Ed Asner on PBS: Why Excrete Money in Iraq When You Can Waste It Here at Home?

This interview is a little old, but worth sharing. Socialist actor Ed Asner appeared on PBS’s Tavis Smiley show on May 21 to promote his new Pixar film "Up." Asner typically kvetched about the wasteful disaster of Iraq and blundered into an odd quote when he lamented "The crime is you can convince all those Congressional people and the people through the media to piss away all that money overseas and it becomes socialism to convince them to piss away the money here at home."

He also suggested illegal Mexicans are taking some of the racist hate off black people, which Smiley protested, since he didn’t want anyone thinking we were living in "post-racial" (or post-racist) America. Asner also patted himself on the back for having the political courage to play a slave-ship captain on the 1977 ABC miniseries "Roots."

SMILEY: I only know that because I saw you in "Roots" when I was a kid. You played that villain pretty good.

ASNER: I regard that villain as, let's call him, a guy who was trying to be a good Nazi and he failed.

SMILEY: Sounds oxymoronic, but I hear your point. As you look back on that now, 30 or 35 years later, what do you make of the opportunity you had to be a part of - I mean, you've been a part of some of these seminal projects, but talk to me about "Roots" and the character that you had a chance to play in it.

ASNER: Well, I had succeeded well with "Rich Man, Poor Man" the year before. I didn't know that the director would ever have me back again, but amazingly to his credit, he did, but they wanted me for the captain. I mean, for the first mate. I felt I had done that role before and, much as I'd like to be on "Roots," I preferred to do the captain and betray some literary aspect to the character, so they said yeah and I was amazed.

I did it and Ralph Waite was a wonderful first mate. One of the reasons I did it was because I'm sure that the white actors in Hollywood, racist

Hollywood, will avoid this movie about black people, so I have got to put myself up as the great good soul that I am. [Smiley is smiling, since there is a little bit of sarcasm here.] You knew that, yeah. Put myself out there for the Black people of this country. I was lucky I didn't have broken legs from the white actors who wanted to be in "Roots" and they got some beauties.

So I did it and I also thought it would be a loss leader. I didn't think it would run away the way it did and it scored phenomenally and I'm delighted. I think it changed radically this country and a lot of this country's attitude by its people to black people.

SMILEY: I think you're right. I think we owe a debt to Alex Haley that we can never repay.

ASNER: He should be up there in the list of gods.

Smiley later turned to how Asner became a "progressive," and whether his experience growing up Jewish in Kansas City sensitized him to discrimination:

ASNER: I think before I was born, there was a country club that had a lake there, the only lake in the area, and supposedly they had a sign at their box office that said, "No Jews or dogs admitted." You know, I've done a lot of research on Boss Prendergast of that era. He was Irish and they used to have signs up that said, "No dogs or Irish need apply."

So it's applied everywhere. Nowadays they're probably saying, "No dogs or Mexicans need apply." I think, you know, the Mexicans take a tremendous - the immigration, the illegals take a tremendous, what would you call it, burden off Blacks by their illegality and by their lessened American capabilities.

SMILEY: Take a burden off Black people in what way?

ASNER: Prejudice. I think some of these people are so busy hating Mexicans, they don't have time to hate Blacks.

SMILEY: You can't believe that.

ASNER: I can't believe that?

SMILEY: You believe that?

ASNER: Oh, of course. How much room can they have to hate?

SMILEY: I don't know that that hate has to be categorized that way.

ASNER: They don't like to blur their focus. Let's put it that way.

SMILEY: I hear that point. But I think that anybody who is a bigot is a bigot.

ASNER: Oh, sure, yeah, yeah. The Archie Bunkers of the world who did that - there's another good Nazi who was humorous. Yeah, I probably am overstating my case, but as Freud said, you always need someone – you need a scapegoat.

SMILEY: I only raise that -- I think Freud's right about that. I only raise that because I think - and I know you weren't suggesting this -- but I think it's dangerous particularly now that we have an African American who's president and we celebrate that. I certainly do.

But I don't want us to buy into this notion that we live in a post racial America nor do I want us to buy into the notion that, because people are hating on Mexicans, that does not mean that African Americans are still catching hell in certain circumstances.

ASNER: Oh, no. I'm not going to remove that. The skin color will always be a brand.

SMILEY: Exactly. That's the point.

ASNER: The Mexicans have a lighter brand. I know that and I know that I think that, if this country spent more time on trying to benefit all of its citizens no matter what color, there would be less time for hatred and discrimination.

The crime for me in this country is to spend trillions in Middle Eastern adventures with the incumbent loss of life while our country goes into the toilet at home in terms of education, in terms of jobs, in terms of health. I think that's the biggest crime of all.

SMILEY: I don't think it needs it necessarily, but I want to ask just to make sure I'm on the same page. You want to qualify what you mean by Middle Eastern adventures? You want to define that for us?

ASNER: Iraq. I even question Afghanistan and the persistence by this present president of planning to stay in Afghanistan, I think, is foolhardy and a quagmire. You know, the Western world should finally realize, I think, to stay away from this place called Afghanistan because you cannot win. They're gonna try to make themselves the first winners. We were gonna try to improve over the French in Vietnam, weren't we? We got surprised, didn't we?

How nice if we could – the crime is you can convince all those Congressional people and the people through the media to piss away all that money overseas and it becomes socialism to convince them to piss away the money here at home.

SMILEY: If those members of Congress were sitting in my chair and debating you on this, they would say that these aren't really adventures. This is about spreading democracy, Ed Asner. We've got to spread democracy around the world, and to that, you'd say?

ASNER: How many years do you think it'll take? When can we first hope to see those democratic springs arising? And we also see that trouble is beginning to erupt again in Iraq as time moves on and the sects are beginning to fall apart again. I don't trust any of it. I think we have disgraced ourselves as this great democracy and it would be nice if we could do something for the folks at home for a change and uplift ourselves.

I mean, too many times in the past, in my opinion, when things have been going too bad, America somehow found itself in a foreign engagement and the military industrial complex got a chance to work and sell and make profits. I'm really tired of those profit makers. I really am.

Iraq PBS Tavis Smiley Ed Asner
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