Ben & Jerry Made Delicious Ice Cream. Now They’re Fighting to Free Julian Assange.
The founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, dish to Marlow Stern about Bernie Sanders, Cherry Garcia, and why Julian Assange should be set free.
On Jan. 4, a judge will decide whether Julian Assange will be extradited to the U.S. where he’ll face charges of violating The Espionage Act—an arcane law that’s primarily been used to target leftists and leakers since its 1917 inception.
Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, has been hit with 17 counts of violating the act, owing to the publishing of documents and footage, much of which was provided to him by Chelsea Manning, exposing a wide range of atrocities committed by the U.S. military. The 49-year-old Aussie is the first publisher ever to be charged under the Espionage Act.
“It is a clear press freedom case,” one of Assange’s lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, told Democracy Now. “The First Amendment is understood to protect the media in receiving and publishing that information in the public interest, which is exactly what WikiLeaks did.”
Yes, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and lifelong lefty activists, are lending their voices to the chorus calling on the powers that be to free Assange in the name of press freedom.
While Cohen and Greenfield, both 69, are no longer involved in any of the company’s big decision-making, having sold it off in 2000 to Unilever, they still occasionally consult on Ben & Jerry’s social justice initiatives (though the Assange push is all them).
The Daily Beast spoke to Ben & Jerry, who Zoom’d in from their respective homes in Vermont, about their ice cream and activism.
Have you fellas been eating more ice cream during the Trump years?
Ben: [Laughs] Oh, interesting! Yes, I have! And I did not associate it with the Trump years. You know, it’s interesting—the company has been talking about how sales are really up and they’ve attributed it to the pandemic, but maybe it’s Trump!
Jerry: [Laughs] Me too!
In the interest of full disclosure, I took down a couple Ben & Jerry’s pints myself during election week. So, let’s talk about your fight to free Julian Assange. Ben, I understand you visited him? What was that like, and what was your takeaway?
Ben: He was in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he sought asylum, and what really struck me about my time with Julian—first, I thought I was only going to get to see him for 20 minutes, and it turned into three hours—is he’s got an essential kindness, and reasonableness, and compassion. What he believed, and what WikiLeaks was about, was: if he could just expose what governments were doing, and what any entity was doing, then the people would try to get it changed. He exposed the Iraq War Logs, with the video “Collateral Damage,” which was out-and-out war crimes that you see right there in front of your screen. He thought that by exposing them it would ignite an effort to change policies so that those war crimes didn’t continue to happen. And instead what happened is the government decided to shoot the messenger. I think that was pretty disillusioning for him.
And not much changed.
Ben: I think the reality is that people are so stretched trying to keep up with everything—keep up with the kids, keep the roof from leaking—that they start drawing their boundaries of concern in a smaller and smaller circle around themselves. You know, if you want to try to do something about those war crimes, it really takes a full-time effort by a lot of people. Most people just don’t have the time.
I tend to agree with you. I don’t believe there’s been much of a reckoning when it comes to the Bush years. It always seems to happen, where former U.S. presidents get a glow-up and are able to recontextualize their time in office, but George W. Bush rebranding as this folksy painter is just crazy to me, given how awful a president he was. We even see people from the George W. Bush administration in lefty media now—David Frum is an editor at The Atlantic and Nicolle Wallace hosts an MSNBC show. And hell, Guantanamo Bay is still open.
Ben: Right. It’s outrage fatigue. There’s outrage upon outrage upon, and people throw up their hands. I remember how I felt during the Bush administration—he’d do one fucked-up thing one week, and you’d say, “Well, he couldn’t possibly do something worse than that,” and then the next week it was something worse. Now we got Trump, which makes it a whole different league.
Jerry: With Assange, as Ben says, it’s the government getting involved. I think that is what’s really scary. It becomes legitimized when the U.S. government and other governments step in to stop freedom of the press. It’s certainly true of all that Trump’s been doing to undermine the free press, and the credibility and the legitimacy of it. There’s just incredible long-term damage that I think will take years to overcome, if it’s possible to overcome it.
It’s a classic dictator move to basically say, “I’m the only one who tells you the truth. Don’t believe anything you’re reading. Unless it parrots what I say, it’s not the truth.”
Ben: Yeah. I think that freedom for Assange is the same as freedom of the press. If you don’t have a free Assange, you don’t have freedom of the press. We’ve got all these media that go around printing lies every day and it’s no problem, and here’s a publisher who prints the truth and the government has indicted him for charges that carry 170 years in jail. And right now, he’s in maximum-security jail in London awaiting extradition proceedings, and there’s a COVID outbreak there, the guy’s health is compromised, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture says that he’s been tortured, his [fiancée] is trying to get him warm clothes because his jail cell is at 32 degrees and she can’t get clothes to him.
He is a controversial figure, so if you’re going to bat for him in such a way I imagine you’ve done your homework. Do any of the election-interference allegations against WikiLeaks give you pause?
Ben: Well, first of all, there was an unredacted version of the Mueller Report that came out in the midst of some absurd Trump thing that was going on so it didn’t really break through the news cycle, but that report said that there was no evidence that he colluded with the Russian government. I believe that he was printing factual data that came to him via leaks, the same way The New York Times prints stuff that comes to them via leaks. Leaks is what the media bases some of their major stories on. [Editor’s Note: The Mueller Report found that WikiLeaks communicated via encrypted chats with both Russian GRU officers and Trump ally Roger Stone.]
There was a 2017 article in Foreign Policy detailing Assange’s deep ties to Russia, as well as how he’d passed on a number of leaks that would have harmed the Russian government. Is that something you’ve thought about?
Ben: You know, I just don’t have any information about it, so I couldn’t comment on it. But I don’t know if The New York Times publishes every leak that they get.
OK, on a much lighter note, my favorite Ben & Jerry’s controversy—not really a “controversy,” but more of a fake uproar—was when conservative Christian mom groups got very angry over the Schweddy Balls flavor.
Ben: Actually, the biggest Ben & Jerry’s controversy was over the size of the chunks, and that was between me and Jerry in the very early days!
Ah, yes. Because Ben, I read that you have a condition [anosmia] that affects your sense of smell and taste, so you pushed for the chunks?
Ben: Big chunks! That is correct. Because I don’t have much of a sense of smell or taste, I have a heightened sense of mouth-feel. And for me, eating is mostly the experience of texture variation. So the contrast of the big, crunchy chunks with the smooth, creamy ice cream is, for me, heavenly.
So Jerry, how did you guys reach common ground there?
Jerry: Uh… I did what Ben wanted. [Laughs] That’s how you reach common ground!
Ben: The idea was that—take Heath Bar Crunch. The Heath Bars were very expensive, and we had a specification that there would be so many ounces of Heath Bars in each pint. And I wanted there to be really big chunks of Heath Bars, and that meant there wasn’t a really good distribution of ‘em, because you only got into a big chunk of Heath Bar every so often. And Jerry was the guy producing the ice cream, and he wanted it to be more consistent, so he wanted a lot of little chunks and I wanted a few big chunks, and we compromised by having a whole lot of big chunks!
Jerry: Well you ask, “How did we reach common ground?” The truth is: Ben was right. People like big chunks! What can you say? I was never in that camp but the hallmark of Ben & Jerry’s is very highly flavored ice cream with lots of big chunks of cookies, and candies, and nuts, and swirls, and you have to give credit where credit is due. Ben is the guy who created all those flavors. It pains me to admit, to acknowledge, the greatness of Ben. [Laughs]
OK but back to the Schweddy Balls controversy, because it really is the funniest controversy—to have a bunch of conservative Christian moms on your case over this SNL flavor.
Jerry: That’s the kind of thing you want! You couldn’t get that unless people were outraged! [Laughs] It was a really funny flavor. I mean, we didn’t make it up! We were just going off that skit.
Ben: We were retweeting!
Jerry: They shouldn’t have been mad at us, they should have been mad at Saturday Night Live and Alec Baldwin!
I think they would’ve felt differently if they’d actually tasted it. I know you guys both endorsed Bernie, and he’s been featured in a number of flavors. How disappointed are you that he didn’t get the nomination, and are you hoping there’s a place for him in the new administration?
Jerry: Well, we first have to clarify that Ben & Jerry’s as a company doesn’t support any candidate, so supporting Bernie is something that me and Ben did personally, and there weren’t any Ben & Jerry’s flavors. Ben created two flavors for Bernie that were his own design under the “Ben’s Best” label. It’s a very special label—you can’t really find it anywhere except Ben’s freezer. [Laughs] I think Ben and I were all-in for Bernie. Bernie is a once-in-a-lifetime candidate. He’s someone who tells the truth. Someone who is not for sale. Someone who, over 35 years, has been consistently fighting for working people, for justice. It was very disappointing.
Ben: I think Bernie would be a great Secretary of Labor. I think he would be a great president. I think if he had gotten the nomination, he would have won. So, you know… the more influence we can get in our government from Bernie, the better.
It does seem like Bernie’s legacy will continue to a degree with young politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ben: I think that’s really true. Kind of in the same way that Colin Kaepernick set a new standard, Bernie set a new standard. I mean, he proved—against all the odds—that you could raise enough money as an independent to mount a credible political campaign. If you really want to get down to basics, the problem with the country is that all the politicians are bought and paid for by corporations and the ultra-wealthy. And Bernie figured out a way around that. You don’t have to play that game. That has already opened up politics to a whole bunch of down-ballot races in which Bernie-type people were inspired to run because of Bernie, and they got elected.
One thing Bernie’s really advocated strongly for is a $15 minimum wage, and from the data I’ve seen, Ben & Jerry’s scoopers make an average of $8-11 an hour, and store managers make around $14 an hour. Should Ben & Jerry’s employees be paid a minimum of $15 an hour?
Ben: Absolutely. The deal about what the federal government does, and the purpose of the federal government, is to set a level playing field. If we had a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, all of our competitors would be paying their people $15 an hour, and there would be no competitive disadvantage to paying that.
Jerry: Just going back for a second in thinking about Bernie’s legacy, the things that Bernie has been fighting for, the things that Bernie talked about that people said were too radical or too outlandish, are now becoming what is possible—whether it’s a $15 minimum wage, health care for all, eliminating student debt. All the things that Bernie’s been talking about are going to happen.
Ben: And it’s stuff that other countries have been doing for decades! This absurdity that somehow corporate America has gotten the United States citizens to believe that the country would go broke or go out of existence or no longer be the greatest in the world if we gave free college education to people and free health care—just like all these other countries around the world? I mean, they’re doing great! I would say that one of the big differences is that those other countries around the world aren’t spending 50 percent of their discretionary budget on killing people—on the military. That’s a sunk cost. If you spend all this money on weapons, it doesn’t go around and around and around. It’s a dead end. If you spend money on giving your kids a better education, they can become more productive. If you spend money on keeping your population healthier, they can be more productive. They can also be happier.
And it really speaks to the absurdity that’s going on right now, where the federal government is doing nothing to help people and businesses in need, whereas over in Canada, people have been getting $2,000 checks every month since this crisis began.
Ben: Well, you said it!
Jerry: I think the country is really divided up, in terms of the pandemic, of people that are doing fine and people that are really suffering. I think the people that are doing fine—typically people in the Senate and in Congress—they are not in touch with the people who are really suffering, and they are not serving the people they’re elected to serve.
Couldn’t agree more. You know, one thing that I thought was pretty cool was when Ben & Jerry’s pulled their ads from Facebook and Instagram. What did you guys think of that? Because Facebook in particular seems like a very toxic place. Even beyond the election-interference stuff, it’s furthered divisions in this country. So do you think Ben & Jerry’s should continue to tell Facebook to fuck off?
Ben: Yes, I think we should definitely tell Facebook to fuck off. Fuck Facebook! You know, it would be one thing if Facebook was a neutral platform—but it’s not. It’s based on an algorithm that elevates things that arouse passions in people, and a lot of that is hate. So they give a loudspeaker to hate speech. Somebody gets up there and says, “I think it should be a white nation and we should get rid of all these people of other colors,” and usually that wouldn’t go anywhere, but because of Facebook’s algorithm, it gets elevated and receives a tremendous audience.
Yes, it seems to reward the most controversial take. So each day, many of the top 10 stories on Facebook are from people like Ben Shapiro or Trump. People with ridiculous, reactionary, over-the-top takes.
Jerry: It’s hard for me to comment because I’m not on Facebook. [Laughs]
That’s a very good life decision, I think.
Jerry: I once asked my son if I was missing out on anything, and he said no. So that helped support my decision.
The only positive for me is helping remember people’s birthdays. OK, so I’m sure you guys get asked this a lot, but what are your favorite flavors—and the flavors that you feel are the most disappointing?
Ben: Well lately, I’ve been getting into Chubby Hubby—chocolate-covered peanut butter-grilled pretzels and vanilla-malt ice cream. And I’ve also been getting into vanilla ice cream on chocolate chip cookies—kind of an open-faced ice cream sandwich.
Jerry: My favorite flavor is AmeriCone Dream.
It really is fantastic.
Jerry: It is! It’s the best combination, right?
Ben: The problem with AmeriCone Dream is that some of the cone pieces, the chocolate gets chipped off ’em and they get soggy.
Jerry: It’s an occasional issue. That’s correct. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed by it, but I’ve never been a huge fan of Cherry Garcia. I understand that it’s incredibly popular and people say it’s delicious, but it’s just not my thing.
Ben: Cherry Garcia was my favorite flavor for about a decade.
I smoked a lot of weed and ate a lot of Cherry Garcia in my teens, and I think it’s because people may just OD on Cherry Garcia. I think I’ve OD’ed on Cherry Garcia and can’t really eat it so much anymore.
Ben: Aha! That might be what I did!