Ben Cohen, ice cream maven and TrueMajority founder, answers questions
With what organizations are you affiliated?
What do your organizations do?
BLSP is a group of more than 500 business leaders in the U.S. who are committed to focusing on the most pressing issues we face (education, health care, environmental responsibility) by diverting a small percentage of our wasteful Pentagon budget to social needs.
TrueMajority.org began as a way to bring together progressives and provide them a vehicle to get involved in our democracy. We call it two-click activism — we’re your eyes and ears in Congress. We monitor how Congress is performing in relation to our 10 Principles. When something is happening that our nearly 500,000 members would care about, we send out an e-alert and provide a free fax and email service to their elected officials.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
It goes beyond Iraq. We need to be a superpower for peace and provide food and health care for all poor people in the world. We can do this.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
You want nitty-gritty? Here you go.
On Thursday, I spent the day working on the PantsOnFire-mobile — a 12-foot statue of George W. with his pants on fire — that has been touring around the country to educate the public about the lies the president has told over the last four years. More specifically, I installed some outdoor speakers to play some great tunes and an LED sign that scrolls through the lies the president has told.
I flew to Chicago in the evening for a book-signing event first thing in the morning. I spent the day talking to people about the book I just wrote with Jason Salzman, 50 Ways You Can Show George the Door in 2004. I had a great time chalk stamping on the streets of Chicago. That evening, I attended an event for Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities where I signed books, ate great food, and talked with tons of great people.
On Saturday, I flew to San Francisco to speak at a conference. I signed some books, ate some more great food, ate some ice cream, and drove around in a convertible.
Sunday … more of the same.
Monday … The weekend is a blur. I know it went well, but the details are vague. I fly to Denver in the evening.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
After I got kicked out of a number of colleges, including a college without walls, I took an ice-cream correspondence course with Jerry and went from there.
What’s your favorite flavor?
How can business be a force for good?
By integrating progressive social values into day-to-day business decisions, like purchasing (from a nonprofit group, if possible), marketing (teaming with Rock the Vote for voter registration), and finance (using good financial institutions, like ShoreBank).
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Conservative radio talk-show hosts.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
New York. Vermont.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
When I learned about environmental racism, when I learned that the most heavy-duty pollution is done in poor and minority areas.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
When Ben & Jerry’s got sold.
What’s been the best?
It will be when TrueMajority reaches half a million members, which we expect to happen soon.
What’s on your desk right now?
Correspondence. Stapler. Five-year-old stale cookie — but my dog likes them and I don’t think they’re half bad. Prospective hands for George. To-do list (for me and my assistant, Natalie). Bocce ball invitation. “No George in 2004” hat. TrueMajority cootie catcher (download your own). Instructions for the operation of a generator. Phone. Burlington book and other books. Pics of my daughter and me. Arm off of an Ann Coulter talking doll. Various T-shirts. Nose plugs (so I can hold my nose when I vote for Kerry).
Who is your environmental hero?
Rainforest Action Network.
What’s your environmental vice?
Driving a car.
How do you get around?
Car. Most recently, a Crown Victoria towing a 12-foot statue of George W. Bush with his pants on fire.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
The seared tuna appetizer at Smokejacks in Burlington.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
No. I get news from truthout.org.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I have a beard.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Make sure that the owners of polluting industries live in the area of their spew.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
This all depends on how well progressives and Democrats turn out to vote. I’m confident that if we can turn people out, Kerry will be the next president of the United States. So everybody — VOTE and BRING YOUR FRIEND TO VOTE and DON’T VOTE FOR RALPH NADER!
We need regime change at home.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, but I am not an environmental activist.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Grateful Dead. Now it’s Dave Matthews Band and Phish and Lucinda Williams.
What’s your favorite movie?
I kinda like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Thousand Clowns, and King of Hearts.
Mac or PC?
What are you happy about right now?
I am happy about the incredibly talented and dedicated staff we have at TrueMajority and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities and the progress TrueMajorityACTION has made toward showing George the door in 2004. I’m happy about a lot of things. I’m happy about my lunch. We are in the middle of making a “Bush-B-Gone” infomercial. What can I say? You caught me at a good moment.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
It seems like every time you turn around, there’s another helpful website where you can sign a petition or some such. But does it work? — Anupa Choduri, Los Angeles, Calif.
Will online groups change the world overnight? No. But groups like MoveOn.org and TrueMajority.org are reaching out to hundreds of thousands of people who may otherwise not pay attention to politics at all. Actions taken at TrueMajority.org — along with the work of “off-line” groups — have helped to encourage elected officials to take a stand. (We needed every bit of pressure, for example, to defeat the wicked energy bill that Bush proposed last year.) When an elected official knows that there are tens of thousands of people behind them it makes it easier to have a spine. Online organizing — along with other types of activism — will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
I was very disappointed at the “sell out” of Ben & Jerry’s to a corporation that could care less about your goals. Why did you allow it? — Mark Wahl, Langley, Wash.
I did everything I could do as a member of the board of directors to prevent it. I wanted Ben & Jerry’s to remain independent. It’s possible I should have resigned from the board and tried to mount an independent campaign to keep it that way.
I believe that business can be one of the most powerful sources for progressive social change, but the real power resides in the people, as long as they use it — and that’s why I am working now with TrueMajorityACTION.org.
How do you feel about the contribution that avoiding animal products makes to sustainable living, non-support of factory farming, improved health, alleviation of world hunger, and promotion of non-violence? — Marylou Noble, Portland, Ore.
I respect and admire vegans and vegetarians. I personally have not been able to make such a commitment. I have reduced my consumption of meat, especially factory-farmed meat — although I am about to deep-fry 20 free-range turkeys for a fundraiser for the progressive mayor of Burlington, Vt., Peter Clavelle, who is running for governor. Contributions can be made here.
How about taking that love for the environment a step further and offering a line of vegan ice creams? I know a lot of vegans who would be overjoyed to resume patronizing your establishments, and I would be first among them! — Keegan Roberson, San Francisco, Calif.
Anything is possible. I’m not certain if anything is coming down the pipeline, but write/email/call the company. Why not organize a group: Citizens for Ice Cream Choices. I bet the media would love it. Vegans and those who are lactose-intolerant could show how big of a market they really are.
What can the average person do to make sure that the folks in charge know that we actually prefer to purchase organic and/or fair trade products in order to make sure that farmers and other folks in the retail industry are able to earn a living wage? — Sue Angell, Oberlin, Ohio
Keep voting with your dollar. It does matter. Think about the small, local food supplier that stays in business because you buy their organic products in the store or the farmer’s market. I hope you continue to do so.
We are definitely gaining ground, but we have to continue to educate consumers as to why it’s important to purchase those products.
So keep supporting the companies that support the things you care about and tell your friends and your friends’ friends.
How come you don’t run for president? — Elizabeth Walsh, Olympia, Wash.
I share a lot of the views of Ralph Nader, and he should not run for president. I’m supporting the candidate most likely to defeat Bush — that means Kerry. That ain’t me, that’s for sure.
Did you back Kucinich in the primaries? And what do you think of his continuing campaign against the impending nomination of (pro-Iraq war, pro-Patriot Act) Kerry? — Robert Alcock, Bilbao, Spain
I did initially back Dennis Kucinich and I still think he would make an amazing president. But right now I’m in full support of John Kerry. Kerry is far from perfect, but Bush is so bad that we have to vote Kerry in order to get rid of Bush. Kerry is our best shot at voting Bush out.
I supported Ralph Nader under the assumption that the two parties were the same and that Ralph was right about there being little difference between Bush and Gore. These assumptions turned out to be untrue.
While I agree with everything Ralph says on fair trade, the environment, corporate responsibility, and human rights, George W. Bush is the antithesis of everything I believe.
Check out RepentantNaderVoter.com.
I reeeeally want to help kick Bush out of office. I’ve donated money to the DNC, MoveOn, and the Kerry campaign. All my friends and family are on our side, and they will vote in November, so I don’t have anyone to convert. I don’t live in a swing state, so I can’t just go out and register voters. Please let me know what sorts of things I can do to help Kerry or what organizations I should get in touch with. Thanks for your advice, TrueMajority, and your ice cream, especially One Sweet Whirled. — Gaby Gollub, Washington, D.C.
You’re on the right track. Visit TrueMajorityACTION.org. In the next few weeks we’ll have all kinds of options for you to take action there. In 50 Ways to Show George the Door in 2004, we have a chapter entitled, “Help Defeat Bush in Swing States — Even if You Don’t Live in One.” This outlines resources for you to get involved.
Dave Matthews will be very happy to hear that One Sweet Whirled is your favorite.
How do you answer critics who contend that environmental protection costs jobs and money? — Lee Anderson, Hampton, Va.
If people tell you that environmental protection costs jobs and money, tell them to consider the social costs of not having environmentally friendly policies in place. Take public transportation. Most smart businesses know that it means fewer cars on the road so their employees can get to work faster and their merchandise can be transported within cities more quickly. In the long run, public transit actually saves money (not to mention the bonus of cutting fossil fuel-use and keeping the skies a bit more clear).
Environmental protections create more jobs than are lost as a result of them. They build the economy in new sectors, like renewable energy. Organic foods can keep small family farms in business.
As an activist, how do you keep from becoming cynical and bitter? — Virginia Afentoulis, Oakland, Calif.
That’s a rough one. In my book, 50 Ways to Show George the Door in 2004, the 50th way is “Have Faith.” We have to act together, and together we will make a difference. That’s what activism is about.
I like this quote from Robert Kennedy:
Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends a tiny ripple of hope. Crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these simple ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
I have faith, and I act, and it doesn’t hurt to chill out with a pint of Cherry Garcia either.
What is the best way to get the media’s attention and make average Americans aware of the unilateral approach of the U.S. and our lack of participation with U.N. treaties? — Patricia Jurewicz, Eagan, Minn.
We definitely need to have more media attention for every progressive cause. There are a lot of people who don’t read Grist or listen to community and public radio. Those are the people we need to convince.
To get our issues into the infotainment media cycle, we need to be more creative and think outside the box. My friend and coauthor of 50 Ways, Jason Salzman, has also written a book called Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits — it is a good tool for people who want to get their group or issue in the news.