Off the Cuff: Ben Cohen
In 1978, Ben Cohen, along with best friend Jerry Greenfield OC ’75 formed the wildly successful (and delicious) Ben and Jerry’s ice cream empire. Last week, before the election, Cohen visited his partner’s alma mater to get out the vote for Senator-elect Sherrod Brown. Just before he set off canvassing, the Review caught up with him to discuss America, Oberlin and, of course, ice cream.
What brought you to Oberlin today?
I used to feel like our country does some bad stuff, but at least it does some good stuff. But now it just seems like it’s just doing really bad stuff. I feel I’ve got a responsibility to try and turn it around. There are a few races that really count this year in terms of getting control of the House and Senate. It just so happens that the one in Ohio for Sherrod Brown is one of them.
So I’m doing what I can do. I run an organization called TrueMajority.org and we’re trying to raise money for candidates in these swing races. We had a contest: whoever raised the most money for their favorite candidate gets to “tell Ben where to go” [and the winner picked Ohio]. So that’s what I’m doing.
What message do you want to impart to Oberlin students?
I think the current direction that the country is going in [is that] we’ve essentially got a bunch of white-collar criminals that are hijacking the country for their own personal benefit. It’s becoming a country by the rich for the rich. People in the lower economic strata are getting screwed, and people around the world are getting screwed.
When I was in high school, my father came down on me for not reading the daily newspaper. I said, “The stuff that’s in it doesn’t concern me, and even if it did, there’s nothing I can do about it.” Now, from where I sit today, I realize that it’s not about me…it’s about the people getting screwed because of the policies of our country. There’s a [saying]: “He who is silent consents.” If you’re not trying to stop it and change it, you’re essentially saying it’s okay for all those people to get screwed, because [you] got [yours]. I can’t accept that.
Do you think that the youth of today are more or less politically aware than they were in the ’70s?
I’m not sure. I think that there are more effective efforts to get youth involved in politics [now], because of the Internet and e-mail.
There’s a way to communicate with students in a medium they’re used to using.
What — aside from voting — can we do to make a difference in this election?
There [are] gobs of things! You can join TrueMajority.org or TrueMajorityAction.org, our [web]site that works to get particular people elected. There’s door-to-door canvassing, there’s making calls — you can work for a candidate or a campaign.
Sometimes people say [about elections], “It’s Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and there’s no one that I’m interested in supporting.” But if you focus on the primary campaigns, there’s usually someone that represents what you believe in. I think that’s the best place to put your efforts.
Your business partner, Jerry Greenfield, went to Oberlin. What did he think of it?
I think he loved Oberlin. He had a great time. I spent some time here at Oberlin myself, on Jerry’s floor. I dropped in on him one night and stayed for two months. I used to sneak into the dining hall for food, and I worked as a sandwich man for a while. I went to one art history class that was incredible — about Klaus Oldenburg. But mostly I was just hanging around. I had a delightful time here.
I’m sorry, but we have to know: What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?