Look Forward in Anger

“Of course there’s a bias against the left!” says Ed Asner over the phone. “This is an essentially conservative country, in terms of the media and the organs of control. They maintain that control by constantly talking about the ‘liberal press.’ ”

Asner, best known as the iconic television-news editor Lou Grant, is still busy on TV and is a staple with L.A. Theater Works. Now 76, he has weathered cultural shifts and Screen Actors Guild politics, and is known for his sweeping complaints against authority and its corruptions of democracy. In addition to belonging to the American Civil Liberties Union, Defenders of Wildlife and the California Clean Money Campaign, he’s an active supporter of Heifer International, an Arkansas-based charity supporting Third World agriculture, as well as Office of the Americas, an L.A.-based nonprofit that documents and analyzes human-rights abuses across the Americas, and Not in Our Name, the New York–based anti-war group. Asner has also been a tireless speaker at anti-war rallies since the U.S./U.K.’s most recent invasion of Iraq.

When it comes to liberal celebrities, Asner admits he’s been very fortunate, “[but] I might have been more successful if I’d kept my mouth shut.”

When asked to elaborate on what roles specifically he might have been denied because of his politics, Asner demurs, explaining that the fallout for activist actors is hard to prove.

“Even without the old McCarthyite industry blacklist, outspoken critics of government policy face subtle, subconscious discrimination — it might be ‘This guy’s too old, this guy’s too bald,’ if there’s a risk that an actor’s politics may cause trouble for a project.”

Asner credits a teacher — the man who would later be his football coach in Kansas — for opening his mind to progressive principles.

“In those days, before [World War II], I certainly was not a civil libertarian, and I heard this man ranting about a labor dispute. I don’t remember if it was steelworkers or coal miners, but I remember him saying, ‘You can’t punish a man for his right to strike.’ ” It was then, Asner says, that his mind started to open.

“I also got it from my two sisters,” who, Asner says, used to chide him when he made ?racist slurs.

“I’ve been around a long time, and I gotta tell you, I think we’ve always been a one-party state with various leanings from time to time. The fallout in terms of corruption, in terms of criminality, is almost entirely on Republican acts — Abramoff and that gang of thieves that works for him, the enormity of what this administration has done in terms of war, euphemisms they create for people- and land-destroying acts, the unbelievable stupid response to Hurricane Katrina. And I guess it’s slowly sinking into the people’s minds and hearts, but good God, I feel a lot of embarrassment that Americans aren’t rising up in arms to stop this unbelievable venality. Can you imagine if all these things had taken place with a Democrat in power?”

Asner is a defender of the left only in the abstract. When asked how he encourages skeptics to become activists when they see at every anti-war protest a rainbow of special interests, each more nutty than the next, he speaks in generalities.

“It’s the ideal,” he answers. “The left is dedicated to liberalism. By its very nature, it becomes a fractured movement. They’re the ones who, theoretically, will die for the First Amendment. Nobody on the right is going to die for the First Amendment. Perhaps I’m not answering your question.”

Perhaps not. Can you assign a letter grade to the left, A to F? How is the progressive movement doing?

“It’s risen to 60, a D.”

Since when?

“Since DeLay went down. That’s when the Democrats started to locate the preliminary makings of a spine.”

Asner pauses awhile when asked what keeps him going.

“Beats the shit out of me,” he finally replies. “I guess I know I’d hate myself if I stopped. There’s a great deliciousness in being able to look at the bastards and know that you’re not one of them.”

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