater detail in the book of course, but that’s the broad stage on which I place Pope Francis.
SH: That sounds awesome. Or, I mean, terribly necessary and therefore awesome. I tried to do the same thing with The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton and also to make something like neoliberalism accessible as a concept. As an aside—do you think that neoliberalism itself is enough of a framework for activists for understanding what is going on with the world and how to oppose those structures? I think the idea of neoliberalism is so pervasive and vague and global (and such a confluence of capital and nation-state) that it’s difficult to turn it around into action targets. One of the immediate goals suggested by the analysis of neoliberalism is greater scrutiny on international trade and debt agreements. (On that note, I highly recommend Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, about the Seattle protests against the WTO in 1999). Hillary has played both sides of the fence but is probably at heart in favor of these agreements and the general opening of markets. But ultimately, stopping these agreements is a reactive battle. What do you see as a way for movements to gain momentum against neoliberalism?
OE: I think you’re right to see fighting trade agreements after the fact as a reactionary battle we are destined to lose. We need to somehow preemptively strike in such a way as to prevent further trade agreements like the ones that have decimated the American middle class while ruining the environment and workers’ rights in third-world countries. The only real way to do this is elect politicians who aren’t beholden the corporate class over the majority of Americans and human rights around the world. The question of course is: how do we do that?
Speaking of politicians who support every trade deal that’s ever come across their desks (to use her own words), I would like to hear more about your Clinton book. I know you have both positive and negative thoughts about her as a candidate and public figure. Could you outline the area of greatest ambivalence for you?
SH: Yes, definitely! First, she came of age within the New Democrat mindset and is married to its key architect. So the major question for me is the extent to which she sees compromise with right-wing agendas (both domestic and international) as a kind of unavoidable expediency. In the past she has said that she believes that the market and the American model need to be spread around the world, which is as neocolonial as it gets. As I talk about in the book, international trade deals (often made in secret) are one area I think she is unreliable on. Also, I wish she had a clearly reform-minded agenda on a key domestic point (like Sanders has with education). She has both a good track record for child advocacy AND a history of supporting neo-liberal domestic programs (like stricter work requirements for welfare recipients and standardized testing in schools. Other major concerns include the big unknown of her foreign policy, especially her desire to confront ISIL, with all of the unknown effects that might bring. And I go into a huge list of other reservations in the book.
Despite my reservations, however, I’m not worried about having her as president. In reference to your point about change, I think local politicians and campaigns do important work, but I also see how many social movements throughout history have made gains by pressing from the outside. An electoral campaign is great and can galvanize people who hadn’t previously considered themselves active, which might lead them into a more sustained social movement. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is immune to social pressure. In fact, I think her record is quite the opposite; she’s flexible and social movements have an opportunity with her. If she’s the president, her power would be as limited as Obama’s has been, and as any president’s would be.
My next question for you—with your view of both the domestic fire behind Bernie Sanders and the internal firebrand of Pope Francis—is whether this overlap represents some kind of a new era or new opportunity for change? (Impossible question, but I want to see what you think.)
OE: As I argue in my Bernie book, there is a general planet-wide unrest with neoliberal policies, whether we’re talking about austerity programs in Greece or neocolonial corporate activities in Latin America or domestic policies here in the United States like the ones you mentioned. And for whatever reason, for such general unrest to form into effective movements, humans tend to need leaders to coalesce around. Not always, but as a rule. Right now, figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, Pope Francis, Evo Morales, Justin Trudeau, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are spearheading what I see as a loosely connected global progressive movement. And, yes, I definitely see this as a huge opportunity for change here and abroad. We just need to keep the momentum going on all fronts all at once and not let up. My fear is that a Bernie Sanders loss in the primaries could make many of his followers crestfallen to the point of just giving up on effecting political change. It’s the job of people like you and me to make sure that doesn’t happen. So, no pressure or anything…
Since you brought up hope and/or potential for progressive change, what do you think a Clinton presidency can offer us in those regards, and what do you think it will offer in the opposite direction?
SH: The scenario of a Clinton presidency is interesting as a counterpoint to the Obama years. In 2008, I think many progressives and liberals saw his election as a win and were therefore slightly less motivated to get out and organize. This time around, I think the extremism in Trump’s platform combined with the full-on yardsale of the Democratic primaries means that people are a lot more educated about the ways in which we might ask for—and demand—more from our leaders and why it is particularly urgent to do so now, along with knowing a lot about key domestic and international issues. I hope skillful organizers connected to the Sanders infrastructure will channel the energy into a movement.
The hard thing is that an election has such a clear short-term endpoint, whereas so many social justice causes do not, so these skillful organizers will hopefully be able to frame issues in terms of intermediate steps and winnable goals without diluting the raw and ferocious passion for change (I guess that’s going to be my new band name, RAFP4C). Those organizers will also have to share theories with their supporters about how change happens beyond as well as within electoral politics.
On the issue of a Clinton presidency: I agree that there’s a danger of Bernie supporters falling into cynicism. Folks will also naturally be watching Clinton, ready to say “I told you so,” and this vigilance is necessary for sanity and for holding the administration accountable. On the other hand, that focus doesn’t necessarily build movements. I think it is up to Bernie supporters like us to turn with as much joy and hope toward the next future, to say that another world is possible, that electing a socialist president was a massively wild goal and that in coming close, we have shown ourselves that other massively wild things are possible. Now we need to go get them.
This is kind of weird question, but since you’re both in touch with Bernie supporters and are doing work on Pope Francis, is there an overlap? Do you feel like that voice coming from the Vatican, which has been pretty conservative since Vatican II, will add some oomph to progressive movements from a different direction of our population? Does the Pope have cred?
OE: All I have is anecdotal evidence to support the following answer, but I have tons of anecdotal evidence, so it feels like it is valid on some level. Nearly all of the people I see sharing Sanders memes on social media also share Pope Francis memes on social media. And what’s really interesting is how broad this pope’s appeal is. Many non-Catholics love him, and even atheist social media pages quote him. I think he is in a unique position to bring together different religious and political groups and move them in a more progressive direction. Basically, if we could get the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, and Elizabeth Warren to do a world speaking tour, my life would be complete. (I’m only half-joking there.)
So, my final question for you: How do you see us moving forward, mixing moderate and progressive elements to form a sustainable and equitable future? And where does writing fit into all of this (a question I ask myself constantly without ever quite being able to concoct an answer I’m willing to settle on)?
SH: I am a mix of optimism and dread. Dread is my natural state, but I’m optimistic because the current debates have brought so many former “unquestionables” up for debate, from gender and sexuality to capitalism—even within moderate circles. With my public political writing, I sometimes set out to prove or argue a certain point, but lately I’m finding myself wanting to integrate more of the questioning and multivocal impulse of the essay into political topics, trying to take a stand while undercutting the traditional modes of argumentation. I tried to see Hillary Clinton from multiple angles in the book. I aim to provide some sort of a bridge between what occurs in political movements and outside of them. When I was very active in the labor movement, I felt like my creative writing was a guilty pleasure I couldn’t let go of but couldn’t talk about. These days especially with the range of outlets available, I’m getting more comfortable with allowing my political beliefs to infuse into my creative writing and vice versa. How about you on that same question?
OE: I recently wrote an essay titled “The New Era of Engaged Literature” in which I argue that American writers are finally getting serious about politics in a way we haven’t very often in the past. The majority of this focus is on identity politics here, which is important, but I hope more people will get into the nitty-gritty economics and law of politics as well. I think writers have massive powers of persuasion and education, which is why dictators always kill us first. If we can continue to write aesthetically interesting work that also has philosophical and/or political elements, I am optimistic that we can change the cultural discourse for the better in a lot of ways. And I think we need to take a multi-pronged approach here in terms of issues and literary genres to allow for the widest reach and maximum effect.
It’s been great chatting with you about these topics, by the way. We should do it again sometime.
SH: Definitely. On the interest of engaged literature, I am sure that the coming months are going to provide so many opportunities for it!
Okla Elliott is an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a certificate in legal studies from Purdue University. His work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming). More at www.oklaelliott.net.
Sonya Huber is the author of three books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008) and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), and the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys: Essays on Pain and Imagination (forthcoming in 2017). Her other books include The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton (2016) and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, and other journals. She teaches at Fairfield University and directs Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program. More at www.sonyahuber.com.