In Person

Justin Krebs

Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House nearly two years ago, but the “word” liberal remains a dirty word in America’s political lexicon. Justin Krebs, author of 538 Ways to Live, Work And Play Like a Liberal, wants to make it a badge of honor.

A political entrepreneur and organizer based in Brooklyn, Krebs is the co-founder and executive director of Living Liberally, a national network building social communities through progressive politics. Living Liberally started with “Drinking Liberally” happy hours in 2003, a routine reprieve for Krebs and his progressive friends who needed a drink as they discussed the liberal agenda in the face of the Bush administration. Now the organization has expanded to encourage community building through all sorts of cultural avenues: Eating Liberally meals, Laughing Liberally comedy shows, Reading Liberally book clubs and Screening Liberally films.

In his new book (released July 2010), Krebs applies the spirit of the Living Liberally organization to demonstrate how Americans can incorporate progressive values into their everyday lives. By making better food and entertainment choices, and choosing media, retail and community resources free from corporate control, Krebs says Americans can live a more socially conscious, environmentally friendly and liberally minded life. He even advises readers on how to raise their kids liberally and how to effectively engage in dinner table debate with their conservative counterparts. Being liberal isn’t just a political choice, Krebs argues. It’s a lifestyle.

Krebs’ political experiences at the city, state and federal levels include serving as a Working Assets Activist Fellow and a constituent liaison for former U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Krebs has also managed advocacy campaigns in New York City and produced an award-winning documentary on youth civic engagement for public television. In These Times interviewed the New Jersey native and Harvard University graduate via e-mail in October 2010.

—Alexandra Markowski

In 25 words or less, what makes you so special? (Keep in mind that humility, while admirable, is boring).

I remember people’s names. At political events, in bars, especially at Drinking Liberally gatherings, I have a knack for learning names quickly. That’s my super power.

What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?

Top Google hits are for my book, 538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal, because it’s been in the news this summer. Soon after is a slightly creepy blog post from a Drinking Liberally attendee a few years back who, I guess, is shockingly good at search result optimization. After that a feature from AlterNet. Then a bunch about the terrific JV cross-country running exploits of someone else who shares my name.

Shamelessly plug a colleague’s project.

The Other 98% is an initiative around corporate money and the influence of lobbying that my old Living Liberally colleague Josh Bolotsky has fallen in with. Check out the “Target Ain’t People” music video. Most Living Liberally alums end up good places, like the ”Just Say Now” campaign to change marijuana laws.

Describe your politics

Liberal. Not ashamed of the word so it doesn’t need to be qualified.

(Come up with a question for yourself and answer it)

Where’s your neighborhood?

Good question. I’ve been in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan’s west side, for 10 years and it feels like home. I know the neighbors, the businesses, the street characters. I make friends sitting on the stoop. A year ago, though, I moved in with my significant other in Brooklyn. It’s great – you can bike around, there’s always more to discover – but Hell’s Kitchen still shares my heart. And I’m still President of the West 45th Street Block Association, a year later.

Media

Pick your five favorite websites and tell us why.

Five regular sites I hit to consume news: New York Times, to give a baseline of what the world is talking about, for better or for worse; AlterNet, to see what the world should be talking about; DailyKos, to feel the energy of the dynamic Netroots; EveryBlock.com, because I’m obsessed with hyper-local news; OpenLeft, because it’s a hub of progressive strategy.

Name 5 other websites you go to when you’re procrastinating.

Yankees.com because I’m a fan; Eating Liberally because I always learn something new; Facebook because I got convinced that I should; Greater Greater Washington because it’s thoughtful, insightful and well-written, even if I’m not deeply involved in D.C. metro area planning and transit issues; Kayak.com to see where I could fly off to next

What’s a mistake the mainstream media always makes that really gets under your skin?

The false right-left equivalency. “Here’s one perspective, so we better give the other”—even when one is based in science and the other in extremism.

What’s your favorite web-based tool for your job? Give us a quick walk through on how to use it.

EveryBlock. It aggregates all the online news by hyper-local category: all the police reports, restaurant reviews, geo-coded photos, local blogs for your zip code, etc. It gives you a quick sense of what local mavens are into, which is helpful when I parachute into a new neighborhood.

Politics

My political awakening occurred when…

My parents took me to a Mondale rally when I was six years old. I wasn’t able to avoid politics. Through my childhood, though, I assumed everyone was liberal. Then in 7th grade, I switched to a private school and encountered conservative views for the first time. It’s not that kids were truly conservative, but that they were echoing their parents (as was I). I really heard people demonize taxes for the first time, talk about welfare as a bad thing, celebrate the military. That woke me up.

Which conservative politician has pleasantly surprised you the most?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He’s a former conservative Congressman from Illinois and everyone assumed he got appointed in some show of bipartisanship that really meant Obama didn’t care about transportation. As it turns out, LaHood has become a real champion of bicycle and pedestrian rights – often to the opposition of his former Republican colleagues.

Are you involved with any interesting forms of activism? Could you tell us about any of these projects?

I Drink Liberally. Drinking Liberally is a network of progressive social clubs all around the country. In bars, cafes and restaurants people come together—newcomers learn about politics, veteran volunteers recharge their batteries, candidates recruit support and everyone remembers that they are not alone. We started the first chapter in NYC in 2003. Since then, as it’s grown, DL has made it into conservative areas in the reddest states where it is more than a happy hobby—it is a lifeline.

Creating conversations, fostering connections and building community are all ways to activate and engage new liberals and that is how I spend most of my activism energy.

What campaign should we all sign on to right now?

Turn off Fox News. If you’re reading this, chances are that you don’t watch Fox News. But do they have it on in your local diner, your dentist office waiting room, or above the cash register in your favorite bar? Ask them to change it. CREDO and Color of Change are leading an inventive campaign that ultimately will help take away the legitimacy of Fox and end its ubiquity.

Personal

How do you get around (bike, public transportation, car)? Why?

Bike when I’m in the neighborhood. In my 10 years in Manhattan, I wasn’t courageous enough to bike regularly and I didn’t have a place to store it. In Brooklyn, I get to take advantage of the bicycle culture and it’s fast, fun, mildly athletic and refreshing. I also take the subway regularly – it’s the ultimate New York experience. You look around, no two people look the same, and yet you know you’re all New Yorkers.

What’s a lifestyle choice you’ve made recently to be greener?

I’m eating less meat. It helps that my fiancée is a vegetarian and loves to cook. I don’t bring meat into our house. I’m still carnivorous, but reducing my meat intake – for my health, for our economy, and for our environment.

If you could join Bill and Ted in their time machine, what bygone age would you travel to and who would be your tour guide?

I’d head to Antebellum America. The 1850s were a time of incredible activism, as the country prepared to put their bodies and souls behind fundamental differences. It was an era of literary explosion as well. I’d either want Walt Whitman to show me around Brooklyn or John Brown to take me through the battlegrounds between Free and Slave. Though if he did, I might not make it back.

Have you ever had any run-ins with the law that you’d like to share?

I have one violation on the record with the NYPD. An open container violation. Yup, that means I was brown-bagging it. Now, I think some amount of public drinking should be OK…but I know it’s against the law. That said, this was right before Game 7 of the 2003 Yankees-Sox ALCS right outside Yankee Stadium. There were dozens of us getting tickets. And we were proud of it. Plus the Yanks won.

The funniest part is that my Mom was holding the bag 10 seconds before they grabbed me.

Culture

Guilty television watching pleasure?

Battlestar Galactica. When I discovered Netflix would let me watch Season 4 on my computer, I was worried I wouldn’t leave the house until I learned the identity of the final Cylon. The thing is, it’s not totally a “guilty” pleasure. You can love it for the ships and guns and rough-and-tumble survivalism. But any show that challenges conventional notions about terror and occupation, justice and humanity, has some political relevance that should make a right-winger reflect a little.

Give us some example of pop culture that you love and make the case that is it subtly or subversively leftist.

Old Twilight Zone episodes are amazingly told stories – parables about fear and hatred, about how humanity can survive or doom itself, tucked into 23-minute tales. They endure as episodes with surprising plot twists and ironic endings, but they were also extremely fearful of nuclear war, concerned about how humans treat the least among us, and are as anti-xenophobic as they are anti-fascist.

What texts, persons, or events have inspired you the most?

Kurt Vonnegut. He offers glimpses of how the world could be, wrapped in absurdity that makes you laugh as well. His books are easy reads – but the ideas stay with me. In Slapstick, the president divided everyone in the country arbitrarily into families under the slogan “Lonesome No More.” In Cat’s Cradle, you understand that there are people who push you by encouragement or negative example along your course in life. Kilgore Trout, his sci-fi novelist stand-in, offers allegories that consume my imagination decades after I first read them.

I had the chance to meet him once—and he took almost an hour to talk to me, a 16-year-old at the time, about writing, politics, history.

One of his most influential lines on my own work: “Every truly creative person creates with an audience of one in mind.”

What person deserves to be a lot more famous than they are?

The comedians of Laughing Liberally, our political comedy project, deserve fame – and slowly they are getting it. Baratunde Thurston is becoming omnipresent whether discussing race, technology or comedy. Katie Halper has one of the most incisive, leftists wits there is and her posts are getting more circulation on Huffington and elsewhere. Lee Camp went on Fox News and called Fox a “parade of propaganda and festival of lies” on air. These are the folks who are going to be the George Carlins and Lenny Bruces of our era.

—November 10, 2010