Podcast • February 10, 2014

John Lanchester on London in the Age of Inequality

Economic inequality is still on our minds after last week’s show with MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi. Here’s an interview we recorded with John Lanchester in 2012 after the publication of his novel Capital. My sense of this period and ...

Economic inequality is still on our minds after last week’s show with MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi. Here’s an interview we recorded with John Lanchester in 2012 after the publication of his novel Capital.

My sense of this period and of the decade or so ahead is that it’s going to be one with — if we’re not careful, and I see no signs of us being careful — the same theme dominating conversation and politics everywhere. And that will be about inequality. It’s a very striking thing that a society like China, which only had private property 10 minutes ago, had effectively — this is a very broad-brush thing to say, but — had effectively abolished inequality. You know, there was a tiny crust of elite, but in essense for ordinary people China was a complely equal state. That came at a very, very high price. They moved away from that to astonishing economic growth, growth of a sort that the world’s never seen, numerically — that number of people being raised out of poverty so fast, hundreds of millions of them. And in the process they in effect invented inequality. Talk to people in China: inequality is a huge issue for them in this coming decade, the gap between coast and the center, between cities and the country. China has on a huge scale winners and losers in a way it never did before. Same thing in India. Same thing in Latin America — lots of countries that went broke and then recovered, with a new class in charge. That’s usually what happens. Old middle classes largely got wiped out. You have a new class of economic winners. Obviously inequality is a huge issue here in the States. It’s a huge issue in Europe and in the U.K. — summed up by the Occupy movement’s thing about the “one percent.” We’re just noticing this thing — everyone’s noticing it at the same time. And yet the trends that are propelling that gap are continuing. One of the reasons I thought it was an interesting moment to write about London is that there’s a global thing taking place there. And I think the world doing the split is part of that.

John Lanchester with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 20, 2012

John Lanchester has written a sprawling neo-Dickensian novel CAPITAL about London in the age of funny money and the crash of 2008. He got the germ of it five years ago, noticing a parade of “florists, dog-walkers, pilates instructors” on his own once-modest street south of the Thames, being radically made-over for bankers and the blooming investment-services class — “manifestly symptomatic,” as he says, “of a boom that would turn into a bust.” Like Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend, CAPITAL has what the Brits call a “state of the nation” feel, delivered in the voice attributed to Dickens of the “special correspondent for posterity.” But of course he’s illuminating an affliction gone global by now, describing life as lived in New York, too, or Shanghai, or Boston for that matter. One moral that Lanchester has given his tale is: “We are not in this together,” inverting the Tory slogan. In conversation he adds a touch from the Gospel of Mark: “To them that hath shall be given.” I marvel at how casino capitalism and its costs come clearer, stranger, more ridiculous, more destructive, more outrageous in fiction than in fact – how the right novels can feel truer than the news.

John Lanchester is eminent also as a non-fiction economics correspondent, a main contributor over 25 years to the London Review of Books. He’s been steadfast against the fictions of market doctrine, and strong in his underlying judgment: “The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat,” he wrote in the LRB last April. “We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism… This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working.”

In conversation, John Lanchester is extending our thread on the late Tony Judt‘s parting shots in Ill Fares the Land:

Judt makes very important points, I think, about the tragic loss of belief in our ability to act collectively for the good. Let’s gang up, get together, figure out the thing we want to change for the better, and then go ahead and make that change. It seems entirely true when he says the younger generation has entirely lost that sense. I’m writing now about the Underground in London for the 150th anniversary of the Underground next year, the first underground trains. The Victorians were obviously very different from us in lots of respects, but one of the crucial things, I’ve come to think, was their morale. When they were building the Underground, they knew it would change the city forever, for generations to come, and they were certain they that that change was for the better. It was risky, and it was expensive, and it was difficult, and it was right on the edge of what was technologically possible, and they were inventing new techniqes to make the Underground as they did it. But they knew it was going to completely remake the city, and that was the whole point. And I was just thinking: what do we see around us that has that equivalent thing: that you know: we’re doing it and in a hundred years’ time they’ll be using it every day. In London, we’re using Victorian sewers, power networks, holes the Victorians dug. They actually made that world that we’re living in. And that confidence where you can make the world of the future — it’s very sad to have mislaid that, and I see no good reason why we feel we have. It’s just somehow that the frame of the debate has shifted, so that it’s all kind of managerial. You can tweak this and tweak that, but you can’t really change anything. And I wonder: who wrote that rule?

In London or the world, I’m wondering, what corresponds to the Underground, as an artistic or architectural monument of this time?

I think it’s in the rash of buildings trying to be iconic. A thing that’s very much of the moment is these buildings that are trying to be free standing, these buildings that are almost their own brand. Lorenzo Piano’s Shard. Or what’s known as the Gherkin, the Erotic Gherkin, a Norman Foster building which does look indeed like half a gherkin, half a penis, 40 stories high. It’s from the idea of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim-Bilbao, which I think is a wonderful building. But I think it started a trend for the idea that the building is a sort of picture, an icon. It’s not much to with the place; it’s not much to do with anything. It sums itself up and is its own logo, in a way. And we’re seeing an awful lot of those, so I think that’s going to be this moment — the idea of a slightly self-contained, self-reflexive, anti-humanistic building because they look worse when you put people in and around them. They’re better without the humans. And when you interact with them you feel like one of those tiny model figures in an architect’s diagram, and you’re meant to. So there is an anti-humanistic aspect to those guys’ buildings, and I think that’s the kind of thing we’ll look back on and say: oh well, that sums up that period.

Podcast • June 4, 2013

JFK & his Papa: David Nasaw’s light on The Patriarch

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the legend in a delicious impromptu line in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s ...

JFK & JPK 63

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the legend in a delicious impromptu line in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s court account of A Thousand Days. The story was that late in the 1960 campaign, when the Jack and Bobby Kennedy were both extending themselves to keep Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail in Georgia, King’s venerable namesake, “Daddy” King of Atlanta, a lifelong Republican, announced that he’d never thought he could vote for a Catholic… “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father,” JFK said, in Schlesinger’s telling. The line JFK added “quizzically,” was “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”

The gap was broader than that. Joe Kennedy had been an outspoken isolationist even as Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain; he was a Neville Chamberlain appeasement guy while JFK was learning to love Churchill’s rhetoric of indomitability. Joe Kennedy, tainted by soft-core anti-Semitism, was “absolutely, totally opposed” to the war in which his 3 older sons raced to enlist.

So the differences are sharp and significant, but in the masterful researches and close readings of David Nasaw, the continuities are clear, too, and for a new century maybe more telling. Joe Kennedy’s was ready to “make a deal” with Hitler in 1939-40 on the realistic reading that England was not prepared to defend itself in battle. This became JFK’s college thesis and first book, Why England Slept, an echo of his father’s analysis.

The flip side of Joe Kennedy’s appeasement policy was his zeal to negotiate a rescue of European Jews and a peace that would have saved Europe from war’s devastation. Nasaw is emphatic in our conversation on the point that Joe Kennedy knew more, cared more and was ready to do more about the Jews’ predicament than either Roosevelt or Churchill. The instinct for negotiation shows up, of course, in JFK’s inaugural doctrine: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” And it’s confirmed in all the posthumous evidence of JFK’s mostly secret scurrying in his last year of life to make back-channel peace with Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro — to end nuclear testing, to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, in truth to cancel the Cold War. Both father and son can be read (in part anyway) as rueful, near-radical peaceniks up against the merciless war habit.

Joe Kennedy could count the price of war in his own family. “I hate to think how much money I would give up rather than sacrifice Joe and Jack in a war,” he wrote his father in law in 1937. John Kennedy, in the American University Speech in June, 1963 which now sounds like the heart of the man and his most precious legacy, spoke with the same poignancy in plain language: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Podcast • October 7, 2012

Pankaj Mishra: Briefing our “Foreign Policy” Debate

  “What a disaster! What an affliction! What kind of a situation is this? …England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan, and the great Indian Peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have taken possession of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; the Netherlands ...


“What a disaster! What an affliction! What kind of a situation is this? …England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan, and the great Indian Peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have taken possession of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; the Netherlands have become a despotic ruler of Java and the Oceanic islands; Russia has captured West Turkistan… What is the cause of this measureless decline? … God protect us! What should be done then? … except to say that ‘God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.’”

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, (1838 – 97), itinerant writer and activist, perhaps a British spy, but remembered as “the father of Islamic modernism” and also “the man who first raised the voice of awareness in the dormant East.”

Pankaj Mishra is sounding a wake-up call about “angry Asia” — from an alarm clock that, he’ll tell you, has been ringing for more than a century. He’s made it a story for today on the conviction that de-colonization is still the world’s pre-occupying project: to regain dignity that non-Westerners remember enjoying before the Europeans came. From the Ruins of Empire is Pankaj Mishra’s re-introduction of “The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” the god-parents of Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh and Nasser. No less an icon on the East-West bridge than Nobel-laureate Orham Pamauk testifies that Pankaj Mishra is giving us “modern history as it has been felt by the majority of the world’s population from Turkey to China.”

Are we ready for this? Not the least of the story is why American ears generally tune it out. But Mishra has addressed his polemical history sharply to us and our 2012 moment. You can read From the Ruins of Empire as a riposte, a decade later, to Mishra’s bête noire Niall Ferguson, the Scots’ historian and self-styled captain of the “neo-imperialist gang,” who argued on the eve of the Iraq War that it was the Americans’ turn to take up the “white man’s burden” and rule the world.

Since then, Mishra writes, “the spell of Western power has finally been broken” — by the abandonment of a smashed Iraq and the US-NATO retreat from Afghanistan, also of course by the global finance bust. But the argument is still out there in our presidential race, between Mitt Romney, of No Apology, and Barack Obama, of the faint-hearted gestures of friendship with the Muslim world and the Arab Spring. Mishra’s issues are urgently in the news, moreover, when President Morsi of Egypt, the first national chief from the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, tells the New York Times that it’s time for new terms in an American relationship that was “essentially purchased” over the years — at a price of “the dislike, if not hatred, of the peoples of the region.”

What’s called the “Arab Spring” of 2011 and now “the Arab revolution” looks to Pankaj Mishra like a piece from an old pattern, “a form of delayed de-colonization where people who were denied sovereignty and self-determination have now finally broken through and ended this unnaturally prolonged Western domination over their countries… ” He sees big risks and maybe bad collisions ahead. In the long history of empires, he observes, there are few graceful exits.

I think American loans to a country like Egypt, which were predicated on Egypt being a loyal and pliant ally in the region and essentially signing off on most of what Israel does, for instance, in that part of the world, and keeping Gaza more or less an open prison — those kinds of long-term commitments made to Egypt are now going to collide with the Egyptian search for dignity in that region and Egypt’s search for an older leadership role in the region…

“So I think all of these previous alliances with the United Statres and various deals will now be under pressure from these new promises and commitments the Egyptian leadership to accommodate the aspirations and longings of its own people. Morsi was very clear about this in the interview he gave the New York Times just now. ‘The people are paramount’ — wasn’t it fascinating? He was very blunt. ‘We cannot simply do what the United States tells us to do. We are now accountable to the people.’ And the people — he was too polite to say — are deeply distrustful of the United States for its role in the country’s politics. Until the very last moment, Hillary Clinton was claiming Mubarak as a family friend; people in Egypt don’t forget this, and they haven’t forgotten the way the Mubaraks were being propped up and their brutality was being justified by successive American administrations. So much of what was being projected as American soft power and American military power has lost its potency in that part of the world. One has to remember that so much of the decline of that soft power has also coincided with the emergence of different kinds of Arab media, whether it’s Al Jazeera or satellite television or televangelism, which is a huge phenomenon in large parts of the Arab world. So they have their own sources of moral and cultural authority, and the shaping of political imaginations that happens in those cutures is a process over which the American media have no control whatsoever.”

Pankaj Mishra with Chris Lydon, October 1, 2012

“This is not at all,” as Pankra Mishrea notes, “the way Americans or Western Europeans have seen the same history. We do inhabit different universes altogether.”

Podcast • October 1, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917 – 2012: In Memoriam

It’s a privilege at Eric Hobsbawm’s death this morning to share again the lively sound of his wondrously learned, penetrating mind. Five years ago, in his book-stuffed living-room in London, the 90-year-old author of historical classics like The Age of Empire: 1875 – 1914 was ...

hobsbawm14It’s a privilege at Eric Hobsbawm’s death this morning to share again the lively sound of his wondrously learned, penetrating mind. Five years ago, in his book-stuffed living-room in London, the 90-year-old author of historical classics like The Age of Empire: 1875 – 1914 was the rare public-intellectual on either side of the Atlantic who spoke plainly of the George Bush / Tony Blair war on Iraq as dementia: “Frankly, I can’t make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11 that enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy.” As he’d written in a last little jewel of a book, On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy, “The age of empires is dead. We shall have to find another way of organizing the globalized world of the twenty-first century.”

Eric Hobsbawm’s immersion in American jazz and his lifetime of ecstatic leftist interpretations of it were for me his crowning endearment. Jazz, as he wrote in The New York Review of Books in the 1980s, “was, as sport is for the athlete, a continuous means of asserting oneself as a human being, as an agent in the world and not the subject of others’ actions, as a discipline of the soul, a daily testing, an expression of the value and sense of life, a way to perfection.” It was the great modern art, he wrote, that owed nothing to middle-class culture. As a token of my thanks, I mailed Eric Hobsbawm a copy of the only great jazz book he didn’t have: Arthur Taylor’s incomparably candid conversations with jazz giants of the late 60s — Miles Davis, Hampton Hawes, Erroll Garner, Thelonius Monk most memorably — called Notes and Tones. Eric Hobsbawm thanked me wonderfully by email:

Dear Chris,

Just received your wonderful book of interviews which I am reading with passionate interest. I never knew Erroll Garner talked so much, unlike Dexter Gordon.

All the best,



An historian of ever widening scope, Eric Hobsbawm had been taking the long view for a very long time. His definition of the historian’s trade was: “how and why Homo sapiens got from the paleolithic to the nuclear age.” Born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm is 90 now, but in his pungent writing and talk, the species is young, and the future is everything.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eric Hobsbawm here (34 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

We left Africa 100,000 years ago. The whole of what is usually described as ‘history’ since the invention of agriculture and cities consists of hardly more than 400 human generations or 10,000 years, a blink of the eye in geological time. Given the dramatic acceleration of the pace of humanity’s control over nature in this brief period, especially in the last ten or twenty generations, the whole of history so far can be seen to be something like an explosion of our species, a sort of bio-social supernova, into an unknown future. Let us hope it is not a catastrophic one. In the meanwhile, and for the first time, we have an adequate framework for a genuinely global history, and one restored to its proper central place, neither within the humanities nor the natural and mathematical sciences, nor separated from them, but essential to both. I wish I were young enough to take part in writing it.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his autobiography, Interesting Times, Pantheon, 2002.

In an hour’s conversation in Hobsbawm’s house in Hampstead Heath, we didn’t have time to revisit the famously exotic dimensions of his life: his quasi-religious attachment to Communism and his fascination with jazz, or the polar views of the man and his work. Link here to the loving, the venomous and the measured. Hobsbawm’s bookshelves groan with a lot of my favorite jazz tomes, like Stanley Dance’s The World of Count Basie, and Robert Gottlieb’s collection, Reading Jazz. I am sending him Arthur Taylor’s marvelous interviews with the post-Parker jazz stars through the Civil Rights revolution, Notes and Tones. But in the time we had, it seemed best to hear the crunchy numbers and sweeping authority that are acknowledged from all points of the history profession — not least from his young opposite number, the neo-imperialist Niall Ferguson .

I asked him to speak of the themes in his pithy new book: On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy. I said it’s still mysterious to me that Tony Blair and long post-imperial Britain followed President Bush and the United States into Iraq.

CL: What does that war mean for the UK, the US, for the future of hegemony?

EH: The interesting thing about the Iraq war is that unlike the first gulf war, unlike even the first American intervention after 911 in Afghanistan, it has no common support, at all. Overwhelmingly most countries were against it, and the others were skeptical. With the single exception of Great Britain. Great Britain I think has been tied to the United States ever since, I think, its own status as a nuclear power became dependent effectively on the American supplies, and ever since its status as an international power became dependent effectively on access to American technical intelligence. And I think that’s one major reason why they felt they couldn’t possibly break. That doesn’t explain why we had to rush into it, devote an enormous amount of our energies and military force, and reputation. After all … when L. B. Johnson asked our Prime Minister Wilson to send the Black Watch to Vietnam, he refused to do it. Very quietly. He kept on repeating how totally in favor he was of the Americans, but he didn’t do anything. Unlke Blair. Blair rushed in, because I think he loved the idea of being as it were a deputy imperial power. And let’s make no mistake about it: he also thought somehow or other, there needed to be Western force which somehow controlled the disorder in the world — which is no longer controllable by anybody in the old 19th Century imperial way. That’s the thing to remember.

CL: And why not?

EH: The Iraq war has shown it but not only the Iraq war. Things like Darfur — where nowadays you say you need at least 26,000 troops simply to watch over the whole thing. The basic fact is that the populations of the world are no longer prepared to accept power as something that is authentic and authoritative. Imperialism in the old days was based on the assumption that quite small groups of people armed with high tech could establish themselves and be accepted, like it or not by millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. Partly because power is there, and poor people have lived under power all the time. One or two exceptions — places like Afghanistan or Kurdistan, where nobody liked power, states or any kind of thing, never did and don’t now. But there was that, and at the same time also there was the possiblity of making alliances with locals who wanted modernization, which in those days meant Westernization. It doesn’t mean Westernization any more, and the power has gone and the willingness to accept the power has gone.

CL: We’re reminded that the British ran India with a civil service smaller than the welfare department of New York City.

EH: Once the Indians stopped accepting the fact that British Raj, the British domination, was as legitimate as any other conquerer that had ever been there and established their power, that was the end of the British Empire.

CL: Has the Iraq war moved the center in the world and has it changed the agenda of the new century?

EH: Well, it has in the sense that it makes the enormous military force and the enormous military technological superiority of the United States (unprecedented and really unlikely to be equalled by anybody within the reasonable future) it makes it irrelevent, because it doesn’t really help. What could you do? You could easily capture lots of Baghdads. What would happen then? We know what happened when we captured Baghdad. We know what happened after we captured Kabul. Several years after that, thirty percent of Afghanistan is under the vague control of somebody who came in then, by us. And the rest is not under control. So what’s the use of having this particular superiority? You cannot do it without a political base.

CL: Does the rise of China and does the rising wealth and numbers of an expanding Europe fill the gap?

EH: Europe doesn’t fill the gap. Europe in the broad sense belongs to the part of the world which no longer actually reproduces itself demographically, and therefore relies very largely on immigration. But basically speaking Europe is no longer — I mean, it has enormous assets and it is an economy which is as big as the United States; actually at this very moment the average British income, share of the GDP per person, is higher than the United States, which was last the case, I think, in 1890 — but the fact is: Europe is itself, apart from being a large cultural and above all economic unit, is not a major international political and military unit. The United States relies, I think, on the one thing which is unique for the United States, namely its military power. But that’s the one which is limited and there’s not very much you can do with it, short of bombing the world to bits. And there’s no sense in that. And in fact once a sensible American government comes back, they will get back to the position of, say, J. F. Kennedy who knew right from the beginning that bombing the world to bits was no solution for anything.

Eric Hobsbawm, in conversation with Chris Lydon, at his home in London, February 28, 2008.

When my recorder and I suddenly needed a pair of double-A batteries, Eric Hobsbawm jumped up and found them in his hardware drawer. And when he spoke briefly about the Internet’s penetration of culture and consciousness in little more than a decade, I realized the man is as modern as tomorrow. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.

Podcast • September 8, 2012

Ralph Nader: One Citizen’s View from Winsted, CT

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Ralph Nader (55 min, 31 meg) Mary McGrath photo Ralph Nader on Main Street can still see the flatbed trucks hauling textile machinery out of his hometown in the 1950s, his high school years. The work of Winsted ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with
Ralph Nader (55 min, 31 meg)

Mary McGrath photo

Ralph Nader on Main Street can still see the flatbed trucks hauling textile machinery out of his hometown in the 1950s, his high school years. The work of Winsted and New England mills was bound for the Carolinas and Georgia, then Mexico and Asia. In 1900 there’d been 100 factories and machine shops in Winsted, making useful things for the world — cloth to clocks. In Ralph’s boyhood, a factory worker could raise a family on one paycheck in a 6-room house with a 2% V.A. mortgage, and drive a second-hand car. Then as now the green hills of northwest Connecticut were a breezy walk or bike ride away. “You could hear cows mooing one minute, and the milk would be in glass bottles on your doorstep a few hours later…”

We’re a long way from the convention speeches in Tampa and Charlotte. Listen and judge for yourself whether we’re closer to your experience and your aspirations. In Charlotte the Democrats are counting on an uptick in the job scores. In Winsted Ralph Nader is underlining what we all know: real wages for most American workers peaked in 1973, actual jobs in 2000. The United States, he says, is “increasingly an Advanced Third-World Country,” where mass poverty abounds and freakish new fortunes are lightly taxed. What Nader is counting on is a resurgence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great standard, Self-Reliance — a phrase he invokes continually, with many meanings. On the sandlot ballfield where Shaf and Ralph Nader played with Michael and David Halberstam in the 1940s, we are recalling particularly the omni-journalist David Halberstam, another giant of Emerson’s non-conforming boldness. “You didn’t want to be blocking home plate when one of the Halberstams slid in.” Baseball, as ever, is metaphor.

Every time you see local athletics, participatory sports, informal sports, a pickup game, basketball, touch football, it reduces the kind of spectator syndrome of people just sitting at home, eating junk food, getting overweight, watching spectacular athletes battle each other on a television screen. The more we can generate our own economic activity, the less we’ll be controlled by absentee owners in London, New York, Tokyo. And the more stable it will be, and the less risky. I would never have believed that the New York Stock Exchange would shake up and down, day after day, because of something going on in Greece. And that’s because of enormous global interdependence — that’s not healthy. It’s financial interdepence, linked by speculation and a Goldman Sachs relation with Greece. That never occurred in the United States. We are losing not only our community self-reliance but our regional and national self-reliance, and the only countervailing trend is these community economies I mention [credit unions, renewable energy, community health clinics]… The biggest obstacle is the emergence of the global corporations that have no allegiance to nation or to community, other than to control them or to export their jobs and industry to the most labor-repressive dictatorships and oligarchies in the world.

Winsted’s Main Street, about 1912, pre-Nader and pre-flood

The vernacular Ralph Nader laughs more than you remember and notices a hundred mundane details: the Christian Science Church that’s become an Elks Hall, the old fish store that’s now (“sign of the times”) a CPA’s office. He pines for the sidewalk bustle, even for the 20 taverns and bars of Main Street in his youth — booming with ethnic humor, gossip, trivia and grave talk. “You can be critical,” he says, “but it sure beats sitting at home alone watching a television screen.” Winsted the factory town had three restaurants. Winsted the lower-income bedroom town has eleven. “More people not eating at home,” Ralph remarks. His father’s restaurant — Highland Arms, named in a contest — is empty, but his parents, Nathra and Rose, are ever more on his mind: immigrants from Lebanon in their late teens in the late 1920s, who talked their way into a no-collateral loan from the Mechanics Savings Bank to start their business across the street. “You couldn’t do that with Bank of America,” Ralph laughs. In Nader’s restaurant, a dime got you a cup of coffee and five minutes, maybe ten, of political conversation with the owner. “My father thought things through, you know. He wasn’t an ideolog. It was ‘multi-step thinking,’ I call it, invulnerable to slogans and propaganda. He went deeper — the facts, the situation, the other side. He was a big reader, and he memorized a lot of poetry.”

I’m reminded of Tony Judt‘s cracks about mass media and “our dilapidated public conversation.” Who will tell the people about the country, I’m asking.

The country really knows who’s running the country, as Lincoln Steffens discovered in one city after another. In any bar in Pittsburgh or Cleveland he could get good answers to ‘who runs this city?’ People knew, by name in those days. Today people know logos, not the names of CEOs, but they do know that a handful of companies run the politicians and they run the show. What’s lacking is a sense that they can constructively rebel against this if they spend some time and some strategic smarts the way our forbears did at their best moments, especially the populist-progressive movement in the late 19th Century, which started with nothing but dirt-poor farmers in East Texas. In six months they organized 200,000 farmers. Each of them paid $1 dues, which is $50 today. And they organized the most fundamental political reform movement — almost electing a president — in the history of the United States. Governors they elected, senators, state legislatures… They didn’t make any excuses for themselves. They had two assets: their land and their votes, garnished by self-respect. And that’s what’s missing these days. There’s a widespread sense of utter powerlessness among people. It’s bred into them in grade school. School children do not learn practical civics. They don’t learn about their community. They don’t learn about town hall. They don’t connect with adults supervising them in improving the community, other than a few scraps of charity and cleaning up here and there…

I complain that he’s unfair to both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, and he softens some. “When the Tea Party turned up, I said: ‘They’ve got a pulse! All power to them.’ The original Tea Party people were against wars of aggression, they were against bloated military budgets, they were against the Patriot Act, they were against corporate welfare, they were against Wall Street shenanigans. Then they were high-jacked by the Republican Party. But at least they showed up, and they showed something very interesting: that less than a few tens of thousands of people could get the attention of the country. Half of democracy is showing up — at town meetings when members of Congress showed up in their district…” Occupy made three big contributions, on the Nader card: 1. energy and drama that sent “some tremors into the sanctuaries of corporatism and oligarcy.” 2. the “99 percent” slogan, which signaled an inclusive protest, with no identity politics under the umbrella. 3. A clear target: gross inequality between haves and have-nots, and the rule of the few over the many. “But they did not come up with a strategy of civic power, or with leadership,” Nader notes. If they had organized around a $10 minimum wage, for example, and acted up in Congressional districts around the country, “they could have won tens of billions of dollars for working people. But they rejected politics as dirty.” Our season of unrest, Ralph Nader says, is not over.

It is only the beginning, because… the economy is going to get worse. The greed at the top is going to get worse. The constant empire wars and drones and all the rest of going after people who basically are trying to protect their valleys or conquer their country, but are no threat to us — and we’re still droning them and putting special forces all over, draining our treasury enormously, distracting from domestic issues. All those are going to get worse. So we will see periodic eruptions. The question is whether we’ll see the leaders of the future as part of those eruptions. Serious people who know how to collaborate, keep their eye on the ball, who know that shift of power is the first step to recovering a modest, democratic society. What’s interesting about our country today is: we have all kinds of solutions on the shelf, and all kinds of problems on the ground, and we’re not connecting the two… We don’t have the democratic institutions to take the solutions like energy, housing, food, and foreign policy and connect them to problems on the ground. However, that is a source of hope: that we have so many solutions that are ready to go — technical, social, resource — that most countries don’t have.

It’s still a bit startling to many people that Ralph Nader feels a convergence coming with opposites like the libertarian Republican from Texas, Ron Paul — an indomitably principled fringe candidate for the presidency, as Nader was.

I think the common ground is antipathy to concentrated, unaccountable power that projects itself unconstitutionally and militarily abroad, and projects itself against the right of people to fulfill their life’s possibility by decent livelihoods and political voice. So that means that Ron Paul and I, for example, agree we have militarized our foreign policy illegally and unconstitutionally. We should not project empire; we should pay attention to our domestic needs. We agree that the Patriot Act had provisions that are insufferably violative of civil liberties. We agree that corporations should not be bailed out by taxpayers. We agree that there should be multi-party systems and we agree that small business, local economies, that kind of free enterprise is preferable to giant corporations and Wall Street domination. Now he thinks the free market will level the playing field; that’s where we disagree. He doesn’t like Social Security, he doesn’t like Medicare… So what do you do with someone like him? Well, you accept where the convergence is possible, without compromising your principles. When you talk about converging on civil liberties, when you talk about military and foreign policy, when you talk about corporate welfare, these are important areas. So let’s pool our resources and start new groups that only do convergence, without other priorities or conflicts. That’s where it is now, because convergence has enormous power in Congress.

Ralph Nader with Chris Lydon in Winsted, CT, August 30, 2012

Ralph Nader in conversation has a surprising effect on me — in common with that other hard-marker and scold, Noam Chomsky. In the end he’s a reassuring model of constructive hope. Professor Chomsky was reminding us not so long ago of the rising force of anti-imperial feeling in this country. So Ralph Nader judges that awareness and activism are very much alive. “When you go down to where people live, work, shop and play, the ideologies and abstractions — what George Will calls ‘the pitiless abstractions’ — fade away and the Golden Rule comes in. Basic decency comes in…” And then there are those “two secrets of democracy,” Ralph Nader says, that people discover sooner or later. “It works, and it’s easier than it looks.”

Podcast • August 15, 2012

Jackson Lears: Too Scary to Talk About

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jackson Lears (30 min, 16 meg) Jackson Lears, the American cultural historian at Rutgers, is touching on themes somewhere below the waves of our 2012 campaign: the blotted copybook of Capitalism, and the intuition of a “pre-World War ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jackson Lears (30 min, 16 meg)

Jackson Lears, the American cultural historian at Rutgers, is touching on themes somewhere below the waves of our 2012 campaign: the blotted copybook of Capitalism, and the intuition of a “pre-World War One moment,” coming up on a century after the Guns of August, 1914. A “perfect storm” in 2013 is what the doom economist Nouriel Roubini sees developing at the junction of European debt, the stall in US growth and East Asian production, and war in the Middle East, starting with Iran. But who’s to worry? Lears speaks of the suffering and anxiety that plain people know but politics avoids.

Our public process, he’s observing, still treats the Money Men as

“… a meritocratic elite that can’t be penetrated. It seems to me that this explains the Democratic Party in its attacks on Mitt Romney. The Democratic Party is in bed with Wall Street, too, just as the Republicans are. The attacks on Romney tend to focus on the question of his personal income tax. Will he release his returns or not? Or they focus on what he did when he worked for Bain Capital… rather than talking about the broad structural structural and systemic questions of what neo-liberalism generally has done to us — what the regime of deregulated capital that we’ve had in place for the last 30-plus years has done to everyday people and their everyday lives. This is something that is not admitted into the charmed circle of responsible opinion. You’re not supposed to ask: Is it really in everyone’s best interest to allow multi-national capital the kind of free-floating freedom that it now is allowed, world-wide. Is there in fact an argument? Tony Judt‘s argument would be: well, there’s only one way to build a humane social democracy, and that’s by creating a welfare state to contain the excesses of capitalism. And I would agree with that. My difference from him would be that you have to do it with an American accent; you’d have to do it in an American idiom which would be an idiom of small-market populism rather than European big-government. Because there’s a suspicion — and I think it’s a justifiable one — of “the state” in this culture, going back to Jefferson’s time. It tends to undermine any attempt to ‘Europeanize’ the American economy.

In Jackson Lears’ take, the same demons spook the almost-centennial of World War I.

As Mark Twain said: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes! … Even the Germans who are supposedly the models of fiscal responsibility have now seen their credit rating downgraded by Moody’s, so that national sovereignty is being abridged by these private organizations that have arrogated this power to themselves to evaluate the stability and strength of national economies. So we have this odd mix of globalized capital and national government power, national sovereignty, and nations often having to bend their knees to that globalized capital. This could very well provoke, and indeed already has provoked, a great deal of populist outrage, which could also end up being right-wing nationalist outrage… there is this ferment beneath the surface of anger, much of it economically based, much of it could be racially or ethnically motivated. Add that to the possibility of resource wars in the future, the possibility that countries like China and India are not going to want to restrict their own economic growth in the name of environmental responsibility, any more than than the U.S. has been willing to. You can see how the World War I analogy comes to people’s minds… as an instance of a general sense of imminent catastrophe and as a kind of unfolding apocalypse that comes from the inability of democratically elected leaders to come to terms and confront the powers they and their predecessors have unleashed… I think we’re looking at a crisis that was induced by specifically neo-liberal globalizing capital policies but has yet to reveal its true significance, and that of course is only going to play out over time.

Rescuing “capitalism” from its heavenly post somewhere between timeless Natural Law and “God’s work” undertaken by Goldman Sachs is another piece of Jackson Lears’ professional agenda, for another conversation. As teacher, writer and editor of the Raritan Quarterly, Lears’ object is encouraging the vigorous young “History of Capitalism” subfield in his ancient discipline. It’s part of the project that Daniel Rogers at Princeton also noted — to put history back into historical studies after Francis Fukuyama’s infamous The End of History.

August 2, 2012

Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture : A Different Country Now

Daniel Rodgers, the Princeton historian, and his Age of Fracture put a striking new frame around our nagging Tony Judt question: "How Fares the Land?" No, he's telling me, you're not crazy: the country changed! Profoundly. But the break came in theory before it showed up in practice, he demonstrates. It's about our culture as much as our politics. And the deep shift is traceable through everyday words -- choice, time, self, responsibility, desire -- across a wide terrain of ideas about markets, law, power, identity, gender, race, and history.


Daniel Rodgers, the Princeton historian, and his Age of Fracture put a striking new frame around our nagging Tony Judt question: “How Fares the Land?” No, he’s telling me, you’re not crazy: the country changed! Profoundly. But the break came in theory before it showed up in practice, he demonstrates. It’s about our culture as much as our politics. And the deep shift is traceable through everyday words — choice, time, self, responsibility, desire — across a wide terrain of ideas about markets, law, power, identity, gender, race, and history.

It’s too simple to say: we fell apart. But “disaggregation” is the recurring word for the remapping of our minds. The progress has been from grand to granular; from macro to micro not only in economics, from Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman, but in literary theory and our sense of who has “agency”, from coalitions to invididuals. Our flag waves over a social landscape shrunken in every dimension, as Rodgers writes: “diminished, thinner, smaller, more fragmented, more voluntary, fractured, easier to exit, more guarded from others.” It feels in this 2012 campaign like a society desperate for a larger sense of itself.

How Market Metaphors Seized the American Brain is one thread of the story, and it’s not entirely new. But Rodgers makes delicate and original connections with care and clarity — when he speaks, for example, of the implications of Francis Fukuyama‘s catchy essay title from 1989: The End of History:

One of the interesting things about our current time is a loss of being able to think sequentially, to think slowly, to think about things happening over a relatively gradual, incremental sense of time. How does this happen? In part it’s about market ideas that move into our everyday language. We think of satisfaction coming instantly, of people making choices very very quickly. Fukuyama’s notion [was] that Marx, Hegel, the great 19th Century historians and the long march of History, the inertia of the past, the shaping power of institutions — all that could be assigned to the past and we could now do what we wanted; we live in a world of freedom, and of choice. The notion of turning Iraq around on a dime comes straight out of this. And our impatience with the current recession as if it should have turned around on a dime, because we want it to end! … We unfortunately have a lot of people who not only don’t know history but don’t think they need to know, or would be hindered by too much knowledge of history… And of course within U.S. history there’s a long strain of imagining that Americans will avoid the mistakes of others; therefore that they don’t really need to know too much about the past. We’ve lost a certain realism about history that was stronger in the middle of the last century — much stronger.

Daniel Rodgers with Chris Lydon at Princeton, July 27, 2012

I find Rodgers fresh and fascinating on presidents and their language. Ronald Reagan is clearly the pivot of the era and a final-cut master of phrasing and delivery — a light-hearted guy who made the turn from JFK’s “long twilight struggle” to “morning in America.” As he actually said: “Here it’s a sunrise every day.” Reagan was an anti-Communist who in fact drained the Cold War vocabulary and substituted “self-doubt” as the nation’s worst enemy. But he was not a prime mover, Rodgers is telling me. His gift was “not to shape but to gather up and articulate this new way of understanding the nation, as a place that didn’t really need to worry about limits, didn’t need to worry about structures. It needed to feel better about itself. It needed to get on with it. It needed to recognize the heroes in its ranks. And that would do it. Have a nice day. God bless America.”

Under George Bush’s fumbling stewardship, Rodgers says, 911 was the turning point that “didn’t turn.” The word “sacrifice” made a fleeting comeback in the moment of shock, but it was dissipated by a credit-card war. Barack Obama made his great debut in 2004 with an anti-fracture speech — we’re not Red States and Blue States, we’re the United States; and his “Yes, We Can” had the ring of old social movements. But Obama has been timid in office, Rodgers observes. The economic catastrophe that brought Democrats back to power has packed “an emotional wallop, but only a policy whimper. The movement in ideas has been barely discernible,” particularly in contrast to the ferment and experimentation of FDR’s New Deal.

And still Rodgers’ final note is cheerful. In our “Citizens United” context of auction-block democracy, I am wondering: could the spirit of the Progressive Era reforms in the early 20th Century get traction again? “Yes,” Dan Rodgers insists. “In fact the Progressives were up against a plutocracy, as they called it, that was just as striking, just as self-confident, just as aggressive as the one we have now. They didn’t work in the same media climate, but one of the most important points of the Progressive reforms was to get wealth out of politics. They did it by the direct election of Senators. They enacted our first serious estate taxes and our first progressive income taxes against a very, very well orchestrated and exceedingly well-financed opposition. It can happen.”

What lingers with me, finally, is that Daniel Rodgers has introduced an Alternative Villain into his revelatory account of our times, Age of Fracture. It’s none of the usual suspects in politics. No, it’s 30 years of the “small is beautiful” post-modern university-based Theory Class that so sliced and diced our identities, and seems to have missed many big forests (plutocracy!) for the little trees (“rational choice”), and devalued the deeper human connections among all of us lonely shoppers. And then they wiped out History, which is to say memory. How strange that while we were entertaining ourselves with the End of History theory, we may have stumbled, with that blindfold on, into the merciless historical fate of empires, and never saw our comeuppance coming.

Podcast • July 11, 2012

Chris Hayes: Smart Guy against the “Smart Guys”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Chris Hayes (50 min, 26 meg) Part of what makes the strange disorienting nature of our time is that the old institutions have been discredited but remain in power. The people who run them remain in power. There’s ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Chris Hayes (50 min, 26 meg)

Part of what makes the strange disorienting nature of our time is that the old institutions have been discredited but remain in power. The people who run them remain in power. There’s been the discrediting without the conceptual change, without the actual reforms on the ground, which is a bizarre interregnum to live through.

Chris Hayes with Chris Lydon at Rockefeller Center, July 9, 2012

Chris Hayes has done a 180 on Groucho Marx, who said he wouldn’t join a club that would have him as a member. Chris Hayes has rushed the media elite that he knows is sinking. He won’t save it alone, of course, but he’s a temptation or maybe a model for wary 30-somethings like himself, for people who’ve stopped listening to anyone in authority. A great deal of his book Twilight of the Elites and of our conversation is fixed on his own mixed emotions about being the “it” boy in a dubious game and a bad time — in the “fail decade,” as he calls the opening era of his adulthood. He seems to be writing and living out a warning to himself.

The cover story is that talk TV has a rising star in Chris Hayes, cast as Rachel Maddow’s kid brother, as learned and lively as she is. In a pretty sclerotic media scene full of people who got suckerered into selling the Iraq War, he’s the bright-eyed millenial kid from Brown (2001, philosophy major) and The Nation magazine who’s inspected the emperor’s new clothes and keeps talking about them. He harps on inequality as the story in 2012, plus unimaginable debt and an awful losing streak on the American scorecard. He says it all without wailing or gnashing his teeth and everybody thinks he’s a nice, cool guy. The multitudinous fans of “Up with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC are encouraged to call themselves “Uppers.”

The back story in Twilight is his judgment that the “meritocracy” that selects high-testing hard-working overachievers like him (like me in another generation) has been a big part of undoing the American Dream in the last 30 years or so. His “iron law of meritocracy” is that it becomes a smug elite that pulls up the ladder behind it, is socially isolated, prone to failure and inevitably corrupt. Not to mention that it becomes “a pathological way to live.”

This is increasingly a social set-up that’s fated to produce crisis, catastrophe, dysfunction, poor decision-making — and a lot of unhappy people. This is a model of ceaseless competition and what I call “fractal inequality,” in which there’s no top. The ladder always ascends ever upward, as if you’re in some M. C. Escher drawing that you climb rung by rung, only to see a new one come into view… It’s the way finance works, and finance dominates the American elite.

There’s a model of scarcity that’s fundamental to the conception of society as a meritocracy, which is this funnel that everything goes through. The idea is that not everybody can get into it: whether it’s schooling, jobs at the top firms, clerkships with the best judges… The model of scarcity produces anxiety and competition; and the whole way we think about where everything is headed is this model that there’s some small set of happy lives and fulfilling jobs. Whereas the social model should be: everybody’s who’s willing to work can have a fulfilling job and a happy life… That was the model of the auto workers’ treaty with Detroit. The vision was deeper than good wages. It was about who deserved a good life — and the idea that working people deserved a good life. We just don’t have that anymore. The meritocratic model is that you deserve a good life if you meet these elite criteria, if you find your way through all these funnels.

Chris Hayes with Chris Lydon at Rockefeller Center, July 9, 2012

Might Jon Stewart have smacked this guy — at least rolled his eyes — for all the hi-falutin’ stuff about the “dominant meritocratic ethos”? I wondered as I left his office: is Chris Hayes a little hung-up on himself and the vertigo of his own success? A little too smart about the cult of smartness at the top of the heap? Is he speaking truth to power, or talking his way through it? And: is it still okay to like this kid a lot for his “kind of naive earnestness”? For naming the four corners of his drive as “frustration, betrayal, disorientation and curiosity”? For his readiness to say, yes, what a “bizarre interregnum” it is we’re living through? Comments please.

Podcast • June 13, 2012

Jacob Hacker: for 35 years of Progressive Renewal

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Bromwich (32 min, 15 meg) Jacob Hacker, Yale’s bright light on American politics and co-author of Winner-Take-All Politics, is giving us a baseline on the election-year landscape: 1. The American dream has lost a 35-year ground war ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Bromwich (32 min, 15 meg)

Jacob Hacker, Yale’s bright light on American politics and co-author of Winner-Take-All Politics, is giving us a baseline on the election-year landscape:

1. The American dream has lost a 35-year ground war to corporate capitalism. The very rich have pulled decisively away from the rest of us. (The top one-percent has swallowed 50 percent of the income growth since 2000.) The general economy is in the dumps, “running on fumes.” Anger and alienation rule our politics.

2. It may take — if we’re lucky — a 35-year organizing battle to re-legislate an inclusive prosperity, meaning the postwar “social democracy” that the late Tony Judt saw slipping away, or what David Bromwich calls the “New Deal settlement” between capital and humanity.

3. The hope out of our history is something like the 35-year Progressive Era from the 1890s to the 1930s, between the two Presidents Roosevelt. Farmers, feminists, unions and muckrakers built an astonishingly broad backfire against the inequality and corruption of our first Gilded Age and remade the country. But 2012 doesn’t feel like an auspicious moment for the big fight that is coming: “We have very little in the way of an organized movement around these issues; and the language of reform is impoverished.”

The fact that we’ve massively slashed taxes on the richest in a period when there’s been weak economic growth and weak job growth and the median has seen its income stagnate, is as much of a refutation of the trickle-down theory as you could wish for; but nonetheless many Republicans are going to double down on the theory. I think that suggests there’s a big fight coming; there’s no grand bargain lurking here…

On one side you have the proponents of letting Wall Street do whatever it wants, and of cutting taxes on the wealthy at a time when we have record inequality, certainly since 1929. On one side you have that clear, articulated argument that the market knows best; that you have to help the risk-takers or the job-creators — it’s a mantra that’s been repeated for 20 years, and bought into by a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum.

What’s on the other side? Much of it is still pretty inchoate. A lot of the talk is about fairness. I do think, as Dan Ariely’s work suggests, there are some pretty basic notions of fairness that are completely at odds with our current economic realities. The much more basic argument — the one that Acemoglu and Robinson’s work points to — is the idea that our economic and social health depend in the long term on having inclusive institutions that allow all people to share in the promise of America. That is basically an economic argument in the end — that economic success depends on political inclusion. And our politics has become massively exclusionary.

What we’re finding the more we scrape beneath the surface is that the United States has really lost its way economically. We’ve seen growth but much of that growth has gone to a very narrow slice of Americans… We’ve seen growing technological sophistication in our economy and in health care, but we’ve also seen Americans grow increasingly insecure, less likely to have insurance, bearing more of the cost on their own. We’ve seen life expectancy increase, though less here than in many other rich countries. But we don’t have a retirement security system that works to insure that people have a basic protection against poverty or hardship in old age.

We have essentially been running on the fumes of many of the investments we made in the postwar years through the 1970s, and we’re not just beginning to realize how far behind we are. And that’s unfortunately a difficult message to put out there, but it’s true.

I like it about Jacob Hacker that he talks both money and power, making the vital who-gets-what connections across academic disciplines of economics and politics. He sounds like a liberal Democrat, but he fights a lot of the standard lines. Our distress, he’s saying, has little to do with globalization or the digital transformation; it has everything to do with a concerted business strategy (triggered by Lewis Powell’s memo to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971) to mobilize its political influence “aggressively and with determination… over an indefinite period of years.” The first returns on that effort — cutting capital-gains taxes and cutting down organized labor — showed up in Jimmy Carter’s term, not Ronald Reagan’s. It was Bill Clinton’s presidency — between the two Bushes — that deregulated banking and hooked Democrats on a shameless Wall Street money addiction. Professor Hacker is perhaps too polite in observing that President Obama is now “cross-pressured” on issues of financial reform and tax justice, meaning that in a testing time for the country, organized money owns one and a half of our two parties. This is a man to help us decode the presidential campaign.

Podcast • June 7, 2012

David Bromwich on The Emperor’s New Language

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Bromwich (32 min, 15 meg) Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Bromwich (32 min, 15 meg) David Bromwich is locating our 2012 distress in our language — or lack of it. It is reunion season ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Bromwich (32 min, 15 meg)

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Bromwich (32 min, 15 meg)

David Bromwich is locating our 2012 distress in our language — or lack of it. It is reunion season at Yale, 50 years after President Kennedy addressed my graduating class of 1962 with his tax cut speech and the famous crack about having “the best of both worlds — a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” Four months later, human civilization hung by a thread in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am trying to count the watersheds crossed in American life.

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale and for me by now an indispensable public commentator, confirms my sense that the country is starving for want of words. On the brink of post-imperial panic, we don’t know what to call this worse-than-recession, this Euro-charged breakdown of politics and finance. What we do know is that “we are the 99 percent” is the left’s most effective line since the 2008 meltdown, but that the right and the Tea Party have commandeered the public conversation with street language of salt and savor, with vehemence and conviction that the liberal-left seems to scorn.

Professor Bromwich faults President Obama for ducking a direct confrontation with the Tea Party’s nihilism about government — for trying even to coopt the Tea Party with the thought that anti-taxism is in our DNA, as if we had a common stake in crushing the public sector. Do we call this an excess of prudence? a failure of imagination? moral timidity? Political correctness, in the Bromwich diagnosis, has a lot to do with scrubbing the Democrats’ script and emasculating their language — as incorrect as it would be to say such a thing. The strongest language that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton can summon is to dismiss attacks as “not helpful.” They speak in a “schoolmarm” voice (another “incorrect” formulation) against rough-and-ready reactionaries who fling words like “corrupt,” “depraved” and “poisonous” with abandon. Democratic rhetoric in our day is “academically trained, scrupulous, conscientious,” Bromwich observes, and free of the popular touch.

We can do better than that, Bromwich says, or at least we once did. From a vast acquaintance with the best in political speech, he is reciting Vachel Lindsay’s poem “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” refiring the frenzy in the heart of a 16-year-old boy on the day in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan, running against William McKinley, roared into Springfield, Illinois and the young bucks of the town “joined the wild parade against the power of gold.” And then Bromwich is reading back Martin Luther King Jr.‘s response in 1967 to a reporter who wondered why the civil rights leader had strayed into the protest against war in Vietnam. “Justice is indivisible,” Dr. King answered, “and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere; and whenever I see injustice I am going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.”

You can hear just what a clear and simple statement of conscience is there; and it draws the world toward it. It draws whole worlds toward it when people see that sense of a man planting himself on his convictions… I think that belief that war is wrong, that war was is a leading evil, could also rally people. But we don’t see war being talked down… This is new in my experience. I’m 60 years old now, and I’ve never heard so many Americans talk so acceptingly about wars, in the plural. You feel that we are Rome or something, and that people have resigned themselves to it. It’s a very strange situation we’re in — that under Obama, after Bush, the number of wars has increased. And his chief innovation in language is to speak of war more generally, more allusively, more vaguely and in a softer tone; and now to publicize his own actions as a decider on the killing of individuals, including Americans if need be. It’s a terrible sinking back into the lethargy of… It’s just where we are.

David Bromwich with Chris Lydon at Yale, June 1, 2012