An Interview with Ben Cohen
Lese Dunton: With all that you do, how do you relax and get centered? What brings you peace in your own life?
Ben Cohen: Peace...well, I like walking in the woods, kayaking, riding my motorcycle.
And lying in my hammock. That's probably number one -- except it's hard to do in the winter.
LD: What motivates you to be so compassionate?
BC: You see or learn about people who are suffering, through no fault of their own, and you can either try to ignore it, or talk about and not do anything about it, or you can try to do something about it. That's the only thing that brings me peace.
LD: So, with True Majority, you're basically reaching out to people who are, among things, compassionate and caring, and you'd like to give them an easy, fun, meaningful, time-efficient way to put that compassion into action?
BC: That's exactly it. There's a whole lot of people who care about these issues but haven't really done anything about it because they can't find anything to do that they think would be effective, and that would fit into their busy lives. So this is aimed at people like that, as well as aimed at those people who are active in maybe one or two advocacy organizations.
They care a lot about a whole lot more issues than the one or two organizations that they've joined -- but nobody can join ten different advocacy organizations. So True Majority allows you to kind of weigh in on all the different issues that you're concerned about. It's really kind of a congressional monitoring system for people who share these values of compassion and justice and sustainability.
LD: It's great that you're making "changing the world for the better" a fun thing, rather than a difficult, laborious effort.
BC: I think that's a really critical part of what we're doing -- maybe our real point of difference. We believe that unless it's fun, unless it's an enjoyable thing to do, we're never going to get anywhere.
We designed the campaign to be something that's light and entertaining and fun and funny, even though what we're dealing with are really serious issues.
LD: I think people need a sense of fun these days and also a sense of community and that they're being effective and doing something meaningful.
BC: Yeah. Play. We can play around and create serious change at the same time.
LD: What does an ideal world look like to you?
BC: I think it's a world that reflects people's basic values. You can approach the world from a place of love or a place of hate. My ideal approaches it the world from a place of love. For the U.S., we're so rich; we're so wealthy in terms of dollars that the U.S. could create a beautiful, loving, compassionate world if we just redirected some of the money that we're already spending.
For a mere 15% of the Pentagon budget, which is now over a billion dollars a day, you could rebuild every school in the U.S., provide healthcare for every kid that doesn't have it, feed every starving child around the world, fully fund Headstart, and create enough fuel efficiency and alternative energy to eliminate the need for Mideast oil. It's really quite incredible.
LD: And people don't fully understand the mixed up budgets and priorities.
BC: We don't understand it because it's impossible for human beings to conceive of numbers of this magnitude. You hear numbers like 500 million, a billion, 100 billion. It's all the same. It's all more money than you could ever imagine. When you put it into perspective -- in terms of how much 10 billion dollars will buy -- in terms of a new fighter jet versus feeding the world's starving children...it would feed half the world's starving children for a year! It's incredible.
LD: You mentioned at one of your events a quote, "Only those who attempt the absurd..."
BC: "...achieve the impossible."
LD: Right. Is that your quote or are you quoting someone else?
BC: I saw it somewhere and I don't know who said it.
LD: Is that the True Majority's motto?
BC: Well, it's unofficial, internal, motivational mantra that we chant. (Laughs.)
LD: When you were little, what did you want to be?
BC: When I was little, I of course wanted to be a fireman, a policeman, an electrician, a carpenter, a scientist. I think those are the major things I wanted to be when I was little.
LD: And then it shifted to ice cream..
BC: Well, first it shifted to pottery, but nobody would buy my pottery, so then it shifted to ice cream. Now it has shifted to the True Majority Campaign.
LD: Priorities, Inc. is the umbrella group to everything?
BC: Correct. Well, Priorities Inc. is the umbrella group to Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, Religious Leaders for Sensible Priorities, Entertainers for Sensible Priorities, and the True Majority Campaign.
LD: What are your goals for the future, looking ahead to the months and years going forward?
In the shorter term, our goals is to get 100,000 people to sign up for True Majority by
the end of 2002, and to continue growing and to become a force that is at least as strong as the Christian Right
or the NRA.
LD: And then continue to have in-person gatherings, parades, etc.
BC: The key is to get people to become part of the True Majority because it's based on a set of value that are unchanging. The activities that we promote, the political actions that we'll be involved with, will change as whatever's going on in the world changes. By registering with the True Majority, you stay involved in creating this powerful group of people that can respond extremely rapidly to whatever the current issue happens to be. The key is longevity and building a long-term relationship with people. Not really being issues-driven, but being driven by spiritual values.
LD: So you're giving people a voice and a sense of community. Like they're not just individuals out there by themselves. They can unite in various ways.
BC: I think what we're giving them is political clout.
LD: Tell me about the "Cultural Creative" demographic group. When did that come into focus? When did this group become identified?
BC: I became aware of the work of the sociologist, Paul Ray, about five years ago. I think he published his book maybe two years ago. It's interesting, when you talk to people on the street, there's a sense of, well of course, the majority of people want to help people in poverty at home and abroad. The majority of people want to get money out of politics. The majority of people want to improve and increase spending for education. And the majority of people want peace.
If you read the media and when you read the polls that they take, it doesn't sound that way. I think that it's because a lot of these people are disaffected from the political process. They've given up on it. Less than half the population votes. A lot of times, there isn't anyone worth voting for. But True Majority is not about endorsing particular candidates. It's about generating massive support for particular issues, as they come up. It's harnessing that power. It's giving voice to that power.
LD: How did you come up with this idea? Was it a revelation or did it come to you little by little?
BC: It was little by little. We started the Priorities campaign, which focused on national budget priorities and funding, basic human needs at no additional cost -- by reducing excess Pentagon expenditures. So we had been working on that for a long time. Then, when Paul Ray's work came out, we realized we were focused on a very narrow issue. The reality is that this huge group of over 50 million people support that narrow issue, but they also support 10 other issues -- from feminism to human rights, to campaign finance reform and the environment. People can't do all of those so they end up picking one or two.
We realized that none of those groups are ever going to have enough power to have enough political clout in Congress, enough numbers -- until we all start working together on all those issues -- at least in terms of Congress, and new legislation that's moving though Congress.
We all agree on those issues, we all want them to happen but up until now, with the prevalence of email, it really hasn't been possible for an individual to be following Congress on ten different issues. They'd lose their job! Now with email, essentially this large group of people can hire a person in Congress who is following those issues as a full-time job. Then at the precise moment when your voice can be effective, you get an email alert and because you're registered you just have to click reply, and a fax is sent in your name to your Congressperson.
It took the research from Paul Ray showing that there is this huge group that agree on these issues, but paradoxically, it's the issues that we agree on that have divided us. And it took the prevalence of email. And another factor was 9/11 and our realization at the time that there was a huge proportion of the population for whom the answers of the Bush administration -- more weapons, more drilling, more welfare for corporations -- didn't make sense. So we created the 10 principles as an alternative vision.
LD: Is there an issue that's particularly near and dear to your heart?
BC: Economic justice and poverty is really important to me. I truly believe that we can change the spiritual tenor of the world if we in the U.S. were to decide to use 5% of what we currently spend on the Pentagon to feed every child around the world who's starving to death -- that's 30,000 kids a day. If we were to do that, it would create a spiritual shift.
The granddaddy of all these issues is campaign finance reform. It's going to be pretty difficult
to make these changes until we change whom politicians are beholden to.
LD: As a caring, compassionate person, how do you adjust and do so well in the business world? What's your secret to success?
* * *
BC: About three years after Ben & Jerry's started, Jerry and I turned around and looked at ourselves and realized we weren't ice cream men anymore. We weren't spending time making ice cream and scooping ice cream to our friends at the counter. We were becoming businessmen. We were hiring and firing, dealing with accountants, lawyers, banks, doing correspondence. This was not exactly our idea of a good time, and we were concerned that we were becoming just another cog in the economic machine that oppresses a lot of people.
We had a choice. We could either sell the business or we could do an experiment to see if we could transform it into a force for progressive social change. We looked at business and we said, well, essentially business is an incredibly powerful tool. It can be used to exploit people and we've seen how it can do that. But perhaps business itself is a neutral tool and you can also use it as a tool to improve the quality of life for people. We decided to conduct an experiment to see if it was possible. We thought we were going to fail. (Laughs.) It hadn't been done before, and it worked.
LD: And you set an example for people.
BC: People loved it. The amazing thing about it is that companies are spending hundreds of millions, billions of dollars every year on advertising and marketing and public relations to try to get people to feel good about the company and the products. It's just like the U.S. is currently putting together a little symposium of PR and marketing guys to try and improve America's image overseas. They don't deal with the content. They don't deal with the issue -- well the people overseas don't like us because we're fucking them over. And they're saying let's hire an ad agency to make it look like we're not fucking them over, like we really like them.
LD: Dealing with the effect rather than the cause.
BC: Right. So it's the same in the business world. You can create a lot more customer loyalty by doing stuff to help your customers, help the community. And, it's actually a lot cheaper than hiring ad agencies to make up a pretty story about how there's this funny little guy who goes inside the ice cream and puts in the little chunks, and boy isn't he cute so let's buy the ice cream because he's a cute guy putting in the chunks.
© 2002 The New Sun.