Before she began working as the Grit TV producer-host and Blue Grit author Laura Flanders used to co-produce and host a non-commercial daily alternative morning news show called Undercurrents with Dennis Bernstein and Robert Knight of KPFA’s Flashpoints (www.flashpoints.net) daily alternative evening news show. Following is the seventh part of a 1991 interview with Flanders that appeared in the June 26, 1991 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newsweekly Downtown.
In the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, your father was a fairly prominent entertainer and broadcaster within what we might call the “Establishment entertainment industry’ in Britain. Yet you seem to be, on a political level, hostile to the British Establishment. What turned you against the British Establishment? Is it more difficult to come to a radical politic from that background?
Flanders: Well, I think that the theatre world that I grew up in was a very irreverent world that helped to frame my politics of questioning. You know, not thinking as gospel what was labeled for me. My father was from a working-class background who made his career through his work. And a lot of his work was a struggle—being as he used a wheelchair and was not actually embraced by the Establishment, by virtue of his disability. That he fought a lot of struggles to get to where he was. And I think that I grew up with that sense of there being injustice in the world.
His strategy was to poke fun at it through satire and through comedy and through a kind of bitter-sweet humor that, in many cases, left a kind of ominous bell ringing in the mind about certain political trends and cultural trends in Britain at the time, and internationally.
My politics, I think, was influenced largely by my own experience, which was of fighting for my rights as a woman. I’d also had a vision of other people’s poverty, and been acquainted with it, through my father’s work and my mother’s work with different disability rights organizations, and other kinds of charities in Britain. But I think then I went on very much to change that…For example, by going to the Greenham Common and the Women’s Peace Encampment, which was a protest by British and women internationally outside the U.S. Air Force Base near London that was to be the home of 96 Cruise missiles.
That was an experience of really living outside the law, living a life of protest, living in resistance 24 hours a day, and being surrounded by people who were articulating their politics around that in a very intensive kind of educational forum. And I think a lot of my politics came from that, from going to Northern Ireland and living with people in the north of Ireland who taught me an enormous amount about maintaining a vision of an alternative society, even as the absolute worst that can be handed out by the administrators of your state is being handed out to you and the people around you. And other experiences beyond my family one…
I must have grown up in an atmosphere very open to other possibilities, and if I’ve gone further than my parents, as far as my political resistance goes, it’s probably a function also of having that much more in a way of a heritage behind me that let me go that bit further. And being a lesbian. I think being gay definitely puts me outside of the mainstream. And you have nothing you can do about it, but claim your difference.
At the BBC in the 1950s, your father analyzed the news. In the 1990s, the BBC probably wouldn’t hire you. Is that because the BBC has changed? Is it because of your politics? Is it because you’re a lesbian?
Flanders: I don’t know what kind of analysis he did of the news. It always astonishes me that I’m following to such an extent what it was that he did. I wasn’t even aware that he had done analysis of the news.
But you couldn’t imagine yourself doing the same thing? Is that because the BBC has changed or because your politics are too radical or because you identify as a lesbian?
Flanders: I project that it’s because my politics are too radical. I don’t know. I never tried to get a job with the BBC. I know that the BBC believes in sort of “objective” journalism and I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in there existing such a thing as journalism that does not represent the perspective of the people who are editing. And I think the BBC is a classic example of a state agency that gives some space to alternative viewpoints, but is overridingly a pillar of the Establishment.
So I think it would be politics that would exclude me from that.
What’s your feeling about the treatment Vanessa Redgrave receives from the British media, the British Establishment media? And your explanation for it?
Flanders: It’s red-baiting. It’s very simple. The British media are just as good at anti-communism as the U.S. media. I think it’s really as simple as that.
You mentioned your father was physically disabled. Yet he was able to pursue a theatrical and media world career. At least in the States, we don’t see many people with disabilities on the screen. Has there been a limiting of access as compared to the 1950s?
Flanders: I think he was an extraordinary case. He was, when he was in college, hailed as the “next Laurence Olivier.” He was an extraordinary acting talent. And it was his talent that forced the Establishment’s entertainment industry to make a space for him.
He was pulled up the freight entrance in the back of the theatres, many theatres that he went to, because there was no access for people using a wheelchair. He was, you know, dragged in and out of the back of airplanes. Because there was no access for people with disabilities.
The situation has changed to some extent with respect to legislation enforcing access. But I think as far as our society having any perspective of physical variety, of personal and individual difference, physically, politically, racially, sexually—it comes back to the same old thing of a fear of “the other.”
I think that program that has the autistic child is a breakthrough. Because it shows, the U.S. program, a child with a disability performing a useful function, living a rewarding life and confronting his own disabilities and the prejudices of those around him in a way that the general mass culture has yet to do. People with disabilities in the U.S. are the largest single minority in the country. Thinking of that, they’re made invisible in the media.
If Undercurrents ran out of money, what would you do?
Flanders: What if Undercurrents ran out of money, what would I do?
Scream and yell for a long time, because I believe that it’s unforgivable for the constituency that supports independent reporting not to support an institution that’s been around for four-and-a-half years doing the kind of work that Undercurrents has been doing, as an institution.
I would like to continue reporting. I really enjoy the reporting part of the work. I would perhaps take some time off and write. I had an idea that I would like to write a book about being away from Britain for 10 years and going back there and looking at the communities that I’ve been in touch with over this 10-year period, and seeing how they’ve changed. But beyond that, I think I would like to find myself some other position where I could advocate for the value of independent media.
I would like to find some forum where I could bring to the public airwaves, whether it’s the television or radio or even in print, the reservoir of people that we bring to Undercurrents. Because I think that in hearing from people in Guatemala, in Honduras, in South Africa, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Israel, in Turkey, in Southeast Asia, people in this country can feel connected to situations that are presented to them as entirely foreign.
And if I could find a forum like that in the commercial media, I would take it. Because I do believe that the responsibility is to take power and use it effectively, not to shy away from it.
You’re not worried you’d be corrupted by going into the commercial media?
Flanders: Of course, I’m worried. I hope that my friends and colleagues and comrades would keep me honest. My grandfather always said that “it was one’s responsibility to get one shade more radical every year, just to combat the trend to the right that happens as you get older.”
So I hope I can follow in his footsteps.
When you’re not working on your Undercurrents program, how do you spend your time?
Flanders: I go to a lot of movies. I swim. I do reporting. I do a lot of reporting. Travel. I’m a Sagittarian, and what can I say? I do like to travel and I like to hear other people’s stories. Journalism is its own excuse to hear other people’s stories. I spend a lot of time in the East Village. And I enjoy performance art. Anything that gets me a sort of different spin on the arts and living theatre. I also like to go dancing.
Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the 1990s?
Flanders: I’m pretty pessimistic about the 1990s. Maybe we will wrench ourselves out of this downward spiral in time for the next century. And maybe we will emerge from the 1990s in a better position, with a clear idea of who the enemy is, how oppression works and how bigotry and prejudice play a part of that and how people can reclaim their independence, their individual power and individual vision, in a way that helps the collective.
Do you think there’s going to be another war?
Flanders: Yes. I think that this is a decade of wars. And some of them aren’t even defined as such. I think it’s going to be a decade of war within the United States. And it already is. Look at Tompkins Square.
(end of interview)
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