Economist Robert Theobald discusses his ideas for a better world
BROADCAST: Jan. 8, 1968 | DURATION: 00:49:16
Poor people, politicians, guaranteed basic income and power are all among the topics that Robert Theobald covers to achieve a better world for mankind. Using the media better to sway the public's opinion, so that the politicians will vote in the masses' interests are all apart of Theobald's plan, too.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel What was once considered impractical today we know is, perhaps, our only salvation, and sometimes thoughts that are considered way, way out are thoughts that perhaps are way, way in. I think of Robert Theobald, my guest this morning. This is the Sunday afternoon, he and Noel McInnis of Kendall College visiting. And Bob Theobald, you recall, is the man who thought of the idea of the guaranteed annual income, and what was the reac--today, of course, people speak of it almost as if, almost as an idea that is, "of course", except when you first proposed that, Bob, what were the reactions?
Robert Theobald Well, I remember some letters I got when I first sent out a draft on this and people told me I was going to end my career with this. And it was fascinating, and still is fascinating to me, to watch the dynamics required for social change. The old line that you can either get change or you can get credit for change, I think is a very valid one. In other words, you can either in a sense hold on to the thing and say, "Okay, it's my idea" or you can indigenize it so that really nobody knows where it came from. It's very fascinating if you watch now the debate on the guaranteed income, very fortunately very few people are aware that it sort of started in one place. I mean, it goes back like all ideas, Edward Bellamy talked about it in 1888. But, you--there was a starting point for the second round. Now, that's good. I think there's a second thing which is not so good. The very significant campaign which is now being launched on the guaranteed income is trying, in a sense, to make it a very conservative idea. In other words, it's only talking about one part of it, it's saying, "Okay, there is a welfare problem, in order to deal with the welfare problem we must provide people with a guaranteed income and this doesn't change anything." Now that's, that is nonsense, unfortunately. And I think very dangerous nonsense which will cause backlash in the long run. We have to say, "Okay, yes, it is the next step, but it will only work if you change people's attitudes about work, about leisure, about who they are, about what they ought to be," and therefore I'm getting to the point where --
Studs Terkel The redefinition of work that the Triple Revolution Committee, ad hoc committee years ago talked about.
Robert Theobald Right. And you cannot make it into a completely conservative thing and say, "Okay, look," you can say to people, "Look, you get money for not working," without talking about what work really is. And I think, therefore, that this campaign to make this into an idea that Milton Friedman thought of, and also some very ordinary and conventional economists thought of, is not a satisfactory development in the debate and those of us who are really concerned about the issues must now try to bring into this theory that the area of social change.
Studs Terkel I'm not aware, this is very interesting, I'm not aware the idea, then, has been sort of co-opted to become a measure to help those who have difficulty helping themselves, in a sense.
Robert Theobald Well, it is being co-opted, I think. Now, I don't think you can corrupt the measure. This is the very interesting thing about it, as long as there is a guarantee in this. In other words, as long as it's a guaranteed income, you can't corrupt it very much. But what you can do is you can set up a situation in which there is going to be massive backlash as people suddenly come to see that it was not only a conservative measure--which it is at one level--but also is a very radical measure in terms of saying to people, "Look, you have a right to live whether you work or not." There's already a great deal of pressure in this country about --
Studs Terkel You were saying the guaranteed annual income has to be connected with reevaluation of our society as well, and redefining work, certainly.
Robert Theobald Well, I think I'd go much further, and this in a sense is why I've moved a long way. I spend very little time on the guaranteed income because I think the issue is not [that? bad?]. I think the guaranteed income, if we have a new view of man, is so obvious it doesn't require a discussion. If we don't have a new view of man, it's so knotty that it isn't going to go anywhere. And my whole effort is now being devoted, really, to finding out what are the means by which Americans can understand that we are in a transition from one era to another, a transition similar in sort of style to that which happened when you moved from the hunting and gathering cultural stage, the agricultural cultural stage, but one which is infinitely faster as we now move from the industrial stage or the cybernetic era into the--sorry, the industrial phase of the agricultural era--into the cybernetic era. And we're trying to do that within, in a sense, a generation, and I have a distressingly strong feeling, one which gets stronger with every passing day, that in a sense an enormous amount of this is concentrated into 1968, into this single year through which we are now living, and that nothing that has yet been done or thought of is anywhere near the magnitude of the events which we're living through. People are playing interesting, and I think helpful, little games in lots of places across the country. But none of them get anywhere close to the issues or the sky size or scope of the issues we have to deal with this.
Studs Terkel You're really saying this year, this period, this moment, is a watershed moment as a trend and the transition in the sense man can go either way toward this new, as a distinguished Chicago citizen said, toward this new "platitude" or this new plateau or rather the, it was, our leading citizen said that once upon a time. Or to, or to what, or to a police state?
Robert Theobald I think this is right. I mean, I think Teilhard de Chardin said it beautifully a long time ago, he said, "Man now has only two options: One is to destroy himself, and the other one is to grow towards what he called the 'Omega Point,'" which I translate into something like a world in which we become fully human. Now, that doesn't mean that, you know, being fully human does not mean that we're going to be wonderful people with no hang-ups and no problems. It means in a sense that we're going to be human, which is a much tougher state than we want to be in at the moment. What we've done is to, in a sense, cut off all of our sensibilities. And you were talking, you know, before we started this tape about a show in town where basically in a sense people showed how we allow our sensibilities to be assaulted. Don't get upset about them. How we have come to accept the most intolerable --
Studs Terkel Yes.
Robert Theobald Assaults on our sensibilities and just say that's part of the system, and we've got to learn that this will not work.
Studs Terkel So now we're coming to the project which is obviously your life now, with which we are involved, Info '68 and this involves, as I take it, participation in a very full sense. Would you mind expanding, telling us about this in the very beginning?
Robert Theobald Well, what happened was for two or three times in the winter and early spring of this year I tried to work with some existing organizations, bureaucracies to get something done. And I discovered something I knew but in a sense I had to prove to myself, which is a bureaucracy by itself cannot do the job. And I therefore decided that what we have to do, and by this I now mean citizens, the concerned people have to do, is to form groups across the country, would say, "Okay, politics is not going to do the job." In other words, candidates in a very real sense have a vested interest in obfuscation. And I think as I watch the election, it is a very frightening procedure we're going through. We're watching, in a sense, a campaign which in a year when the issues clearly are critical, although nobody talks to any of the issues. So basically to try and bring together across the country and the cities through the organizations in every way we can groups of people to consider the real issues of race, civil rights, education, housing, health, income, youth and the generation gap, and to get people into an environment, into an informational environment, where they can see these things. In other words, where there's enough new information coming at them during a specific period of time during the fall that they can see these issues again, they can see them anew on the basis of good, clear, concise information plus a great deal of other material. We will put out some material and then we'll encourage the press, the magazines, radio and television to concentrate on these subjects during the same period of time. What this really means is that I am convinced that people have reached the point where they really don't believe the system is working, and we have got to cope with the fact that it's the system that isn't working including the political system and set up to go along with the myth that you can solve our problems through working within existing systems. And if there are going to be a great many dissatisfied and discontented people who have watched the political system operate in a sense quite regardless of what the people feel, and I think it's fairly clear where the people are, a great many of them, that we must have some alternatives, and Info '68 in a very real sense is an alternative which would lead during the period between Labor Day and the election to a massive consideration of the election issues and I'd like to say, in a sense, these aren't election issues, they're really our lives. For example, urban living. You know, how have we consented to live in the cities we're living in?
Studs Terkel And you, of course, in your, the brief sheets that I had, your own sheets, this is just to enlighten me, you speak of housing patterns, of pollution, of the nature of city life itself, the horrendous aspect of it. And you're speaking now of our consent. This is interesting, isn't it? I mean, how we've given up power to say anything about it, doing about it.
Robert Theobald I think, yes. In other words, I'm saying that we can't, well, one of the things I think is so extraordinary is that there are still people going around saying the world has become so complicated that you must now have an authoritarian state. Now this is against everything we know from cybernetics, cybernetics the science of communication and control, which says exactly the opposite, it says that the more complex a system is, in a sense, the better your information flow must be. In other words, you must have accurate information. The more willing people must be to make decisions when decisions need to be made. The more no part of the system must try to take over the whole system, in other words, a business firm mustn't say, "Okay, I don't care about the rest of the world." And the more you must be able to cope with unexpected circumstances. Now those translate into four old-fashioned Christian values of love, honesty, responsibility, and humility. And we can, I think, prove that we have to go back to a democratic system in the profound sense of the word, instead of which I find people saying, "Okay, you know, we can, we must have dictatorship," or as we can prove, the dictatorships and authoritarian systems are the one things that won't work. So we have to find a way to get the consent of the people, the consent of the governed. And we don't have any of it, you know, it's a myth. This election again is making it very clear that the national election is a myth in the sense that it really allows people to express where they are. The local elections as we know are a myth in terms of allowing people to express where they are. And somehow we have to create new systems whereby we make people, we give people the option, now this isn't as difficult as it sounds, because you see politicians no longer really have opinions of their own. Politicians are now only the creature of the voter. But in a very different sense to the old classic sense. What they now do is they look at opinion polls. And if the opinion polls say the guaranteed income is a good idea, politicians miraculously change their position to somehow be in favor of --
Studs Terkel They become creatures of consensus themselves.
Robert Theobald That's right. So our job if we really wanted to change the country, is not to try and go directly to Washington and change a politician, but to change the country. You know, I went to Washington and I gave evidence for the first and last time before a Senate committee in about '64, '63, I guess, and after that I was told that what I was proposing was probably necessary but it wasn't politically realistic. And I puzzled over that for a few days and I came to the conclusion that what that meant was he couldn't get elected if he adopted that. So I decided that the only way you change things was to go out and you change the people so he could get elected if he adopted the proposal. And therefore that's what this proposal is designed to do, it's designed to change the electorate. Now I think one additional thing has to be said, and that is to say that the number of the electorate you have to change is not that great, because public opinion is made, and I regret this, but is made in this country at this point by a very small number of people. And if a number of people decide that they want --
Studs Terkel You're talking about mass media now.
Robert Theobald The mass media make public opinion and if a number of people decide they want to change things, they can be changed. Now I hope this is one thing we can get away with over the long run, but in the short run that is the reality. In the short run we have a public opinion made by relatively few people and we reach these sort of people and we recognize, I think, you know, that this is not a we/they problem. You know, we say, at the moment we say, you know, I am so used to this by now, you know, you go and talk to students who say, "There's no point in working with the mass media, the mass media are crap." And I say, "Well, how do you know?" Well, they say, "We look at what comes out," and I say, "What does that mean? Have you ever tried to work in the mass media? Do you know what the constraints are on these guys? Do you know how hard they try to put on relevant program and what happens to them?" And what we have to do, I think, is to create a consortium of people who give these people in a sense more elbow room and more freedom to do what they think is important.
Studs Terkel At the same time it was recognized, I know that you're involved with all aspects of our society, Robert Theobald, guest economist and more than that, social observer, that the bottom-up aspect, you know, for years has been the top-down, felt knowledge filtered from top down. Yet we know that if anything, if the Poor People's Campaign, or whatever the cry and the need of poor people which is our own need, is that the truth is that there is much to be learned from bottom up, too. You're saying, you're not denying this, you're --
Robert Theobald But I'm saying we're all powerless. You see, this -- I mean, we're assuming that the poor are particularly powerless. I did a pamphlet for the National Council of Churches called "Crisis in America: Hope Through Action" and in this I said that we have something which I coined a phrase for, "the conspiracy of white impotence," and that is we all go around saying, "We can't do anything about it." And I think this is a wonderful line, you know, so you go to the mayor and the mayor says to you, "I'm sorry. I'd love to change things. But, you know, I am powerless." And then you go to the newspapers and they say, "Well, we can't change things. You know, the city wouldn't allow, you know, that we'd lose our readership," and you go around in small circles. Now, I think that the average white person is probably more powerless in his life than many poor and Black people are. Now, the tragedy of that, of course, is that the Black people are in reality powerless, the poor are powerless, not having an income makes you extremely powerless. I recommend it to anybody who hasn't tried it. You don't have money, you're a very powerless person in this sort of society. But we, we who are rich, or at least well-off, probably 90 percent of the people watching listening to this program are rich and well-off. We make ourselves, we make ourselves powerless. Well, I mean, at least they're not poor in the sense that --
Studs Terkel Relatively, relatively.
Robert Theobald We're not talking about poor in the sense that I don't have money to get on the bus and go down and look at the museum. I don't have money to write a letter to my congressman and tell him that he should be changing. You know, the number of people who write intelligent letters to their congressmen? You know what the mail has been running on the poor people's campaign has been running against the poor people's campaign because those of us who care don't find the time and energy to write intelligent letters to our congressmen, and congressmen write, count letters. You know, this is the one form of voting that really counts. If a congressman gets 100 letters in favor of the Poor People's March and 50 against, his attitude to the Poor People's March is dramatically different to if he gets them in the other ratio. You may say that isn't democratic, but that's the way it works. And we do a lousy job of supporting our own convictions.
Studs Terkel So basically, Info '68, the idea with which you're involved, deals with communication, and specifically use of the mass media.
Robert Theobald Well, not really. Well, it does both. It has the mass media in it, but much more important, it's an attempt to get people together to sit down to hear the mass media. I think you've got two jobs in any mass media in any campaign. One is to provide new data. And the second is to when you've provided this new data to give people an environment in which they can hear this. Now this has to be sufficiently non-threatening that they don't literally turn it off and are unable to hear it. In other words, if you give some more data at people than they can hear, they won't hear you. So what do you have to do is put them in a group which is responsive, helpful, you sit them down with a group and they say, "Well, maybe I don't like this, but at least I can take it out and look at it without being scared by it. And then I can examine it." Now, at the moment what we do typically is we put, you know, we put people into a situation and we say, "Now, you must hear this, it's good for you." The trouble is they don't hear a word, you know, because they don't want to hear it, and if you don't want to hear it, your brain is capable of the most remarkable tricks in not hearing the things that are real. So what we have to do, I think, is two things. One is to dramatically use the media and say for these six weeks which run between September 16 approximately and October 26 one week on each of these topics, we get as much in the media as we can. But the real job is to reach people, either by themselves or in small groups, so they can discuss this without feeling threatened.
Studs Terkel So there can be participation. You're in -- It comes down again to participation.
Robert Theobald So there can part--
Studs Terkel It can be something similar to Committees of Correspondence I'm wondering in a way --
Studs Terkel During the American Revolution I think there were all these committees, you know.
Robert Theobald It's very similar. There's been an attempt as you'll remember to set this up in the States, but it was done, I think -- Well, I think the main thing that was wrong with that was the timing. What is so incredibly different about this year compared to last year and of course much more than compared to '64 when we put out the ad hoc committee's report on Triple Revolution is that people are ready to move. People are looking for something, this is a tragedy, everybody is saying, "Tell me what I can do. I want to change, I want to be meaningful, I want to be relevant." And here we have, I think, for the first time something that is potentially big enough, imaginative enough, creative enough, and significant enough that maybe this time we will not just do another small project. We have to, you know, it was Toynbee who said that "No culture confronted with an environment which has radically changed has ever altered itself." We're trying to do in a sense something that's never been done before, and the one thing I'm sure of, is if it's going to be done, it's going to have to be so big and so visible that the culture can suddenly take stock of itself, and can suddenly say to itself, "You mean to say that that's what's happened to us? You mean to say that we have become like this? We don't want to be like this. You know, we are going to change." But you can't do that in dribs and drabs because your structures pull you back in, and every day they pull you back in harder, so that the cost of a university student, for example, refusing to go along with the university gets higher. You know, I'm fascinated by the way all of our instincts are those of the police state. You have revolt on Columbia campus, the direct result in Congress is a bill which says you may take away the grants of people who behave in a way that you, the president of the university, do not like. Well, you know, this is an incredible statement. It says, you know, it puts so much power in the hands of a guy who becomes judge and jury and everything else. And you watch this right the way along the process.
Studs Terkel So basically we're talking about several, you're talking about an official impulse in our society and a human impulse and both and the human impulse seems to be diminishing since it's easy to say yes, it's easier to say yes than to say no. Or it's easier to go along with what is happening than to find a --
Robert Theobald Well, it's, it's --
Studs Terkel A -- An open window.
Robert Theobald And it gets harder to find that open window with each moment that passes. Now, the only thing that's keeping us abreast, in a sense, is that some looser cultures are emerging and for example, in Boston there is real planning going forward, I understand, for the creation of a free city. Free city means that as much as possible in that city becomes free. For example, we create a store into which everybody brings their paperback books which they're never going to read. They leave them there. Anybody can pick 'em up. People use their cars and they put in their car a notice which says where they're going. Anybody who's going in the same direction just hops in under a traffic light. And if you don't want people, then you simply don't put in the car a notice which says where you're going, in other words the statement that you put there in the car says I'm willing to be involved. You, on a much broader basis, go after people in the suburbs and say that in one street you do not need 12 sets of power tools. Let's make up one set of power tools and move the rest down into the inner city and give them into a free store and let people just pick them up and take them home. Maybe you don't need three television sets, one television set is enough. And the free stores have a remarkable impact on people.
Studs Terkel This is happening in Boston today?
Robert Theobald There's some stuff along these lines happening in Boston today.
Studs Terkel You know, Bob Theobald, as you're talking now, Bob, something occurred to me, and this is in connection with Info '68, and I'll ask you about the specifics of it in a moment, is that even though there are repressive thoughts or repressive official actions, you know, potentially about to be passed or talked about, and as there is an impulse to be freer on the part of many, particularly the young, there's almost a rudderless, it's like a ship at the moment that seems somewhat, there's a great deal of viability within communities, you talk about, it seems to be for the moment, the Boston free store idea, for example, as an example.
Robert Theobald I think this is true. I think we have the analysis or the analogy I like to use is that we are now in the state of a highly unstable chemical, and to this you are adding two types of catalyst. One type is the administrative fascists possibility and we see this, we see this for example, and give another example in this attempt to get all mothers of illegitimate children out into work. But there is another catalyst being added and that is the imagination of young people, and happily some of us older people as well, who say, "Okay, we're not willing to see this happen." And at the moment, these are still in some sort of balance. I'm not saying complete, but some sort of balance. But I still am inclined to believe that we cannot conceivably get through this election year with all of the dynamics in it, without it tipping in one direction or the other. Now this does not mean that everything is going to happen this year. You know, I've often been misunderstood on this. I'm not saying that, you know, everything finishes this year but I am saying that I think that the way this society is going to go is going to be decided this year, because I think that, for example, when you put young people who are frustrated together with civil rights people who are frustrated together with the poor who are frustrated, and maybe you add to that women who are increasingly willing to say that they are powerless and that their situation is intolerable, you run into a highly explosive situation and either it is going to have to be repressed or we then have to begin to build the new structures. And as I say, Info '68 which is an entirely open non-structured structure if you like, non-organized organization, seems to be something into which you can put a great deal of this.
Studs Terkel Well, how does this work, I mean, now then, specifics, obviously you've set the -- Bob, you set the theme, and I think it's clear I would guess that just about everyone listening has this feeling, this hunch, that a way which society can go either way, a time which sadly can go either way. A time of, as you, just to summarize what you said, a time of so much potentiality thanks to technology. At the same time with so much a feeling of impotence because of technology it would seem because of the miscomprehension of it, misunderstanding of it, you see. How then, does Info '68 work? What are the specifics of it? You spoke of participation on a part of as many people as possible. [pause in recording] Talking with Bob Theobald, Robert Theobald, economist, observer, and inventor conceived of so many ideas that seem outrageous and yet that are so -- Realize how sensible they are, a guaranteed annual income and now Info '68. How, then, can individuals people be, become involved, say, "Look, I have a say, or I will meet with someone else or I will correspond with someone else who feels as I do that maybe something can be done." Shoot.
Robert Theobald Well, the key period on this is going to be that September 16 to October 26 period which is between Labor Day and the election and during each of those six weeks a particular topic will be taken up, and they will be civil rights, poverty, urban living, health, education, youth and the generation gap. Now we hope that in a number of cities and regions across the country a massive effort will be made to get the city involved in discussing those topics during the period. Now we will have tried to do before this to get information down from the denominations down from the voluntary agencies to their members in the city. So people will be alerted that way. But in addition we hope that during the summer people will pull together a consortium of groups, consortium of people from their own organizations who will come together and say, "How do we do this?" And we'll provide some models, we'll provide some options. For example, there's a fascinating model developing in Philadelphia where a commercial company puts on television, "If you are interested in doing something about Philadelphia, write to: particular box number." Then the YM's and the YW's group these people and give them a chance to sit down together and talk together about what they want to do. And once you've done that, and once you've got a plan, then you can put some Indians into this. One of our great problems in this whole area so far has been everybody's got to be a chief, which means he's got to be not only very interested and very willing to think, but really have a level of imagination which is really not fair to expect everybody to have. So what you've got to do, I think, is to get this going. Now, the model we're thinking of is that we find a particular strong person or strong organization in each city who calls together the other organizations and then they start spreading out across the city and start using the communication patterns, etc. etc. We will be having in New York from July 10 to 12 the initial meeting of hopefully people from cities across the country where they will be told what's going on, will be given the models, will be, they'll be told about the literature that's available, et cetera et cetera et cetera. Then they'll come back to the city, the Chicago wherever it may be, and they'll be involved in finding out how it's done in Chicago. Now, each city is unique and different. We're not saying we know how to do it in the city if we do, we'll get fall to pieces. We simply say each city is capable of organizing itself for information. This is a pattern which says, "Okay, this is a different political style and stance." It's a highly political act at one level, it's an educational, you know, if we're looking now this in legal terms, it's an educational process. Another sense is a highly political process because it says, "Okay, the political systems and all other systems are broken down and we want to educate you to this fact." Now, in terms of Chicago or any other city, what this means is we need to identify the people who want to move and there are a lot of ways that one could think of doing this. If we can find an organization in the city that will take mail, one can simply say, "If you're interested, write in and say we would like to get together and do this." Chicago, I think, has some very interesting possibilities and I've been doing some initial conversations about the possibility of Chicago being the place where the first initial week of this is done during that period. In other words, that we try and have a particularly brilliant program going on in Chicago and this is the place where we'll particularly try to make national news. And I think, particularly, because of my long association with this city, and I suppose I've spoken here far more often than any other city, and there's a possibility that this might be a very meaningful possibility. A lot of media interest, I think, in this sort of thing, and Chicago now to put the other side of the coin is still a city in search of a character. You know, the very thing, the fact that the East and the West meet here, make it a city without a character and they're still looking to find out, "Okay, well who are we?" And I think this is a possibility that might make some sense. The other thing that I should say just in terms of how this will be done, we will be creating the material in New York during the summer period, which is between July 4 and Labor Day, there will be a six-week period in there when we'll be creating material in New York and then there'll be another six-week national period. But I'd be, you know, it would seem to me that what one now has to do is to say to each city, "Okay, here's an option, here's an opportunity. We can't do it. Can you do it? Are you willing to do it?" To go to the networks and say, "Okay, you know, here's a reason for putting on good material. Here's an excuse if you like to put on good material, you can tie it into an existing program." To go to the magazines and to -- Well, for example, I think the recent CBS show on hunger fits right back in here and I'd hope that we'd have that replay during the week on poverty because I think that said something very -- Well, it was a unique show in a sense because it was very un-gimmicky and you really felt perhaps you were being told the truth, and this has become so --
Studs Terkel You're talking now about using all the media but -- And the -- Come back to Expo [sic] '68, it -- There will be a particular time when there will be a gathering here that is of interest to people. Is that it?
Robert Theobald Well, this could be done anyway. But, you know, I would like to see all sorts of styles. I'd like to see churches decide that they're going to give over their Sunday sermons to this. I'd like to find small groups of people meeting in their homes to watch television. I'd like perhaps to find people deciding that the way they can learn something about hunger is to live off the Department of Agriculture's food distribution for a day or two days. I think we've got to come up with a range of models which people can apply, but it's got to be very much of a person-to-person thing. In other words, all the media does is to stimulate you to meet people.
Studs Terkel Are you talking about a particular period, though, of concentration?
Robert Theobald Yes, this would be, there would be six one-week periods between September 16 and October 26 date, one week to each topic and that would go on during that period.
Studs Terkel Each topic, you mean topic --
Robert Theobald The topics of civil rights, poverty, urban living, health, education, and youth. And one would have a week, then, say on health, and the next week might be housing. The order is not yet decided. And then each week hopefully, for example, one would try and perhaps to find somebody from the architecture school at Chicago who said, "I want to demonstrate something about urban living," and they put on a particular show, a particular set of lectures, or whatever. And that becomes part of the Info '68 week in Chicago on housing, so that, you know, each city has its own ideas, its own set patterns and you don't say, "Okay, there's a national pattern into which you fit." You simply say, "Here are some national things." In addition, we put out materials which range from about a tenth to 12th grade paper of about 5,000 words which says, "Okay, this is what people agree the poverty issue is about." In other words, that there are poor people. You know, we have -- That is one of the pieces of progress we've made in the last five years, we now agree that there are poor people in the United States. We're even beginning to agree they might be hungry. This is progress. Now --
Studs Terkel Awareness, a slight awareness --
Robert Theobald A slight awareness. But you know, when I think back to where we were when I wrote "Free Men and Free Markets", to say that there were really hungry people and poor people even despite Harrington's book, was a very new and novel statement. On the unemployability question we made progress. We recognize that there is an unemployability problem, that some people are not about to find jobs, and we say, "Okay, now given those realities, here are some options," and why, for example, here is an option, you can either have the government as the employer of last resort, in other words, everybody can find a job if they can't find it the normal way, they can go to the government or you can have a guaranteed income. Why do people want the government as employer of last resort? Why don't they want it? Why do people want a guaranteed income? Why don't they want? Then you say to people, "You've got to make up your mind. We're not going to spoon-feed you anymore. The time when somebody was going to come in and tell you what the right policy was is over. You've either got to make up your mind or we're dead." And I think this is what the Gallup Poll is telling us when it says that none of the candidates really appeal to people. You know, I don't really think, my wife agrees, disagrees with me strongly on this, but I don't really think the candidates this year are any worse than any other year. I think it is no longer suitable for a person to try and stand up and tell us what the answers are. I think it's something to do with us more than it is to do with the candidates.
Studs Terkel This comes back again, doesn't it, to the person, the individual, this is back again to his feeling of surrender, impotence as against the possibilities that he has to determine the way he'll end.
Robert Theobald Right. I think this is where I think we are, what we're watching as a society which has decided it can't do anything. It's decided that, you know, it's a pity, we don't like poverty, we don't like race riots. We don't like bad housing. But what can we do? And then the good people say, but I've been trying, you know, you'll go in and you say, "Well, I tried." And what they cannot understand and I don't blame them in a sense for not understanding, is that '68 is quite unlike '67; '67, you tried to do something, I tried to do something last year, I tried to put on a program called "Look Up and Live". It was a program on television which was designed to bring a lot of people together. I found out that people were still doing business as usual. You know, we got a bit done, but it wasn't very significant. But this year, this year you go into somebody and you say, "I've got a plan," and the people say, "Hooray, this is wonderful. How do we move?"
Studs Terkel Well, what do you think has happened in that year? A certain kind of what, awareness of crisis, aside from technological development, something else has happened.
Robert Theobald I think you've got a realization that a statement that we will either have to live in a fascist state or a utopian, and I use that word and it's not in its naïve sense, but a fully human society, is not an absurd statement, but a rational statement. And once you have that, then people are willing to say, "Okay, I really don't want to live in a fascist state. And I'm willing to take, and I'm willing to give up some of my short-run interests in order to preserve the long-run interests of myself and my children." Before that, people were still saying, "Okay, look, you know, you're talking about my losing some of my vested rights, and you know, I'm not about to, you know, I can only see six months ahead." Now people can say, "Well, you know, if we go this way there won't be a world that's worth living in." And I think people are beginning to say, "Well you know, I'm willing to take some risks," and that's what I think is different. And I find, you know, my extraordinary feeling is that there were, that Info '68 despite its size is completely possible of achievement. We can do it. It can be done. The only problem is that people don't believe we can do it. And I suppose one could adapt to the old '30s statement: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Suppose what we need is something like a statement is "The only problem we have is a lack of belief." You know the classic statement, I think, is that "The way to prove you will fail is not to try," and a lot of us are caught up in this bag. We say, "Well it won't work," so we don't do it, and we prove it won't work.
Studs Terkel Well, Bob, you're obviously raising, those are very exciting and exhilarating thoughts and frightening ones, too. How about the conference itself. In case there are people interested. This is from July?
Robert Theobald Well, let me tell, perhaps I should try and talk to how basically people could get involved. I think, realistically for the time being, there are about three types of people we're talking to. One are the people who have a possibility of influencing one or more voluntary organizations or church groups or businesses or whatever, who could come as a representative of these organizations and who could say, "Okay, I want to come because I want to find out what's going on because I hope to be able to go back to my organization and say you ought to inform your members, you ought to be involved, et cetera et cetera." A second group of people we're talking to is a person who says, "Look I would like," and in a sense it's no more than this, "I would like to really try to see what I can do in my city. I feel that I would like to organize my city to get involved with these issues, to think them through." And I don't know what the quality is that sort of person requires. In other words, I know what the quality is for the first sort of person now. They have to be somewhere in the hierarchy of their organization because otherwise it isn't going to work. You can't, in a sense, you know, now that in the hierarchy may mean you're just a member and a very concerned member and you've got some good lines. But for the second type of person, the person who says, "Look, I want to understand how Chicago works and how I can get involved," I don't even know what that means, because we've never had that sort of person. He's a facilitator of city change. And what we have at the moment is City Hall, and City Hall's main purpose is to make sure that change doesn't happen, and I mean, that's not only a statement about Chicago, it's a statement about every city. So I don't know who those people are, but the people who feel, "Okay, I would like to take on that sort of level of activity and I realize the risks involved and I realize how tough this is," and then this third sort of person who could simply say, "Look, if something gets going in my city I would like to be involved," and that is not necessarily a cop-out. That may simply be a statement of reality. "I'm a busy housewife." "I cannot really take that sort of responsibility." "I'm a person, I'm a young person, I'm just beginning to feel my way. I want to be involved but I don't feel that I should pretend that I'm capable of this sort of role." Now, in any of these three cases, but it would help if people sort of stated which case it was, they should write to: Info '68, which is at Suite 19-H, 400 Central Park West, New York 10025, New York. Now, the people we're going to be able to invite to that first July 10 to 12 meeting are probably the people in the first two categories. The people in the third category we're going to be able to feed into city organizations as they develop. I'm still, of course, very intrigued, you know, about Chicago particularly, because I think this, you know, that Chicago is a city that has intrigued me for a long time. I've worked at Kendall, I've worked at Northwestern, I've worked at the University of Chicago, go on, in fact, at Kendall something very unique happened --
Robert Theobald College in Evanston. Kendall College in Evanston, something very unique happened to me. I was asked whether I would be willing to let my essays and speeches be edited by the college by a group of students and a faculty member at the college, and they've done this over the spring, and the book will come out about June the 20th. It's called "An Alternative Future for America", and it's an attempt to say, really, "Okay, look, there are two futures, one is the one we're drifting into, and here's the alternative." And I'm, I really do feel that Chicago could be one of the key cities in doing this. But of course, you know, if you look at Chicago, it's a long time since it really organized to do anything big. I hope that, you know, I suspect that people who are listening feel this is true. The great deal of potential in this city, but the potential doesn't come out. You know, it's the line that people have been talking in culture for a long time about this city, you know, people talk a fine line about the culture in this city. When you look for it, it really isn't that good. And I don't quite understand it, and I don't think anybody else does, but I'd love to see us lick it.
Studs Terkel So that challenge has been raised here, certainly a very exciting one, by Robert Theobald, who always offers these exhilarating challenges facing of a certain truths. So the book is called, "An
Robert Theobald Alternative to" -- An Alternative Future for America," and it's very informal.
Studs Terkel It's published, book published by Kendall, I suppose.
Robert Theobald It's published by Swallow Press.
Robert Theobald Swallow Press. And this again is an interesting thing, because we're finding out that you have to go to small and hungry places, and I don't think Swallow will object to my calling them this, rather than the big corporations. The big corporations say, "You don't bring out a book in less than nine months."
Studs Terkel I think since you mention Swallow Press, Durrett Wagner, former dean of Kendall is now in the seat that Alan Swallow had, and Swallow, perhaps a word should be said here, I wish Paul Carroll of the poets were here, Swallow, small and hungry press indeed, was -- This one man published the works of young creative men poets that others didn't. Today they're recognized, a great many, and he, the memory of Swallow, Alan Swallow, is very much respected. And everything you're saying about in a sense is almost in essence the story of Alan Swallow. A participant, an individual.
Studs Terkel A great a figure, respected others, and because the big presses didn't, he did, and because he did, they're writing today.
Robert Theobald That's right. And I think, you know, and this is, the press has moved to Chicago. I suspect a lot of people don't know this. And I think that there's a real possibility here that this--I mean, this is the sort of thing that can be identified with the city. You know, we are going back to in a sense a small institution which is not an institution in the sense that it only has to make a profit. You know, it has to make a profit.
Studs Terkel Two things, too, before I ask you again to give us the address of the -- Where people can write to about Info '68, that the two strains are at work, two streams are flowing, aren't they? One, the fact that technology is moving so fast that mass media reaches so many people at once. At the same time, the decentralization for good effects, that is the individuality seeking to find his own freedom identity as it were, too. Both strains here are working, aren't they?
Robert Theobald Yes, and I think, you know, I think we've got to, you know, I think you say once, you know, you say once, "We are moving into a crisis," that's enough. You know, we shouldn't keep on harping on that. You shouldn't say to people, you know, "We're in a tragic situation," if they don't know that, they're not going to tell 'em, and if you do, you're going to paralyze them. I think you've got to accept that, you've got to accept that it's true, it's real, then you stop that, and then you say, "Okay, the job isn't that, the job is okay, the world is so full of potential and beauty," and the world in which nobody would be hungry, a world in which everybody could -- Well, I think one of the things that's going to happen, I think we're going to have a free goods society. I believe that long before I die, I'm going to be able to walk into any store and take out of the store what I want, simply because I want it. The reason we don't do it is largely a hang-up. It's a hang-up because we've got used to saying that life is goods and services. We don't need that much. And if we do, most of the things we need can be produced very, very cheaply. Now, you know, there are certain things that, for example, I'm looking at the Indian rug, certain things that are artworks, and in a sense you're going to get those because people want you to have them. They're not going to be sold. You're going to get them from your friends, you know, and that's how, you know, in a sense you have, you have good friends you have good art, because art is going to, I think, going to go back, cease to be a sold item, because, you know, why would you put a -- Why would you sell it? You can get what you want from the stores, so you give it away. So, I mean, you know, I think that the world is full of the potential for a human society. Now, I think our big question beneath everything else is, do people really want to be human? Being human is a painful process. Now, you know, Aldous Huxley did a terrible job on this in the "Island". You know, he said we should suffer, you know, if we have cancer, it's immoral to take any drugs, you should enjoy your suffering. No. You know, somehow that doesn't really reach me. But I think the statement that life does involve suffering is a meaningful one at some level. Nobody is yet to me in fiction made that one stick, I think, because they made the suffering external to the reality of the situation. If not, said, "Okay, learning can involve suffering." Somehow the suffering's always been outside this. In other words, you said, "Okay, I'll suffer as well as what I have to do," which, I think, is a crazy thing to stay (sic).
Studs Terkel As we're talking, as again listening to Robert Theobald, and the talk of, as some will say, what wild and crazy talk it is, and yet we know that his recommendations of the past turned out to be very, not only unwild and uncrazy, but very sane and very thrilling. And so some day you can go into a store and pick out what you want and that's yours and friends'll give you works because they want to, it'll be art, and you're talking about a human being reaching a new stage really, that we haven't as yet even tried to reach, because things can make things, man doesn't have to make things. I think we've talked about this before, therefore work itself can be learning, work itself can be creating. What would you want to create?
Robert Theobald You know, if we could take one simple step and that is to realize that we should do as little toil as possible instead of as much toil as possible, the number of people you could free tomorrow would be enormous. You know, the number of people who are doing nonsense jobs in our society in order to keep them -- And you know, you watch our government getting into this unemployed, you know. We have, we say we must get all the unemployed back into jobs. Okay, yes, I agree the unemployed should have something meaningful to do. But are they really better off doing a nonsense job than doing nothing? I doubt it.
Studs Terkel And then, then of course, you ask the question, this is the [question, of course?]: What would I like to do if I were free to do it? Didn't have to worry about bread and butter and house overhead and --
Robert Theobald And what you see, the funny thing is, people learn this fast. They really do. Ken-- The experiments at Kendall College this year, I think, have shown that people can be undamaged now. This is a difficult process. It comes from a statement by Bucky Fuller who was asked whether he was a genius, and he said, "There are no geniuses, that some children are less damaged than others."
Studs Terkel Less damaged. That's a Bucky Fuller [unintelligible].
Robert Theobald And so, you know, you can move, I think, people to being less damaged. Now, you know, one of the big questions, have we damaged people for so long and so seriously that you can't really undamage them? We have to try. You know, even go back and sort of close off and say that if it's -- Even if I did not believe that it was possible to create this world, I would still have to act as if it was. I do believe it's possible, but I think I know that democracy in its profound sense, not it in the sense we have made it into, is a necessity. Responsible, loving, honest, humble human beings trying to live a decent life. Therefore, I have to act as if it is feasible, and the experience I've had in general convinces me it can be done. Now, there's a big difference between it can be done and it will be done. But I think we have this very short, brief moment in history to decide which way we're going to go. If all of us who were convinced it ought to be done stopped sitting here and saying, "Well of course, it should be done but we've tried and it won't work," and realize that this is the moment in history when it can get done, then I think we're going to go somewhere.
Studs Terkel I guess Info '68. I'll repeat that, suite, for information about it, for interested people, and I assume a great many are. It's: Info '68, Suite 19-H, 400 Central Park West, New York 10025, near -- I'll keep this sheet of paper. Robert Theobald, once again your thoughts are invigorating, you know, and though at this moment we're talking, I should point out a little postscript. It's Sunday morning and I was a very late, very sleepy. Suddenly I'm awake, thanks to Robert Theobald. I think this was about really awakening ourselves to --
Robert Theobald I guess it is.
Studs Terkel Possibility.
Robert Theobald I find that even what I'm tired, I can wake myself up, [which is very encouraging?].