"America as the No. 1 warmonger": President Jimmy Carter talks to Salon about race, cable news, "slut-shaming" and more

Exclusive: The former president on Democrats' white male problem, sexual assault on campus, Barack Obama and more

Published April 10, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Adam Hunger)
(Reuters/Adam Hunger)

Jimmy Carter's new book, "A Call to Action," is an urgent and bold addition to a library of some two dozen books he's written in his post-presidency, as one of our finest global citizens. It's subtitled "Women, Religion, Violence and Power," and Carter is unafraid to tackle controversial topics: sexual assault on campus and the military; religious leaders of all faiths who use sacred texts to justify oppression; punitive prison sentences weighted against the poor and against racial minorities; American drone wars and endless military operations.

In a brief but wide-ranging conversation last week, we talked about many of those topics -- but also the Republican war on women; criticism of President Obama which echoes critiques of his own administration; and about how his grandson, Jason, might reverse the tide of white Southern males toward the GOP. Asked why white males have embraced the Republicans, Carter, 89, was unequivocal. "It's race," he said. But on other topics, especially about Fox News and the Republican war on women, Carter's answers were equally direct but more surprising. And wait until you hear his response about "slut-shaming."

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

You write in "A Call to Action" that "there’s an inevitable chasm between the societal leaders who write and administer criminal laws and the people who fill the jails."  What role do you think race plays in the perpetuation of that chasm?

Well, the statistics still show that race plays a major difference. Not only are African-American and Hispanic people poverty-stricken comparatively speaking, but they suffer the plight of being incarcerated much more than other people. I think I mention in [the book] that since I left the White House, 800 percent more black women are now incarcerated than when I was president of the United States. And this means that most of the people that are in prison for a long period of time, a vast majority of them are Hispanics, blacks or they are mentally [challenged] in some way. So this means that with the people who are in power who write the laws, administer the laws and enforce the laws, they are pretty well excluded from any equal treatment within the justice system.

You also strike hard against a culture of sexual assault on college campuses, noting statistics that 95 percent of students who are sexually assaulted remain silent.

That's right. They don't report it?

Did that shock you?

It did. I had indications.

Are there cultural reasons why women are afraid to come forward? Is it something in the way the media covers the issue, or the way the judicial system works, or the extremism of the political debate around issues like this?

It’s not extremism, it’s not abuse of women. It’s the discouragement of women to report. And this is done by well-meaning and very enlightened and admirable presidents of universities and deans of the colleges, as well. They don’t want to see a bad reflection brought on their campus or on their university — take Duke University or Emory University, where I teach, or Harvard or Yale. They want the university to have a clean bill of health as far as sexual assault is concerned. They warn the girls, and I know this personally, that when you report this rape, you’re going to be put on the witness stand and you're going to be forced to testify through all the most embarrassing circumstances. "What kind of underwear did you wear? Have you ever had sex before? What kind of kisses do you give the boy, with your tongue in his mouth? Do you have a record of dating boys in a very heavy way before?" Or things of that kind. It’s very embarrassing.

In fact one midshipwoman in the Naval Academy was even asked on the stand, how wide she opened her mouth when she gave oral sex, to the football players who raped her. So this is the kind of thing that discourages a girl. And also they convince the girl that no matter what they do, the boy will probably not be convicted, particularly if he’s a white boy. He’ll be claiming that she was interested in consensual sex, that she was wearing provocative clothing and seemed to want to have sex, or that she had been drinking. And so for assault it’s almost impossible to get a conviction on a college campus. And so most of the college administrators don’t want to spread it any further to the local district attorney or to law enforcement officials.

You’re probably the first president who has mentioned Craigslist, Backpage and the Erotic Review in a book. I wonder if you’re familiar with the phrase “slut-shaming,” which plays a significant role in the conversation about sexual assault.

I’ve heard of it, but I don’t think I can give you an exact definition, or use it in a sentence. (laughs)

It’s a method by which people try to push the blame for rape and sexual assault back onto the victim. Or a way to belittle women like Sandra Fluke, who comes forth to speak on behalf of contraception coverage and reproductive health, and is immediately denounced as a slut by Rush Limbaugh on the radio in front of the entire nation.

That's what happens. Girls are eventually intimidated -- and they are warned that if they bring a charge, it won’t be realized with the conviction of the rapist. And this means that on college campuses -- and I think I mention a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, that half the rapes on college campuses are perpetrated by serial rapists. Because when they get to the college campus, they realize that they can get away with it, so they proceed with it -- and they do it again and again. Why would any university want to keep that kind of student on the campus? I just don’t understand it. The same thing happens in the military — I was in the Navy for a long time in submarines, so I know. Commanding officers of a company or battalion or a ship -- they don’t want to admit that under their rule, under their leadership, that this kind of thing takes place.

So many of the topics in this book, whether sexual assault on campus or in the military, whether equal pay for equal work, reproductive health – these are all topics of debate right now. And over the course of these national conversations, we hear Mike Huckabee talking about how women can’t control their libidos. There’s a congressman, Todd Akin, talking about “legitimate rape.” There’s another Senate nominee, Richard Mourdock, talking about how pregnancies from rape are God’s intention. There’s Limbaugh and Fluke. The anti-woman position almost seems to be enshrined in the GOP platform. Is that helpful?

Well, I don’t think so, but understand that in the U.S. Senate, the week before last, they had a vote on the commanding officers, for instance. They got 55 votes, and they needed 60 to pass the bill, but they got a majority -- including a good many Republicans. Although there are some extremists, I guess on both sides, I wouldn’t say that Democrats are for protecting women and Republicans are not. Or against it. I wouldn’t want to go that far.

Even with those statements by Akin, Mourdock, Limbaugh and the others? You don’t usually hear that kind of talk from the other side.

Well, there are exceptions to it. I know that. But there are some Democratic husbands who abuse their wives and there are Democratic CEOs of corporations who pay women 23 percent less than they do men. So there are abuses on both sides.

You very clearly call out the speed with which the United States jumps into military action. You write that, “more than any nation in the world, the U.S. has been involved in armed conflict and has used war as means of resolving disputes ...”

That’s correct, and I list some of the wars. I listed 10 or 15 and I could have listed about 10 or 15 more.

We also rarely acknowledge the loss and suffering that our policies have caused around the world. You’re specifically critical of our drone wars, and of the innocent people we’ve killed as almost collateral damage. You’ve traveled to so many countries through the Carter Center: At home, we talk of American exceptionalism, of this duty to bring our great democracy to the rest of the world. Do we see ourselves accurately and understand our own history? And how does that square with how the rest of the world perceives us?

(laughs) No. The rest of the world, almost unanimously, looks at America as the No. 1 warmonger. That we revert to armed conflict almost at the drop of a hat -- and quite often it’s not only desired by the leaders of our country, but it’s also supported by the people of America. We’ve also reverted back to a terrible degree of punishment of our people rather than the reinstitution of them back into life. And this means that we have 7.5 times as many people now in prison as when I left the governor’s mansion. We’re the only country that has the death penalty in NATO; we’re the only country in this hemisphere that has the death penalty, and this is another blight on our country as far as unwarranted, unnecessary and counterproductive violence are concerned.

John Kerry goes on "Meet the Press" after the Russian actions in Crimea and says, with a straight face, that “it’s the 21st century, you can’t just invade another country anymore.” And I think a lot of us said, “Well, wait a second. That sounds a lot like something we did in Iraq, you know, during the 21st century.”

Right. We did. We do it all the time. That's Washington. Unfortunately. And we have for years.

One of the criticisms of President Obama is also something that was often said about your administration: You didn’t socialize enough in Washington. People didn’t invite Republicans over to the White House for cocktails. There’s this whole sort of myth of the heroic president twisting arms over drinks, the myth of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill getting things done at happy hour. It seems to me that these myths are told by a Washington establishment that wants to protect itself from outsiders, and to suggest that it’s dangerous, or ineffective, to put anyone other than themselves in charge. Why do you think this myth persists, and would things really be different for President Obama if he had Republicans to the White House?

Well, I don’t think anyone had Republicans over the White House more than I did -- maybe not for cocktails, but to help draft legislation and to prepare helpful congressional action and to induce them to vote for my bills. As a matter of fact, I had the best batting average with the Congress, both Democratic and Republican, than any president since the Second World War except Lyndon Johnson. It took heroic efforts on my part to get two-thirds of the Senate to vote for the Panama Canal treaty. That was the most courageous vote that the Senate ever passed. Aside from serving cocktails, we had them over -- there were no Republican House members or senators that weren’t at the White House several times when I was there. And the committee chairmen were there quite regularly.

You were elected governor and president as a white male Southern Democrat, which is a segment of the population that has deserted the Democratic Party. In some Southern states now it will be maybe 30 percent of white Southern males who back the Democrats. This is something your grandson Jason is dealing with now, certainly, as he runs for governor of Georgia. But why do you think this is? The economy only gets tougher, inequality only worsens, and the response of white men in the South is to back the party of the 1 percent. Is it race? Gender? Fear?

No, it’s race. It's race. That’s been prevalent in the South, except for when I ran, I secured every Southern state except Virginia. Ever since Nixon ran -- and ever since Johnson didn’t campaign in the deep South, the Republicans have solidified their hold there. And even this year, as you may know, the Republicans have put forward a proposal that we have a license plate made available in Georgia with a Confederate flag on it. Well, those kinds of things, the subtle things and the appeal to richer people, which is almost always white people, and the derogation of people that get food stamps and that sort of thing, which are quite often poor people. And the allegation that people who go to jail are just guilty people, when they’re mostly black people and Hispanics and mentally ill people. Those kind of things just exalt the higher class, which is the whites, and they draw a subtle, but very effective racial line throughout the South.

What role do you think Fox News has played in exacerbating divides across the political culture and in harming our ability to come to consensus on these complicated issues that you’ve talked about, by stoking fear or racial animosity.

Well, CNN was founded when I was president and I thought it was the most fulfilling offering to the whole world. But I think now that the news media are fragmented. I think Fox News goes very heavily toward the Republican and conservative side, and I think MSNBC goes very heavily to the other side -- which is perfectly all right with me. Well, now anybody can choose what they want to watch. And so I think CNN kind of tries to come down the middle -- and they suffer financially because of that sometimes. But I don’t have any criticism; it’s a free press.

The religious leaders you discuss, across all faiths, who interpret religious texts in ways that encourage the subjugation and oppression of women: Do you think this is a deliberate misreading of the texts on their part, or that they come to these interpretations honestly?

Well, they actually find these verses in the Bible. You know, I can look through the New Testament, which I teach every Sunday, and I can find verses that are written by Paul that tell women that they shouldn’t speak in church, they shouldn’t adorn themselves and so forth. But I also find verses from the same author, Paul, that say all people are created equal in the eyes of God. That men and women are the same before God; that masters and slaves are the same and that Jews and Gentiles are the same. There’s no difference between people in the eyes of God. And I also know that Paul wrote the 16th chapter of Romans to that church and he pointed out about 25 people who had been heroes in the very early church -- and about half of them are women. So, you know, you could find verses, but as far as Jesus Christ is concerned, he was unanimously and always the champion of women’s rights. He never deviated from that standard. And in fact he was the most prominent champion of human rights that lived in his time and I think there’s been no one more committed to that ideal than he is.

When you look across the globe and across history, at the wars that have been fought in the name of religion, and the subjugation and violence that continues today, but also weighing that against the heroic human rights leaders you discuss, many of them who were transformative religious figures – has religion been a net-plus or a net-minus for the world?

I think it’s been a net-plus, because the basic religions we just mentioned, like Islam, Christianity, Judaism and also Buddhism and Hinduism, they all have a basic premise of peace, justice, compassion, love and so forth. So if we stick to those basic principles, then I think religion is going to benefit.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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