TCJ ARCHIVE

The Jules Feiffer Interview

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GROTH: Well, let’s get back to cartooning.

FEIFFER: Oh, that.

GROTH: The Sick, Sick, Sick cartooning you pointed out was—well, I don’t know if you do agree with this—was broader cultural and social cartooning than what you’re doing now. Would you agree with that?

FEIFFER: Oh, yes.

GROTH: Well, I guess the balance has shifted.

FEIFFER: Yes, the balance has noticeably shifted. And I explained why earlier, that it’s moved into theater. I have a new play called Elliott Laves, which charts the progression of an affair to make the point that the hardest thing anybody does in life is live successfully with one other person. Harder than climbing mountains, harder than fighting a war.

GROTH: Now, it seems to me that starting out that way. and thinking about those issues has given you a broader and possibly more humane political perspective than a lot of cartoonists who are very ideological and one-dimensional.

FEIFFER: Um… I can’t comment on that. I don’t know what gives me my perspective, or why it comes out a certain way. As I’ve said for years, and generally believe, I’ve never been able to separate the politics and the relationships. I mean. I think that one uses power and politics in dealing with lovers, with children. There’s always a sense of negotiation, there’s always a sense of would I win if I make this move and give-in on here, would I win over there. Tactics comes into it. Day-to-day living, out of one’s life, whether it’s in a work situation, in an office, or in a love situation, is as political as running the Pentagon or the State Department.

GROTH: You think sex as politics is good and healthy.

FEIFFER: I think sex becomes as political as you can get. It has other aspects of it too. But we all know about sexual politics, and we all know, from adolescence on, the games that people play and instinctively play, [we] move into them even when they’re not necessary. Would rather play them than be direct. Don’t know how to be direct. One of the nicer things about recent years is that there has developed a culture of up-frontness. But even that, because we’re so manipulative, can turn into the “direct scam.” How to come on as direct when you’re really being manipulative.

GROTH: Yes, right. Do you think that’s a peculiarly American—

FEIFFER: No, I think that living in an urban society, whether ours or the Japanese, the conditions are so crowded, the day-to-day living, particularly in our society, where it’s less structured than ever before, is such a challenge, is such an assault on our senses, that simply for survival’s sake, you take certain positions, certain postures, you hide a lot. You release truth as if it’s germ warfare. And go at these things tactically very often, rather than openly, because one finds very early on in life that openness often gets you the opposite of what you hoped, that you’ll be punished for it.

GROTH: Now why should that be endemic to an urban culture, rather than part of the broader economic—

FEIFFER: Oh, I think it’s endemic to all cultures, but it’s particularly naked and abusive in a culture like ours, where in the last 20 years or so the structures that would ordinarily protect us have been broken down. Whether it’s the class systems, the family systems, the education systems, and the things that one could operate within and feel secure, no longer make you secure.

GROTH: If you ‘re talking about a rampant deviousness and falsity, how would you go about altering that?

FEIFFER: Well, I think calling it a rampant falsity and deviousness is to put a stronger spin on it than I intended. I’m just talking about real life. That’s the way we operate. I’m not really—

GROTH: You think that’s the status quo?

FEIFFER: I mean, I don’t give it the moralistic definition that you’ve just given it. I would in certain instances here and there, but I have to pick and chose those. I think it’s just that when we’re born we learn very fast from our parents and our relatives that they often don’t mean what they say, and yet when we don’t mean what we say, we’re chastised for it. So we learn that there are certain codes, and they apply to some people and not to other people. And we learn when our parents are talking, when they mean and when they don’t mean it. And later on we learn when we’re in an adolescent sexual situation to be confused as to what these signals mean. Unless you were a lot smarter than I was, you never knew what a girl meant. When she was saying A, she might mean B, she might mean C, she might mean D, she might even mean A. And there were some guys who seemed to know that or be able to ignore it and do well anyway. And all I did was get into a total bind. Just go crazy with it, because I could never figure it out. And I guess, not being able to figure it out, I became a kind of spy whose job it was to figure out these codes so that I could understand them, and that’s what a lot of my work ended up being about. Decoding, decoding, decoding. Decoding women’s conversations and what they meant, decoding men, decoding bosses, decoding parents.

GROTH: The need to decode, you think that’s universal, rather than regional in the sense of time and place?

FEIFFER: Oh, I think it’s universal. The history of the novel is, in a sense, a form of decoding. To make things that we didn’t understand understandable. And that’s why we read them, or used to. Not just for entertainment, but to also understand what’s going on in our world.

GROTH: Right. Understanding being different from manipulation, though.

FEIFFER: It is different from manipulation, yes. It’s edification.

GROTH: Weren’t you saying earlier that so many people are manipulating for their own ends rather than seeking to understand?

FEIFFER: Yes, and a lot of the manipulation for their own ends is also defensive. A feeling that everyone has, even among leaders, lost control. And manipulation is a means of restoring some of the lost control, or sense of control. Now, that may be a true feeling, it may be bullshit. Depending who the beholder is.

GROTH: Has that become an essential aspect of modem life?

FEIFFER: Well, the whole rationale for the Cold War and for the witch-hunts and for McCarthyism was defensive. You know, look out, the commies are coming. The Red Scare. That was seen as simply a defensive move. We don’t act—

GROTH: But you certainly deplored that.

FEIFFER: Of course I deplored it. But as I say, I can’t make an overall condemnation of this as an ethic. But selectively, where it forms evil. Obviously it’s got to be deplored and more than deplored, it’s got to be fought against actively, and exposed.

GROTH: Why would you refrain from deploring it as an ethic?

FEIFFER: Disguises?

GROTH: Yes.

FEIFFER: Manipulation?

GROTH: Yes.

FEIFFER: Because it would be like deploring the sun as an ethic, or the wind as an ethic, or the existence of traffic as an ethic.

GROTH: Let me refine the question: To the extent that it’s become the ethic it is.

FEIFFER: Well, because I’m an old man now, and I’ve grown past the illusion that if we’d only come out and be upfront with each other, and say what we really mean, everything would be better. Everything wouldn’t be better. It might be worse, it might be a little better. That’s not the way it works. The way it works is this way. [Laughter] And this is the way it’s always worked, and I suppose the function I give myself is attempting to define here and there, selectively, based on my choice of subjects, or based on what interests me, what that means. How that makes us weaker or how it makes us disgraceful, or how it makes us divisive or racist or whatever.

GROTH: What you ‘re saying now about masks is part of what you were saying in Carnal Knowledge. These people wore masks so often and so consistently that they weren’t able to recognize even their own identities as human beings.

FEIFFER: That’s right.

GROTH: That movie certainly had an over-riding sense of moral advocacy, didn’t you think?

FEIFFER: It had a sense of rage. If it had a sense of advocacy, I’m very happy about that. But I don’t know if a lot of people would have seen it. Certainly when it came out that wasn’t seen. I think if you see the play as it’s presented now, it’s almost 20 years later, that becomes quite clear. But I think to the audiences at the time, it was just too hot, and also the sex was too hot for them, when sex wasn’t at that time. So I’m not sure the message did get across. It was certainly the message that I meant, and the one that Nichols meant.

GROTH: I saw it almost as a cautionary tale.

FEIFFER: That’s right. That’s what it’s meant to be.
GROTH: It occurred to me—

FEIFFER: Let me interrupt you. There are a lot of people out there who thought, well, this is what Nichols and Feiffer say is good, that this is their story. That they are Nicholson and Garfunkel. And they see nothing wrong with that, so there you go.

GROTH: It occurred me just last night that Jonathan Furst struck me as being a fatalistic extension of Bernard. Is there any sense. . .?

FEIFFER: No, more Huey, I think. No, if it’s playing this up into characters in the cartoon, which I don’t think works, but if you wanted to do that, Sandy would be Bernard, and Jonathan would be Huey. But having just written a screenplay called Bernard and Huey, using the series I made for Playboy as a jumping off point, you will find that the Bernard and Huey in the screenplay, while having surface similarities to Jonathan and Sandy, are very different characters and operate differently. At least it seems to me they do. It’s the same but different. As long as it’s the same writer, you’re going to have certain things that surface and repeat themselves. But for me, the differences are as important as the similarities.

GROTH: In the cartoons with Huey, there was one in particular where Huey and Bernard are talking, and Bernard is talking very sensitively about women. And Huey, completely ignoring Bernard, is looking at a woman across the room reading a magazine, and making a lot of obviously demeaning comments about her. And at the end of the cartoon, Huey is getting up, and he’s going to go over, and I think the implication is that he’s going to go over and make her.

FEIFFER: He’ll make out and Bernard won’t.

GROTH: Yes, that’s right. And Bernard looks up and says, “Do you ever respect a woman?”

FEIFFER: “Do I respect a woman? I’d never make out.”

GROTH: Yes. Now that doesn’t say much for Huey, but that also doesn’t say much for the woman he’s looking at.

FEIFFER: No, it just reflects many people’s experiences and what many people have experienced today. The old cliche, nice guys are considered wimps and don’t make out and it’s the bad boys who do. Who are the film heroes? Who are the nice guys on screen who became heroes? Cagney? Not a nice guy. Bogart? Not a nice guy. Clark Gable? Not a nice guy. What’s interesting today is how little sex there is on the screen. I think the most interesting romantic performance I’ve seen in recent years was Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy, that there’s something really going on sexually. He looks like somebody who really likes women. Nicholson in Prizzi‘s Honor looked like he really liked women. You seldom see Redford liking women. You seldom see Newman liking or understanding women. I mean, what people do today in films is fuck each other, but they don’t really romanticize with each other. And the liking of each other, that romantic locking-in that one saw all the time in ‘30s and ‘40s movies, barely happens any more. I try to make that the subject of my newest play, Elliot Loves, and what that thing is that goes on between these two people. But in regard to the women…what I don’t understand, and haven’t understood over the years, is this criticism you make in regard to the plays, because it’s also been made in terms of the cartoons.

GROTH: It‘s been made before me.

FEIFFER: Yes, and yet if you look over the cartoons, I’ve been doing what would be considered feminist material before there was a feminist movement.

GROTH: Yes, that’s true.

FEIFFER: So I think the difference is that if you’re a male and reading the cartoons, you identify with what the men have to say, and kind of overlook the strips that are pro-woman as just something else again.

GROTH: I guess what I’m saying is that the implication, especially in the Bernard strips, is that women are incapable of perceiving a sensitive man, which is not a pretty portrait.

FEIFFER: I think for a lot of women, it’s an accurate portrait, but I’ve also shown other kinds of women in the cartoons. I’ve got Bernard in a similar cartoon of the period, that I did for Playboy—he’s kissing a girl—and these are his thoughts: “She’s the most sensitive girl I’ve ever been with, she’s the smartest, the most interesting, she’s the most clever, that witty thing she said today about this and that, why I can’t I like her better? I guess it’s her build.” And another one, another character who’s not Bernard but should have been, says, “This dreamgirl walked into my life, it’s the most fantastic experience I’ve ever had, she read the same books, and the only thing I could think of was ‘Wait ‘till I tell the fellows!’”

GROTH: Right. Which was meant to demonstrate the man’s shallowness.

FEIFFER: My point is, I haven’t been taking the man’s side or the woman’s side. I’ve been trying to get at what really goes on, to identify, because I think there’s a lot to be said that’s shallow and unrewarding in every aspect of our sexual lives, and it can’t be singled out. That men do this, and women do that. They do it together. And the games they play are the games that they’re both complicit in.

GROTH: Well, do you think this condition between the sexes, the shallowness, the duplicity, and so forth, do you think there are certain social factors that exacerbate conditions that already exist?

FEIFFER: Yes, the Phil Donahue show, the Oprah Winfrey Show [Laughter].

GROTH: But more serious factors? Or do you think that’s just a universal condition?

FEIFFER: I think it’s a universal condition, that’s promoted by the culture. But it’s always been. If you read the plays of Moliere, those people from a different time, and certainly from a different class, and a different speaking style betray exactly the attitudes that we have today.

GROTH: How have you handled charges of unrelenting fatalism or nihilism? I say that after reading this cartoon*

*/ now have no idea what cartoon we were looking at, —GG

FEIFFER: [Laughter] I don’t think there is… Oh, I’ve been called cynical over the years. I think if this work is cynical people would have stopped reading it a long time ago, and I would have stopped doing it a long time ago.

GROTH: You don’t think a lot of our entertainment is cynical?

FEIFFER: Well…I think a lot of our entertainment is bad, but some of it is cynical. I don’t think most of it is intelligent enough to be truly cynical.

GROTH: Right. You reject the label of cynical?

FEIFFER: Yes. I certainly do. Soitanly do.

GROTH: Another subject I wanted to broach, which may be considered somewhat paradoxical, is what could be perceived as a conservative sexual agenda. Your cartoons and films and at least some of the plays could be interpreted to mean that you are suggesting that you can’t really live a fulfilling life, at least certainly not a fulfilling sexual life and love life, if you didn’t live a happily married, monogamous existence. Is that in any way what you’re trying to say?

FEIFFER: No, I hope it’s not.

GROTH: I had the impression that you were saying that if you lived a polygamous existence, you would almost certainly turn into Jonathan Furst [the Jack Nicholson character in Carnal Knowledge].

FEIFFER: No, I think Jonathan Furst is a cautionary tale. No, what my sexual subject matter has been from the beginning, has been to simply to try chart the dreadful turbulence that goes on in the lives of men and women who are trying to co-exist with each other. That’s my subject because the heterosexual world is the world I’m familiar with. I don’t know the gay world, but I suspect that it’s very much the same, if not heightened, in terms of the difficulties, the unrequited needs, the sense of being flouted, the sense of betrayal, the moment by moment plundering of egos, competitiveness, one thing or another. All you have to do is turn on Donahue, or Geraldo, or Oprah, three or four days a week, watch what their subject matter is, and you know that this is a deep abiding problem and has been forever. Every 15 minutes a new book comes out, and then 20 minutes later another book comes out saying that the last book was wrong. There’s probably been more written on the subject in the last dozen years or so, ever since the years that we call the sexual liberation—the last 20 years—than at any time in anyone’s history, and we seem to still know not fuck-all about it. And maybe that’s the nature of it, and maybe that’s the glory of it, and maybe that’s the wonder of it. And for me that’s also the fun of it. That this is glorious and rich material to delve into, and far more interesting and more adventurous than which super-hero beats up on another super-hero. But, to assume that I draw conclusions about this, as I do in my political work, is wrong, because I’m part of this gang. I’ve made virtually every imaginable mistake. If I’ve stopped making them that has more to do with luck or exhaustion than it does with certain knowledge. And I can say the same thing about myself as a parent. What you do right and what you do wrong, there’s such a thin line. As it is in relationships, as it is in marriage, as it is in friendships. Although friendships are easier to handle, because they’re less intimate.
So, I suppose the role of a cartoon and the other work in the theater, when I deal with the subject, is to clarify for me, and allow an audience to identify, and give some thought to these things. Not to solve them or to say this is what you bastards have done wrong, but to show them the mess that all of us arc in, and to some extent humanize it, and perhaps give us more patience with it, with ourselves and our mates, and allow us to be a little more open in how we judge situations, not to be one-sided.

GROTH: Right. Well, let me challenge you when you say that you ‘re not suggesting that you know what’s right and wrong when you write about relationships as you do in politics—

FEIFFER: I know what’s wrong with Jonathan in Carnal Knowledge, but he’s an extreme. But if you read Elliott Loves, that shows you another picture. There was an easy point to be made in Carnal Knowledge, and I set out to do that, and that is that heterosexual men of my generation were raised to dislike women. And that’s what the story of that play and that movie is about. And I think that’s unarguable. It would have been arguable 20 years ago, but I think most people have come around to that point of view.

GROTH: The strip you did for Playboy, Bernard and Huey in their middle age, that seemed to indicate that Huey’s constant striving and cocksmanship, I suppose, were pretty pathetic and miserable.

FEIFFER: I think that’s true, at the age of 50, if you’re still thinking about fucking the way you did at the age of 25, you’re in a lot of trouble.

GROTH: Do you think it’s possible to live a single life with polygamous sexual bouts?

FEIFFER: Yes, but you’ve got to have relationships that arc broader than simply sexual striving. I mean, there has to be other points to it.

GROTH: Sure. But isn’t that obvious? It seems to me that your focus is broader than that. It should be obvious that someone who’s simply-

FEIFFER: I don’t know. Look, in the days of the Playboy philosophy, the idea of going through life and being single and looking for pussy was an ideal that a lot of readers of that magazine…But there was nothing wrong with it.

GROTH: Do you think people believe that? Or do they see that fantasy as a fantasy?

FEIFFER: I think a lot of them believe it.

GROTH: And you think Playboy helped them believe it?

FEIFFER: Sure it did. A lot of them achieved it for periods of time. I mean there are a lot of guys who go through periods of two to five to ten years being a Huey, and doing very well at it. Now, I must say, the personal part of this is a personal grievance on my part, because I never enjoyed a second of single life, of bachelorhood. I was lousy at it. I mean, I was as bad at bachelorhood as I was at being a kid. I was a lousy kid because in America, if you don’t grow up having good hands and being fast or being coordinated in playing sports, you may as well not be a boy. It’s over. And mine was over at a very early age, so I was just biding time until I was 20, and didn’t have to worry about losing every ball that was thrown toward me. And then you graduate into the dating game, and discover you’re just as bad at that as you were at throwing balls and catching them, then that’s another thing you’re knocked out of.

GROTH: You’re saying your dating life was a failure?

FEIFFER: I was not an abject failure, and I guess by failure I mean—

GROTH: How did you gauge failure or success?

FEIFFER: Well, they were virtually interchangeable, that success quickly became as much of a failure as failure because it was all about scoring and only about scoring, and then once you’d scored, there wasn’t a hell of a lot more to do with a girl. I didn’t know how necessarily to spend time with her which wasn’t an effort to relieve my hard-on. And then to get away as fast as possible. And then once I was away to get back with her or somebody else who would be another challenge. And all the time recognizing how shallow all of this was, and wanting something more, but not knowing how to go about it, and not knowing how to become a person who would know how to go about it. Also, encountering women who, if I reflected the gentler and more sensitive sides of myself, would not be interested, but if I turned on the Huey aspects of myself, would be. And all that added to my contempt for the scene, my contempt for them, my contempt for myself as a winner. Because when I won, I didn’t value the person who was winning.

GROTH: Now, you said a little earlier that you thought your generation was raised to hate women? Or is that putting it too strongly?

FEIFFER: To dislike women.

GROTH: Can you explain how you felt that occurred? By what regimen were men taught to hate women?

FEIFFER: I think it was simply the cultural norm. Boys knew at an early age that they weren’t supposed to play with girls because they were sissies, and were supposed to shove girls around, which would prove they were boys, [until] the point where they were supposed to start dating girls, or they were fags. The complicated code was in place, not just in my early childhood, but from my father’s early childhood and his father’s. It was in place a long, long time ago. Generations. And there were efforts, since the days of the women’s movement, to break out of that. And there are some small areas where it is. My older daughter has the sort of male friendships that wouldn’t be tolerated in my generation. Because the guys would have felt unmanned if you could be with an attractive young women who you weren’t fucking.

GROTH: You said something relevant to this in the Playboy interview. You read from a piece of the Carnal Knowledge script you dropped. You said in his 40s Jonathan says to a young woman “Remember when you were a kid and the boys beat up the girls?”

FEIFFER: Yeah.

GROTH: “Only sissies liked girls. What I’m trying to tell you is that nothing’s changed. You think boys grow up not liking girls, but you don’t grow out of it, you just grow horny. That’s the problem, you mix up liking pussy for liking girls. Believe me, one couldn’t have less to do with the other.”

FEIFFER: The irony there is that we had just put the play on, and I was waiting for years to see that speech on stage, and I finally saw it, and loved hearing it, and my wife turns to me and says, “It’s too long, you’ve got to cut it.” She said just what Mike Nichols said when we were doing the movie. “By this time everybody knows that, you don’t have to tell them.”

GROTH: And did you cut it?

FEIFFER: Well, I haven’t had a chance to yet, but I’m going to. So the only time that speech will have seen the light of day is in Playboy.

GROTH: You have no implicit criticism of polygamy?

FEIFFER: No.

GROTH: Only the attitude, I suppose, behind it.

FEIFFER: No, not even the attitude behind it, depending on what that attitude is.

GROTH: The attitude can be poisonous.

FEIFFER: It can be poisonous, and it can be, I suppose, perfectly innocent, if we can use that word. I think I’m talking more about the spirit that’s involved in relationships and not the nature of the relationship. I come from a marriage that was not a happy marriage—my parents’ marriage. And they stayed together for many, many years when both of them might have been better off if they’d broken up, and certainly my mother would have had a much happier life had she never been married in the first place. She was not meant to be married and there wasn’t a moment of married life that wasn’t cruel to her. She was a bohemian, but she lived in a time when independent women had to be much stronger and tougher of spirit than she was, in order to go it alone. She would have been most happy with a career and friendships and no sex life and no children, and she would have ended up in her 80s as a fairly delightful person with many, many friends, living an upper-middle class life somehow or other, instead of being in poverty for most of her mature years and embittered and alienated from her children who were furious with her, because they felt unloved. And she was a woman of considerable charm and gifts and talent, but she was fucked over by her culture and by her own inability to defy it.

GROTH: Would you say that that is considerably less prevalent today than it was 30 years ago?

FEIFFER: Yes, I think it’s considerably less prevalent, but don’t believe for a moment—it’s still going on. When I was in my first marriage, the word out in the media and in conventional wisdom is that people drop in and out of marriage without any consequence any longer. It’s no longer thought of as a serious undertaking, it’s treated too lightly. And every marriage I knew that broke up belied that attitude. I was around a lot of marriages that fell apart, and all of them had to do with immense suffering and immense guilt. No easy matter at all. Just as the conventional wisdom [about child-rearing]. As you are well aware by now, I’m the father of a three-year-old. Well, when this baby was born a little over three years ago, all the literature that we read on the birthing process: No pain, and the Lamaze treatment! And what to do and what not to do. And nothing that the textbooks told us was the way it was. In talking to other women giving birth at the same time, that was true in their cases too.

GROTH: You’re saying that today’s attitudes are probably, if not prevalent, certainly—

FEIFFER: Well, I think it’s become a lot more knowing. And certainly attempts at changing basic attitudes, we’re talking about ingrained male-female bullshit that goes back centuries, and it can’t be undone in one generation or two. And there’s got to be backsliding, there’s got to be all sorts of reactions. But it’s certainly more interesting than anything that’s happened before this, in terms of the effort being made. I think that the women’s movement deserves much credit for it.

GROTH: I was just going to ask you if you thought the feminism movement was instrumental in that.

FEIFFER: If not, then who?

GROTH: Well, do you think we’re undergoing a backlash against that, also?

FEIFFER: Sure, and a backlash among women themselves against the militancy.

GROTH: Phyllis Schlafly?

FEIFFER: Well, no, I don’t mean Phyllis Schlafly, because that’s really very extreme. No, I mean second-generation women who think of themselves as feminists but don’t think of themselves as militants, and are more loose about it. Which may be the proper approach, but certainly looked like backsliding to the women now in their 40s. But I’m talking about women of my wife’s generation, who have benefited from much of what’s happened in the women’s movement and the part of the struggle by women 10 years, 20 years older than she, and are knowledgeable and appreciate much of it, but see the issues from a different generational point of view. And I think that’s just natural. Just what has to happen.

GROTH: Do you see these man-woman relationships eventually getting better and better, until some ideal point is reached where it can’t get better?

FEIFFER: Well, I think things go in circles, in cycles. It gets better, it gets worse, it gets a little better, it gets a little worse.

GROTH: We’re certainly going through a period of massive confusion, on both sides.

FEIFFER: That’s right. And then you think better than what? It was certainly more stable in the past, but was it better? What you had was what we called a family structure, a nuclear family, and what that meant was that as soon the children got old enough, they left home the first minute they could and never looked back. Now, in the period where there’s much less stability, and where the family structure has much less authority then it had before, and there are many more divorces, we seem oddly enough to be coming into a generation of grown children who’ve moved back with their families, who are less rejecting in their 20s and 30s of their parents. So I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what any of it means [laughter].

GROTH: Well, do you think we’re experiencing real progressivism or is it simply swinging from good to bad and back again?

FEIFFER: I think there are certain things you can’t go back to. We’re certainly not going to go back to a paternalistic society ever again. And we’re certainly not going back to wife in the kitchen, as the homemaker, of choice. That some women will want to do that, and some women will want to quit the work place in order to amuse their children the first two or three years, but the notion that God decided that women belong here and men belong here, that’s gone.

GROTH: Let me ask you a related question. We know where we stand on this, you and I—William F. Buckley might not agree with us—but we obviously see blacks and women coming into mainstream economic America as a good thing, we believe in equality of opportunity, and so forth. The difficulty I have—and I want to find out if you have any similar qualms about this—is that once blacks and women and other minorities previously left out of the franchise get into the power structure, they become co-opted.

FEIFFER: You mean they become as full of shit as everyone else?

GROTH: Yes.

FEIFFER: Welcome to the real world.

GROTH: They buy into an economic and corporate power structure, which condones a division between the haves and the have-nots, which is the root of our problem. So it seems like a hopeless situation.

FEIFFER: Well, you’re mixing up apples and oranges here. First we give them their freedom, and then we get mad when they’re not noble by it. They don’t behave better than we do. Who says they’re supposed to, and who says they’re any better? Maybe it’ll make us all better, maybe it’ll just make us better, maybe it’ll make nobody better, that’s beside the point. The point is that they should have been cut in long ago. And just because they behave as badly as we do doesn’t give us the right to say that they didn’t deserve it. None of us deserve it.

GROTH: You’re saying that the ends are irrelevant to the means.

FEIFFER: No. I’m saying that when you define the ends with that picture in mind, which says “Why did we bother when all you do is become as bad as the rest of us?” it’s a weighted argument. It’s an argument that doesn’t make any sense at all, because it says that “Had I known that you blacks would become acquisitive swine just like the rest of us, had I known that you women would have become just as power-mad and competitive as the rest of us, in that case, I wouldn’t have been for the Voting Rights Act, in that case, I wouldn’t have been for ERA. In that case I would have kept what I had and the hell with you.”

GROTH: Well, don’t you think it’s a difficult position for liberal to be in, because it doesn’t create a better world, but simply creates a world that spreads greed more ecumenically.

FEIFFER: No. I think that’s a good definition of democracy: spreading greed ecumenically. Equal opportunity greed.

GROTH: But it’s also a pretty nihilistic definition of democracy.

FEIFFER: No. Because once you shake up the ingredients, and once pluralism becomes in fact plural, or more pluralistic, you’ve got to deal with more constituencies, which means that more equality comes out of it. Things do finally change, because you’ve got to meet the demands of certain constituents. That the Jesse Jackson campaign would have been impossible a generation ago, because blacks weren’t voting. And so who gave a damn? I mean, the issues that he speaks about in regard to the underclass were strong then too, but no black candidate for president was going to be a threat, because there wasn’t the vote then.

GROTH: Don’t you think that liberals ought to be more concerned about ends? As concerned about ends as they are about means?

FEIFFER: Oh, I think liberals are concerned with ends, they’re concerned with means, but mainly liberals are concerned with looking good. I’m not a liberal, and I don’t take liberals very seriously.

GROTH: How do you characterize yourself?

FEIFFER: I’ve always seen liberals as people who’ve taken radical ideas, whether from socialists or communists, finding ways of redefining them, relabeling them, reforming them, compromising them, and then improving the society with them. And the liberal’s job generally has been to process and homogenize the more radical notions out there for some time and make them acceptable to the mass society. And to that extent, liberals have played an important part. That liberals innovate anything is questionable. But that they innovate anything worth innovating is doubtful. The innovation comes from more radical sources generally.

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