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Justice Defenders; Biden Going Big. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired March 12, 2021 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm using every power I have as president of the United States to put us on a war footing to get the job
AMANPOUR (voice-over): As the president hits road to sell his historic American recovery plan, I ask author Annalee Newitz and "The Washington
Post"'s E.J. Dionne about the details and what history tells us about going big.
JANE MANYONGE, PARALEGAL AND INMATE: I'm ready to help those ones who need justice, especially the battered women.
AMANPOUR: Inmate-turned-paralegal Jane Manyonge and attorney Alexander McLean tell me about the Justice Defenders in African prisons.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, AUTHOR, "USEFUL DELUSIONS": When you feel vulnerable when you feel scared, it turns out that all our minds very quickly
gravitate to beliefs.
AMANPOUR: The science of self-deceit. Journalist and author Shankar Vedantam tells our Hari Sreenivasan how delusions can be useful.
AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
President Joe Biden tells America that help is on the way. And, starting Monday, he will travel the nation to sell that story after signing into law
a historic, sweeping relief package that aims to set right decades of financial inequality. Almost $2 trillion in the form of direct payments,
investments in public health, schools and pensions will help struggling Americans who are reeling from the devastating pandemic.
And some estimate that it could even slash America's poverty rate by a third and half the number of children living in poverty right now,
redefining the very nature of government in the United States, as the country seeks to rebuild.
We want to delve into this bill and also to draw on the fascinating and important evidence from, yes, the Roman empire.
Joining me from San Francisco is "New York Times" contributor and novelist Annalee Newitz. She's the author of "Four Lost Cities." And E.J. Dionne,
"Washington Post" columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, on the road map for today.
Annalee, who, of course, goes by the pronoun they and their, welcome to the program.
Can I ask you something? We read this article. I did. And I was absolutely fascinated by what clearly you drew on to talk about the modern parallels
and meeting the concerns of our day. And you talk about Emperor Titus in the Roman Empire, who rebuilt big after the Mount Vesuvius, the volcano,
Tell us a bit more about it.
ANNALEE NEWITZ, AUTHOR, "FOUR LOST CITIES: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE URBAN AGE": So, Emperor Titus was made emperor just a few months before Vesuvius
erupted. So, he had a major disaster on his hands. He'd come into power just a few years after Nero's destruction of Rome.
So, people were very anxious about what to do next. But this was also kind of the halcyon period in the Roman Empire, when a lot of their prosperity
was built on trade. And so when he went to help the refugees from cities like Pompeii that had been buried in ash, he focused on the classes of
people who would be best able to rebuild small businesses and trade.
And he focused on a group of people who were either ex-slaves or still slaves. They're called liberti. And, today, we would call them freedmen.
These were people who were actually below the plebeian class. They aspired to be plebeians. But they were also, because of the Roman social system,
the people who often worked in shops, they often ran businesses for their former masters.
And so Titus looked at his empire and said, pragmatically, we need to give relief to these people who are in the lowest echelons of society, because
they're the ones who are going to help us rebuild. And so he put that money that had come from people who perished in the volcanic disaster, rich
people who had no heirs, he took that money and used it for infrastructure projects.
He built whole new neighborhoods in nearby cities, and allowed the freedmen to move into new houses with all kinds of amenities and to take up the
businesses that their masters had left behind.
And one of the things that most people don't realize is that only about a 10th of the people living in Pompeii perished. So, a huge number of
refugees were coming into these other cities. And they were coming into a rescue package. And it was really quite extraordinary.
And it shows that the state's been thinking about these kinds of rescue packages for thousands of years.
AMANPOUR: It's amazing. It really is extraordinary, and just listening to now verbally lay it out.
E.J. Dionne, I mean, it's kind of, thousands of years later, what is happening in the United States today, the idea of, how big should the
government go? Who should they help? How should they rebuild better, so to speak?
Do you see these parallels?
E.J. DIONNE, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Very much so.
In fact, when I read Annalee's piece, I thought of one of my favorite "New Yorker" cartoons. It's a really old one with two very prosperous-looking
gentlemen in their overstuffed chairs in their men's club, and one turns to the other and says: "I don't understand it. Every time these socialist
Democrats take power, I make a pile."
DIONNE: And I think the idea was that, for decades, American economic policy was dominated by the kind of New Deal/Keynesian view that, if you
give money to poor people and working class-people and middle-class people, basically the great mass of Americans, prosperity would grow from the
bottom up, and from there purchasing power.
And that came to an end in the 1970s, early 1980s, with the rise of Ronald Reagan here, with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. And for a long
time, policy was dominated by a top-down view, give rich people money, they will invest it, and that will create jobs for everyone.
What's really striking about what Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer did this week is, they really brought us back to the oldest
position, and, at least for now, put an end to Reaganism, because the whole theory of this package is, first, the people most hurt by the pandemic are
people in the middle and especially at the bottom.
And the amount of help this gives to poor people in the country is really quite extraordinary, as you said, particularly poor children. And then
there were also checks going well into the middle class to help people through this period.
And I think the interesting question will be, will this approach last? Will it be extended, and I think the two areas where we're going to see if it
can be extended are in the child tax credit, and which is refundable, so it goes to people, even if they don't pay income taxes, thus to the poor.
That's the one that cuts child poverty in half. And there's a lot of talk of extending that not only among Democrats, but also among Republicans.
Mitt Romney put forward his own proposal on the child credit to make it permanent.
And the other are the fixes to Obamacare, which Democrats have been trying to make for a long time, and they weren't able to make when Republicans
held Congress, which really lowered premiums for an awful lot of people in the lower part of the middle class.
And so you have got something here that's quite extraordinary in terms of changing the direction of our social and economic policy, and also
something that can be built on if the political forces are still there to build on them.
AMANPOUR: Let me play this, a little bit of a sound bite interview from Bernie Sanders, who is obviously the father of progressivism in the U.S.
Senate and has been talking about this for decades.
This is what he said as President Biden signed the bill.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is the most significant legislation for working people that has been passed in decades.
And I think what shocks many in the establishment, and certainly my Republican colleagues, is that we wrote a bill to address the crises facing
working families and the middle class and low-income people, and not the wealthy and large corporations and their lobbyists.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, Annalee, I want to go back to ancient Rome. I want to talk about the refugees and, as you mentioned, the liberti, the freedmen, the
slaves who basically saw social mobility.
But, also, tell me, did this largess, this investment by Emperor Titus, did it last for a long time, or was it a one-time thing? I mean, in other
words, how did the Roman Empire meet the needs of the people, not just in that one-off instance, but thereafter?
NEWITZ: I think it's really important to note that this relief effort was almost entirely pumped into jobs and infrastructure projects.
So, what Titus did was, he used all that money to build new towns and new roads for those towns. He also built leisure parks for those towns in the
form of colosseums that actually were exact replicas of the Roman Colosseum, which his father had built.
And what we saw was basically generational social mobility out of this, so it wasn't just a shot in the arm for one year. First of all, these
infrastructure projects would have provided jobs for up to 10 years for thousands of people, and they would have all been local folks that needed
And, also, because liberti were able to inherit these businesses from their former masters, and because they then moved to new towns and had children
there, they not only were able to give to their children a new social status, because the children were born free, but because they had been able
to relocate and start new lives, these children were released from the social taint of slavery, which was a big deal in the Roman Empire.
Even though the children of freed slaves could gain some rights, like voting rights, they still were the victims of prejudice, because they had
markers of slavery, they had names that were associated with slavery, for example. And what scholars find is that, within a generation of the
Vesuvius eruption, the children of freed slaves removed their slave names.
They went into society as voters. They could hold public office, and their fortunes were reversed for generations to come. And, of course, the
infrastructure that Titus built, and later that his brother Domitian built lasted for centuries.
So, this was a long-term rescue effort that was a transfer of wealth that had innumerable effects and saved the Roman economy.
AMANPOUR: E.J., I want to ask you about infrastructure in a moment, because every president, every governor, every senator promises it, but it
never really happens.
I'm going to ask you about that in a moment. But in terms of long term -- and you know the orthodoxy. You touched on it, the Reaganism, his famous
words, that government is not the solution, it's the problem, way back in the 80s. Now it's being turned on its head by President Biden.
Do you think this will survive the politics of Washington? Because they're all about -- certainly, the conservatives are all about fiscal
responsibility, they say no debt, and all the rest of it. Already, Mitch McConnell is saying he's never seen $2 trillion being spent in a more on
How -- do you think this is something that will last?
DIONNE: I think that politics is a show me what you're doing now business. And I think that if, indeed, Joe Biden succeeds in taming and ultimately
killing off the pandemic, and if the economy recovers strongly, which it looks like it's going to do, without all of that inflation that critics of
this proposal -- I disagree with them, by the way -- but critics say will come, if this works, I think Biden and the perspective he represents will
gain political authority.
And, again, to go back to Annalee's wonderful metaphor, historical metaphor, when you look at the changes made, not only by New Deal policies,
but by what happened during World War II and after, we also had generations of economic change, where people who had been in the working class started
rising over the generations into the middle class.
And, of course, you had other programs like the G.I. Bill up to push that along. And that had an effect on African-Americans as well. They were
excluded from a number of New Deal programs. But other aspects of the economic growth, particularly in the industrial sphere, also began to
create a substantial working and then middle-class African-American part of our population, which then demanded equal rights in the civil rights era.
So, if Biden pulls this off, if the virus is killed and the economy comes back, I think Republicans will keep looking at polls saying, well, we're
against this, but even a lot of our own people are for this.
Roughly half -- 40 to 50 percent of Republicans and a majority of lower- income Republicans supported the Biden plan. And I think that's very significant, potentially, for realignment in the future.
AMANPOUR: Yes, that is really important.
And President Biden has said all along that the people support me. So he is talking about the American people, both Republicans and Democrats, on this
particular bill, despite not a single Republican, if I'm not mistaken, voted for it in Congress.
AMANPOUR: But I want to play this from President Biden about the nature of what he's embarking on. And then we will talk about trying to tell the
story and selling it around the country.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country and giving people in this nation, working people, middle-class
folks, people who have built the country a fighting chance.
That's what the essence of it is.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, Annalee, let me ask you first, because there's one thing to be an emperor with no political opposition. And it's another thing to be an
elected president with plenty of at least opposition across the aisle.
But still, Titus had to sell this in a way, right? What did he do and say to get people to accept this huge disaster relief all those years ago?
NEWITZ: So, it was a surprisingly modern type of sales pitch. He went out to Pompeii and some other cities that had been destroyed in the eruption.
He toured them a couple of times to let people know that he cared.
He weighed it with his advisers. And he also was dealing with a lot of public opposition and a lot of grumpiness in general, because Rome suffered
a terrible fire immediately after Vesuvius erupted, and -- unrelatedly. And so people were saying, well, why don't you say Rome? Why don't you do this
But he and his family really wanted to be answerable to the people. They considered themselves kind of the people's emperors. And he wanted to brand
this relief effort too. He and his brother later, when they built these miniature colosseums in the refugee towns, it was kind of like saying to
them, you have got it as good as Rome. Like, we have a colosseum and you have a colosseum, and look who gave you this colosseum. It's Titus and
Domitian, your emperors.
And so there was a lot of salesmanship, but so a lot of genuine relief. So, it kind of went hand in hand. The kind of pragmatism and politics went hand
in hand with this kind of generosity, and with this idea, this ancient idea that the government must intervene when there's this kind of disaster. This
is not a new idea.
Governments have been doing this for literally thousands of years.
AMANPOUR: And you're right. And even now, big institutions, whether it's the IMF or governments, are saying, we actually do have to intervene right
The head of the IMF said, just keep spending, but keep the receipts.
So, E.J. Dionne, the president is going to go out and sell it. He's known to have regretted the fact that the Obama administration did not sell the
economic stimulus well enough back in 2008-2009, and that it didn't go big enough anyway.
So, what is his duty and his challenge now to keep up the momentum and let people know what he's done?
DIONNE: Well, there are really two models here. I won't go all the way back to the ancient world, which I love in this conversation.
But going back to Roosevelt, when the WPA happened and the various other New Deal programs happen, people knew that the benefits they got came out
of the program. People who got those jobs knew it came out of the New Deal. The post offices and other buildings built all over the country, people
knew that came from Franklin Roosevelt's program.
With the Obama plan, a lot of the benefits were disguised, some on purpose. For example, there was a real tax cut in that plan. But people got it back
a little bit at a time, because the people who created the plan wanted them to spend it right away. Maybe that was good economics. It was terrible
politics, because very few people even knew they were getting this rather substantial tax cut.
In this case, people are going to know when they get that check. People are going to learn pretty quickly when they start getting money for their
children. But Biden, as you said, is not going to make the same mistake he thinks that he and President Obama made all those years ago.
And you even have Republicans helping you. There's -- people have poked fun at Senator Wicker from Mississippi saying, hey, restaurant owners, you're
going to get a lot out of a provision I got in the bill, except he voted against the bill. But that's actually still pretty good advertising for
So, I think both the president and vice president are not going to let people forget where those checks are coming from and who voted for them.
And every member of Congress, every Democratic member of Congress who voted for this has an interest in furthering that campaign. And they're going to
AMANPOUR: It is really fascinating. And it's a real historic moment and chance.
E.J. Dionne, Annalee Newitz, thank you both so much.
Now, of course, a lot of the relief bill is focused on equity and justice for ordinary Americans. And on the topic of justice, news just out from
Minneapolis. The city has approved a $27 million settlement with George Floyd's family for his killing while in police custody.
And turning now to my next guests, who are all about bringing the rule of law to African prison systems.
Alexander McLean is an attorney and founder of Justice Defenders, which provides legal training to inmates and guards, so they can defend
themselves. We also spoke to Jane Manyonge, who's now a trained paralegal inside a Kenyan prison for women.
And we spoke recently during official visiting hours. We spoke by satellite, of course.
AMANPOUR: Alexander McLean and Jane Manyonge, thank you both so much for joining us.
So, Alexander, how do you get prisoners and, in fact, prison guards and others in prisons, whether in Uganda or Kenya, to actually become expert at
what they're doing?
You're affiliated with a university in London, right?
ALEXANDER MCLEAN, FOUNDER, JUSTICE DEFENDERS: We are.
There's a hunger for justice in Uganda, in Kenya, in the Gambia, where we're soon working, in dozens of countries around the world, which has
said, bring your model to our country.
Prison officials say, we can't say no to any prisoner who is sent to us by the courts. The head of Uganda Prison Service said, we have got the
gallows, we have got the executioners, but we can't be sure if we're to execute anyone that they are guilty of a crime, because we know our justice
system isn't functioning as it might.
We know that 80 to 90 percent of our prisoners never meet a lawyer. And it means that we have got innocent people in prison for years. And so we train
them as paralegals, giving them knowledge about how the local criminal justice system functions, so they can work on bail applications and prepare
those without lawyers for trial or work on their appeals.
And then we have this incredible cohort. It's following in Nelson Mandela's footsteps, studying law with the University of London by correspondents
from prison. We have got 39 prisoners and prison officers who have graduated so far. They study side by side.
In some of our classes, prisoners are teaching prison officers law. Our first graduate, Moses, started studying when he was a prisoner. He used his
legal knowledge from the University of London to work on his appeal. He got his conviction overturned. Now he's a prosecutor in the Ugandan army.
AMANPOUR: So, I want to turn to Jane Manyonge, who is in prison right now. We find her at the legal office that you all set up in the woman's prison,
which is outside of the capital, Nairobi.
Jane, tell me how you got interested in this idea of training to be a paralegal, training to really understand the law and be able to use it.
MANYONGE: I did not have the knowledge before. And I thought that ignorance may be defense in the court of law, but it wasn't.
Now I had to prepare myself for an appeal, to present myself in court. And where was I to get the knowledge? I was to get it from the Justice
AMANPOUR: Jane, why are you in prison? You were convicted of murder, right?
AMANPOUR: Murdering your husband?
AMANPOUR: Did you do it?
MANYONGE: I did it.
AMANPOUR: So, you believe that some punishment or punishment is due to you, correct?
MANYONGE: Oh, my.
Yes, some, but not all of them. Why? Because you find that, like in prison, most of us women, we are here because of domestic violence, whereby you
stand it for several years, and you reach a place where you break down, and you think that you are defending yourself, only to find that you have
broken the law, and we are in prison.
AMANPOUR: Jane, what happened? How did you -- quote, unquote -- "defend yourself," which led to your husband's death?
MANYONGE: I can say that I had been abused for several years, both physically and psychologically and even financially, if there is something
So, on this particular day when it happened, I thought that it was the usual, maybe quarreling, and it ends there, or you are given one or two
slaps, then it ends there like. But this one was different as to -- it was different, because I think I had breached the wall.
And when I thought that my husband was going to kill me. I said, oh, my, there is a knife nearby. And let me try to scare him off and all that. But
it not turn out that way. It turned out tragic, because when I swiped the knife, I didn't know that he had come with (INAUDIBLE) you see?
So it just stab him below the chest, and that was the end of him.
AMANPOUR: Wow, that's an amazing story, Jane
And then you were sentenced to death, correct?
AMANPOUR: What happened to you with Justice Defenders? Because you were able to learn, and you were able to seek an appeal.
MANYONGE: So, as they were teaching the paralegals on how to defend themselves in court, on how to gain self-esteem, on how to present
themselves in court, I said, this was the place for me to be. So I took it running.
AMANPOUR: And what happened to your sentence?
MANYONGE: OK, I filed an appeal. I filed an appeal.
And I appealed against both sentence and conviction. So, after going through an appeal, my sentence was -- my death sentence was substituted
with a 20-year sentence, though a conviction remained the same. That's murder, yes.
Alexander McLean, that's an incredible story. It is an incredible case study of what you do.
Tell me what's happened to the mandatory death sentence in Kenya since you have been doing your work there.
MCLEAN: In both Kenya and Uganda, I have prisoners who are studying law with us, have been involved in cases which have challenged the mandatory
death sentence. And in both of those countries, it's been overturned, so a judge now never has to give the death penalty.
In Uganda, the case was brought in the name of Susan Kigula, our first female at University of London law student studying from death row. And she
performed well in her exams, one of the University of London's best students in human rights law.
AMANPOUR: So, we have video of this, of Susan Kigula in Kenya, who also found resolution through the program. This is amazing pictures of her.
What was her case? And bigger than that, how many cases have you managed to resolve? How many prisoners have you seen walk out of prison because their
cases didn't stand up in the end?
MCLEAN: So far, we have served more than 30,000 crimes, prisoners who don't have access to lawyers; 15,000 of them have been released from
prisons in Uganda and Kenya by judges, whether on bail or being acquitted at trial, or having their conviction or death sentence overturned on
In Susan's case, she was accused of murder. She was in prison for five years awaiting trial. She didn't have access to a lawyer. But she knew that
there was a Justice Defenders legal office in her prison. And so her fellow prisoners and prison officers that we trained as paralegals advised her on
her case, advised her on how she could defend herself.
She did so. And the video clip beautifully captures the judge giving that not guilty verdict. And we're proud of our work, because we help to build
common cause in adversarial justice systems. We help judges to work more effectively, prosecutors to work more effectively, prison officers to speak
up on behalf of those they're responsible for.
AMANPOUR: And can I just ask you about COVID? Because, clearly, that would have made things a lot more difficult.
And prisons don't generally allow prisoners to be on the Internet and generally have access to the outside world.
MCLEAN: COVID has created huge challenges for the world, but it's also created some opportunities.
The prison services we work with know that they have to keep prisoners safe. So, they locked the doors to prisons. Outside organizations,
prisoners' families, lawyers weren't allowed into prison from the beginning of the pandemic.
But we knew that this was a time when we wanted to keep the wheels of justice turning. So, we have taken our legal education and training and
legal practice online. We're training prison and prison officer paralegals online, running University of London law classes online.
We had some of our best exam results yet last year. We have been providing laptops and high-speed Internet connections to prisons.
So far, more than 13,000 prisoners in Uganda and Kenya have attended hearings online using equipment that we have provided.
If it is possible to provide a legal education and training to those on death row in Uganda and Kenya, where else is it possible to reach new
unlikely defenders to give them legal knowledge so that they can elevate those facing injustice in their communities.
AMANPOUR: Well, which brings me to the United States as one of many. Obviously, it's the incarceration capital of the world. It has so many poor
people in jail. They have no, you know, ability to defend themselves. Many of them are sort of railroaded into jail. Have you had reaction from the
United States? I know that your story aired on "60 Minutes." Do you think you'll get access into the U.S. prisons if you haven't already?
MCLEAN: Justice in the United States has been deeply formative for me, learning about death penalty when I was a young boy and how it was
administered in the U.S. challenged me, especially an idea that we'd kill to show that killing was wrong. And also think about America as the country
that imprisons more people than anywhere else in the world. After our feature on "60 Minutes" with Anderson Cooper we were approached by
prisoners in 14 different American states saying to, train us in the law. We want to understand the law and how the apply to our own cases and to our
But we believe our motto that says, let's come together as prisoners and prison officers and judged and prosecutors and allies with common cause
because no one gains when innocent people are in prison. No one gains when we run our prisons in a way that's brutal that when one leaves them, they
can't reintegrate into a family or contribute to the community.
And so, we are excited to see what might be possible in the U.S., what it would look like on death rows in America to have the prisoners studying law
alongside their guards and to welcome in judges and prosecutors and others to talk about what justice looks like in that community and how each of us
can play a part in creating more just communities.
AMANPOUR: Well, in the United States, of course, there are public defenders. But in Kenya and Uganda, as you said, there were not. I want to
just put this case that I know is close to your heart, and it's Peter Ouko who was convicted of murdering his wife. He was sentenced to death. He says
that he didn't do it and that he was framed. He finally won his freedom in 2016. And this is what he said during a "TED Talk" afterwards.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PETER OUKO, PRISON REFORM ADVOCATE: Having met Alexander, I had a chance and he gave me the opportunity and the support to enroll for a university
degree of the University of London. Just like Mandela studied from South Africa, I had a chance to study at Kamiti Maximum-Security Prison. And two
years later, I became the first graduate of the program from University of London within the prison system.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: And Ouko ended up being pardoned by the Kenyan president. I mean, that's such a justification of your work, Alexander.
MCLEAN: We're incredibly proud of Pete. He was a pioneer and studying law, and in challenging circumstances, but performing well. And now, he works as
anti-crime advocate. We see that in prison, there are brains that can move mountains and there are men and women who are passionate about justice.
AMANPOUR: Jane, I wanted to ask you sitting there in your Kenyan prison and having learned and studied so much, I wanted to ask you about Nelson
Mandela, Jane. And let me read what he said, it is said that no one truly knows the nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not
be judged by how it treats the highest citizens but the lowest ones. How much of an inspiration to you is Nelson Mandela and his belief in the law?
MANYONGE: Oh, certainly, Nelson Mandela was my role model. Why? Being a prisoner and he is -- after he becomes the first president of South Africa.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NELSON MANDELA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF SOUTH AFRICA: So, help me God.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MANYONGE: The first black president of South Africa. That was something to me. And it shows that actually a prisoner today can be an asset to society
tomorrow. Prisoners are people, too. And like McLean has said the men of brains. There are many brains in prison.
AMANPOUR: Yes. Many brains and so much courage and so much commitment. Jane, I just want to ask you because, you know, you admitted to killing
your husband. You did not think you were going to do it. You say that it was a self-defense that went wrong. And I was struck by some of the prison
guards who I have seen quoted as saying, prison is as a punishment, but once you are here, you are not here to be punished. What do you think you
are there in prison to do?
MANYONGE: Like right now, what I do now is to reflect on my life and learn so much from Justice Defenders so that when I leave this place, of course,
I'm not living here for a while, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year I'll be out there. I'm ready to help those ones who need justice, especially the
AMANPOUR: It is really powerful. And, Alexander, finally to you. You are the son of an English white mother and a Jamaican father. How much of your
background plays into what you are doing and what is it that really made you want to do this work?
MCLEAN: I think that being of a mixed background like you, Christiane, perhaps equips us to act as bridges, to mix between people of different
colors, different stages, different backgrounds. What does it look like to recognize our shared humanity, and I think the world is crying out for that
after George Floyd's death. I think that what I learned from my childhood was the parent believing in people.
I have those who loved me, who nurtured me, who gave me a sense of agency of my life, what we are seeing is that in criminal justice system there are
those who have gifts, talents, ideas, maybe it's not been called out to them, maybe they don't realize that they can be a defender, that they can
be an advocate for those who don't have a voice. So, as Justice Defenders, we are proud to believe in those that others have rejected and to accompany
and to love and to encouraged those like Jane as they serve their communities with dignity and with passion.
AMANPOUR: Alexander McLean, thank you so much. And Jane Manyonge, as well. Tell me how many more years who have left on your sentence, Jane?
MANYONGE: Twenty years. With the remission, I'm left with around nine. And hey, I filed my review again. So, very soon, I'll be back in court for a
review of sentence. Thank you.
AMANPOUR: Well, good luck to you. And thank you both so much joining us.
MANYONGE: Thank you.
MCLEAN: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: What a story and what important work. And the Justice Defenders depend entirely on contributions and donations.
Drilling down further now into the capacity and the complexities of the human mind. Shankar Vedantam, host of the popular podcast "Hidden Brain"
has been reporting on human behavior for decades. He says that buying into false beliefs, in other words, deluding ourselves can actually be a good
thing sometimes. A helpful tool to get us through the hard parts of life. And here he is telling our Hari Sreenivasan about useful delusions, the
power and paradox of the self-deceiving brain.
HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christiane, thanks. Shankar Vedantam, thanks for joining us.
The book is called "Useful Delusions," it might as well be called why we lie to ourselves. What is a useful delusion?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, AUTHOR, USEFUL DELUSIONS: Well, a story, Hari. Some years ago, I was having dinner with a friend whom I knew from college. And
the friend told me that he believes, a very smart guy, a good friend of mine, he told me that he was convinced that the United States was behind
the 9/11 attack, that the CIA and FBI had planned the attacks and the United States had carried out these attacks as a way to trigger a
justification for the war in Iraq.
VEDANTAM: And I remember arguing with him, I don't know if it was an hour or for two hours, but I would argue until I was hoarse about how his theory
was wrong and it was a delusion. And at the end of the evening, of course, you know, I hadn't convinced him, and he came away thinking that I was the
one who had the delusion.
So, this conversation and conversations like this, all of us have had the experience of talking to a neighbor or talking to a friend, hearing people
espouse crazy views and finding that argument and logic and reason don't often fix those views. And in many ways, my book is really a way of
understanding how delusions operate, the psychology and the science behind them, but also potentially how to take this knowledge and then do something
about dangerous delusions.
SREENIVASAN: Yes, I definitely want to talk about the sort of plight of the so many Americans today having to deal with the relatives who believe
in conspiracy theories in a bit. But stepping back a second, you know, when do we pick up these practices. I mean, it seems like as children, parents
are teaching us that it is kind of OK and we should be lying at certain times.
VEDANTAM: That is right. So, I think when think about delusions, many of us think about the delusions that we have at the level of our beliefs. A
belief that, for example, the United States carried out the 9/11 attacks or a belief that the Republicans are good or belief that Democrats are bad or
beliefs that our parents are good or our groups are good or our country is good. These are beliefs that we have.
But at an even more elementary level our brains are actually doing this all of the time, Hari, our brains are actually constantly coming up with
theories and models of the world. And in fact, when you look at the signs of delusions, it turns out that it's not just a result of brainwashing,
this is a facet of how our brains actually are designed to operate. Our brains are designed in some ways to mediate between the outside world and
the inside world.
And one of the ways in which they mediate between the outside world or the inside world, is not by presenting reality in its complete accuracy to us
but in coming up with the delusions that might help us actually adapt and be more functional in the world. And I can give you many examples of this,
but certainly it does start in childhood. But even before, I would say, parents start teaching their children things, it begins almost at the point
at which we open our eyes and start to take in the world for the first time.
SREENIVASAN: So, you're saying some of this is biological then, at a core sort of brain function level the fact that we need to recognize patterns
and make shortcuts so that we can make decisions faster, that's just part of what feeds into this sort of higher-end delusion?
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. You know, one model I have or an analogy I have is that imagine for a second, Hari, that you were not the individual
of Hari but you were the nation of Hari. And you had -- you appoint the ambassadors to go out to different countries. You wouldn't expect the
ambassador you've appointed to tell you everything that's happening in this other country because you would quickly get overwhelmed, you would expect
this ambassador in some ways to filter what she is hearing and seeing so that she presents you with things that you can actually take advantage of
and act on.
The second thing that you expect this ambassador to do if she's a wise ambassador is to pay attention to what has worked for you in the past and
what is being useful for you to hear in the past. And so, the ambassador is not just filtering the information of the outside world, but selectively
presenting to you things that can nudge you in one direction or another.
This ambassador, this is the role that the brain plays all of the time. Now, it plays a role in a very functional way, in a very useful way most of
the time, but there are times when the ability of the brain, in some ways, to mediate between our internal needs, our hopes, our fears, our angers,
our desires and the external world can produce delusions that, in fact, are the delusions that we talk about all of the time.
SREENIVASAN: So, what about when you are anxious, when you feel a loss of control, what happens to the brain? Are there ways that it's going to start
to see patterns or recognize things that might not really be there?
VEDANTAM: Yes. That's an excellent question and I think that's sort of the next level (INAUDIBLE) sort of how the delusions are playing are brain,
just thinking about sort of our emotional. So, when anxiety happened, is a wonderful example, and ask yourself what would happen if we truly took in
everything about the world that makes us anxious? You know, we really process every single thing about the world, the potential to make us
The (INAUDIBLE) might be that we end up feeling overwhelm. We were so scared that we actually cannot function properly. And so, our brains in
some ways are designed to pay attention to things that are threats, not to ignore them because that would not be functional, but also in some ways to
take in those threats in a way that actually is manageable. All of us have done this in the course of the last 12 months, during the pandemic, we have
found ways to manage our anxieties, we have come up with rituals, we have come up with beliefs.
I know not speaking just for myself, at every state of the pandemic, I have imagined that liberation was one month away. The fact that I've imagined
that liberation was one month away is what has allowed me to survive for a year of the pandemic. And all of us have come up with sort of hacks in this
way. And you could argue in some ways that these are delusional beliefs, that in some ways we are fragile mortal creatures, prone to illness, prone
to near death or really scary things can happen to us, but this is not often functional and it isn't helpful to sort of imagine yourself as being
vulnerable or fragile, it gets in the way of, you know, being part of happy hour and Zoom meetings that we don't have to be part of.
And so, our brains, in some ways, filter what it I that we're able to tolerate so that, in some ways, we are dealing with anxieties at the level
at which we can tolerate them. Now, people who, in some ways, have mental illnesses find it difficult to do this. So, the anxieties become so
overwhelming that they actually end up taking over our live. But the paradox is, some of the people who had anxiety disorders, who have
depression, for examples, might actually be seeing the world more accurately, they might be seeing the world as the world actually is, in its
full reality. People who are mentally healthy on the other hand might be delusionally able to see the world in slightly more optimistically ways,
but might not be accurate but, in some way, might be much more functional.
SREENIVASAN: Can you convince yourself of a delusion by saying it out loud and I'm thinking about it in the context of politicians in the last few
VEDANTAM: When it comes to politicians, there's actually been work that actually has looked at this int the context of psychological studies that
find that when we speak to people, not just true politicians, but especially true for politicians, all of us modulate what we say so that
part of what we say appeals to the people whom we are speaking to.
So, as I am speaking to you, Hari, I have some sense of what your interests are, what your background is, what kind of a show that you are hosting, and
I'm trying to present myself to be suitable to you and your audience.
Now, the interesting thing that happens is that as all of us do this, part of what happens in our own minds is that we start to believe what it is
that we have just said. In other words, the act of speaking itself, in some ways, creates its own belief structure. This is called audience tuning in
the psychology literature. The idea that as the politician speaks to the audience, the audience is actually shaping what the politician is saying.
And as the politician speaks, her words actually shape what she herself believes.
SREENIVASAN: I kind of am honing in, for example, the -- what happened to this country on January 6th. When, say, a large-scale delusion which has
some sort of a marker in time and acts are supposed to happen based on this theory and that doesn't happen. The prophecy doesn't come true. Why do
adherence of those beliefs seem to double down?
SREENIVASAN: I mean, obviously, some say, OK, I was deluded. I got this wrong. I can't believe I wasted so much time.
SREENIVASAN: But there's a lot of people who thought January 6th would go one direction, then they saw March 4th is going to be another important
day, they cling on to this.
VEDANTAM: Yes. And so, this is an old question in psychology of what happens when our beliefs are disconfirmed. And, you know, in the -- almost
in half a century ago, the psychologist, Leon Festinger, infiltrated a group of people who believed the earth was going to come to an end on a
certain day. And he infiltrated the group partly because he wanted to understand what would happen when this prophecy failed to come true.
And he fully expected that when the prophecy failed to come true people would, in some ways, come to their senses and recognize that they were
wrong and that they have made a mistake and that they would revise their opinions. But, of course, when the day of judgement came and the world did
not end, the people who are part of this group did not change their minds, they doubled down and they came up now with new explanations for why it is
world had not ended.
So, they said, for example, the things that we did, our little group did, as we prepared for judgment day, the things that we did, in fact, headed
off judgment day. So, in other words, they came up with ways to rationalize their beliefs.
Leon Festinger eventually came up with a theory that's known as the theory of cognitive dissonance, which is what happened again when the outside
world or the inside world, in some ways, are in conflict or you have different things inside you that are in conflict with one another. So,
reality is telling you that judgment day did not come and my view was incorrect, but all your internal sense, you know, your loyalties, your
convictions, your affiliations are telling you this is a belief that I had. And to come around and say, I was wrong is very painful.
And so, what people do is that they find a way to reconcile these two conflicting beliefs by eliminating either the facts or seeing the facts in
some kind of a new light. When you think about what happened on January 6th, I think you see the same thing on steroids, which is that you have a
belief that was deeply held by large numbers of people and now, you have a choice. You have a choice of either saying, I was wrong, my belief was
wrong, or you have another option which basically says, I'm going to reject the information coming in, I'm going to reject reality and I'm going to see
reality delusionally because it actually fits what my internal needs are.
I just want to say one last thing about the events that took place on January 6th. It is absolutely the case that there are deep psychological
roots to what happened on January 6th. However, if people are showing up at your door with rifles and guns, that is not a good time to be advancing a
psychological theory. If somebody is showing up at your house with a delusion, with a gun that you are an evil person, you don't sort of say,
let's sit down and have a conversation about your psychological biases, what you do is you call 911, you call out the national guard, you call out
But calling out the national guard is not an option when you 50 million people share the delusion. When 50 million people have the delusion, now,
you have ask, what are the conditions that allow this delusion to spread, how can we address these underlying psychological factors, because you
cannot call out the national guard to diffuse 50 million people of what they believe.
SREENIVASAN: I wonder, when you think of things like the pandemic in the immediate term, you think of climate change, you think of the political
divisions, these are all things that we don't really feel like we have control over, and I wonder if that actually increases the likelihood that
we have this cognitive dissonance and we start to see patterns where there aren't and we take comfort in the facts that confirm the narratives that
help us to move on to tomorrow.
VEDANTAM: Yes, in fact, there had been a number of psychological studies, Hari, that show exactly what you're describing, which is that, in some
ways, all of us have an innate version to feeling like we are out of control or feeling like the world is unpredictable or the world is scary.
In psychological experiments, when you induce a feeling of a lack of control among volunteers. The volunteers become more likely to be seeing
patterns in noise. So, for example you will show them a television set that has static on it, for example, people who are experiencing a lack of
control are more likely to see imagines in the static, they're more likely to see patterns in noise.
And again, taking it at a much larger scale, that the same kinds of things -- in fact, you're are experiencing sort of existential anxiety or anxiety
about your -- you know, where your group is or how well you are doing in life, you are much more likely now to buy the story of the demagogue who
comes along the tells you a simple story. A simple story that says, you know, you had a glorious past, your present is filled with all kinds of
misery and suffering. Follow me and I will take you to a land of future greatness.
Many demagogues have the same script. You know, past, greatness. Present, suffering. Future, greatness if you trust in what I'm saying. And I think
many of us look at these things and basically say, the problem is with the demagogue, and, of course, the problem is with the demagogue but the deeper
problem really is in the environment in which we find ourselves in.
You know, Hitler arose in Nazi Germany at a specific point in German history where Hitler's message resonated with many Germans because, in
fact, they looked back and sort of saw a period of glory and looked at their present and felt themselves deprived or felt that they had fallen out
of favor. And Hitler basically said, follow me and I can take you to future greatness.
When we think about how to address the delusions that affect all of us, that affect all of us around the world, part of the answer really is much
more fundamental questions about how you spread opportunity more equitably, how you give access to health care and education opportunities more
equitably. If you remove, in some ways, that soil in which the delusions can spring, that, in some ways, might be the most effective way to combat
SREENIVASAN: From having listened to you and knowing you over the years, I know you're a rationalist, and I wonder how researching and writing this
book has affected you? I mean, you have a story in there about going to speak with the parents who lost a child and who -- when she was buried, he
found solace in the fact that there was an eagle flying above and it made him think of a biblical quote. And, you know, I wonder about the
(INAUDIBLE) that I know who is -- you know, who can look at the facts and - - but in that living room, to empathize with that parent, you are going to be OK with that delusion because it helps that man deal with incalculable
VEDANTAM: Yes. In my 20s and 30s, Hari, I was a rationalist and logical to the point that I believe that anyone who didn't hold rational or logical
beliefs was somehow lesser than or somehow there's something wrong with them.
I have moderated my views significantly, and I think partly it maybe just a result of age but it's also the result of, I think, going through
experiences myself that are deeply traumatic or deeply scary. You know, a few months ago, I suffered a retinal detachment which several hours away
from my home in Washington, and I went through a period of hours where I literally felt like I was losing sight in one eye. You know, and I finally
found the doctor and he opened his practice for me at 9:00 at night and, you know, he told me that I had to be rushed into surgery within a matter
of minutes. And, you know, I didn't have time to look up doctor reviews, I trusted him because at that point my fear was so great that he was the only
lifeline I had.
Now, if he had been a charlatan or a conman, I could easily have trusted him as well because, in some ways, my faith in him was not because of him,
my faith in him was prompted by my own vulnerabilities, my own insecurities. But I will tell you that even though if you were to ask me,
do you believe in God, I would say, I probably don't believe in God. As I was being wheeled in surgery, I prayed. I prayed that my eye would be
restored. And in some ways, that is not a surprising thing that that would happen.
You know, there's the old saying, there are no atheists in the foxhole. But I think the idea of that is basically, you know, when we think about people
who have delusions, we often look at them from outside what they are experiencing. In some ways, the ability not to engage in delusions can be
seen as a form of privilege.
If your life is going great, if your job is going great, if your family going great, if you have very few insecurities, you have no need to turn to
beliefs and delusions because your real life is fantastic. But in a moment, when that is taken away from you, when you feel vulnerable, when you feel
scared, it turns out that in all of our minds very quickly gravitate to beliefs because those, in some ways, can soothe us from great fears and
SREENIVASAN: Shankar Vedantam, host of the podcast and radio program "Hidden Brain" and author of the new book, "Useful Delusions: The Power and
Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain," I give you a sincere non-delusional thank you for joining us.
VEDANTAM: Thank you so much, Hari. I really appreciate it.
AMANPOUR: And we do the same to you. Thank you for joining us. That's it for now. Goodbye from London.