Books Driving Change: Jonathan Greenblatt and It Could Happen Here

It’s a mind bending conversation to have the people who built something so sophisticated, so innovative, so powerful, tell us they can’t remove swastikas. You know, for kicks Matthew, when this podcast is over, you should try to upload some copyrighted content to Facebook. Try it, see what happens. See how long it’s up there. Try to post the Rick Astley song. Try to post something that’s not in the public domain. It will get taken down so fast your head will spin. But post a swastika. Post something racist about black people. Post something hostile about immigrants. And watch what happens — or what doesn’t happen. 

And so the reason why this isn’t fixed, ultimately, is because the company continues to prioritize profits over all else.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Matthew Bishop with Books Driving Change. And today I’m talking with Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who has written a powerful new book called It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable—And How We Can Stop It

Jonathan, I wanted to start by asking you, [given that] our audience is people who are interested in public service and trying to help build the world back better than it was before we went into the pandemic, as we come out of it. In a sentence, why should they read your book?

Jonathan Greenblatt (JG): Well, first of all, Matthew, thank you for having me here. So I wrote this book after more than 20 years in public life, and I’ve had the benefit of working both as an entrepreneur, and as an executive in the business world. I’ve worked in public service with two stints in government and at the White House, and now I’m serving as a CEO of one of the oldest nonprofits in the United States. And I wrote this book to try to integrate lessons from all of those sectors into the work that I’m doing today. 

And I think this work, in many ways, matters more than anything I’ve ever done. Because I believe hate is a corrosive force that erodes the foundations of a democracy, that weakens the kind of support structure for a society. And I think we’re facing a precipitous moment today in the United States, really in liberal democracies around the world — rising extremism, an increasing illiberalism, and a kind of spreading sectarianism — all these things really challenge us in ways we haven’t seen, certainly in the United States arguably ever before. And that’s why I think this is a moment when if we don’t roll up our sleeves, all of us, and play a part in averting our country from the path we’re on, I think it could happen here, literally.

MB: And the “it” you’re referring to is a genocidal society, a society like Nazi Germany, or like in the former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, that kind of world.

JG: In the book, I talk specifically about what happened in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia. And, of course, the book opens with the story of my Jewish grandfather. He was from what we would call East Germany, a little town called Magdeburg, close to Berlin. And essentially, when he was a young man, he never would have imagined that the only country he ever knew, with the rise of the Third Reich would turn on him, regard him as an enemy of the state, destroy everything that he loved, slaughter almost his entire family and friends, and force him to flee this country. That he would come here and one day have a grandchild in America — that would be me. 

And my wife came to this country as a political refugee from Iran. And she and her Jewish family, Iran is the only country they ever knew, never would have guessed before the rise of the Islamic Republic that one day their government would regard them as enemies of the state, destroy everything that they ever loved, and force them to flee for their lives. And they came here as refugees. And my father-in-law has grandchildren born in America — those [would] be my kids and my nieces and nephews. And when we say What’s the “it”, I can’t take for granted — knowing what happened to my Jewish grandfather from Europe or my Jewish father-in-law from the Middle East — that my own grandchildren will be born here in America. 

If we don’t fight for what we have [there are real dangers]. Because I think the “it” could be civil war, the “it” could be societal unrest, the “it” could be a kind of persecution of a minority population in ways that may seem farcical to some, but for the Jewish people, from my own family’s experience, I know they happen again, and again, and again, throughout the annals of history. And I think we’re living in a moment whereby so many measures you can see the unraveling all around us — the level of rancor in public places like school board meetings, the degree of polarization that shows up in all of the surveys. The idea that we have not just red states and blue states, or red towns and blue cities, we have red and blue brothers and sisters. You have families divided today in ways that I think are almost different than at any other time in American history. And it’s very worrisome. So as this unraveling seems to be upon us, I think the catalyst for it, in many ways, is a kind of intolerance, a kind of hate. And again, as a Jewish person, my antenna is tuned to this. 

And ADL as the oldest anti-hate organization is prepared for these moments. And that’s why I think we’ve got to learn from the lessons of history, or are certainly doomed to repeat them.

I believe hate is a corrosive force that erodes the foundations of a democracy, that weakens the kind of support structure for a society.

MB: And obviously, the title is a very arresting title. I mean, some people would say sensationalist. But do you feel that this is something that could happen within a short period of time? Is it something that you feel very worried about? Or is that a sort of extreme [view]?

JG: No, I don’t think it’s sensationalist. I am very worried. I interviewed Barbara Walter, who’s a professor at Santa Clara State, and she actually has a new book out herself, called How Civil Wars Start. And she talked about how a lot of the antecedents that you see, in terms of civil unrest in different societies, there are patterns that now seem to be present here. And I interviewed Gregory Stanton, who’s a retired professor from George Mason University outside D.C., who runs an organization called Genocide Watch — we talked about the fact that many of the attributes you see in societies that experienced this kind of event seem to now be present here. 

So in America, we have 335 million people and 380 million guns. And I’m talking to you just a few weeks after a radical Islamist took four hostages in a synagogue, outside Dallas, Texas, wanting to free an Al Qaeda operative, consumed with conspiratorial ideas about the Jewish people in the Jewish state.

MB: And they traveled from Britain as well. 

JG: He traveled from Brighton, I think. And look, I’m talking to you the same week that Tucker Carlson is running another one of his specials on “the sinister George Soros”, spinning up all kinds of age old tropes about Jewish people manipulating things behind the scenes. And, I’m talking to you just a few days after they banned the book Maus from a school district in Tennessee — [it is] a graphic novel, a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel about The Holocaust —  because they were concerned about, as they said, the nudity in the book, in this cartoon about mice. 

[At] the ADL, we check antisemitic incidents; we’ve been doing this for more than four decades. And the levels we see today are as high as we have ever seen. Just a few days ago, we had flyering instances in six different states — in Wisconsin, Texas, California, Maryland, Illinois, and maybe it was Arizona — where you had flyers dropped by a white supremacist group, the Golem Defense League, blaming COVID-19 on the Jews. I could go on and on with these stories, but they’re happening at such a dizzying rate. They’re happening at such a blistering pace — again, we do pattern recognition in places like this — and all of the signs have us very alarmed.

MB: And as you spell out quite clearly in the book, from the start ADL has always been trying to promote a society that is fair and just for all, not just focused on how the Jewish people get treated. And obviously, we’re seeing a lot of this hate targeted at other minorities. I think you see yourself standing up for Muslim community at certain point when Trump came in.

JG: When this organization was founded in 1913, Jews in this country, in the United States, couldn’t work in many professions. They were legally banned from buying homes in many places. They were legally prohibited from entering many universities. They were routinely discriminated against. The reason why we have all these public health institutions in the United States like Cedars Sinai Hospital, or Beth Israel, is because the Jews founded these medical institutions because they couldn’t get health care at other facilities. So the Jews suffered from what we might characterize in our current kind of nomenclature as “systemic discrimination”. 

And in that moment, in that time, a Jewish man was lynched outside of Atlanta. He was falsely accused of a crime. He was wrongfully convicted. He was hung from a tree, torn from his jail cell and hung from a tree by a mob. Murdered for a crime he didn’t commit. And while his body still was swinging from the branch, they set up a barbecue underneath that space. And they took pictures, while at the barbecue with the body in the tree, and gave them out as postcards like souvenirs. And so in that moment, when that happened, several Jewish people got together and said, We need to do something about this. 

[So] they created an organization — the ADL — and they wrote a charter, [something] we would probably call it a ”manifesto” in our current nomenclature, that we still use today. [It was] exactly the same as our mission statement, that our purpose is to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and secure justice and fair treatment to all”. So what is very interesting about that is that 110 years ago the Jews didn’t have political access, or social standing, or cultural capital. They just didn’t. They were a fragmented and vulnerable and weak community whose future was very uncertain in America. Frankly, a Jewish person lived much more securely in Germany in 1913 than in America in 1913, for any number of reasons. And I say that, because it made sense that they would create an organization to fight for their own community, but it was what we might call a bold, hairy, audacious goal, like almost a ridiculous claim, to say that they would fight for others when they didn’t have a leg to stand on themselves. 

I mean, today we talk about intersectional notions of justice — the ADL was founded on that idea long before it was fashionable, long before the idea itself had been coined. Now, when the ADL fought to make America, the ADL was the organization that exposed those practices. So just to be hired in different places, they worked in the Supreme Court to overturn the laws that kept Jews from buying homes. They helped to tear down the quotas that kept Jews out of universities, they did all of that. They made America a better place for Jewish people. And then starting with the return from the Second World War, ADL started in the 1940s, fighting for civil rights for African Americans, and in the 1950s fighting for immigration reform. And my predecessors marched literally in Selma arm and arm with Dr. King, and stood with him in the Rose Garden, they signed the Civil Rights Act 1964.

But I’ll just say, when I stand up for Muslims today, against that ridiculous Muslim ban introduced by the prior president, or when I fight for immigrants from Central America or Mexico taken from their parents at the border, it’s because our mission compels us to do that work. Because we believe, our founders believed, America would not be good for its Jews or safe for its Jews, unless it was safe for all people.

MB: And it’s striking. You argue, obviously a lot in the book, for allyship, and intersectionality, and the coming together of different groups to sort of stand up against hate, as one of the best things that can be done to turn things around. But also, it is clear, that maybe within each of the groups that is being targeted by haters, there is quite a disagreement often about whether they want to ally with other groups, or just stand on their own ground. And do you feel like you’re winning the argument that there is this broader anti-hate movement forming? Or is it still each group defending itself on the whole?

I would say liberalism on the left is more like climate change. It’s slowly building over time. It’s more subtle, but the shift, if you’re paying attention, is real.

JG: I think the reality is that we are. The Jewish people have prospered in this country enormously. And if you look at antisemitic attitudes — which the ADL has been tracking since this 1960s – antisemitic attitudes have dropped dramatically, dramatically. There’s third party data that suggests that upwards of 40% of Americans had antisemitic views in the 1930s. And 1965, [when] we did our first sentiment analysis it was roughly 30%. So it had dropped. And now today, our analyses suggest it’s roughly 10%. So that’s a remarkable degree of progress. And yet, I worry because antisemitic incidents are absolutely on the rise. They’re about more than double today than where they were in 2015, which is stunning. 

But if you look at the data about young people and their degrees of tolerance on issues that we might consider classic diversity — race, and faith and gender — there is a higher degree of respect for minority or marginalized communities than we’ve ever seen. And you’ve looked at some of the major civil rights wins in recent years, like marriage equality would be a good example, things that would have been unimaginable literally a generation ago. 

And yet, I worry that today while there are still profound issues with systemic racism, deep issues with the way that certain minorities are still marginalized, I worry that the divide today increasingly is not just black versus white. Increasingly, it’s also right versus left. And that’s, again, this kind of political sectarianism, this kind of polarization, which I think could lead to a conflagration here. I mean, we saw this play out in some ways on January the sixth. That was it. That was literally the most predictable domestic terror act in American history, because we knew what they were going to do. And the idea that men with makeshift weapons would rampage through our Capitol, trying to kidnap and kill legislators, that is a new threshold that’s been breached. And a frightening one. And that’s why I think we’ve all got to be very, not just vigilant, but worried.

MB: And you basically take issue with people, both on the right and the left, [that go] to the extremes, who are hating.

JG: Both sides can express a degree of intolerance and hostility. I would liken it to the following: I think you see kind of extremism on the right, [and] that’s like a bomb cyclone. We just got hit with a blizzard over the weekend, two feet of snow on the East Coast, a bomb cyclone, it’s a sudden meteorological storm that kills people. And it is undeniable in its fearsomeness, right. It’s ferocity, okay? It’s a nasty, sudden seismic event. But I would say liberalism on the left is more like climate change. It’s slowly building over time. It’s more subtle, but the shift, if you’re paying attention, is real. And the norms are changing. And we’re a bit like boiling frogs. And by the way, what that does as the norms change, and the Overton window shifts, it creates the conditions in which you can have a sudden seismic event as well – they’re more likely to happen. So extremism on the right is like a bomb cyclone, a cat[egory] five hurricane. Extremist illiberalism on the left is like climate change. Both of them can kill you. And it doesn’t cost anything to acknowledge this reality. Because that’s the only way we’re ever going to repair it. Both parties have a degree of responsibility, like in any marriage, in any dynamic, where there’s more than one person it is quite likely, right? In any study of human psychology, both parties have to bear some of the blame and have to work together to solve it.

Nobody wants technocrats anymore. Nobody wants experts anymore. Everybody wants [the person] who is perceived to be the authentic real man. But that creates a kind of space.

MB: I want to come to the “how we can stop it” part of the book. But I want to talk briefly about why this is happening so much now. And you know, I think two factors that struck me, particularly one being that we are going through a phase that no democracy has previously successfully navigated, which is the founding majority becoming the minority. And obviously, as that process is going on, that former majority is using a lot of othering and hate to try and shore up its position. And the other being the role of the social media platforms and their failure to really police themselves properly and stand up against hate. Those are, above all, the two most important factors. The one we can probably do most about would be the second of those.

JG: I think your analysis is incisive. I think, number one, it is definitely true that shifting demographics, combined with our kind of political system, has created a very toxic moment, where to your point, the majority feels like it’s becoming the minority. And they’re using different means to try to preserve some degree of power. 

I think a second thing that’s happened has been the coarsening of the public discourse, specifically with politicians who now resort to tactics that heretofore had never been introduced in the United States, or certainly not on the national level. I mean, the way that candidate Trump talked has now become standard discourse for candidates across the country — the way that President Trump operated has become standard discourse for a lot of elected officials. And that has contributed a great deal, I think, to the polarization. 

So I think, in some ways, it’s like this quest for authenticity that has become the primary thing, to the point where a full authenticity is the only thing that people want, right? Nobody wants technocrats anymore. Nobody wants experts anymore. Everybody wants [the person] who is perceived to be the authentic real man. But that creates a kind of space. Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, their notion of a representative democracy was predicated upon the kind of technocrats who would be farmers, but would learn the mechanics to govern and be responsible stewards of the democracy. It wasn’t about, Let’s just take raw people and throw them into the mix to run things. We don’t have a pure democracy. We have a representative democracy. We have a Republic for that reason. 

I think the third issue is indeed social media. I think the media ecosystem has changed so dramatically in the past two decade plus, since the passage of the Communications Decency Act in ’96, which created the space for the user generated platforms like Facebook and Instagram and others. And in large part, because these services were able from the get-go to avoid the kind of regulatory oversight that traditionally governed broadcast and radio and print and all other media. For that reason, number one. Number two, the basic business model and the design of these services — where content engineered by algorithms rather than people can identify what’s most popular and push it forward.

MB: And you tell a nice anecdote about meeting with [Mark] Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, and they’re saying, Well our algorithms now block 80% of hate. And you’re saying, As a former executive of Starbucks, if we said only 80% of our coffee doesn’t contain poison that wouldn’t do wonders for your sales. 

Do you think if there was the resolve there [they could do something to shape this]?

JG: There is no question, Matthew, there’s a lot that they could do. There is just no question. This is an issue that’s broader than Facebook, but pause on Facebook for a minute. It’s not just what’s hard. What’s hard is building a business from scratch — that in just 16 years, has more than 3 billion people using it. What’s hard is creating a machine that’s generating over $100 billion a year in revenue at like a 20%, 22% net margin. What’s hard is building the most sophisticated advertising platform in the history of capitalism. You know what’s not so hard, taking out the Nazis. I mean, honestly, it’s a mind bending conversation to have the people who built something so sophisticated, so innovative, so powerful, tell us they can’t remove swastikas. 

You know, for kicks Matthew, when this podcast is over, you should try to upload some copyrighted content to Facebook. Try it, see what happens. See how long it’s up there. Try to post the Rick Astley song, try to post something that’s not in the public domain, it will get taken down so fast your head will spin. But post a swastika, post something racist about black people, post something hostile about immigrants, and watch what happens — or what doesn’t happen. And so the reason why this isn’t fixed, ultimately, is because the company continues to prioritize profits over all else. They just do. 

And I’m not being rhetorical when I say that literally the driver is EPS, and the driver is innovation. So it goes from web 2.0 and the social graph to web 3.0 and the metaverse, but at the end of the day, it’s about how are they maximizing shareholder value and increasing the kind of the public value of the business? It is not, How do we protect our users? Now, by the way, why is it not? Because they’re still in a growing market. And I think they deeply believe that their lack of controls or safeguards hasn’t hemmed in their growth. Were that to change, they would change overnight. 

Now, by the way, talk about the GDPR and what Europe did vis à vis data protection, right? You’ve seen every website change their policies overnight, to be in compliance, because the penalties are too high. Now if government — whether it’s in Brussels, or Washington, D.C. — work together to say to Facebook, No more Nazis, that would literally change overnight.

MB: So other things that can be done, you have to say –

JG: Can I say one other thing? So you were at The Economist for decades. It’s not censorship when The Economist doesn’t give a column to David Irving, or to some white supremacist. That isn’t censorship. David Irving can teach, and he can write all he wants, just not in the pages of The Economist, or the Financial Times. So I don’t think it’s censorship when we say the Nazis don’t belong on Facebook. And this notion that free expression means every idea up there [should be allowed] — like there has always been a lunatic fringe. The question is just whether you privilege it with a platform. And the editors at The Economist, and the editors at the FT, and the editors in the BBC say, You know what, maybe we don’t need the Nazis on our show on a weekly basis. And still, Facebook’s algorithms aren’t designed to exercise any degree of editorial kind of guidance like that. And so it creates this very negative — Jim Collins called it a doom loop — where the worst things get reinforced because they drive the most clicks, which makes them more attractive. So they just keep going in the wrong direction, rather than the kind of positive flywheel that actually educates the public. And I think it’s deeply damaging, and that we’re all sorting through the debris of this media ecosystem. But I think it’s done more to contaminate the conversation and to spread the hate, which, again, I think is a corrosive force, which again, I think is causing the decay of our democracy.

MB: So apart from getting serious about regulation, and self regulation, ideally, in the platform business — which needs to face up to its true role as an editing platform really nowadays. It’s not just a neutral platform — the algorithms are, as you say, pushing content at people in a directed way. 

You set out in four chapters the other things that can be done. One is a personal set of techniques, and philosophy, for standing up to hate, and second is how we should change our education system, a third concerns government, and the fourth is about how the business community as it embraces ESG, and all these other things, should regard fighting hate as part of its mission. 

Where are you seeing the most change and most signs of progress on any of those responses?

It’s a mind bending conversation to have the people who built something so sophisticated, so innovative, so powerful [as Facebook], tell us they can’t remove swastikas.

JG: Well, I think to stop the spread of hate there’s no silver bullet, I will just say that right up front. So I kind of wrote the book to share learnings from ADL accumulated over decades, right? But I’ll just acknowledge right up front that there’s no magic wand we can wave like, Oh this will fix it. It requires a whole of society approach. So it’s not something that only ADL can do, or only civil society can do. We need the business community. We need faith leaders, we need elected officials, we need ordinary people. 

I think there are several techniques that we’ve seen that can change hearts and minds. So number one, I think people have to call out hate when it happens. And I say that because the best way to interrupt intolerance is to expose people to the price of their prejudice right there in front of them. So whether it’s at the watercooler, or in the Facebook feed, or at the dinner table, I think the respectful ways you can engage in conversation help someone understand why what they said was wrong. 

Now, that doesn’t mean we have to live on eggshells, for God’s sake. But I think [if] you can have fact based conversations where you show a little bit of vulnerability [then] we can help someone understand. And we see that again and again, [that] the thing that changed minds often is representation. [For example] marriage equality, which I referenced earlier, is not just Will and Grace, or some thing in the media, but is knowing someone who was gay, knowing someone who identified as LGBTQ. [This] is literally what people said was the single thing that changed their thinking about this. So that’s number one. 

Number two, I think we have to cancel “cancel culture” altogether. Which means I don’t think we can excommunicate people for getting it wrong. I think we have to bring people in, before we kick them out.

MB: And you have this nice phrase “from cancel culture to the counsel culture”. 

JG: Yeah, that’s right. That’s not my phrase, don’t give me credit for it, this guy, Nick Cannon, shared it with me. And it just makes so much sense. It is not to say that we shouldn’t recognize when someone does wrong, particularly people with public platforms, where their words have an outsized or disproportionate impact.

I think people have to call out hate when it happens. And I say that because the best way to interrupt intolerance is to expose people to the price of their prejudice.

MB: We’re talking just after you’ve had a sort of run in with Whoopi Goldberg, and that would be a classic example of how that’s turned out better than it might have done. 

JG: Yeah, Whoopie Goldberg said something really dumb on her program The View yesterday when she said that the Holocaust wasn’t about race. I mean, I don’t know if she’s ever taken like a high school history class, because the only thing that the Nazis talked about was race and the master race and the Aryan race. But, I think she was speaking in a very narrow sense as it relates to our 21st century social construct that is raised in an American environment, but racialized antisemitism, unfortunately, has been an issue that Jewish people have lived with for centuries, and is what led to The Holocaust. So all that being said, that doesn’t mean that Whoopi Goldberg should be fired forever, it means you should give her a chance to learn. Like we should go to the Holocaust Museum together, I should get on her show and talk to her, we should create the space for dialogue and learning. I really think so. Unfortunately, our cultural reflex today is like, You did it wrong, and you’re gone. And I just think that’s a very unhealthy response. 

And so then I think the third thing is, I think people got to get engaged and get involved. So, take government, for example. Oh, by the way, I should say one other thing. And this gets back to my earlier point: education really matters. Like we are ferocious advocates for Holocaust education. Because we’ve seen the data that shows us that when kids learn about the Holocaust or genocide, the pre and post, they have higher degrees of tolerance and higher degrees of appreciation for pluralism, and things like that lower degrees of antisemitism and intolerance, like that’s super healthy. So it works. Because kids can understand the consequences of hate unchecked. So I think education is an important part of it. At ADL, we track the extremists, and we try to identify threats, and protect, but education is a huge part of the process. 

So, again, number one, stop hate when it happens. Number two, counsel culture not cancel culture. Number three, education, education, education. And then number four, I think people gotta engage. 

Now, I don’t mean that in a rhetorical sense. I mean, literally, you got to show up at the school board meeting and speak out for your values. You have to get engaged in interfaith work to understand how different religious groups may see similar issues and find the commonalities, not just what’s different. You have got to volunteer. There are so many ways people can engage in public life in a manner that increases understanding and enables a more pluralistic society. Robert Putnam, [at the Kennedy School] wrote this book, Bowling Alone, years ago that in many ways presages where we are now about the disappearance, the erosion, of civic life in this country — the disappearance of the Rotarians and the bowling leagues, and the bridge clubs. And I think those things they eat away at our shared space, we need more shared space that only happens when people come together.

MB: Last question here. What is your advice to people who are thinking about being more committed to public service — maybe inspired by wanting to combat hate? And you’re someone who’s had a career that spanned politics — you’ve been in the White House twice, under two presidents, Clinton and Obama — you founded an ethical business with Ethos water, and then worked for Starbucks. And now you’re leading, as you say, one of the nation’s oldest NGOs. How do you think about it, particularly going into government, and how do we get more of the right people in government? But more generally, how should people think about how they can best get involved, if they want to make this their life?

There are so many ways people can engage in public life in a manner that increases understanding and enables a more pluralistic society.

JG: So I think there are a few things — [firstly] I don’t think there is a pursuit more noble than public service. And I think, ultimately, it’s been really unfortunate to see government demonized and denigrated in recent years. I think the reality is — [based on] my experience and work in the federal government twice — these are some of the most dedicated, selfless people I’ve ever met. And the care that they bring to their work every day is deeply admirable, [especially] when they could be making much more money in the private sector, they still made a decision to try to give back to their country. It’s a kind of patriotism that may not be very fashionable, but I think it’s so admirable. 

So I think if people want to get engaged in public service: get involved, jump on a campaign, get engaged in a local election, run for a local elected office, or support that local Election Commission or school board or civic institution. All those things really matter. I joined the Clinton campaign, and lived in Arkansas working for the governor back when I was in my very early 20s. But it put me on the path I’m on today. 

So number one, I think there is no more noble cause than public service. I think going to work for government is great, even a few years of your time is admirable. Secondly, you can also do public service outside of government. I think teaching is such a fine and noble profession. I think there are other ways that people can contribute. In some ways, here at ADL, I am doing a kind of public service, even if it’s not working in a policymaking role per se, as I’ve done in the past. 

But I also would say that I think one of the things that I take away after my career is that my true north was always that I want to change the world. That’s what I thought when I moved to Arkansas when I was 21 to work for the governor, I want to change the world. So I went and joined his campaign. But that impulse has never left me. So whether I was starting a business, or working in the West Wing, or now running ADL, I think there are multiple paths to the same destination of changing the world. 

Again, I think government is so noble and so important, because we need people of experience and capability and maturity at the helm. But there are lots of ways you can be engaged in the public good. And I think people should look at what their own skill set is, and what their own willingness is to take risks, and give it a shot. 

Now, I’ll say in all honesty, I had all kinds of student loans. It was not easy to do, when I was doing it as a college student, I was a work study student. And then as a graduate student, I had loans like you wouldn’t believe. And I’ve been lucky to have some success in business that has paid those off. But I say that because I know how expensive it can be. But there’s lots of great programs out there that can help you get forbearance, or can get relief, on those loans when you do public service. And it’s worth exploring all those options.

MB: Well, thank you very much, Jonathan. I think what’s striking is your warning that you’re sounding to all of us. But also, I think there’s an idealism in there that is grounded in practice. I think what did strike me is, and you probably want to reinforce this as we close, you have found quite a lot of evidence of things that can work in countering hate. And I think the question now is how we can muster the idealism to really commit to doing those things.

I don’t think there is a pursuit more noble than public service.

JG: Yeah, well, I think it’s both idealism, but I also think it’s kind of urgent. There is no natural law. There’s no predetermined outcome here. And just as my grandfather or my father-in-law never would have guessed that it would happen there, that Germany would unravel or that Iran would unravel, I think most of us think this could never unravel. 

But democracy is not a spectator sport that you can watch from the bleachers while eating your popcorn and hope it all works out. Like you’ve seen the movie before, you know how it ends. In actuality, this is not some piece of theater that we watch — this is a participatory exercise in which we have a role to play. And if we don’t play that role, we do so at our own peril. 

And that’s why I wrote the book, because we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and stop this if we want to keep things on the path. And I think my own experience tells me if we don’t do it now, it could be too late.

MB: Well, it’s a powerful book, I recommend all our listeners to read it. It’s: It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable—And importantly – How We Can Stop It. Jonathan Greenblatt, thank you very much for talking to Books Driving Change.

JG: Really, thanks so much for having me, Matthew. I’m grateful.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity. 

Matthew Bishop

Matthew is an editorial consultant to Driving Change. An award-winning journalist, Matthew is an internationally recognized expert on the trends and innovations shaping global business, finance and politics, particularly the role of public policy and philanthropy. A graduate of the University of Oxford, Matthew is a former member of the faculty of London Business School. He is best known for his work on "philanthrocapitalism", a word he coined in The Economist to describe how businesses and philanthropists can make a big positive difference in the world. Matthew was a writer and editor at The Economist for over 25 years, including a decade as the magazine's New York Bureau Chief. He then led the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. Matthew has authored several books, including Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World, and The Road from Ruin: A New Capitalism for a Big Society. He co-founded the Social Progress Index, an increasingly influential new measure of how well a society serves its citizens, and the #GivingTuesday movement, which harnesses social media to celebrate giving and drive more effective charity. He launched the 17 Rooms partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brookings Institution and is a co-funder of the Catalyst 2030 network of proven social entrepreneurs. Matthew was honored by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader and was the official report author of the G8 Taskforce on Impact Investing.

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