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Let’s Turn This Country Around: An Interview with John W. Whitehead

By Nisha N. Mohammed
October 7, 2008

After reading John W. Whitehead’s new book, The Change Manifesto: Join the Block by Block Movement to Remake America (Sourcebooks, 2008), Nat Hentoff was moved to remark that “John Whitehead is the Tom Paine of our time.” Indeed, in his 30-plus years as a constitutional attorney and author, Whitehead has gained a reputation for being a legal, political and cultural watchdog—sounding the call for integrity, accountability and an adherence to the democratic principles on which this country was founded.

Whitehead’s motto, which he proclaims in media interviews, newspaper commentaries—even on bumper stickers—is “Speak truth to power,” and he has been doing that very thing since long before he started The Rutherford Institute in 1982. Based in Charlottesville, Va., the Institute has emerged as a prominent leader in the national dialogue on civil liberties and human rights and a formidable champion of the Constitution.

The Change Manifesto is already getting quite a bit of buzz from individuals across the political spectrum, coming as it does in the midst of a presidential election season. As Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU, remarked: “With his new book, The Change Manifesto, John Whitehead is sounding the alarm for Americans to take a stand and speak truth to power, and its message has never been more relevant or necessary. This book provides a devastating portrait of the state of our freedoms, which are under attack as never before, and makes a compelling case for resistance and revolution. It is my hope that Americans of all political persuasions will heed what Whitehead has to say in The Change Manifesto before it is too late.”

Like Paul Revere, Whitehead, a renegade and a rebel in his own right, is sounding the alarm that Americans need to take action. This book is his wake-up call to an America that has been asleep at the wheel for too long. Whitehead sat down with OldSpeak to talk about his new book and what it means to join the block by block to remake America.

NM: What is The Change Manifesto about?

JW: This book is about what it means to be vigilant in safeguarding our freedoms for present and future generations. The American people are in grave danger of losing their basic freedoms. The simple fact is that the Constitution—and in particular the Bill of Rights—is being undermined on virtually every front. The Bill of Rights is the only bulwark between the American citizen and an authoritarian government.

Many intuitively have come to believe that something alarming is happening in both our government and society. Everything America was founded upon is in some way being challenged. The openness and freedom that were once the hallmarks of our society are being threatened. American citizens are continually watched. Political correctness has come to dominate the American psyche to the extent that people self-censor their own thoughts—in the workplace, in public areas and even in the home. Businesses, banks and schools have been harassed by government agents into handing over records of patrons, customers and students. American schools have become authoritarian in nature. Even our homes are no longer safe. In short, America has become a lockdown nation.

However, by educating readers about their rights and providing readers with practical steps they can take to fight back, this book gives readers the tools they need to safeguard freedom for present and future generations. Although I think things are in dire straits, I do think there’s hope—hope in the right places. And that’s what this book is ultimately about.

NM: You have referred to this book as a diagnosis of the problem.  What exactly is the problem and what’s the cure?

JW: We have a really serious problem in America. We have to recognize that first before we can talk about the cures for what ails us. As I studied the cultural landscape of America, I saw some things that were quite frightening. I saw the freedoms I cherish being attacked.  Since 9/11, there has been such a rapid change in governmental structure and how the government views the Constitution.  There have been many measures put into place that have virtually eradicated the Bill of Rights.  I thought that needed to be discussed. 

At the same time, I noticed that there were many concerned people who didn’t know what to do about what was going on.  How do we change things?  How do we ensure that we can go about our daily lives without the government continually watching us and without moving into an Orwellian state?  Thus, I wanted to provide a freedom manual so people could actually effectuate change. 

I also noticed that there are a lot of folks out there who are doing good things, effecting changes in their communities, and I detail those in the book. A good example is the growing resistance to the USA Patriot Act.  Many Americans decided they were not going to enforce that law. Some communities actually posted signs in their towns saying they weren’t going to follow the Patriot Act. Eventually, the law was altered but that took a lot of people across America voicing their opposition to it. The point is that people can change things.  There is hope. We can change things but we have to roll up our sleeves and go do it. 

Thus, I wanted to write a book that would be a diagnosis of the problem and then show people how they can cure the problem. It won’t happen right away because nothing is going to be instantaneous. We have gone too far down the road.

NM: The Change Manifesto clearly addresses the problems. In fact, it lists a catalogue of wrongs carried out by the U.S. government. However, it also seems to be an indictment of the American people for letting it come to this point. For example, you point out that the Framers of our Constitution knew that whenever democratic governments collapse, it was because the people had abdicated their responsibilities as the guardians of freedom.  And you make the case that Americans have abdicated those responsibilities. But is it realistic to think that Americans can actually do anything about what is going on? After all, we live in a far different world than did the Framers who drafted the Constitution. Levels of secrecy are so high, it’s difficult to find out what is going on in government, let alone hold our leaders accountable.

JW: It is realistic to hope for change but it starts with the people. And there are people who are changing things, as I show in the book, but there are hurdles to overcome. For example, the educational system has done a very poor job of teaching civics and about our Constitution. Most older Americans have been subjected to an educational system that has not done a good job of teaching our revolutionary history and the Bill of Rights. Young people who have graduated from high school know very little about what’s in the First Amendment, which is, by the way, one of the most important lists of rights in our Constitution—the right to free speech, the right to protest and so on.

The Constitution starts with those three really important words “We the people.” This means that the American people are the government. We are the government and there is a lot of power in that phrase. But we must access the power. The only way that people are going to access the power is to study the problems, study their revolutionary history and act on it.  Americans often forget that America started with a revolution. The so-called founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were very much radicals.  We need to recapture that radical spirit and that is what The Change Manifesto is all about.

NM: Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many Americans indicated that they were willing to give up any freedoms necessary to feel safe again. What will happen when the next crisis comes about? We are looking at a possible economic meltdown. What is to stop Americans from trading their freedoms for the semblance of financial security?

JW: Governments from the beginning of time have used fear to take control. A brief study of history will show you that.  Fear is the basis of governmental control.  In times of crisis, people will give over freedoms. They will even give over their money. Most of that stems from the fact that they don’t know their history. They don’t know their rights. They don’t know the history of their government. They don’t know the history of governments that do these kinds of things. Therefore, if anybody is to blame, it’s the American people because they are the foundation of the country.  That is what the founders who drafted the Constitution emphasized. It’s the people who will keep their freedoms and it is the people who will lose their freedoms.  

NM: Early Americans were pioneers in so many ways, which is a stark contrast to Americans today, whom you refer to Americans in the book as “bobbleheads in bubbleland.”

JW: The phrase “bobbleheads in bubbleland” comes from writer Nicholas von Hoffman. What he was trying to emphasize is that Americans have lost themselves in materialism. They really can’t see anything else.  Materialism is one of the greatest enemies of the human spirit. After 9/11, George Bush told people to go shopping. Shopping is a way to distract people from the real problems that surround them. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted. That is what U.S. citizenship is all about—paying attention to the things that matter. There is hope because there are a lot of folks out there who are not distracted, and there are more of them than we may think. There are a lot of folks across America who don’t agree with the way things are going. They understand that they have rights. They are not going to give in. The key here is that there is a significant group of people who really want to change things and have a real sense of what the right thing to do is.

NM: How do people who refuse to be ruled by fear counteract the fear of the masses? How do you speak to something that is irrational?

JW: You are not going to counteract mass fear.  The thing about mass fear is it subsides over time.  You saw that with 9/11.  Within a few years the people who said they would give over their freedoms for more security eventually changed their minds.  Suddenly, people saw that the threat was exaggerated and they started to mistrust the government.  

The important thing is that those who are not given over to fear need to keep their heads down and keep working.  The phrase I like best is “act locally, think nationally.”  That is where you can make your biggest change. Work in your own local communities and you can change things. Again, a good example is the communities that stood up against the USA Patriot Act.  City councils, mayors and others came out against the Patriot Act. People were acting locally but thinking nationally and they changed the law.  You can change things. 

We must remember that the masses were against Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. However, King didn’t give in and he certainly didn’t give in to the fear of the masses. He was willing to go to jail. When I was growing up, white people were openly saying that if black people got their rights, then they were going to take away the jobs of white people. Those saying this were playing off fear. Some of that was coming out of government circles. But King knew something about the human spirit. That’s why he spoke in terms of peaceful non-violent action. He also knew that you have to keep trudging on and you don’t give up. That’s why King changed the world.  Everything that King did eventually ended up being put into law and it changed the face of the country.  You can do the same, but the fear of the masses is always going to be there.  You just have to ignore it and move forward.

NM: In the chapter entitled “American Empire,” you warn of the danger of governmental bankruptcy.  At the time that you were writing The Change Manifesto did you foresee that the current economic meltdown would come as quickly as it has? Do you see our democratic government nearing collapse?

JW: An economic meltdown has been occurring for a long time.  The economist David Walker was the head of the Government Accountability Office for the United States. He recently resigned, but he saw these problems coming and he warned that the country was going to go belly up.  Other economists were saying that years ago. They were seeing the trouble signs before it actually happened.

This became even more of a problem given the amount of money we’ve been spending on foreign wars. America spends a billion dollars a day on the Iraq war. Most Americans are now against the war, yet we are still spending a billion dollars a day on that war.  And much of the money is going into the hands of private contractors connected to people high in the Bush administration.  So it was easy to foresee the financial problem coming, especially with the war.  The war was going to drain the country. Wars drain economies. Also, as America expands around the globe—with expensive military bases all over the world— this will continue to drain the country.  The same thing happened to the Roman Empire.  That is why we now see books being published entitled Are We Rome? and forecasting the fact that we are likely headed toward some kind of fall.
NM: You don’t pull any punches in the book when it comes to your disdain for pork barrel projects.  Congress, however, doesn’t seem to be getting the message. The latest bailout package to rescue the financial sector is reportedly filled with pork barrel spending including line items such as an exemption for a tax break for wooden arrows designed for use by children.  There is also a seven-year cost recovery period for a motorsports racing track facility and a tax break for rum produced in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, just to name a few. What can people actually do about this clear abuse of tax payer funds? 

JW: At this point, it’s obvious that Congress is not getting the message. I don’t think most Congressmen really care.  Most of our so-called representatives in Congress are insulated. They are completely out of touch with the average American.  Most people don’t know that the average taxpayer is paying for the Congressman to get flowers every day. We pay for their haircuts, their limousine rides, airplane flights to foreign countries and their domestic travel.  These are ludicrous expenses that should absolutely be cut.

People talk about change and reform.  That is probably not going to happen at the top. I have an entire section in the book, called “Rule by Thieves,” on how corrupt Congress really is. It shows you how many Congressmen are under indictment or are under investigation for stealing money from the American taxpayer.  That doesn’t include all the Congressmen that are routinely involved in earmarking and ludicrous pork barrel projects.

I keep emphasizing that average Americans can have their greatest impact by working in their local communities and trying to influence national politics that way. There are things you can do about these abuses.  Get on the phone and call your representatives in Washington.  Email them and write letters.  They do count votes. I personally have seen voters besieging the office of a Congressman and the Congressman actually moving to do something.  That is the only way you are going to get them to act.  If you work in your local communities, you can change things.  And if you really want to change things, you can start two blocks down the road at City Hall.

NM: In The Change Manifesto, you insist that the most effective way to counter the growth of governmental bureaucracy is for fellow conservative and liberal citizens to join together to stop the erosion of rights and bring the government under control at all levels. You write: “We must become co-belligerents for freedom.  If we continue to fight among ourselves however, we will remain victims to those who wield power.” With the race for the White House seeming to polarize the nation even more, is it even realistic to hope for bipartisanship? How do you achieve that?

JW: You are not going to achieve anything right away. We are starting at ground zero.  If you don’t like the way the politicians are acting, run for office yourself. Get involved in local politics.  Get educated on the issues.  Get groups of people together. Get groups started.  It may be your next door neighbor and then another neighbor. If you really care about America, then you are going to have to start acting right now.  And that means getting organized. Do I think the politicians are really going to join together and work on behalf of the American people?  Not at this time.  The only way they are going to really act on behalf of the American people is if they are pushed to act.

Our leaders are disconnected. Most of those in Washington, DC, who are our so-called representatives are disconnected from the American people.  They are out of touch.  The gas prices are a good example. Most politicians never go to a gas pump to fill up.  They really don’t know what it costs.  When President Bush was told several months ago that the price of gas would be around $4 a gallon, he was surprised.  He is out of touch.

If you really want change, you are going to have to make it happen.  It is not going to come from Washington. The politicians are not going to work together on your behalf unless you really push them hard. That takes getting together in groups and besieging them with emails. And when they are in your hometown visiting, get your picket signs and go out and picket them if they won’t listen to you. 

NM: Most people can’t agree on the least little thing right now. If Americans are polarized, how do you find a common denominator?  What are we supposed to join together over? 

JW: The common denominator for our country is—and has always been—the Constitution.  That is the basis of America.  That is where you have to start.  That is why I wrote The Change Manifesto

You have to study the problem. You have to get educated on the history of your country and what your freedoms are.  Most Americans don’t know their freedoms are being eroded.  They don’t understand what is happening on Wall Street.  They don’t even understand what is happening in their local communities because they don’t know their history and they don’t know their rights.  Thus, my message to people is there is hope but you’re going to have to work at it.  It is not going to come about if you’re shopping at the mall or talking on a cell phone.  It is going to mean studying a book like The Change Manifesto, understanding what the problems are and taking action.  This is going to take time, and the hope is that we still have time to change things.  We may not, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it to fight to change the direction of the country.

NM: The last two chapters of the book are altogether different from the rest of the book.  They provide readers with a recounting of the history of resistance and a primer on the Bill of Rights.  In fact, you begin that section of the book with Edmund Burke’s quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is, as you have described it, a blueprint for revolution. Yet how do you prioritize your battles? We have all of these huge problems that seem overwhelming and insurmountable, and then there all these smaller battles going on. Where do you start? Is there any real hope for change?

JW: You have to start somewhere.  Sitting at home and watching TV is not going to get it done. I commend anybody that gets out there with a picket sign. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Email your neighbors and urging them to action is another. Sometimes, even what appears to be silly is a good idea. For example, some fellows in one large city in the U.S. put on high heels and walked across town to protest the fact that the police were not investigating sexual assaults in their neighborhood.  When the national media reported on their actions, the police were suddenly ready to investigate the assaults.  So that is how you do it.  It may appear to be silly but sometimes silly things turn out to have good endings.

Thus, there is hope, but you have to start somewhere.  No battle is too small, and no action is minor.  Forest fires usually start with a spark. What I am telling people is, “Let’s be sparks and start a very big fire for freedom and turn this country around.”