From the Archives • April 8, 2014

Cold Wars, and How to Survive Them

Ahead of our show with Elaine Scarry this week, we're reminding ourselves of how we got into the nuclear standoff called the Cold War, and how Ronald Reagan dreamed we would get out of it. With a nuclear cold war taking rhetorical shape between Israel and Iran, with Pakistan and India ever in range of the brink, it is no academic or merely historical question: how did the US and USSR get out of their four-decade staring contest without a single one of their many thousands of nuclear guns going off?

Ahead of our show with Elaine Scarry this week, we’re reminding ourselves of how we got into the nuclear standoff called the Cold War, and how Ronald Reagan dreamed we would get out of it:

The danger of a nuclear weapon being used, whether against us or against somebody else, is actually greater now than it was in the Cold War. But the big difference is that it’s only going to be one or two, and it’s not going to be five thousand or seven thousand … We have to take this very seriously, but at the same time, it’s not a Cold War scenario.

John Lewis Gaddis on Open Source

Ronald Reagan dreamed of disarmament. A final, total abandonment of nuclear weapons…

He and Gorbachev would come to Iceland, and each of them would bring the last nuclear missile from each country with them. Then they would give a tremendous party for the whole world…. The President would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him. The President would say “Hello, Mikhail.” And Gorbachev would say, “Ron, is it you?” And then they would destroy the last missile.

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

With a nuclear cold war taking rhetorical shape between Israel and Iran, with Pakistan and India ever in range of the brink, it is no academic or merely historical question: how did the US and USSR get out of their four-decade staring contest without a single one of their many thousands of nuclear guns going off?

Richard Reeves’ revisionist appreciation of Ronald Reagan, subtitled “The Triumph of Imagination,” compounds the impression in Gaddis’ history that part of the answer was Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood intuition that the picture of two cowboys each pointing 10,000 six-guns at each other — forever — made for a lousy screenplay. The script needed a doctor, Reagan realized. Around the same time Mikhail Gorbachev remembered saying to his wife, Raisa, “We can’t go on living like this.”

Gaddis writes that to break the human habit of escalating violence, and of using all the tools that worked: “It took visionaries — saboteurs of the status quo — to widen the range of historical possibility.”

The heroes of his story are: Pope John Paul II, who “set the pattern by rattling the authorities” throughout the Soviet bloc. Margaret Thatcher, “who relished being tougher than any man” in reviving the reputation of capitalism in the world. Ronald Reagan, who used his theatrical skills to rebuild confidence at home, to spook Brezhnev and enlist Gorbachev. And Gorbachev himself, who put his private instincts ahead of the party line in softening communism’s emphasis on the class struggle and its old claims of historical infallibility.

But most of the other players in the last half-century — including Truman after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Stalin and Eisenhower and most assuredly Reagan — came to realize, each in his own epiphany, that the damned nukes were un-usable.

The lesson among all of us Cold War survivors, Gaddis writes, was that “war itself — at least major wars fought between major states — had become a health hazard, and therefore an anachronism.”

First of my questions, awaiting yours: do the nuclear players and wannabes on the 21st Century stage know the futility of those weapons as well as, say, Reagan and Stalin did?

Second question, especially for Richard Reeves, who recruited me for the New York Times in the late 1960s: as Ronald Reagan’s reputation is revalued upward, what needs to be said of Reagan’s worst enemies in the Republican power elite (figures like Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger) who envisioned “limited” nuclear conflicts but successfully labeled Reagan for most of his career as the “extremist.”

And which of those Republican forebears — Rockefeller’s imperial personification of oil power and Wall Street, and Ronald Reagan’s cowboy populism — is the true ancestor of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd that rules our roost today?

John Lewis Gaddis

• Robert A. Lovett Professor of History, Yale University
• Author, The Cold War: A New History

Richard Reeves

Journalist and Presidential BiographerVisiting Professor,Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern CaliforniaAuthor, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination

From the Archives • March 31, 2014

Speaking of Music Again: Oliver Sacks

We've been contemplating the mysteries of music over the past few weeks, since our conversations with Gunther Schuller and Richard Powers. Perhaps the essential question here is what neuroscience is contributing to the delicious mystery of music. Will any discovery in the brain circuitry of music trump Proust's reflections on the experience of sound?

 

proust

We’ve been contemplating the mysteries of music over the past few weeks, since our conversations with Gunther Schuller and Richard Powers. What makes a piece of music “great”? It can’t just be revolutionary rhythms or technical difficulty. From where does that inexplicable effect of music on our emotions come?

The andante had just ended on a phrase filled with a tenderness to which I had entirely surrendered. There followed, before the next movement, a short interval during which the performers laid down their instruments and the audience exchanged impressions. A duke, in order to show that he knew what he was talking about, declared: “It’s a difficult thing to play well.” Other more agreeable people chatted for a moment with me. But what were their words, which like every human and external word left me so indifferent, compared with the heavenly phrase of music with which I had just been communing? … I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls. It is like a possibility that has come to nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language. But this return to the unanalysed was so intoxicating that, on emerging from that paradise, contact with more or less intelligent people seemed to me of an extraordinary insignificance.

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.
Oliver Sacks: Musicophile [Elena Seibert photo for Knopf]

Oliver Sacks: Musicophile

Music uniquely among the arts is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly. It needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him. [Henry Purcell's opera, from 1689] Everyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, p. 300.

I was always doubly tantalyzed by music: first of all by its patterns, its symmetries, its proportions, its mathematical perfection and abstractness; and and second by the excruciating pleasure which it could produce, and the sweet pain which was beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond expression by anything else…

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

There’s a case to be made, and Paul Elie makes it elegantly in his Slate review of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, that of the two Oliver Sackses — the patient and the observant clinical neurologist — the patient, with 70-plus years of soaring, passionate musical memories, is more interesting than the neurologist. In our conversation, there seemed almost to be two Sackses.

Language of the heart, and language of souls. There’s part of me which sort of rebels against words like the heart and the soul and transcendence, and yet, and yet, one can’t avoid them. Interestingly, Williams James never uses the term ‘soul’ in The Principles of Psychology, but he continually used it in conversation and correspondence and of course he uses it, it’s central, in The Varieties of Religious Experience

I had a dream the other night. In dreams one escapes from the shackles of one’s own reason and reductionism. And in my dream I dreamt some Fauré; I didn’t know what it was, though when I woke up I realized it was his Requiem. But this in fact went with a vision of star nurseries, the sort of thing which the Hubble reveals and galaxies being formed. I don’t like words like ‘the beyond’ or ‘eternal’ but maybe one can’t avoid them. I may soften up here, but I’m not sure what to say…. Again, my feet are … I’m narrowly, childishly planted in the clinical. I can’t talk about transcendence, and galazies. I think of my patients, you know, who on the whole do not speak in cosmic terms.

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

Perhaps the essential question here is what neuroscience (still ragingly conflicted about, for starters, the place of music in our evolutionary history) is contributing to the delicious mystery of music. Will any discovery in the brain circuitry of music trump Proust’s reflections on the experience of sound?

By the Way • March 24, 2014

Gustavo Dudamel: Stardust from El Sistema Heaven

This is how we make music in Gustavo Dudamel’s world: intense focus, intense fun together. For 60 minutes or so, El Sistema-trained teenagers from public schools in Boston, Somerville and nearby worked several times through Bizet’s “Farandole” and the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the mesmerizing maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Dudamel rehearsing orchestra

“I’m not a great singer,” Gustavo Dudamel told the kids in a teaching aside on Saturday in an El Sistema rehearsal with the Longy School at MIT on Saturday. “But of course I sing in the shower,” he said, working up a conversational lather. Here was the point, in spirit and in so many words: “We sing in the orchestra, same way we sing in the shower. You know how you get to love that big, long line you’re singing — clearer and stronger when you’re into it. We want to take it right to the point where the people in the next apartment start banging on the wall and shout: ‘We get it! Now shut up.’”

This is how we make music in Gustavo Dudamel’s world: intense focus, intense fun together. For 60 minutes or so, El Sistema-trained teenagers from public schools in Boston, Somerville and nearby worked several times through Bizet’s “Farandole” and the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the mesmerizing maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Not once did the conductor speak of tempo, articulation, or even being in tune. But he kept offering the kids images: the difference between a dancer with long legs and someone marching on short legs, for example. Every coaching point was about adding colors for the listeners, making the musical experience more dynamic in the ensemble, a life lesson closer to home for the young players.

The life lesson was humility in triumph for the surprise star of the rehearsal show, the 9-year-old timpanist Francis Puente from the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton. With his broken left wrist in a cast, Francis was working his kettle drums with just his right hand, ever with style and effect. Maestro Dudamel singled him out for recognition, and Francis smiled his thanks. His mother Maria Puente emailed the next morning: “But you know what was even more admirable with our son? While we were in the car, I asked him how he wanted to celebrate his wonderful achievement — maybe eat out in some nice restaurant, I suggested. He said he wanted to celebrate by just going home and having a quiet evening with us. He said, ‘I like being acknowledged and then being able to go back to the ordinary pace of life, like going into oblivion.’ What a blessing, too, for him to remain unaffected by all the attention he gets.”

Next day at Symphony Hall, under a thundering, tearful standing ovation, Maestro Dudamel took credit with Francis Puente’s taste for oblivion. Dudamel saluted his Los Angeles Philharmonic stars, embracing his horn soloist, his woodwind section, his brilliant cello duo who’d outdone themselves in the full Tchaikovsky 5. But to the end he stood hand in hand with the ranks of his first violins and violas. The most celebrated young conductor in the world today, the man we came to hear, never mounted the podium again after the music stopped. He declined to take a solo bow.

By the Way • March 20, 2014

My Debt to Suzanne Massie

Suzanne Massie gave me my first unforgettable walking tour of St. Petersburg -- of the Hermitage, Dostoevsky's house and grave, the Italianate churches -- in 1992. It was all part of my assignment to write an account for The Atlantic of her extraordinary service to Ronald Reagan and all of us: "Agent of Influence."

Screenshot 2014-03-20 23.14.10Suzanne Massie gave me my first unforgettable walking tour of St. Petersburg — of  the Hermitage, the Royal Palaces, Pavlovsk, Dostoevsky’s house and grave, the Italianate churches — in 1992.  It was all part of my assignment to write an account for The Atlantic of her extraordinary service to Ronald Reagan and all of us. I thought the title of The Atlantic piece in February, 1993 should have been “The Woman Who Ended the Cold War.” Here it is, under the headline “Agent of Influence“.

Podcast • March 17, 2014

Edna O’Brien: Literature Against Loneliness

In celebration of Saint Patrick's Day: Edna O'Brien is my fair embodiment of a writer's gifts and the pleasures of reading. Her prose, as Philip Roth once remarked, is "like a piece of fine meshwork, a net of perfectly observed sensuous details that enables you to contain all the longing and pain and remorse that surge through the fiction."

We sat in the jeep because, as he said, we were in no hurry to get home. We didn’t talk about family things, his wife or my ex-husband, my mother or his mother, possibly fearing that it would open up old wounds. There had been so many differences between the two families — over greyhounds, over horses, over some rotten bag of seed potatoes — and always with money at the root of it. My father, in his wild tempers, would claim that my mother’s father had not paid her dowry and would go to his house in the dead of night, shouting up at a window to demand it. Instead we talked of dogs.

From the story “Old Wounds,” by Enda O’Brien, in her new collection, Saints and Sinners.

Edna O’Brien is my fair embodiment of a writer’s gifts and the pleasures of reading. She is a lyrical realist, never far from the melancholy of Irish drinkers and suffering survivors of Irish pasts. Her eye and ear miss nothing, but they are not unforgiving. Her prose, as Philip Roth once remarked, is “like a piece of fine meshwork, a net of perfectly observed sensuous details that enables you to contain all the longing and pain and remorse that surge through the fiction.” Her air in conversation seems to say: no palaver, but we can talk about anything.

Edna O’Brien made her reputation detailing the rueful fates of women, in love and life, and not just in the rural West of Ireland, where she grew up. In Saints and Sinners the most memorably sympathetic figures are menfolk of her generation — like Rafferty in the story “Shovel Kings.” He has been digging “the blue clay of London” for electrical cables — and drinking a bit at Biddy Mullugan’s pub in North London — through the half century that Edna O’Brien, too, has been living in exile in England. “Biddy’s was popular,” Rafferty explains, “because they gave five millimeters extra on a small whiskey or vodka. Pondering this for a moment, he said that with drink the possibilities were endless, you could do anything, or thought you could. Moreover, time got swallowed up, or more accurately, as he put it, got lost.” Rafferty becomes a composite picture of the brutal wear and tear on Irish manhood in Edna O’Brien’s time.

‘Mind yourself.’ Those were the last words Rafferty said to me. He did not shake hands, and, as on the first morning, he raised his calloused right hand in a valediction that bespoke courtesy and finality. He had cut me out, the way he had cut his mother out, and those few who were dear to him, not from a hardness of heart, but from a heart that was immeasurably broken.

Under the pavement were the lines of cable that linked the lights of the great streets and the lesser streets of London, as far distant as Kent. I thought of the Shovel Kings, and their names suddenly materialized before me, as in a litany — Haulie, Murphy, Moleskin Muggavin, Turnip O’Mara, Whiskey Tipp, Oranmore Joe, Teaboy Teddy, Paddy Pancake, Accordion Bill, Rafferty, and countless others, gone to dust.

From “Shovel Kings,” in Saints and Sinners.

President Obama was in Ireland, tipping a jar of Guiness, when Edna O’Brien and I recorded our gab in the Boston Athenaeum. Her conversation is at once spontaneous and considered. She is one of those people who likes to interview the interviewer. I’m mystified by the memory of the last time I saw her: after our radio gig, Edna O’Brien in a taxicab got me to sing a Christian communion song that I’d learned to love at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston. The refrain is “One day when I was lost, He died upon the cross. I know it was the blood for me.” What I cannot remember is how or why she provoked me to sing, but it sounded right to her — not least because “I love to hear people sing.”

I am curious about people. That’s why I don’t like social life so much. Social life, people put on masks, it’s hypocrisy, it’s not like a real conversation, like used to happen in Russian fiction, in trains: a man would meet a person in a train and they would talk. I like to hear about people’s lives, not just because I want to write about it, which has to be confessed, but because it’s lonely on earth, really, and two things make it less lonely. One is literature, which we have to try and save in this wicked and worried and crazy world. The other is meeting or talking with someone who actually, even for an hour, kind of enchants you. I don’t even mind if people tell me total lies. So long as there is that connectedness, with the imagination, and with the heart, and with what’s deepest in people. You don’t get that much. You get this regularized language, everything is so uniform. The individuality is getting lost.

Edna O’Brien with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athenaeum, May 24, 2011.

From the Archives • March 12, 2014

Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: "Striving is the Back Story"

Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk.

vijay three hundred

Pianist Vijay Iyer is performing with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky this Friday, March 14, in Boston at Sanders Theater. We recorded this conversation with Vijay Iyer in 2010.

Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk. He brings also — to his Birdland debut this Spring, and to his new CD, Historicity — bassist Stephan Crump and the drum prodigy Marcus Gilmore, who just happens to be the grandson of the last living drum giant of the Forties, the eternally experimental Roy Haynes. But the sum of Vijay Iyer’s gifts is more exciting than any of the parts. He brings to improvisational music, most of all, the aura of an art starting fresh, just beginning — not looking back, much less winding down.

Could we talk, I inquire, about the space he seems to be building out between cultures and eras, between East and West, between the music that marked the American Century at its best and whatever it is that’s trying to happen next? So, on the morning after his opening gig at Birdland, Vijay Iyer is sitting at the piano in a rehearsal studio just off Times Square, making conversation in much the same confident probing spirit he makes music.

I identify with the culture of cities. I find cities to be inherently transnational… And that reflects my own perspective, and my own sense of hybridity and the dynamics that unfold in the music I make…

I was an improviser… I started on violin and then on piano learned to play by improvising. There was never any boundary between improvising and playing a song. It was really the same thing for me. That was how I learned to play. And really, that’s how we as humans learn to do almost everything… It’s the way we stumble around in the world.

Most of our social network as a family was in this burgeoning Indian community in Rochester, New York. That was where my Indianness existed, with family and with family friends. But in my neighborhood or in my school, Indianness was more a mark of difference, and something that had to be negotiated. There was this dual existence, which is reminiscent of Du Bois’ double-consciousness kind of thing. The Karma of Brown Folk…

I have this other heritage, and that heritage is a very important part of who I am, and it’s an important part of my music. But I’ve been here as long as anybody else my age. I was born and raised here and 100 percent immersed in American culture. To me, it was never a question of how American I was, but to others it is always a question…

The drummers are the real history of the music. The rhythm is where the music lives and grows…. I wish I was a drummer. I try to connect with the drummer and do what the drummer does. When you link with the drummer, everything sounds better. You get that resonance, that sympathetic action. That’s part of what music is: the sound of people moving together.

Here in New York…there are people playing together just for fun, or for mutual betterment…. People are in it because they love it, and that love is constantly expressed in wonder at new music and at new possibilities and new discoveries and new talent, new players on the scene who have something new to offer.

Architecture is a fair metaphor. The analogy holds up. Architecture is about creating spaces. You’re creating spaces for people to move around in. That’s what we’re doing. And you want people to be free, but you also want to offer them things, to offer them possibilities. You want to frame their activities in a way that helps infuse it with meaning.

My particular American experience is one of improvisation and navigation through a certain set of challenges and opportunities… For me, as a person of color in America, I’ve looked to histories of other communities of color in America as an orienting guideline. And that’s part of what led me to really stay with this music: the history of the African American pioneers who dreamed the impossible and made this music happen… That striving is the back-story for this music. When you talk about improvised music, it’s as William Parker says: “In order to survive, the music was invented.” Not to match my struggles with theirs—I had a very different path, and my parents had a very different circumstance—but they also came here with very little, and had to build something.

Vijay Iyer in conversation with Chris Lydon in New York City, June 17, 2010.

From the Archives • March 10, 2014

Steve Pinker’s “Better Angels”: Dodging Our Own Bullet?

Steven Pinker has written a game-changer on the little matter of how quickly humanity is headed for hell or redemption.Better Angels is a tour de force in 700 pages of dense, witty prose, distilling and explaining the ever-steeper downward trends in battle-deaths, state executions, murder, rape, wife-beating and child-spanking, among others things.

 

Steven Pinker has written a game-changer on the little matter of how quickly humanity is headed for hell or redemption. The short form of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is that we’re on the verge of Liebniz‘s (and Candide‘s) “best of all possible worlds.” Much more than that, Better Angels is a tour de force in 700 pages of dense, witty prose, distilling and explaining the ever-steeper downward trends in battle-deaths, state executions, murder, rape, wife-beating and child-spanking, among others things. “Interesting if true” was my instinctive newspaper-guy response. After a month’s immersion, and this conversation, I’m staggered and stunned, avid for the new Enlightenment.

In William James Hall, high above Harvard Yard, Steve Pinker is setting his own conclusions in the context of intellectual forbears and peers in this field of violence and human progress.

Among them:

” …the survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring… Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us.”

William James: Oration at the unveiling of the Robert Gould Shaw memorial in Boston to the all-black 54th Regiment of the Union Army. May 31, 1897.

“History is a bath of blood. The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed… Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen…

Having said thus much in preparation, I will now confess my own utopia. I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity…

William James: The Moral Equivalent of War. 1906

I like to think that William James would appreciate the argument of the book, which is, despite the fact that there is such a thing as human nature, despite the fact that we have plenty of ugly, violent impulses inside us, it is perfectly possible to set up a world in which those impulses don’t actually emerge as violent behavior. This is because human nature is a complex system, it has many parts, and among them are a faculty of empathy, a faculty of reason, a faculty of self-control.

I call William James the first evolutionary psychologist. He was indebted to Darwin and he made no bones about the fact that we come from ancestors who had to prevail in constant contests of bloodshed, and so we have violent urges. Nonetheless, James was certainly an optimist in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” arguing that it is certainly possible to set up institutions that would minimize war. And I like to think that a hundred years after his death he is being vindicated. Now of course, if he had lived ten years longer, if he had lived 35 years longer, he would have found this hard to believe, because the two world wars are a rude interruption in humanity’s movement towards non-violence. But if he had held on just a little bit longer, he would see that we are living through an era now in which it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that war is going out of style.

Steven Pinker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 2, 2011

“… the ultimate symbols of the [20th] Century are not space probes and computers but gas chambers and Hiroshima. The slaughter in the two world wars, the pogroms, the various holocausts starting with the Armenian and Jewish ones and ending with the Cambodian and the Rwandan, the Stalinist terror, the carpet bombings and the fire bombings in various wars — they all constitute a rather impressive performance. Twentieth-century science may have produced many wonderful discoveries and miracles, but the gas chambers and the mushroom clouds remain its most resilient symbols.”

“… change is now infecting the cultures of societies eager to mimic the societies they consider more wealthy, powerful and successful, possessing the ‘normal’ pathologies that go with success, including high levels of everyday violence. The rise in violence in a number of Indian cities has in recent years been spectacular. The South Asian euphoria over the nuclear tests, however short-lived and however limited in geographical spread, can also be read as an example of the same story of brutalisation and necrophilia. It reflects not merely deep feelings of inferiority, masculinity-striving and parity-seeking, but also a certain nihilism and vague, almost free-floating genocidal rage.”

Ashis Nandy, “Violence and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Time Warps, 2002.

Among my questions here: How are we to categorize the violence of poverty in a half-hungry world? How do we calculate the risk of a single nuclear attack that could smash the conceit of better living through science? In American popular culture, what does Steve Pinker make of the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and the decline of boxing? In George Carlin’s sainted name, what about the rise of TV football and the decline of daylight baseball — where the object of the game is to “be safe, at home!”?

Has Steve Pinker been watching the Republican presidential debates — the whooping and hollering for the death penalty, Texas-style, and the Get Your War On rhetoric pointed at Iran, the Arab world, even Hugo Chavez and Venezuela? Of course he’s been watching — “I share the revulsion” — because he watches everything. “The crazies have all crashed and burned and probably the survivor, Mitt Romney, hell, he was our governor in Massachusetts. A lot of the sound and the fury coming out of the right, I think, is in part a reaction to the fact that they keep losing. Go back to the sixties; what the liberals were in favor of then, the conservatives take for granted now: racial integration, women in the workforce, women in the military, no spanking of children, toleration of gay people.”

Does robot warfare by predator drones fit a pattern of progress? “It’s a great advance. I can’t say I’m a fan exactly, but compared to carpet bombing, it’s a fraction of the deaths, a great advance.”

How, on this steep downward slope of human violence, do we explain that the United States — in one of those imperial fits of absent-mindedness — slipped into an immeasurably destructive $5-trillion war in Iraq, then Afghanistan and — who knows? — maybe tomorrow Pakistan?

By a lot of these measures, the United States is not at the vanguard of enlightenment. The United States is a bit of a laggard, and of course the Iraq war was famously opposed by France and Germany, some of our closest allies, and there was some considerable opposition in this country. It’s a little misleading to concentrate on the United States, because the United States is a bit in the rearguard of this.

Even then, the actual Iraq war itself, was by historical standards a far less destructive war than earlier wars — like Vietnam, Korea, Iran/Iraq, Russians in Afghanistan — in terms of the number of people that it killed. Interestingly, it’s now been eight-and-a-half years, and it might be the last of the old-fashioned wars, where two national armies fight each other on the battlefield. There’s a sense in which it didn’t lead to permanent war; this may have been the last gasp.

Steven Pinker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 2, 2011

It’s a main premise of Steve Pinker’s science that, as he says, “You have to have a quantitative mindset to understand history.” My last question: what if not all our critical measures are quantitative?

From the Archives • March 3, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — musical highlights of a comprehensive revolution. It was one of ...

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — musical highlights of a comprehensive revolution. It was one of two modern migrations, it’s been said, that made American culture what it is — of blacks from the Jim Crow South, and of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe.

The movement of masses is an ageless, ongoing piece of human history: in India and China today, more people migrate internally from village to city in one year than left the South from the onset of World War I (1915) to the end of the Civil Rights era (1970), as Isabel Wilkerson frames her story. But was there ever a migration that beyond moving people transformed a national culture as ours did? Songs, games, language, art, style, worship, every kind of entertainment including pro sports — in fact almost all we feel about ourselves, how we look to the world, changed in the sweep of Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent story, The Warmth of Other Suns.

Great swaths of the pop and serious culture I grew up in – my children as well – were fruit of Ms. Wilkerson’s story: Jazz and its immortals like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, Miles Davis, the Basie and Ellington bands and stars like Duke’s greatest soloist Johnny brussellHodges, whose family moved from Virginia to Boston very early in the century; Mahalia Jackson and Gospel music; Rhythm and Blues, Ray Charles, the Motown sound, the Jackson family and little Michael; sports immortals like Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, and athletes without number are players in this story. Writers, actors, politicians, comedians… Toni Morison, Spike Lee, Michelle Obama are all children of the Great Migration.

It was “the first big step the nation’s servant class took without asking,” in one of many graceful Wilkerson lines about “a leaderless revolution.” But it was a graceless, usually violent, threatened, lonely experience. Isabel Wilkerson is speaking of the mothers, fathers and families that faced it down — the Russells of Monroe, Louisiana, in one example, who gave the world the greatest team-sport winner we ever saw (13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, 11 NBA championships), the most charismatic defensive player in any game on earth. But for the migration, Wilkerson observes, Bill Russell “might have been working in a hardware store. It’s hard to know — there are a lot of mills around Monroe, LA. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to that enormous talent that changed a sport…

They lived under a caste system … known as Jim Crow. Bill Russell’s family experienced some of the harsh realities of that. One story involving Bill Russell’s father involves a day where he was just wanting to get gas. The custom in the Jim Crow South is that when an African American was in line for something, any white southerner who came up could cut in line.

One white motorist after another had shown up and gone in front of him, and he had to wait, and he had to wait, and he had to wait. Eventually he decided he would just back out and drive the half-hour to the next gas station where he might be able to get served. As he was beginning to back out, the owner of the gas station stopped pumping gas for the white motorist he was working with and got a shotgun, held it to Bill Russell’s father’s head and said “You’ll leave when I tell you to leave. Don’t ever let me see you trying that again.”

His mother was, around the same time, stopped on the street because she was dressed in her Sunday clothes. … A police officer stopped her and said “You go home right now and take that off. That is not what a colored woman should be wearing.” …

The family decided that they would leave Monroe Louisiana, a very difficult decision, for a far away place, Oakland California. And it was there that Bill Russell had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, to be able to go to an NCAA school; he would never had had the opportunity to do that had they stayed in the South. He ended up leading the Dons of UCSF to two NCAA championships, and then of course came to the attention of the Celtics… Basketball would not be what we know it to be, had this Great Migration not occurred. And he’s but one person out of this entire experience of six million people who migrated.

Isabel Wilkerson in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 5, 2010.

Podcast • February 20, 2014

Cuba’s Healthcare Revolution

Cuba’s revolutionary vanguard: US medical students Keasha Guerrier, Kereese Gayle and Akua Brown Three winters ago our Open Source trip to Cuba turned around on an astonishing moment of serendipity. At a bus stop in Havana my colleague Paul McCarthy heard a laugh he recognized from ...

Cuba’s revolutionary vanguard: US medical students Keasha Guerrier, Kereese Gayle and Akua Brown

Three winters ago our Open Source trip to Cuba turned around on an astonishing moment of serendipity. At a bus stop in Havana my colleague Paul McCarthy heard a laugh he recognized from high school in California. “Only Akua Brown laughs like that,” he blurted. And Akua Brown it was, the friend he hadn’t seen for a decade, now finishing her fourth year at the Latin American Medical School in Havana.

Over the next few days, Akua Brown and her friends poured out their four-year immersion in Cuban life and language, Cuban magic and slang, the Cuban versions of sexism and racism, Cuban boyfriends and families, drums and faith, bureaucracy and student volleyball, and by the way, this strange Cuban thing about toilet seats and toilet paper: the revolution doesn’t seem to believe in either.

But the core of our long conversations is medicine, the Cuban way. This is aggressive, free, hands-on health care that makes house calls, and lingers for the feel of emotions and homelife. Doctors’ training like doctors’ care is free: the payback required of the students here from all over the hemisphere is only that they return to underserved areas of their home countries.

Michael Moore and our friend the Nobel Prize cardiologist Bernard Lown knew the results in Cuba all along. “I have been to Cuba 6 times,” Dr. Lown emailed me, “and learned much about doctoring in Cuba. Their thinking on social determinants of health, on the primacy of public health and the vital role of prevention strategies are unmatched in the world. With spending of less than $200 per person per year for health care, they have achieved health outcomes no different than in the USA where expenditures now exceed $7000 per person annually!”

Keasha Guerrier, a science major from the New York Institute of Technology, knew about Cuban medicine because “my father’s from Haiti, my mom is from Guyana.” But her brother teases her about “blackouts” in Cuba, and she has other relatives and friends who don’t know why she’s there, or ask her to “pick up a box of cigars on the way out.”

Keasha Guerrier

Am I just a pawn in a game the Cuban government is playing? I push back hard against that idea. There are a lot of things that the Cuban government has done that some people might not agree with. But medicine with a community base in training and practice — that is one the things they got right on the nose. They hit the nail on the head. The people who instituted this program saw how it works in Cuba… and they compared Cuba’s situation to countries in Central and South America or third world countries, Africa, Haiti. And they saw how they can make a difference. Here, you do a lot with a little bit… What they are trying to teach us is that you don’t have to be confined to working for a paycheck. But using all the things that you know, you can help a broad base of people. In that respect, I think that the intentions are pure.

Keasha Guerrier in conversation with Chris Lydon over roast chicken with rice and beans at the restaurant El Ajibe in Havana, December 19, 2008

Kereese Gayle grew up in Lousiana and Florida. She was a Spanish major at Georgetown who could see herself coming out of medical school in the US with crushing debts. “My family is Jamaican,” she says, “so we knew about the quality of the Cuban medical system. To this day I know I’m where Im supposed to be.”

Kereese Gayle

We’re here at a very important time in the history of the world. We’re getting the type of education that I think people are looking for. More and more people are thinking very seriously about the idea of universal health care, about the idea of rights for everyone to basic access to health care. I think we’re going to be a huge part of that…

We learn how to diagnose our patients with our hands, our ears, our eyes more so than with technology–X-Rays, CT scans– because you don’t end up doing those kind of really costly labs as often here. So we definitely have that as an advantage… We learn how to interview our patients thoroughly, and how to do a really thorough physical exam and do it well, and be comfortable with that… Doctors here not only do house visits but they go into homes: they have a form that you fill out to check off what risk factors the person has [in their home]. Is their water contained properly? Do they smoke? We get that kind of first hand view. In the United States, you can ask someone if they smoke or if they have a pet and they easily can lie to you. But here, as someone’s primary physician, you can see not only the physical medical aspects but the psychological medical aspects as well. Do you feel tension the minute you walk into the room? Are people in a mentally healthy environment, or do we need to get [them] to a psychologist. There are so many advantages to the system that we can take back and apply to the communities where we live.

Kereese Gayle in conversation with Chris Lydon sipping lemonade at El Ajibe in Havana, December 19, 2008

Akua Brown minored in Spanish at San Francisco State University, and spent most of her first two years in Havana learning the Cuban vernacular and testing her Bay Area ideal of the Revolution.

Akua Brown

The education system here is excellent; there is very little homelessness. Everyone has a right to free health care… up to the most specialized needs. Neurosurgery, open heart surgery, cost nothing to the people. And the fact that a government with so little financial resources is able to do this says that the United States can do so much more… And without the debt that most medical students graduate with, we won’t be afraid to start our own projects and programs without necessarily needing the money to pay back the loans and the things hanging over our heads. Living here for six years, I think we have learned to live a simpler life with bare necessities. I ride the bus, I hitchhike, I buy from the community market. I’m not complaining–home is comfortable, but this is livable.

Akua Brown in conversation with Chris Lydon savoring the coffee at El Ajibe in Havana, December 19, 2008

The practical visions of these blessedly gifted women brought to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s indomitable “world spirit.” Entering the second half-century of both the black freedom movement in the US and the Socialist revolution in Cuba, each with its ups and downs, these very American young women would remind you that grand ideals, the best we have, can prevail. “Things seem to tend downward, to justify despondency, to promote rogues, to defeat the just,” as Emerson wrote at the end of his essay on Montaigne; or the Skeptic. “Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies,- yet, general ends are somehow answered. We see, now, events forced on which seem to retard or retrograde the civility of ages. But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him…”

Podcast • February 13, 2014

Dennis Lehane – Between Dorchester Ave and Sunset Boulevard

Dennis Lehane so rules the neighborhood of Noir (“Nwaaah,” as we say in Boston) that he gets street credit for work he didn’t write, like “The Departed” and “The Town.” But does the author of “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and the new Moonlight Mile ...

Dennis Lehane so rules the neighborhood of Noir (“Nwaaah,” as we say in Boston) that he gets street credit for work he didn’t write, like “The Departed” and “The Town.” But does the author of “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and the new Moonlight Mile get credit enough for a body of artistic work now far beyond private-eye or “genre” of any kind — way beyond his gift for Boston-accented dialog?

Our conversation is about the murkier depths of his Gothic novel and movie “Shutter Island,” with Leonardo diCaprio as a U.S. Marshall apparently trapped in a Boston Harbor lock-up for the criminally insane in the 1950s. I think it’s Lehane’s version of the War on Terror. He says it’s more nearly his answer to the Patriot Act, his reliving of the Cold War and the repressions it licensed in America. “All past is prologue,” he remarks. “Noir is without a doubt the ultimate genre of ‘you cannot outrun the past’… That’s ‘Mystic River’: you cannot outrun your nature. You cannot escape the past.” “Shutter Island” in that sense turns out to be Dennis Lehane’s recapitulation of McCarthyism (an American Stalinism): those good old days when the CIA experimented with LSD and other psychotropic drugs on Federal prisoners and other unsuspecting guinea pigs. It was a time, he’s saying, that foreshadowed the suspension of habeas corpus and the tortures of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in the George Bush years.

Dennis Lehane with Chris Lydon at Mother Anna’s restaurant in Boston’s North End.

We are testing a favorite Open Source premise that the most observant anthropologists and historians of our own time may be novelists. In his hometown he is riveted on “how this new Gilded Age is going to fall out. People are being priced out of Charlestown… out of Southie… It’s kind of horrifying… There seem to be only a few people who are worried that we’re selling out the entire country — that everything’s gone; that the America we knew growing up is just vanishing… Isn’t anybody paying attention? There’s no unions left; they destroyed them. They went after the unions and then outsourced everything. So now there’s no jobs left, and they’ve got the people that have lost their jobs, lost their houses, lost everything, believing that the reason they’ve lost it is everything but the real reasons. And everybody just seems to say: fine, as long as I can get this for three bucks a can at Walmart, I’m okay. I think we’re just watching America fiddle as it burns.”

Dennis Lehane is a writer who keeps expanding into new themes and new media, from his original cop stories to historical fiction, The Given Day (“Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser…,” Janet Maslin wrote in the Times), then long-form television in “The Wire,” and back to social realism and the adventures of PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro in Moonlight Mile. He’s been well served along the way by three tough self-inflicted rules. First, take no job that could divert him from his writing ambition; so he’s been a security guard and he’s parked cars, but was never tempted by law school or teaching. Second, sell the work to artists, never to corporations; so he finally yielded the movie rights to “Mystic River” to Clint Eastwood; and “Shutter Island” to Martin Scorsese. And third: undertake only those new projects that “on some level scare the hell out of me. It’s got to be something I’m afraid I can’t do.”