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What's Got John Darnielle's Goat?

Mountain Goats' front man on abortion rights, horror flicks, and feminists' treatment of Sarah Palin.

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 10:35 AM EDT

MJ: You mentioned via email that part of the reason you wanted to talk to us was because of what's happening in Congress with abortion right now. Care to elaborate?

JD: I was wondering if we were going talk about that, because I get really emotional about this stuff. My stepfather was also really active in the left; I learned to be compassionate about the struggle of disenfranchised people from him. I tried to put some of the tenderness of things we went through on the last song of Sunset Tree, but it's only the last song of that album. And the thing is, when a person teaches you those values and also abuses your family, it's a hard thing. It's weird, and it's hard to explain, in song or elsewhere. The best way to explain it is families are extraordinarily complex units, and everyone in a family is probably going to be a hero and a villain at the same time.

But I was definitely raised in the California left, in the Peace and Freedom Party, which was the first Third Party to gain ballot status in California—ever, I think. And it was the kind classic lefty movement where you'd spend hours and hours at the state central committee meeting with active, screaming debate about whether we were going to describe ourselves as a feminist socialist party or a socialist feminist party. [Laughs.] Which, in retrospect, you wonder whether that's time well spent.

I do have all these values, and I'm always hesitant to be too vocal about them. For one, when one talks about one's values one always seems to be presenting oneself as a good person. I don't want to make any claims for my own value as a human being. I really just want to say how things seem—and that is, for reproductive rights in America, it's an extraordinarily dark day. There's this new bill on the floor called the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. I just couldn't be more outraged if it was the No Taxpayer Funding for Diabetes Checks act, because abortion is a health-care right. This is settled law. Some conservative justice, I think it was Roberts, said "Roe v. Wade is settled law." Now I don't love John Roberts, but that was a good and true answer; this debate has been had.

There's a book called Dispatches From the Abortion Wars, and this book explains what it means when you restrict access, what it means to people who don't live in New York City or L.A. or San Francisco. And it dispels a lot of the myths about abortion, such as, you know, that people use it as birth control. It's deeply depressing that most people have the wrong idea about what most abortion is actually about, and why it is a vital health care need. And that it's settled law, and you can't go around trying to undo it to cater to your base, to say nothing of the fact that they don't actually want to overturn Roe v. Wade, they just want to keep promising their base that they'll do it to get votes and dollars. They wouldn't overturn it if you gave them the pen right now, because that would take an issue away from them. This is a really deeply cynical thing. Every free democracy in the west encourages reproductive rights, because reproductive rights are important.

The other thing I go off about is the fact that there are going to be Democrats who will vote for this bill, and then, come election time, hard lefties like me are going to be told that we have to support them anyway because it was a strategic vote, etcetera. And I'm something of a moralist. I think you just can't vote for a thing like that, no matter what it costs you in your other areas of your agenda. I don't want to hear about how you got more done in education: Great. But you voted to take away someone's rights, so no support from me.

MJ: How do you figure we got to this point?

JD: For one, abortion is a delicate issue. It's a very hard thing to talk about. No one wants to get an abortion, nobody looks forward to making a difficult to decision like that. Another myth from the right is that people have frivolous abortions. I know a lot of people who have needed an abortion, and I don't know a one who was like, "Oh yeah, at 2:00, I have my abortion; at 3:00, I want to play tennis." It's not any more fun than any surgically invasive procedure—it's not something you choose lightly. And we have allowed them to perpetuate some myths, plus they're really good at framing the dialogue, especially because being against anything is easy: Just demonize it and frame it and boom! Everyone who hears your demonization will probably share a little bit of your feeling. It's harder to explain what it is you're for when you say you're for reproductive rights. But we did start using terms like "reproductive rights" and being careful about using "abortion" because it turns people off, and that's a mistake. When we are talking about reproductive rights, we are talking about a woman's right to have an abortion. We ought to own that word instead of trying to table it because it makes people feel uncomfortable.

MJ: And now there's also been a push to frame abortion restrictions as protecting women from the consequences of their decisions.

JD: Yeah, the right has obtained this almost literary cynicism. That's not something they care about, but they sure are good at making that claim. It's like, they became feminists when people were mean to Sarah Palin, but they won't be feminists to defend Nancy Pelosi against horrifying caricatures of her as a human being. My friend [and investigative editor at The Nation] Esther Kaplan has made the point that, look, nobody here likes Sarah Palin, but it is the case that when she says it's disgraceful and anti-woman for you to paint me as you do, she's right! I think an appropriate feminist response to the treatment of Sarah Palin by the media is that there has been a lot of misogyny in it, and it doesn't make you a supporter of Sarah Palin to say that. People loathe her so much, with good reason, that they aren't willing to stand up for her as a woman and say "You don't get to be a sexist just because you don't like somebody." It's absurd. If your values are your values, they extend for all women, even and especially ones whose viewpoints you find loathsome. To me, that's a great opportunity in the whole Sarah Palin thing to discuss—that feminism is about the right of all women to be taken seriously as human beings, not just the right of "our kind of women" to be taken seriously as human beings.

MJ: I’ve read the articles you link to on your blog, and it strikes me that you're one of the few male pop-culture figures—if you can be called that—who consistently speaks out about this kind of stuff.

JD: I'm reluctant to be too strident, for a number of reasons. One is that men tend to dominate whatever public discourse they participate in, and another big part of feminism is to let women have their say. Men's voices can be welcome at the table, but there is a time and a place, and maybe it's now, for men to make a little less noise, make their needs less known, and listen to the needs of others. Everyone knows the stereotype of the feminist male who's constantly proclaiming his feminism, and that stereotype doesn't come from nowhere. You know that guy if you had the one guy in the women's studies class—or if you were that one guy—who was talking half the time in a class of like 30 people.

At the same time, we live in increasingly misogynist times. And that is difficult, because the way we think of progress is that it heads in one direction, and I think that's what we all came out of the '70s with, this idea that we were heading for the promised land of egalitarianism and so forth. And it turns out—and a lot of historians could've told you this—that's not how history works: Things do go backwards; things go all sorts of directions.

MJ: You've also been vocal on animal rights. How'd you get involved with Farm Sanctuary?

JD: Farm Sanctuary is this awesome thing that was founded by Gene Baur, who rescued a sheep, Dolly, that he found in a slaughterhouse castoff pile. She had been left for dead, but she wasn't dead, and he took her to a farm in upstate New York where she lived out her term of her natural life. So he worked tirelessly for the rights of farm animals to live decent lives with a view toward eventually fewer people eating animals.

To me, animals are sentient creatures who deserve better than to be tossed under a pile of corpses and left to die. So my wife and I—we're vegetarians and we've always liked cows—got an adoption certificate for a cow from Farm Sanctuary and over the years got more and more involved. The main thing they do is rescue animals from bad situations and give them a place where they can just live their lives. And if you go up there to Watkins Glen, and you see cows that are 20 years old, you realize you've never seen a 20-year-old cow. The cows you're used to seeing are three months old because once they hit a year, they're dead. Animals have characters just like we do, and when you see these animals who have had a chance to develop that character and to grow, it's life-transforming.

MJ: How long have you been a vegetarian?

JD: Since January 1996, during the blizzard in New York. It's a classic conversion story, I went from being the guy who special ordered steaks from Omaha—which I still had in the freezer back home in Chicago—when I happened to see a movie in which somebody shoots a pig in the head. And they shoot wide, and the pig clearly thought they were going to feed him and instead they shot him, and he screams. And I was like, wow, that animal is very much like a lot of dogs I have loved. Something clicked in my mind, and I think I had my last pepperoni pizza that day. I haven't eaten meat since, except for the occasional accidental meat every now and then—every vegetarian goes through phases where they go from being totally traumatized by that to realizing it's occasionally going to happen, and it doesn't mean anything. When you're touring in a foreign country and you're at a buffet and you don't speak the language and you think you've figured out what something says and then you realize, oh, that meant chicken. [Laughs]. For me it's not about purity, it's about what you intend to do.

MJ: For a person with such clear political passions, you're not an overtly political lyricist. Why do you keep them so separate?

JD: That's because, as important as politics are to me, the life and the spirit of people's emotions are much more important. People live real lives where they love and grieve and feel pain and joy and that is a whole separate sphere. All that political stuff, I believe in it strongly, but not as strongly as I believe that at some point you or someone is going to need a song to sit with and comfort them in a hard time. That's important to me, and if during that song I'm telling you how to vote, I'm not doing my personal job as a songwriter. Other songwriters may be well-placed to talk to you about politics, but the thing that I share with people is how to go into a place of emotion and really revel in it.

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