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Waking Up in the World
“Breaking Out of Our Resistance Bubble”
Tami Simon: It is my great honor and delight and privilege to be able to welcome Van Jones to
this online series, Waking Up in the World. Van, thank you so much for taking the time to have
this conversation. Thank you.
Van Jones: Well, I appreciate the opportunity. Sounds True is a big part of my personal library
and so to be a part of it is a big deal.
TS: Well then, you’re familiar with what we do here at Sounds True and you might also be
familiar with the fact that this is really a new arena of inquiry and discussion, for us to be
gathering our audience to talk about the relationship between our personal spiritual journey and
the outer world in which we live.
I’m thinking of how many people with a deep spiritual practice woke up, in a sense, at
the 2016 election. Better late than never. Here we are, and I’d love to know from you, Van, how
you see the connection here at the beginning, between our personal spiritual journeys and outer
change in the world.
VJ: This sort of convergence between spiritual people becoming more active and activist people
becoming more spiritual just creates a lot of possibility for real change. It’s very, very difficult to
make change externally. If you’re concerned about the environment, if you’re concerned about
what’s happening to poor kids, if you’re concerned about issues of war and peace, or social
justice, or any of those things, what happens is, you get out there. You go to the coalition
meeting. You’re full of good intention and then suddenly there’s fighting and things are breaking
down and people are talking about each other behind their backs—and we have all the drama and
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all the chaos of the situation you’re trying to fix inside the coalition. And the ability of that
coalition or that organization or that campaign to prevail comes down to: Are the people who are
there … Do they have the practices? Are they spiritually in-tune? Are they emotionally healthy
enough to get through conflict constructively?
You can’t win social change without inner change. At the same time, if all you’re doing
is the inner-change work, how do you know that you’ve made any progress? Anybody can be
enlightened at a retreat center after a few weeks. You know, all of us, after our 20 minutes of
meditation, feel like we’re elevated beings at least a little bit. But then, guess what? Life comes
in and it challenges you. The ultimate challenge along your spiritual journey, from my point of
view, if you believe in the people like Gandhi and others, is when you put yourself in the middle
of the biggest conflicts. You can see from the mat to the kitchen table is a big leap and challenge
to your practice. From the kitchen table to the bigger world is an even bigger challenge.
I think your spiritual practice can’t really be perfected unless you’re really face-to-face
with the difficulties of the world. And the difficulties of the world can’t really be transformed
unless you’ve spent that time internally to make yourself a more-true instrument.
So these two things go together.
TS: Let’s address that person who’s been a spiritual practitioner for a while who says, “I want to
help very much. That’s what’s in my heart, but I notice when I listen to the news, it makes me
too anxious. Or I get too emotional and too despairing. My heart is too sensitive.” What would
you say to that person?
VJ: You know, I think that we have to be honest about the distance between the people that we
admire and how we’re living. Dr. King got shot in the face in front of his friends when he was 39
years old, because he thought that black people and white people were equal and that we
shouldn’t have poverty and war. Shot in the face in front of his friends. And if you look at the
picture on the balcony, none of those people there—Andy Young, Jesse Jackson, all of them—
none of them stopped. They all continued for the rest of their lives, to take on some of the
toughest problems in American democracy—and to prevail.
We can’t deal with a mean tweet. There’s a mean tweet from the president and we
collapse. We just can’t go on. It’s just too hard.
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I don’t believe that. I don’t accept that. There are people around the world in much worse
situations than we are, going up against much tougher odds with many fewer resources, and I just
think we have to challenge ourselves. Get over it. You don’t like the news so, therefore, what?
The people who are at the border having their babies ripped away from them are having a much
worse day than you. People who are under the boot heel of our prison system are having a much
worse day than you. At what point do those of us, who have been blessed to have the lives that
we have, need to develop a perspective that says, “I can do more. I can get through this.” And we
do have, I think, an opportunity as spiritual people to make a tremendous impact.
One thing I think is very bad is how much we live in our own little resistance bubbles.
The creation of these resistance bubbles, this rhetoric around “We can’t normalize this president,
therefore we have a moral responsibility to be outraged at every tweet, outraged at everything he
does,” is exhausting. You can’t do that. We have to be able to separate true human-rights
emergencies, like what’s happening at our border right now, from just despicable conduct on the
part of the commander in chief.
And so here’s a thing I have found useful. Number one. I deliberately follow on
Instagram and Twitter … I did the search for white nationalists. I follow hundreds of them. Pro-
Trump conservatives, pro-gun. I follow them as well as all my liberal friends. And so, rather than
me living in a world where every time I go onto my social media feed, it’s all just soft
reinforcement from other people who think the same way, giving me that sense of righteousness,
that cheap sugar rush that, “See, I am right. Everybody agrees with me.”
My social media feed is terrible. My social media feed looks like a train crash. But what
that means is that over time, whenever something happens, I see all sides responding. I see how
conservatives respond, how liberals respond, how blacks respond, how non-blacks respond. I see
all of that in real-time, all day long. And so over time, you develop a tolerance and kind of a
better understanding of the range of available responses. And that just becomes a part of the
object of your reflection. And you build up a tolerance for difference. A tolerance for ideas that
you might find despicable, but the hundredth time or the thousandth time you hear from
somebody who just sees the world differently, you don’t react as strongly as the first two or three
And so we have to build up—if we want to lead everybody, if we want to hold everyone
in our hearts, we want to move ourselves through this—we have to build up the capacity to hold
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a lot of different views. I watch and listen to a lot of right-wing commentary. It’s a discipline.
What I have found is that because I do that, when I need to lead among conservatives, I can do
so. I can’t win every argument. I can’t convince them of my world view. But I can engage with
them in a way that shows respect. I can narrow the conflict. I don’t have to say, “You are a bad
person. You are a bigot. You are a sexist. You are a homophobe. Therefore, you must agree with
It turns out, “You suck. Vote for me,” is not a good slogan. It’s not a good bumper
sticker. It wouldn’t work if somebody came to you and said, “You suck. Agree with me.” But we
do it all the time. And so, what I would say is that this is a discipline. The algorithms of Twitter
and Instagram and Facebook, without our even choosing it, will sort us into resistance bubbles.
All you have to do is follow three liberals on Twitter, and the suggestions will be to follow three
thousand more. And then, without you knowing it, you wake up in a resistance bubble you didn’t
mean to create, that was created for you. We have to take responsibility ourselves to reach out
even to, and especially to, take on views that we don’t agree with, so that we can have the
capacity to maintain equanimity in the face of those views.
TS: Well, let’s talk a little bit about this discipline that you’re describing. I think one of the
things that can be an obstacle for people is the emotions that they feel. You know, I’m listening
to some white nationalist perspective or whatever, I’m so overwhelmed by emotion that I have to
shut it off.
VJ: Do you? What if you couldn’t? You see, there’s a choice. There’s a luxury there. What if
you couldn’t? What if you were in prison? What if you were someplace where you couldn’t
escape it? Do you imagine that you don’t have the inner resources to actually be able to come to
terms with it and deal with it and then transcend it?
What if you’re Nelson Mandela? Nelson Mandela was locked up for 27 years by white
nationalists and he came out of it as one of the most beautiful human beings in the world. He
didn’t say, “Oh, well I just can’t deal with it. I’m going to put my head in a pillow.”
That’s your choice. But we have other choices. We have much more courageous choices.
We have much more powerful choices. And it’s odd to me that we always expect and respect
when poor, oppressed, third-world, brutalized people make choices to be courageous and
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whatever, but then those of us in the West who have soft lives literally say, “Oh, geez. It’s just
too hard. I can’t. I got mad.”
I’m so sorry, this isn’t third grade. This is the real world. It’s for all the marbles. The
planet’s dying. Democracy’s dying. And you don’t get to say, “Well, it’s just too hard to listen to
somebody I don’t agree with.” I just don’t accept that. I know that people have more than that in
them—I know for sure, I don’t have to guess—that people have much more than that in them.
Because I’m in prisons multiple times a month, and I’m talking to people who have been put in
solitary confinement for seven years and have come out … They’ve been out of solitary
confinement for three weeks, and they’re still in a maximum security prison, and somehow they
have been able to find in themselves the spiritual wherewithal to transform themselves, to learn,
to push forward, to self-reflect, to be critical, but also to be compassionate.
I just don’t accept … There’s something wrong with our liberal coastal friends. There’s
something wrong. It’s not as hard as we like to imagine to stay engaged with something that’s
troubling, that’s triggering, that’s re-traumatizing. Why [is it so] hard? Why is Donald Trump so
difficult for people? Most of the people that I know—who are probably listening to this—their
stock portfolio is probably performing better now than it was two years ago. The tax cut
probably benefited them. Their actual experience in the world probably hasn’t changed very
much, if you just had a silent movie. They still have the same house, same job. They may have
even gotten a raise. Why is it so troubling?
It’s because he is a bully and many of us were bullied as children. Many of us were
sensitive kids. We were the nerdy kids. We were the outcast kids. We were the outsider kids.
And there was always some bully, either in our home, in our school, in our neighborhood, in our
house of worship, who was traumatizing us, who was teasing us, who was hurting us, sometimes
doing despicable things to us. And now, we did all that we were supposed to do. We got past
that. We showed them. We got our education. We got our job. We moved out of that little small-
town environment. We found ourselves in the city like a Boston or a New York, where people
like us could be respected. Where people like us could be admired. People who were brainier and
nerdier, but it was a good thing.
Then we elect Barack Obama and it seems like people like us, you know, finally have
gotten out from under the boot of these horrible bullies. And guess what? It ain’t necessarily so.
And here comes the worst kind of a bully: a racist, sexist bigot who flirts with anti-Jewish Nazis,
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who picks on trans people. The worst kind of bully imaginable is now the president of the United
States and he’s getting away with it and nothing can be done. And that sense of helplessness …
We’ve regressed, then, back to those feelings of helplessness that we had as children, and
suddenly we see the whole world as a threat, just like we did when we were children. And it’s all
terrible and what can we do?
But it’s not the actual fact. It’s an emotional wound that’s being reactivated. Because the
reality is, we only lost the election by 70 thousand votes. I mean, out of a hundred and twenty
million votes cast, it was 70 thousand votes in three states, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all
together ten thousand in Michigan, all together. So you lost an election of a hundred and twenty
million people by 70 thousand votes. That doesn’t mean you live in Nazi Germany, OK? That
means that you need to get those 70 thousand votes back rationally. You just need those 70
thousand votes back. You have 3,800 counties. A hundred of them went from Obama to Trump.
Rationally, you just need those hundred counties back. This is not that big of a deal. But people
are acting like it’s an unimaginable catastrophe.
That’s where the inner work … The fact that you can’t listen, the fact that it’s too painful
for you to hear these views is not about the views. It’s our need to grow and to heal and to deal
with those inner problems and those inner wounds and transgressions and things that happened to
us as children and as communities—whether you’re Jewish, whether your LGBTQ, whether
you’re black, whether you’re female—but to deal with those in a way that lets us rise to a level
of restored inner dignity that doesn’t reference whether or not you have some jackass in the
White House or not. Or whether the person agrees with you or not.
This genocide threat that many of us feel we’re living under at all times has some root in
fact, but also a lot in fear. And fear is the enemy of love. Fear is the enemy of rationality. Fear is
the enemy of wisdom. And so yes, monitor the facts, but the fears … Those have to be attended
I say all this to say that I just expect more. I expect more because I know what people are
capable of. I am in prisons. I am on reservations. I’m at the border. I’ve looked at people who
have nothing, who find the resilience to do so much. And I look at people who have everything,
and collapse in the face of one comment on Facebook from their high-school classmate, and
they’re ruined for a week.
This has to be corrected.
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TS: You made an interesting comment about looking at situations rationally and not just
emotionally. And I noticed when I read your book, Beyond the Messy Truth, I had a lot of
intellectual epiphanies and I was looking at things not through an emotional lens, but through an
analytical lens. And I thought, “This is really important.” And I wonder if you can say more
about that and help us get out of “third grade” and into a higher analytical frame of looking at
VJ: I don’t know if I have anything to say about that. That’s a result of having taken the
emotions seriously enough to not want to be run by them.
I mean, I grew up … My dad was a great guy. He was a hard worker, hard smoker, hard
drinker, got himself out of poverty, put his brother through college. He put his cousin through
college. He got me and my sister to work with my mom through advanced degrees. He was an
incredible guy, but he drank too much. And he wasn’t physically abusive, but he was
emotionally abusive and neglectful, even though he was a great guy and beloved by our
And I was a little, sensitive, nerdy kid with big glasses and not many friends, and I got
picked on by everybody. I was a bully magnet growing up and I still struggle with low self-
esteem and bouts of depression and all that kind of stuff from a childhood that, in a lot of ways,
was ideal. But it wasn’t ideal for me. And so I say that to say I’ve done a lot of work on myself.
Not because I wanted to, but because I would go and try to do things and I would cause problems
for myself by being too angry or being too confrontational. I was kind of seeing myself as
smaller than I was and I wanted to react to every perceived transgression. And at this stage in my
life, I’ve done Landmark Forum and Hoffman Institute and Science of Mind and Vipassana
Buddhist stuff and studied Hinduism. I’ve done a lot of work, so that my mind and my heart can
be calm enough to be able to see things. And then I can share those things that I see.
And people say, “Oh, you have a great analysis.” They forget—the analysis is good, I
agree—but it rests on a lot of emotional health that I attend to. But those two things can go
together. If you are so upset—and I’m going to tell you, go and sue your therapist and your yoga
instructor if you are so upset at this stage of life that you can’t listen to mean people saying mean
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stuff without reacting—then sue your yoga trainer. No, you should be able to listen to mean
people saying mean stuff with guns in your face and still be calm like Nelson Mandela.
That’s the goal. The goal isn’t just to have all your NPR friends and all your Prius-
driving friends, and all your kale-eating friends all sitting around agreeing with you and
complaining about Donald Trump. There’s nothing enlightened about that at all. I mean, it’s the
cheapest, easiest way to feel great about yourself, to just have a circle of self-agreeing people
putting down Trump voters and freaking themselves out about what’s going on in Washington
D.C. There’s nothing enlightened about that. There’s not a single prophetic hero or shero that
ever took that approach, and we need to cut out the nonsense.
TS: So, Van, you put your time and energy into a lot of different change initiatives. And I’d love
to know how—using your balanced emotions and keen analytical powers, and just your heart—
how do you know where to put your time and energy? How do you make that choice?
VJ: I care about the people at the bottom. It keeps you very sane about your own life and
circumstances when you’re talking to people who literally have nothing and are losing that:
people who are going to prison, people who are struggling with addiction, lost kids who have
been through more at the age of 13 or 14 than most people who are adults, or any ten people who
are adults. You kind of feel less sorry for yourself when somebody says a mean thing on Twitter,
when you’re dealing with that.
So I think it’s important … See, there’s a difference between spirituality and soulfulness.
Michael Meade talks about that. The spiritual tends to be so up and so above and so this and so
that, and very fragile—because those kinds of exalted states are very, very hard to hold onto
unless you’re like a trained master. What happens is, it becomes a retreat in the real sense that
you’re just retreating from tough stuff in life for a little while, and then you get back out there
and suddenly you’re scared and easily pissed off.
Soulfulness is different. Soulfulness is grounded in the tough stuff of life. It’s what we
call, in the black church, “hallelujah anyhow.” See, that’s an important thing in the black church.
Hallelujah anyhow. Hallelujah anyhow. They’ve beaten us. They’ve lynched us. They’ve done
all these terrible things, but hallelujah anyhow. You’re not going to steal my joy no matter what
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you do. You’re not going to steal my dignity no matter what you do. You’re not going to steal
my love of myself and my person no matter what you do. Hallelujah anyhow.
That kind of soulfulness is much more resilient, and I think much more useful, and so I
constantly … So you say, what do I look for? I look for where the people are suffering the most
and then [ask] how can I bring them the most help? So I work on criminal justice. I work on the
addiction crisis. I work on lost kids. And I find that I can always find partners who are from a
different political party, who are from a different race, a different economic background.
Because the best people in the Republican Party know what we’re doing in the prisons is wrong
and want to do something about it. The best people in the Republican Party know that this
addiction crisis is killing off way too many people and they want to do something about it. The
best people in the Republican Party know that sometimes kids get in trouble and they need help.
And that’s true about the best people in the Democratic Party as well, and the best people who
are in no party as well.
And so by working … Where’s there’s common pain, there should be common purpose.
And there’s common pain in the poor parts of red America and the poor parts of blue America.
And so I go there and then whoever I can find there, whether they’re red or blue, whether they’re
black or Latino or Asian or white or Native American, if I can find the people there, they’re
always the best people. Even if we vote against each other, even if we go to different houses of
worship, even if we have different skin colors and come from different tribes, the best people
from all tribes are working in those tough populations, and those are the people I find my best
TS: One thing that strikes me is, sometimes, when I talk to people and they’re looking inside and
they’re questioning, “Where should I put my energy in the world? I want to be helpful.” The
question they ask is not, “Where are people at the bottom of the bottom suffering the most?” But
they ask, “Where’s my passion? What turns me on?” I mean, it’s a very, very different question.
VJ: Well, but it’s the intersection of those two. I mean, everybody isn’t good at working with
bottom-level populations. There are people who are good at other stuff. But, I tell you, if you can
find an intersection where your passion is the greatest and the need is greatest too, that’s where
you’re going to have the coolest adventure. If you’re passionate about music and you can figure
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out some way to help transgender homeless kids have a music program, then that’s … I mean,
hey. That’s the fastest way to enlightenment, because A, that program’s going to be hard to run
and the kids are going to drive you crazy and it’s going to challenge you, but also, what they
come up with and what they do is going to be so amazing and so original and so extraordinary
that it’ll feed you, too.
So yes, people shouldn’t do stuff they’re not good at. They shouldn’t do stuff that they
don’t have any passion for out of some sense of duty and martyrdom. That’s not enlightened
either, but you really, I think, are always benefited by asking the question, “How can I bring my
gifts someplace where there just aren’t enough gifted people like me around?” Not as a savior.
Not as a martyr. Not out of a sense of duty, but out of a sense of wanting to be a complete person
and wanting to know more.
TS: In your book, Beyond the Messy Truth, you wrote that one of your areas of greatest concern
is the rise we’re seeing in hate crimes, and I think that is an area of great concern to the people
who are listening to this series. I’d love to know, what do you think are the biggest leverage
points to make a difference in that area of concern?
VJ: Well, first of all, not adding more hate to the hate. Hating hateful people has become the
favorite pastime of liberals, which just makes liberals more hateful. I’m going to get a big pat on
the head because I hate Donald Trump. I hate these Neo-Nazis and all these people. And they’re
like, “Oh, yes, yes. That’s wonderful. Me too. I hate them, too.”
I just disagree. We can’t feed what we’re fighting. There’s a danger in becoming what
we’re fighting. We can hold very, very high standards for ourselves and others. But people say,
“Van, why do you spend so much time talking to these Nazis? Why do you spend so much time
talking to these people, these hateful people?” “Because I need them.” That’s what we don’t ever
say. I don’t hate them, I need them. I can’t have the country I want without them and my great
disappointment in them is not that they hate me. My greatest disappointment in them is not that
they’re letting me down. My disappointment is that they’re letting themselves down. These are
people whose passion and energy is worthy of a much greater cause than the cause of Nazism
and white nationalism and those kinds of things. They’re worthy of a much greater cause.
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And then I have to ask myself the question, when these young, white guys are 14 and 15
and 16 and they’re going through all the changes they’re going through and they’re having their
challenges and they go out into the world, could they have joined my group? Could they have
joined my group? Was I recruiting them? Did I have any imagination in my mind about them and
their greatness and what I needed from them? Or, was I going around saying, essentially,
“Straight white men suck.” Has that been my argument, that it’s sticking up for African
Americans, and sticking up for women, and sticking up for LBGTQ, and sticking up for all the
people left out? Have been I unconsciously sending out the message, “And by the way, if you’re
a straight, white male, you’re my enemy. If you’re a straight, white male you suck.”
If I’ve been unconsciously putting that out there, and their response is, “These people
don’t like me and don’t want me around,” then even if that’s only one percent or point zero zero
one percent of the problem, I’ve got to attend to that.
When white nationalists go manipulate people into joining their cause, they often just
quote us. They don’t have to make up stuff. They will literally just play stuff from our
conferences talking about straight, white guys and will make the case, using evidence we
provide, that there’s a movement in the country that doesn’t like them and sees them as the
enemy and is trying to push them out of every part of society. Now, is that an excuse to become a
Nazi? No, because the things that my community has gone through would give me an excuse to
become a black Nazi, and I’d have more justification for doing that. And I’m not going to do
that. And I’m not going to accept anybody else’s excuses for becoming hateful on their side.
But again, Nelson Mandela … Part of the great power he had over his peers is that not
only did he have a better vision for black South Africa than the status quo, he had a better vision
for the white South Afrikaners as well. He saw in them, and for them, a better future—and he
articulated it powerfully. He saw a role for them in a new and redeemed South Africa. And
sometimes I think, in this last little period of time, we’ve drawn our circle just a little too small.
I’m proud that we have Muslims and LGBTQ folks and black folks and DREAMers and
women and Jewish folks and Hindus and everybody inside our circle as Progressives. And that
was a huge achievement and we shouldn’t back away from it. And we also maybe, in more
recent years, have drawn that circle too small, so that if you are a straight male who’s poor, or a
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straight white male who’s scared, or a straight white male who’s got other problems, you may
not feel like you have a welcome place at the table.
And so, I think … I don’t know what to do about these hate groups, but I know that
adding hate to hate doesn’t give us less hate. I challenge them and us to come out of the hateful
nonsense. I need you. You’re a white guy, you’re 52 years old, you’ve got a skill, you’ve got a
trade. We have a lot of young men in the inner city who need role models, who need help. Come.
Don’t sit here and watch Fox TV—I don’t call it Fox News—don’t sit here and watch Fox and
talk about, “Oh, those people in Chicago are shooting each other. Why do they care about police
brutality? People in Chicago are killing each other.” You’re talking about people in Chicago, you
aren’t talking to people in Chicago. You’ve never been to one funeral. You’ve never held the
hand of one grandmother who’s putting to bed, who’s burying, a 16-year-old. Come to Chicago.
Come to these communities. Be a part of this conversation and you’ll learn and we’ll learn, too.
I took five leaders from South Central Los Angeles—four African American, one
Latino—who had been working on the addiction crisis, with crack cocaine initially. I put them
on a plane and I took them to West Virginia. And we sat in West Virginia with five leaders from
Appalachia who had been working on the opioid crisis. Those five white leaders had voted for
Donald Trump. They were as conservative as possible. They were going to funerals every week
because people are dropping like flies from opioid overdoses in West Virginia. And those
African Americans and Latino leaders had been to a lot of funerals as well. And when you put
those two face-to-face—black and Latino Hillary voters from California with white Trump
voters from West Virginia—and had them talk about what they were going through, it was
literally the same story. And they fell in love within ten minutes.
We’re going to take that group to the White House and we’re going to take that group to
Capitol Hill, because that’s how you deal with hatred. What’s the pain? Can we work together on
the pain? Can I show you how you’ve got a better shot at getting legislation done to help your
community if you work with my community, and vice versa?
You’ve got to build the bridges where the pain is. And then the hate will just have less
room to maneuver, and we’re doing less work giving them materials—feeding what we’re
fighting. That’s the long answer to a short question. That’s how I think about it.
TS: Thank you.
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Van, I know you’re working with Valarie Kaur, who’s also in this online event series and
others, in creating what’s being called a “Love Army.” And first of all, I thought that was
interesting, the juxtaposition of those two words. Tell me what you mean by the “army” part and
then the “love” part, too.
VJ: I was surprised by a lot of liberals’ negative reactions to the idea of a Love Army. I mean,
they were just really passionate about being hateful. I was shocked. These are the liberals that
say they love Dr. King and love Gandhi and love civil rights and love peace and they’ve got their
tie-dye shirts and that sort of stuff. And I said our response to this hate army that took over our
government is [that] we’re going to launch a Love Army. “I don’t believe in love. It’s not the
time for love.” I’m like, “Wow, really?” And I said, “Look, the love you have in your life must
be real weak. That sounds like a personal problem.” Love … [laughter] I mean, that Mama Bear
loves those cubs. You’d better not mess with those cubs. Because with the love she has for those
cubs, she’s going to stand up and defend those cubs, not out of hatred for anybody, but out of
love for those cubs. You don’t mess with those cubs, she’s not going to mess with you. But, you
mess with those cubs, she’s going to mess with you.
That’s love. That’s what I’m talking about—that Love Army—not just love as a weak
thing, but as love as strong stance. And listen, we have to get out here and fight. I mean, there’s
some stuff we just can’t back down on. Human rights abuses against immigrants, against
transgendered people, against Muslims? No, we’re not going to … We’ll fight until the last dog
barks on that. But we can’t only fight and still have a country.
There also are areas where we should be able to work together, despite our differences.
Now, this is now considered just insane talk. But it’s only insane talk because people are so
triggered and traumatized that they’re not thinking rationally. Nothing I’m saying is particularly
profound. This is stuff that your mom would have told you. This is stuff that is literally
kindergarten and third-grade stuff. But people are so triggered and traumatized, and we haven’t
put in the work to get healed enough to meet this challenge. You have to get through a lot more
healing to meet this challenge. When we talk about the Love Army, that’s what we mean.
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TS: I think part of the reason that it’s such a reach for people is because of what you said about
the resistance bubble. I mean, anytime you’re in a bubble, anything outside the bubble is foreign
to you, and eye-opening.
OK. There are ten principles of being part of a Love Army, and there was one that I
wanted to talk to you about, Van. “Amplify the unheard.” And I thought if anybody knows what
voices have not been heard that we need to hear, it’s Van Jones, because you’re someone who
listens and—at least that’s my perception of you—you’ve made a commitment to listen to people
who are marginalized and unheard. What stories do you think it’s really important for our
listeners of Waking Up in the World to hear?
VJ: Well, it’s hard to know because I don’t know all your listeners.
VJ: But if I were to stereotype, I would assume college-educated people, probably.
TS: Yes, Prius-driving, NPR-listening … I think you’ve got it.
VJ: Yes, exactly. My favorite folks. Honestly.
You know, there’s a double danger for well-meaning liberals who are affluent. One is
being disconnected from people of color—who may even have college degrees, but have a
completely different experience of life just walking into a store, walking into a restaurant,
walking down the street. Completely different, like-a-horror-movie different. [They can] just be
completely, blissfully unaware of the racial dynamics, and want so much for racial dynamics not
to not exist, and want so much for racial oppression to be over, that they actually contribute to it
by denying what’s actually happening. And so it’s really important to listen to people of color,
even in our upset, even in our pain and frustration, and especially so, to realize …
Hey, look man, I used to live in a flat in the Mission District of San Francisco—no,
Bernal Heights in San Francisco, and I thought I understood that neighborhood pretty well. And
there was one apartment on the second floor where I lived and there was one below me on the
first floor. I lived there a couple years. And then I lost my keys and I couldn’t get in my front
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door, but I knew my back door was open. So I went downstairs, knocked on the door, and said,
“Can you guys let me go through your apartment so I can go up the back and into my
apartment?” And when the door opened, unbeknownst to me, the entire time, living just below
me, was a home for undocumented workers, so-called illegal immigrants, who were stuffed in
there like sardines—I mean, literally on top of each other. This is where they would pay my
same landlord—who was so kind to me, I had this wonderful flat above—would pay exorbitant
prices just to be able to lay down on a little dirty pillow and a little dirty mat. I walked through
there and I realized, I know nothing about this neighborhood. I get up in the morning. I brush my
teeth. I walk down the street and say, “Hi, hello.” I never thought to ask where these
undocumented workers lived, who were standing on the street corner waiting for someone to
come and give them work. I never thought about it. It was in my face the whole time. I’d catch
my little bus. I go read my newspaper. [inaudible 00:41:06] what it is to be affluent. To be
radically ignorant about basic facts and to not know it.
So I think the first thing is to listen to the women and the people of color and the LGBTQ
folks, and the Jewish folks and the other folks in your life. Really listen to what they are going
through and don’t argue with them about it and try to shut it down and explain, “Well it could be
this or it could be that, maybe it’s not that …,” Just let it flow over you and try to get to the
emotional reality of it before you start. You know, your brain cuts in and starts trying to defend
and knock down, trying to have some kind of rational, “Well, what about this?” You know, that’s
not as useful for your own development and education.
The other thing is, it’s also just become fashionable to be completely, outlandishly
bigoted toward people who are in the Red States, who are Republican voters: to call them
ignorant, to say they’re all bigots, that they’re all sexist, that it’s all “Dumbfuckistan” out there.
“These people are so stupid.” That’s perfectly acceptable now to say. To develop a colonial view
of the Red States—this is how colonizers talk—that the Red States are these backwaters for
unwashed heathens that need to be either conquered or converted to the NPR religion. They need
to be force-fed some kale out there, because they’re just all unworthy ignoramuses.
And that, A) It’s not true. And it diminishes and demeans us to even say stuff like that.
But it’s become common. A lot of us that grew up in the Red States have a lot of pain from our
experiences, but we’re grown folks now—quite successful, most of us—and can have some
damn grace. There’s a lot of wisdom in the Red States. There’s a lot of damn smart people in the
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Red States. There’s a lot of good, hard-working people in the Red States and they’re people who
can sense our contempt at a thousand yards. You’re not going to be able to lead a country that
you don’t love. Period.
Donald Trump can only lead 46 percent of the country because he hates the rest of us,
and no matter what he says or does, the rest of us are not coming. But it also works in reverse.
“All this false equivalence. Oh my God I can’t stand this Van Jones. This false equivalence.”
I’ll admit it’s 80/20. Sometimes it’s 90/10 as far as our right wing, our friends, driving
the intolerance. But we aren’t innocent. We aren’t innocent. We’re not perfect. We get tricked
and traumatized and triggered, too, and add to the conflict in ways that don’t serve us or anybody
else. And we have to focus on that, because we have control over that. So let’s take responsibility
for our ten, 20 or 30 percent and get to work.
I appreciate you reading my book. I think the book, Beyond the Messy Truth, has useful
stuff in it. I’ve been very surprised how many liberals have come up to me and thanked me for
the book and said they really felt that they were trapped, that they were imprisoned by a
particular worldview that just had them depressed and had them just anxious and upset all the
time, and that the book was the first key to getting out of that and getting back to a more
productive emotional state.
We’ve still got to fix the stuff. I mean, we can’t let these people run the country into the
ground. But, we’ve got to be in a better emotional state to do our work.
TS: Oh, yes. It was a big IQ increaser, to read Beyond the Messy Truth. I think it’s critical
reading for people.
OK, just two final questions, Van. You said you can’t lead a country you don’t love. And
one of the things you write about in Beyond the Messy Truth is the difference between the
founding vision of our country and the current reality we’re in. And I think many people,
because of the current reality we’re in, don’t feel a love for our America. Quite the contrary. You
know, the sense of, “I think I might be leaving. British Columbia’s looking pretty good these
days, maybe someplace in Europe.” I’ve had conversations recently with Sounds True authors
who are … They’re done. They’re going to go write from a beach someplace. What is it about the
founding vision of American that has your love?
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VJ: Well first of all, nobody wants your ass in Canada in the first place. I mean, that’s like the
most American, entitled, bullshit response. Nobody wants your American ass in Canada, and if
the things you say you believe—that the country’s being taken over by fascists, if that were true,
and it’s not, but, if that were true—then you stay and fight. If you get driven out of your country,
if you get run out of your country, driven into exile, that’s one thing. But if you just can’t take
mean tweets and bad news and just have to flee, then you’re as much a part of the problem as
People have done nothing, literally nothing. I remember in 2016, I was running around—
and you may remember this—begging people to take Donald Trump seriously. If you don’t
believe it you can Google, “Van Jones, Move On Trump,” and you will find a piece I posted in
June of 2016, explaining exactly how Donald Trump was going to win. It’s called “Three Dumb
Ideas Progressives Have.” They’re going to cause Donald Trump to win. I got every state right
except for Wisconsin in June of 2016, before either convention, because it was very clear to me
that the attitude that liberals and progressives had in 2008, when everyone worked so hard to
elect Obama—people went to swing states, people gave money, people had house parties to raise
money, people volunteered for phone banks, people put in a lot of work—I didn’t see that work
in evidence at all leading up to 2016.
We had gone from working very hard for hope and change to feeling like it was in the
bag and we didn’t have to work. And anybody … Anybody could see that Donald Trump was a
disaster, and we don’t have to go make the case. All we have to do is insult people, call them
bigots if they don’t agree. And I said, “This is not going to work.” And it didn’t work. The same
people who did no work in 2016—who didn’t go to one swing state, who barely wrote a check,
who didn’t make one phone call, who didn’t go to one phone bank, who didn’t have one house
party to raise money, who did literally nothing in 2016—now want to leave the country because
it’s not the country that they want.
Well, hold on a second. That’s not how democracy works. Liking stuff on Facebook and
tweeting about how outraged you are is not what makes a democracy work. We’re in the middle
of the most important midterm election in our lives. Look at your Facebook feed. Can you tell
that? Or are people talking about Muller and tweets and porn stars?
This is not going to work. Listen, please leave. If the best you can do is just fan yourself
and be upset, then just get out and let the rest of us deal with it. That’s the wrong attitude. That’s
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the wrong attitude. Democracy is hard work, and when you don’t work hard, you lose elections.
And that’s all that happened. The response should then be, “We need to work harder.” The
response should be that there are 23, 24 seats that we can pick up in November and then the
Democrats will have the house. When the Democrats have the house, they can issue subpoenas
20 times a day to the White House. There’ll be 17 committees—this is about democracy now,
this is not politics, this is democracy—17 committees that could subpoena the White House
every day and put an end to all this stuff.
But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about how upset we are because some
people don’t agree with us. But we didn’t go out there and make the case. Do you know these
people? Did they go to any Red States in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and make their case? No. They
sat in their little resistance bubble, before it was [called] that, and were self-isolated with their
little friends and got shocked by reality. Now they want to flee reality again.
It was a flight from reality that caused the problem in the first place. It was a retreat from
reality that caused the problem in the first place. And now you want to go to Europe. You know
what they have in Europe? A massive right-wing populist movement—anti-immigrant, anti-
Muslim, anti-Jewish—that would make you run back to the United States if you got a chance to
look at that. So then what are you going to do?
At some point, you have to act like the people that you respect. Nelson Mandela didn’t
run from South Africa. Gandhi didn’t run from India. Ella Jo Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr.
Martin Luther King didn’t run from the United States. People who had real problems, faced
some serious genocidal agendas, didn’t run. Nobody in the United States who’s even thinking
about moving to Europe, I imagine, is facing some genocidal threat or some personal threat.
They just don’t like the people who don’t agree with them. But they don’t want to talk to those
And so this is what’s wrong and this is what’s not acceptable. In the book, just to be
clear, I don’t say that America had a good founding vision and a bad current reality. I said
American had a good founding vision and bad founding reality. From the beginning, you’ve had
this split between the founding vision and the founding reality. The founding reality was a
genocidal, settler-colonial regime founded on stolen land from Native Americans, stolen labor
from African slaves. That’s the founding reality. And it’s ugly and unequal. And even Jefferson
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said so. Even Jefferson says, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Even
Jefferson says the founding reality was horrible.
But that same Thomas Jefferson—the slave-owner, quite ironically—also had that
founding vision. And the founding vision from Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self-
evident, that all men are created equal,” was a contradiction from the beginning: an ugly, unequal
founding reality and a founding vision that’s about equality.
And what makes us Americans is that we are that unique people in the world. Every
generation at least tries to close the gap between that ugly founding reality and the beauty of the
dream. That’s who we are. It’s what makes us Americans. It’s never been easy. We fought the
bloodiest war in human history at that time, the Civil War, trying to close that gap. The Civil
Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Labor movement, LGBTQ, Stonewall:
[there is] blood in the ground, martyrs in the ground to try to close that gap.
And now you’ve got people who literally want to leave the country because everybody
doesn’t agree with them. It has no connection to who we are, to our best traditions, to what has
made … Listen, people say, “Oh, well these liberals don’t believe in American exceptionalism.”
Oh, no, you’re wrong about that. America’s exceptional. It’s exceptional because the people at
Stonewall made American exceptional. The suffragettes made America exceptional. Dr. King
and Ella Jo Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer made America exceptional. All those labor guys who
went out there and got their heads bashed in made America exceptional. America’s exceptional.
Look at the water, look at the air—the environmentalists have made America exceptional.
And the idea that because you’ve got some orange nut job in the White House, that you
didn’t even try to stop, now the whole country sucks and everything’s terrible and we should
leave? That’s the problem. Because there’s no relationship between the truth—the deep truth, the
messy truth—and that kind of position. The messy truth is: we didn’t do our job, emotionally
inside, politically outside, and now we’re paying a cost because we didn’t do our job.
Now the response should be, let’s double down on our work, on our spiritual work and
our pro-democracy work. Let’s double down on our capacity to listen and to love, to say
hallelujah anyhow, and on our capacity to win elections and put these people in retirement so we
can go ahead and govern in a good way. That’s the path. That’s the path.
You know, one thing we didn’t talk about is [that] I’m spending more time inside the
Trump White House than I spent inside the Obama White House after I stopped working there. I
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was there two days this week. So literally, in the same week I’ll be at a jailhouse and then the
White House, then a jailhouse, then the White House, trying to help them on their criminal
justice work, their opioid work. And I’ve been really vilified by liberals for that stand. And I say,
“Listen, I’ll do more than most people criticizing me to get these guys out of here in 2020 and
[inaudible 00:54:32] four and eight years off, because democrats can’t win elections.”
I mean, you’re talking about addiction and prison and funerals … Those issues don’t get
to take off four years, and so I’m one of the few liberals that’s willing to go work with Jared
Kushner on prison reform, work with Kellyanne Conway on opioid stuff. And that’s stretched
me a lot, to go in that building where I used to work and see Kellyanne Conway sitting behind
the desk where Valerie Jarrett used to sit. But the nasty reaction from liberals toward me has
been very educational. The fear, the vicious “You’re a sell-out and you’re a traitor. You’re an
Uncle Tom, you’re a coon,” because I’m willing to go and help two hundred thousand federal
prisoners who Donald Trump has in the palm of his hand. He can either crush them or let them
go. It’s been really, really educational to me, and what I’ve learned and what I’m seeing is that
we’ve created something that has a sickness inside of it. It’s a medicine that has a poison in it.
What we’re doing to try and get people to be more “woke” politically, or more enlightened
spiritually … There’s something in the medicine that has a poison in it too. And these conditions
now are pulling the poison out. Pulling the poison out.
TS: The poison is the polarization?
VJ: The polarization, the righteousness, the cheap desire to be better than and to look down on
and to identify yourself by what you’re not …
VJ: … and who you’re against, rather than who you’re for.
I don’t identify myself as being against conservatives. I identify myself as being for the
poor and for the marginalized and for the people who are being brutalized. They say, “Well what
side are you on?” I’m on the side of people who are suffering. And people who are suffering,
they need more friends and fewer enemies. So for us to have a politics that requires us to go
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make enemies of everybody who voted against us—I’ve got to go out now and create 80 million
enemies, when I need 80 million friends to help people—doesn’t make any sense.
But you would think I was talking in Martian. I mean, I’m talking about very good
people—Liberals, very good Progressives—who have spent their whole lives fighting for justice,
who are so upside down now and they don’t understand that Trump is making them be like him.
Trump is small-minded and now they’re becoming small-minded. Trump is ADD and now
they’re ADD. Trump is horrible to his opponents and now they’re horrible to their opponents.
They’re becoming what they’re fighting and this is a great danger: that we come through this
crucible bitter, not better. The whole point of coming through a crucible is that so many things
that you believe in and love fall away. They’re destroyed. But they’re not bitter.
And it’s on the bubble now. Donald Trump’s not on trial. Everyone knows what Donald
Trump is. We’re on trial: Liberals, Progressives, spiritual people. We’re on trial and it’s not
clear. Look, Donald Trump will probably be there for eight years and after him, Ivanka for eight
more if we keep this up. And until we change, nothing’s going to change out there. That’s all
baked in. You think there’s anybody out there that doesn’t know that Donald Trump is a
dishonest, mean person? I mean, you think you’ve got to go spend another billion dollars on ads
for that? You think you’ve got to go and spend another billion hours arguing for that on
Facebook? Everybody knows that.
He’s not on trial. We’re on trial. Do we love the country? Do we love ourselves? Can we
understand? Can we learn? Can we grow? Can we extend our arms? That’s the only thing
happening in this movie. If you’re putting your resources towards helping people to pass our test
… Once we pass this test, we’ll govern for 30 years and it’ll be wonderful. We’ll tackle all the
environmental stuff. I mean, it’s always tough to govern, but our ideas, our beliefs, the people we
care about will be honored in government for 30 years. And all this stuff will look like a very bad
But if we don’t, ourselves, become better and become bigger and grow: three centuries of
darkness. It’s that stark.
TS: Very strong.
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One final question, Van: hallelujah anyhow. In the very beginning of this conversation,
before we went live, you told me you have a deep peace inside in the midst of all the work
you’re doing on so many different fronts.
TS: Tell me here in conclusion, that hallelujah anyhow, the deep peace, how it’s rooted in you.
VJ: Well you know, I grew up in the black church and of course, I’m male and heterosexual, so I
have privilege in that institution. But at the same time, the black church was the one place that
our community could congregate in peace for 300 years. I’m a ninth-generation American. I’m
the first person in my family born with all my rights recognized by this government. OK, so let’s
not forget, slavery and segregation was a centuries-long stain and a stench in the nostrils of God
that just ended right before I was born. Let’s just be clear about that. “Oh, you guys keep talking
about race.” Nine generations. I’m the first one born outside of that system. The black church
had to develop spiritual resilience in people who were going to leave and go back out into hell.
And I stand in that tradition quite proudly. And those songs and rituals ground me.
My ancestors would look at me and laugh and say, “This is your problem? I mean, we’re
being lynched, dogs are being sicced on us, fire hoses turned on us, our leaders killed and
assassinated and you guys can’t deal with mean people on social media? That’s your problem?” I
mean, they wouldn’t even entertain most of this agita that takes up all of our … I mean, it’s just
And so, I rest in the bosom of a great resistance tradition that’s spiritual and political—
the most sophisticated spiritual, legal, and political human-rights tradition, probably, in human
history. For enslaved people to turn a slave state into a democracy, which is a great achievement
of the entire African American journey—literally property, less than a chicken or a cow. For
those people to hang on to their humanity long enough to elect a black president and to, at every
turn, push this country more toward human rights and more toward democracy is a huge, huge,
huge achievement and we made America America. I’m not going to leave America, give up on
America, crap on America. Everything that’s good about America came from the oppressed—
came from the workers, came from the women, came from the LGBTQ folks, came from
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enlightened intellectuals, white and otherwise. And we should be proud of that and we shouldn’t
easily let orange idiots take it away from us.
TS: Van Jones, you are calling us all up. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for giving
your time to this series. You’ve touched me and inspired me and I know our listeners, too. Thank
you so much.
VJ: Well, thanks for the opportunity. I appreciate it.
TS: Van Jones on Waking Up in the World. Thanks everybody for joining us.
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