Richard Dreyfuss Fights For Civics In American Education
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Oscar-winning Actor Richard Dreyfuss has committed his life to a new passion: reinstating civics in the American classroom. He joins us today.
The San Diego Film Festival will present an evening with Richard Dreyfuss on Saturday, September 26 at 6 PM at the Gaslamp Theatre. The San Diego Film Festival runs from September 23-27.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. In his best know roles, actor Richard Dreyfuss performed the amazing task of making smart sexy. His characters are brash, funny, neurotic and most of all, brainy. From shark expert Matt Hooper ruefully observing, "They're all gonna die," in Jaws to actor Elliot Garfield telling his new roommate he sleeps in the nude, "au buffo," in the Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss made intelligence attractive. Now, he's embarked on a new career, but once again it's all about the smarts. Richard Dreyfuss, who now lives in San Diego's North County, has been traveling the nation advocating the teaching of civics and the restoration of civil debate in America. He’s here to tell us about his passionate quest to teach Americans about America and about his role as guest of honor at the Eighth Annual San Diego Film Festival that takes place this weekend. It’s my pleasure to welcome Academy Award winning actor Richard Dreyfuss to These Days. Good morning, Richard.
RICHARD DREYFUSS (Actor): Hiya.
CAVANAUGH: Hiya. Well this Saturday you’ll be hosting “An Evening with Richard Dreyfuss” at the Gaslamp Theatre. I understand you don’t attend many film festivals or retrospectives so why this one?
DREYFUSS: Well, I was acting for about 45 years, deeply enmeshed in a very successful love affair, and the love affair turned into a friendship and I didn’t have to do it anymore. You know, the urgent need to do it was gone. And I remembered that I had another love which was the United States of America. And so absolutely uncertain about how many lives there are after this one, but knowing that in this one there were many lives that I could live, I decided to stop the one I was living and go on to the next.
CAVANAUGH: And you’re going to be going to the San Diego Film Festival as guest of honor because it’s San Diego?
DREYFUSS: It’s San Diego and I live here, and it’s also because I happened to agree to a subject matter that was wide enough…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
DREYFUSS: …to cover art, culture, and decay. And the absence in civilization of civilization by the powers that be.
CAVANAUGH: Now when people first hear that you’re working to promote the teaching of civics, do you get some blank stares?
DREYFUSS: Yeah. Oh, definitely. Civics has reached the iconic level of most boring word in the history of the English language. And so when people hear ‘civics,’ they usually tend not to need anesthetics when they go to the dentist. The problem is that the subject matter of civics is as close to being like Scaramouche or Cirque du Soleil than any other subject ever taught. It is a story of the victory of the light over the dark, which is the rarest of victories, it’s about a world that exists in blood and darkness and cruelty and rape for 99% of the time. And every once in awhile, there is a small victory for the light of reason and common sense. And we are citizens of the only nation bound by ideas only. And those ideas, which are known as Western Civ or American ideas or the ideas of the enlightenment, are not only unique to us as the founding – the foundation upon which we stand and know who we are, but by not teaching it, we drift off into the netherland of not knowing right from wrong and good from evil. And that’s why good men wake up in the morning and do evil things.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know…
CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry. Excuse me, I didn’t mean to interrupt you but we – I – it hasn’t been put in such stark, dramatic terms as you just did. But I do know that civics used to be taught in schools and it used to be taught as a very important subject, that this is what you need to know about being an American citizen. When did that teaching stop? Why did that teaching stop?
DREYFUSS: It was actually the unintended consequence of two great achievements. One was when we realized that Adolph Hitler was the most vivid civics lesson in history and he meant every word he said. We stopped the world and went over to Europe and beat him to death because we weren’t going to have that. And the boys who beat him came home, job done, to the birth of television and the first generation of television had no money and so they just filled the airwaves with old American movies, all of which made you love your country…
DREYFUSS: …like Frank Kapra and John Ford, so that we entered the sixties in the middle of the most romantic love affair with our own nation and we left the sixties cynical and beaten to a pulp. And cynicism is probably the worst characteristic that man has. It’s like a mule. It has no offspring. It gives us nothing but smirk. And we’ve now reached a point where we have a 100% agreement in this country that anything a politician says publicly is inauthentic. And at the same time, we line up to get on the Jerry Springer Show and brag about our incest. And so in some Alice In Wonderland way, what was private is now public and what was – what used to be public is now private.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. I’m speaking with actor Richard Dreyfuss. He’s the founder of the nonprofit Dreyfuss Initiative, and he’s also the guest of honor Saturday, “An Evening with Richard Dreyfuss,” at the Gaslamp Theatre, part of the San Diego Film Festival. I want to let our audience know that we’re inviting your phone calls to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727, if you want to speak with Richard Dreyfuss about his efforts to improve the knowledge of how America works. And, Richard, I wanted to ask you, you’ve made the case very strongly about why this is needed, why Americans need to learn more about American institutions and why America is America. But why did you take this role on? Why did you start this nonprofit, the Dreyfuss Initiative?
DREYFUSS: Twenty years ago, I did for ABC a special called “Honey, You Don’t Look 200,” which was for kids and it was a celebration of the constitution. And Whoopie Goldberg was in it and Maher was in it and Donald Duck and, you know, Randy Newman, and it was great. And in the ensuing 20 years, I realized what I had written and said in that documentary I could no longer say. I could no longer define citizenship as voting because we’re being asked to vote between two brothels. And our channels of communication have become so toxic and so poisoned and because we’re not taught the values of right and wrong and a firm foundation of ethics upon which we can stand in the world, nobody takes the time to deal with the breaking of the oath that said we will not take advantage. And Rupert Murdoch, who is the closest thing to a Tudor to the sovereign that the people, we, the people, are, Rupert Murdoch has five passports.
CAVANAUGH: I didn’t know that.
DREYFUSS: And that means that you can ask – you can say to Rupert, it’s Tuesday, are you an American today? And are your interests my interests? And why do you have the closest access to the Monarch’s ear?
CAVANAUGH: You know, it’s…
DREYFUSS: We don’t know how to explore the substance of an issue. We’ve demonized our opponents. And in a democracy of any kind, you can’t demonize your opponent because you’re not sharing anything.
CAVANAUGH: You know, it’s not just Fox News that you’ve spoken out against but rather you hold the news media accountable for a lot of misinformation and the breakdown in civil dialogue. You call it shaped news. Tell us what you mean by that.
DREYFUSS: Well, I would say that journalists – journalism media and journalists individually have completely rolled over and forgotten the mandate that we were so proud of for so long. And when Helen Thomas was exiled to the back row just for being a good journalist and asking rude questions, Tim Russert said to me, well, what could we have done? And I said, you didn’t have to show up at the next press conference, and the whole thing would’ve been over.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Yeah, that kind of – that kind of power play, you feel that the news media just fed into it.
DREYFUSS: Well, the name of ABC is now Disney ABC and CBS is owned by Viacom, which owns both CBS and American Tobacco, and that’s called in any history book I’ve read back to the Assyrian Tablets, a conflict of interest.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with actor Richard Dreyfuss and taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. Joe is calling us. He’s from – calling from the freeway. Good morning, Joe, and welcome to These Days.
JOE (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you. You know, I’ve heard Richard before and there is – there’s a lot of knowledge and wisdom in all that Richard talks about and certainly in promoting the values of civics and the underlying bedrock values of our country. At the same time in that story, there’s a tremendous amount of really positive, glorious news and even mirth, and I think that Richard ought to reflect on that perhaps and get that into his message. His message often comes across as dour and we’re going to hell and I – and we have to be ever vigilant but there is so much great stuff in our nation and going on. We were just talking about the press, and all of that is true. At the same time, if you squeeze the balloon and you can’t get your hands completely around it, it squirts out in other areas, so we have – on the internet now we have bloggers of every stripe. True, you can’t always verify the accuracy of everything that’s said but within the mix, you know, it’s working and information gets out and the nation moves on. So that’s the end of my comment.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Joe. So, Richard, do you think you’re too dismal about the situation?
DREYFUSS: I have been accused, especially by my wife, that I should do this with a lighter touch. I get stuck a little bit because I do believe that we have a gun at our heads that we’re not aware of, and that within the lifetime of our grandchildren, certainly no later, we will have a country with the same name that will bear no resemblance to the nation that we got from our parents. And that ends my sense of humor and makes me terribly, terribly frightened. And I wrote an op-ed that was in the paper in San Diego…
DREYFUSS: …a couple of days ago, and I said we are the only nation in history bound by ideas only. We have no common ancestry or religion or commonly agreed to caste or class system. We’re bound by those ideas born in the enlightenment and actualized in the constitution, the declaration and the Bill of Rights, and they are the protection of individual civil liberties, and that people have the right to be protected by the law, the same law for all. And if each new generation of Americans is not taught those ideas, and taught and taught and taught with rigor and pleasure, we are not bound. And we’re not. We have about as much connection to not just our neighbors but the people in the next state or the cops in Seattle, even if you’ve never been to Seattle, than I have to the man in the moon. And we resent taxes as if taxes were some added irritant and not the essence of citizenship. And we flip-flop and I guess I fear being too lighthearted on this one because nothing has made me lose my sense of humor faster than when the journalists in the Press Club all called themselves heirs to Edward R. Murrow. And I said, I’m not going to ask you that because you made me lose my sense of humor.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And in defense of your view of America, I must add that you repeatedly say in your writings that America is a miracle.
DREYFUSS: Oh, yeah. I mean, if anyone needs to have the credential of how much I love America, then, okay, I can do that. I can do that for a long time.
DREYFUSS: But America is not only a miracle, America is the end of a 13,000 year old curse that is so well known that no one has to talk about it and that curse is, you and yours will never rise. You’re a peasant and your grandchildren will be peasants. And my heel will always be on your neck. Until America said, wait a minute, wait a minute, if you can get here, if you can make the journey, if you have talent and guts and hard work and avoid the crap that life throws at you, you might rise. And that is the single most important message in the history of the human race. And that’s why people come here. That’s why they will come here, have come here, and will always come here, and Americans have forgotten it.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another phone call. Bob is calling from San Marcos. Good morning, Bob, and welcome to These Days.
BOB (Caller, San Marcos): Mr. Dreyfuss, I just wanted to thank you very much for being a citizen and I have two grandchildren that I’m trying to get through high school, and my mother was a journalist, and I just wanted to thank you for being an example for them.
DREYFUSS: Well, thank you very, very much for saying that.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Bob, for that phone call. You know, I’m wondering, I don’t want to change the tone of our conversation because I – we’re talking about very, very serious things but I did want to just talk about your role last year playing Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone’s film “W.” You feel so passionately and you spoke out against the Bush administration even calling for the impeachment of the president, but I know that in order to play a part, many actors say they have to just – they have to fall a little bit in love with their character. So, I wonder, did your estimation of Dick Cheney change at all after actually playing him in that movie?
DREYFUSS: Yeah, it got lower.
CAVANAUGH: Why is that?
DREYFUSS: It’s not that an actor has to fall in love, it’s that…
DREYFUSS: …an actor has to find his own Dick Cheney.
DREYFUSS: And Dick Cheney is in all of us, as is Hitler, and as is Jesus. And it’s the actor’s job to bring out the appropriate Jesus or the appropriate Hitler to illustrate to mankind what mankind is and does. That’s what the artform is all about. And I don’t have to like Adolph Hitler in order to think that I could play him better than anybody else. I don’t have to like Dick Cheney, and the more I did research on Dick Cheney, the most I was aghast that he actually had pulled off a career in American politics because he stands for every single principle that I stand against, and I am an American. And I hold up being an American as the most sublime, the most attractive, the most unique and singular and important nation. Imagine the world without the United States and you’re going to imagine a very, very, very dark place. We’ve gifted…
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you…
DREYFUSS: We’ve gifted…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I’m sorry.
DREYFUSS: We’ve gifted the world with two things that are recognized as interesting but should be recognized as totally unique. One was a written, signed constitution whose preamble is all verbs so that when Justice Scalia says that it’s a dead document and anyone who thinks it’s a living document is an idiot, I just say, read the preamble, you putz. The other gift is the Bill of Rights. People think of the Bill of Rights as a series of laws. Well, the Bill of Rights is actually a written picture of the goal of our moral character. And then we topped ourselves by making it public so that the whole world knows every time we fail and every time we succeed. And that is the most American of all gestures. No other country had the gall, the naiveté, the arrogance, and the rightness to do that. We did it.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’m interested in the really couple of minutes we have left, you say that at this point you prefer being prepartisan, not a Democrat, not a Republican. Why is that important to you and how do you do it with such strong feelings that you do bring to these issues?
DREYFUSS: Well, we’ve always had partisanship and we always will but we now have technology that makes that partisanship a thousand times more potent, toxic and capable of wrongdoing so that you have a discussion about healthcare and people call the President of the United States Hitler. You know, after awhile, it is funny, but it ain’t that funny.
DREYFUSS: And you don’t have journalists standing up and say, we don’t accept this dialogue. This is absurd dialogue and the people who are saying it should be shunned and turned away from by the cameras. Instead, the cameras go right to them and make the issue the incivility that they have introduced to the normal political discussion.
CAVANAUGH: Richard, I’m going to have to end it there because we’re out of time but I think you’ve given everybody a very good idea of what this special evening with Richard Dreyfuss is going to be like. I really appreciate your talking with us today.
DREYFUSS: Just remember one thing. That is, it isn’t Bush who is the villain, it’s us. We’re the ones who could not sustain outrage for more than twelve hours, and that’s all we had to do.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. And thank you for speaking with us. I want to let everyone know the San Diego Film Festival will present a special evening with Richard Dreyfuss. That’s Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. at the Gaslamp Theatre. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.