February 6, 2014

A Flailing State: Daron Acemoglu and Matt Taibbi on Economic Inequality

We’re somewhere between the legend and the facts of the U.S. economy. The legend, still in our heads, is it’s a rough-and-tumble democracy and a classless society.  Facts are: the top of the heap owns almost all the wealth and most of the politicians, and ...

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We’re somewhere between the legend and the facts of the U.S. economy. The legend, still in our heads, is it’s a rough-and-tumble democracy and a classless society.  Facts are: the top of the heap owns almost all the wealth and most of the politicians, and the top of the top – one percent – takes more and more of the income: almost 25 percent of the whole pot in Obama-time – it was less than ten percent in the seventies. Legend is Americans don’t much like redistribution of income.  Facts say there’s been a steady upward redistribution of wealth and income over 40 years now.   Legend is we’re in a slow recovery from the Great Recession of ’08.  Facts say it’s the high end getting the growth: “inequality has deepened,” the President said the other night: “upward mobility has stalled.” 

We’re in the studio with Daron Acemoglu, the MIT economist and the co-author of Why Nations Fail. His argument is that the problem goes beyond soaring income inequality — to the eclipse of the myth that Average Joes rule our politics. Well into President Obama’s second term, deep in the doldrums of the status quo, he says the state of the union is “dangerous.”  Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone joins us on the phone. He is by now a Diogenes on Wall Street. What I didn’t know was that he trained for his critical role in a ten-year stint in Yeltsin’s Russia, a world of back-room deals and a burgeoning oligarchy. He tells us, ”A lot of things that I saw in the former Soviet Union, we’re starting to see here.”

Guests:

Daron AcemogluMIT economist, winner of the 2005 John Bates Clarks Medal, and author of the acclaimed book, Why Nations Fail.

Matt Taibbiauthor and contributing editor for Rolling Stone, author of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap and Griftopia.

A reading list (when an hour of radio just isn’t enough):

January 30, 2014

Infinite Boston

Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into.
Sven Birkerts: Present at the Creation of "Infinite Jest"
The Infinite Boston Tour
Preview: D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace's Boston

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 Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into: the “clot and snarl of Prospect St in Cambridge,” those “Live” and “Fresh Killed” poultry signs in Inman Square, the clang and squeak of the B-Line trolleys along Comm Ave, Brighton past the halfway houses on the hill for catatonics and drunks where Wallace’s life turned around. Maybe it helps to read Infinite Jest as a tour map of one man’s battlefield.  Re-enactments every day.  We’re talking a walk through DFW’s Infinite Boston this hour.

We got 200-and-some contributions for this conversation posted on Reddit so far.  IJ, as they say, is about addiction, entertainment, compulsive consumption, emotional isolation, TV, the Internet, anxiety, panic attacks,  – and loneliness throughout.  One of the Reddit writers said: “Infinite Jest, it’s still where I go to understand the queer sadnesses of 21st-century life.”

Our guests include Bill Lattanzi, poet, playwright, and the original Infinite Boston tour guide; D.T. Max, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the acclaimed Wallace biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story; Sven Birkerts, the writer, critic, and editor who was a friend of Wallace’s; and Deb Larson-Venable, executive director of Granada House, where Wallace began his road to recovery, and the extraordinary inspiration for the extraordinary Pat Montesian, a character in the novel.

A reading list, for the insatiably curious.

  • An Interval,” an excerpt from Infinite Jest that was published in The New Yorker in January 1995, including a description of Ennet House director Pat Montesian, the character based on our guest, Deb Larson-Venable,
  • Deb’s Story,” a partial autobiography by Deb Larson-Venable herself, on the Granada House website, and ”An Ex-Resident’s Story“, an anonymous article (credited to Wallace) about Granada House, the Brighton halfway house that became Ennet House in Infinite Jest,
  • The Unfinished,” the article by D.T. Max about Wallace’s biography and career that spawned his book,  Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,
  • The Map and the Territory,” an excellent article by Adam Kelly on Bill Lattanzi’s Infinite Jest tour,
  • Infinite Boston, designer William Beutler’s amazing record of his own whirlwind tour of Wallace’s Boston,

Thanks also to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C.
Image credit: Janette Beckman/Redferns

January 23, 2014

Activism in Memory of Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, before he became the first saint of the Internet age, seemed the perfect boy-child of the Internet, the algorithm made flesh, a human embodiment of the Internet’s voraciousness and connectivity, its head-spinning drive toward an open banquet of knowledge. The inventor of the ...

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Aaron Swartz, before he became the first saint of the Internet age, seemed the perfect boy-child of the Internet, the algorithm made flesh, a human embodiment of the Internet’s voraciousness and connectivity, its head-spinning drive toward an open banquet of knowledge. The inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, pictured Aaron Swartz “blazing across the dark sky of ordinary people, broken systems, a shining force for good.” And then in Aaron Swartz’s death by suicide, at age 26, one year ago, it seemed a promise had been crushed — the machinery of surveillance, censorship, and control had won the day. A year later the invitation is to see deeper into a vision of technology but also of culture and humanity, and to recover something of Aaron Swartz’s ambition, as he put it shyly, “to save the world.”

Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor and for a decade Aaron Swartz’s closest grown-up friend, leads us this hour from the cold, snowy trek he calls the the New Hampshire Rebellion. It’s a mission to save a corrupted Republic, to ransom the Congress of the United States, to smash the money shackles on our politics. It is part of the project to renew Swartz’s spirit. Lessig may be the preeminent legal advocate before the Supreme Court and elsewhere of the free Internet – free as in freedom, not as in ‘free lunch’, as the saying goes. He is the author of Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It.

We’re trying also to locate Aaron Swartz as a landmark in the culture and the age. Matt Stoller, an incisive, sometimes scathing blogger on politics and money, was Swartz’s close friend and contemporary inside politics. The author Maria Bustillos corresponded with Aaron Swartz and has written wonderfully on his literary appetite and his own writing. He’d commented after his arrest two years ago that he read Kafka differently: The Trial, he realized, was not fiction but meticulous documentary coverage. And finally: nothing engages me more about Aaron Swartz than the news (to me, anyway) that he was an astute reader and commentator on David Foster Wallace and his mad epic Infinite Jest. On his blog Swartz had “solved” the mysterious ending of Wallace’s novel. It is as if he were trying to deduce the algorithm in Wallace’s head that produced the book. I am feeling tremors of a convergence here of iconic figures — two geniuses, two suicides and perhaps two parallel visions of an American apocalypse.

A reading list, for those interested.

A year ago Professor Lessig gave a TED talk about campaign finance reform, and how he sees the issue:

[ted id=1702]

 

January 16, 2014

The Rise of Modern Medicine

In the annals of Boston medicine two historic chapters in the last 50 years were the near conquest of sudden death by heart attack and (not unrelated) the rise of corporate, cathedral hospitals around the practice of heroic scientific medicine with a big arsenal of new drugs, surgical measures, bypasses, catheters and stents. Perhaps the core question is: where’s the better medicine that would make all of us all healthier, even without miracle surgery?
Eugene Braunwald: Heart to Heart

braunwaldIn the annals of Boston medicine two historic chapters in the last 50 years were the near conquest of sudden death by heart attack and (not unrelated) the rise of corporate, cathedral hospitals around the practice of heroic scientific medicine with a big arsenal of new drugs, surgical measures, bypasses, catheters and stents.

All this is the stuff of our guest Dr. Tom Lee’s biography of a giant cardiologist and an expanding industry in Boston. His book is Eugene Braunwald and the Rise of Modern Medicine, a complex and fascinating tale. Don Berwick – a doctor who’s running for governor — is covering the downsides all around this story: overtreatment for some, undertreatment for many, intrusions of finance and breakdowns in the humanity of doctoring, and of course gigantic expense.

We’re talking this hour about Boston’s bluest of blue-chip industries, medicine, in a prosperous maybe triumphant time that may also be the moment for rethinking and reform. Dr. Braunwald and Nobel Prize winner Bernard Lown make cameo appearances — drawn from longer podcast visits with each of them. Perhaps the core question is: where’s the better medicine that would make all of us all healthier, even without miracle surgery?

January 9, 2014

The Pope Francis Phenomenon

Pope Francis wants a church that’s “bruised, hurting and dirty” – his words -- in the streets with real people, not confined or clinging to its own security. He had the audacity as no Pope before him to choose the beloved name Francis for the saint of birds and nature, the saint marked hand and foot with the wounds of Jesus.
Mary Gordon on Pope Francis: Hope for Grown-Ups
Peter Manseau on Growing Up Catholic in Boston as the Son of a Priest and a Nun
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Photo by Getty Images

We’re searching the Pope Francis Phenomenon in this radio hour: the man from Argentina and his many messages from Rome, his body language, feet-washings, mob scenes in Vatican Square. He “even uses words” now and then, as the 13th Century Saint Francis urged back in the day. Pope Francis wants a church that’s “bruised, hurting and dirty” – his words — in the streets with real people, not confined or clinging to its own security. He had the audacity as no Pope before him to choose the beloved name Francis for the saint of birds and nature, the saint marked hand and foot with the wounds of Jesus. As the votes were being cast to elect him last Spring, the name “entered my heart,” he said. “Francis of Assissi; for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others.” We have to search his past, his plans for a faith and an institution that seemed to be limping. We want to search ourselves too: what is the human hunger Pope Francis has confirmed – not just Catholic or churchy — all across the world. What is the wave-length on which so many non-religious people “get” him? Why TIME magazine’s hands-down runaway pick for Man of the Year, 2013? And what does the blogger Andrew Sullivan mean when he says “you don’t have to be a believer to recognize a moment of grace…”? Delivering not hope, but “proof that hope is not groundless.”

For people who like homework, this was my essential on-line reading list on Pope Francis:

A Big Heart Open to God: The Pope’s wonderfully expressive, open, personal account of himself in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America.

Who Am I to Judge? A Radical Pope’s First Year : James Carroll’s New Yorker profile.

Untier of Knots: What is the Meaning of Pope Francis? Andrew Sullivan’s richly opinionated take at The Deep Dish.

Is Pope Francis the New Champion of Liberation Theology? Harvey Cox’s vision of a left-wing church, in The Nation:

Our guests in this conversation (9 p.m. Thursday, January 9 on WBUR, Boston at 90.9 FM) include James Carroll, Mary Gordon, Jeff Sharlet, Peter Manseau and Liz Walker.

January 2, 2014

El Sistema: Music Lessons to Rebuild the World

El Sistema is not an instruction method so much as a shared conviction: that every child wants to make music, and can. It has big social implications, too: that a child with an instrument and a teacher is no longer poor or excluded; that a poor family with a child in an orchestra has a path to the future.
Video: El Sistema in Action

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We’re going back to 4th grade this hour to experience the El Sistema way of learning to make music – as I wish I had! While we’re at it, we’re getting a lesson in how to humanize a school and a community space. At the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Massachusetts, we’d have started in Pre-K with a paper instrument and a fake bow, but we’d be playing the real thing in a real orchestra by second grade, making music with classmates three and a half hours every school day.

In Venezuela the experiment has enrolled more than a million kids over nearly 40 years. El Sistema is not an instruction method so much as a shared conviction: that every child wants to make music, and can. It has big social implications, too: that a child with an instrument and a teacher is no longer poor or excluded; that a poor family with a child in an orchestra has a path to the future. Simon Rattle, the European conductor, says El Sistema is the best thing happening in music in the world, and some say it’s not just in music.

So we’re catching a global wave in El Sistema, this gift of the Venezuelan economist and maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, this proving ground of the celebrated young conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel. The writer Eric Booth has blogged three sparkling essays on his inspection of El Sistema in Venezuela in 2008, 2010 and 2013. And the two maestros, Abreu and his protégé Dudamel, took the stage at Berkeley a year ago to reflect on their creation.

El Sistema is applied now in a dozen schools in New England, in hundreds around the world. At the public charter school behind St. Columbkille’s Church on Market Street in Brighton, we’ve been hanging out with the most advanced of several orchestras at the Conservatory Lab Charter School. You can hear the violinist and conductor Adrian Anantawan leading 60 children (4th and 5th graders) through rehearsals of John Williams’s movie theme, “Indiana Jones.”

In the studio our guests are Kathleen Jara, violinist and resident El Sistema artist at the Lab Charter School; Lawrence Scripp, co-founder of the school, long an education specialist at the New England Conservatory of Music; and the prolific Harvard Ed School Professor Howard Gardner, best known for his work on “multiple intelligences.”

 

December 19, 2013

Where’s Boston? Waiting a New Mayor, a New Radio Show

Where’s Boston? We’re piloting a new radio show here for WBUR in Boston and puzzling about the hometown. What can you tell from the pick of the first new mayor in a century well underway? Where’s the emergent Boston — in the old cradle of ...

JFK in East Boston

Where’s Boston? We’re piloting a new radio show here for WBUR in Boston and puzzling about the hometown. What can you tell from the pick of the first new mayor in a century well underway? Where’s the emergent Boston — in the old cradle of liberty that’s become a perfect example of the new inequality? Where prices keep rising and real incomes keep falling: meaning an average worker in Boston can’t afford an average home. Where’s the spirit of Boston — the Puritans’ city on a hill, ready for another Irish Last Hurrah at City Hall… when the Boston accent is fading and in fact 100 different languages are spoken in the city… where most of the people (and three of every four school kids) are black, brown, Asian or Hispanic? In the city of champions — baseball, football, med tech and higher ed… On the new bicycle paths over the ancient cow paths: where’s this reinvented Boston going? In the land of The Last Hurrah, mayor’s races are markers of social history: James Michael Curley’s Irish wars with the Protestant Yankees in four decades of the 20th Century; John Collins and Johnny Powers and then Kevin White and Louise Day Hicks in Irish contests among themselves; Ray Flynn against the black contender Mel King in the 1980s; then the Irish eclipse through the 20 year reign of Tom Menino. And finally this year in majority-minority Boston (you could argue the most globalized immigrant city in America) we had a final choice between two very different Irish flavors: the favorite John Connolly was Harvard educated and school-reform minded, but he was defeated in the end by the trade-union lobbyist and recovering drinker from the working-class and waterfront precincts, Marty Walsh. Our guests in the WBUR studio are: John Connolly, because so often it’s the loser who learns more in the game than the winner. Shirley Kressel, a mere housewife from the Back Bay who may be the most relentlessly informed and critical citizen in the Republic of Boston — a combination of Jane Jacobs and I. F. Stone. And Barry Bluestone, the progressive and prolific social scientist who’s had an outsider’s eye on Boston for 40 years now. The upshot of an hour’s gab seems to be that Boston — for all the knocks — is in a spot that almost any big city in America would dream of occupying. And further, that the hero and villain of the moment is the Graduate Student, most particularly the ones from “away” and “abroad.” It’s those graduate students who (for want of dormitories) are sucking up the three-decker apartments built for workers back in the day — at the same time they’re confirming Boston’s attractiveness and conceiving its future.

Our question — “Where’s Boston?” — was the title of a brilliant little bicentennial film collage of pictures and voices of Boston as of 1976, almost 40 years ago. It makes you wonder: do we still sound that interesting?

Thank you to Cambridge Seven Associates and Executive Producer Peter Chermayeff for the”Where’s Boston” video.

Podcast • November 27, 2013

Graham Robb: Rescuing those Celts!

Graham Robb, stellar historian and writer, draws on the “archives of the bicycle,” much as Simon Schama says he draws on the “archives of the feet,” walking battlefields and inaugural parades. Graham Robb pedaled 14,000 miles through France in the course of re-casting the evolution ...

celt village 2Graham Robb, stellar historian and writer, draws on the “archives of the bicycle,” much as Simon Schama says he draws on the “archives of the feet,” walking battlefields and inaugural parades. Graham Robb pedaled 14,000 miles through France in the course of re-casting the evolution of a nation of Frenchmen (just in the 20th Century) out of a wild diversity of villages.

grrobbAnd now he’s applied the bicycle method to rediscover a Celtic world of Stone Age Europe, six to eight centuries before Christ – a world built of wood that’s long since disappeared. And yet the bicyclist sees more than meets the eye of the documentary historian, specially with computer maps to draw on.

With his Rediscovery of Middle Earth, the idea was to bicycle through the fantasy land of Camelot and Tolkein’s landscape of the Hobbit and the Rings. And then surprise, surprise: a real civilization appears in the mist of those “middle places.” Robb’s rediscovered Celts were a scientific people with a well-schooled culture in many ways more attractive than Caesar’s Roman juggernaut that crushed the Celts and drove their Druids out of continental Europe – out to the British Isles and the wide world’s imagination. So the conversation here is about what Graham Robb found out about the Celts, and crucially, too, about how he found it.

We think of the Celts as the people who were defeated and crushed by the Romans. Caesar himself explained that his policy included deliberate genocide. He would wipe out entire tribes, either by killing them all or by selling most of them into slavery or multilating all the male members of a particular tribe so they would never bother Rome again. Good old Caesar. His history was a work of propaganda, because even in Rome some people were appalled at what he was doing in Gaul. And the crucial thing about the Roman conquest of the Celtic world is that this wasn’t a simple military conquest. Caesar traveled with huge numbers of merchants and traders who were prospecting the new market in basically gold, precious metals and slaves. And that was going to be the basis of Caesar’s political power, because he was reducing people’s taxes back in Rome and creating a safe buffer zone between Rome and the barbarian world. And that’s why he tends to present the Celts as mud-smeared hooligan barbarians, and that image still survives today, at least in Britain. Certainly when the English think of the Scottish or Welsh or Irish Celts, those are the kinds of images that still come up…

In many ways it was a more sophisticated civilization than Rome. And one of the reasons the Romans were so keen to make the Celts look ridiculous is that every Roman knew that in 387 B.C., before there was a Roman empire, the Celtic army marched into Rome and captured it and plundered it and massacred the citizens of Rome. That was a huge humiliation which the Romans never forgot. So when they set about massacring Celtic tribes that was something in the back of their minds. This was the enormous threat beyond the Alps that had to be eradicated. Ironically it’s because the Celts had moved into Northern Italy and colonized it, and created towns like Milan and Turin and Bologna – which all have Celtic names, not Roman names, not from Latin — they had been driven out by the Romans when the empire began to expand. But it was the Celts who first introduced the Romans to all the sophisticated technology, particularly of transport: the carts and carriages and high-speed chariots and roads. And that’s why in Latin almost every word for wheeled vehicle is actually a Celtic word. For example… there’s the word for chariot itself: currus in Latin, which comes from a Celtic word. Which means that the Celts gave us the word: car. That’s where the word comes from.

Graham Robb in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

Graham Robb calls to mind the amazing persistence of regional-tribal folkways and social-cultural traits as David Hackett Fisher traced them from 17th Century England to modern America in the classic Albion’s Seed. He reminds me also of the recent novel of New York, Open City, imagined by the Nigerian-American Teju Cole. Teju Cole and Graham Robb share a gifted eye for stripping away the visible and seeing history and pre-history, half-hidden like the thousands of miles of stone walls in the re-grown forests of New England, for example. The way to imagine the Middle Earth of Tolkein and King Arthur and the Celts, Graham Robb is telling us, is as a world many of us are still living in.

November 14, 2013

Robert Dallek on Three Last Questions about JFK

Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night with him at the White House during the Cuban Missile ...

JFK wyethKennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night with him at the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis — he says to Mimi: “I’d rather my kids be Red than dead.” He never could have said that in public, but that was his, one might say, revisionist thinking. Because he had begun as a Cold Warrior, you see. And he becomes more mindful of this idea he’ll be the one who’ll be responsible if there’s a nuclear war. It will go down in history as John Kennedy, the Cold Warrior who killed hundreds of millions of people.

You know, at the beginning of his term he wants to rein in the military, who control nuclear weapons, or the local commanders. Mac Bundy tells them they could touch off nuclear war if there’s an incident with the Soviets. So Bundy calls up the general at the Pentagon and says: we want to see the nuclear war plan. And the general says: we don’t show that. Bundy says: you don’t understand, I’m calling for the President. Anyway, they give Kennedy a briefing. They talk about how they would drop 170 atomic bombs — nuclear weapons — on Moscow alone. And they would kill hundreds of millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe, China. And as Kennedy walks out of the room, he says to Dean Rusk: “And we call ourselves the human race.”

Robert Dallek in conversation with Chris Lydon, November, 2013

Robert Dallek brings passion and a sympathetic curiosity to my last three simple questions about John F. Kennedy — subject of Dallek’s mainstream classic: An Unfinished Life.

First question: really, why do we love JFK so, for a brief and thoroughly scary term in office? We love him more than Ronald Reagan and much more than the other modern presidents.

Second question: what was our reckless playboy president really up to, at the core of his purpose, his being?

Third question: why can’t we know who killed him? The official answer is: a lone-nut assassin did it; three out of four of us don’t believe it.

DallekProfessor Dallek’s answers aren’t simple, and they’re not exactly what I was looking for. But they do connect in a plausible whole, with feeling. Dallek is reminding us us that JFK, off the record, was a pillow-talk peacenik. With his 19-year-old mistress / intern, in the presidential bed during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke the words “better Red than dead” that were officially forbidden during the Cold War. The best way to see Kennedy’s last year, Dallek says, is as an all-out peace campaign against nuclear suicide. JFK was at war with his own CIA, and a lot of his own generals, who were “nuts,” he said. But Dallek won’t say, doesn’t believe and would hate to discover that it was the spies and generals who set up him up for murder. Dallek told me we love Kennedy for his star-crossed glamour – for so many accidental things like the fact that we never saw him grow old. But he leaves me wondering if we don’t all cling to the Kennedy memory much more for the basic reason Dallek admires him above all – that he stared down a very possible nuclear catastrophe; that he broke the nuclear madness of 50 years ago with his melancholy realism about war.

Check out the other reflections we’re recording on the 50h anniversary of John Kennedy’s death. James Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, argues that Kennedy was killed by the war establishment for his turn to peace. Jeffrey Sachs in To Move the World sings the praises of the Kennedy / Sorensen “peace speech” at American University, but doesn’t want to consider a connection with Kennedy’s death. Stephen Kinzer in The Brothers can imagine putting Kennedy’s CIA nemesis Allen Dulles on the list of assassination suspects — but doesn’t see the evidence for prosecution. And by all means add your own thoughts on about John Kennedy’s life, death and legacy in a comment here.

Podcast • November 8, 2013

Stephen Kinzer: Are the Dulles Brothers Finally Out of Power?

Steve Kinzer is raising sharp questions for today about the late, unlamented Dulles brothers — John Foster and Allen Dulles, who ruled US diplomacy and spy-craft in the Eisenhower 1950s. The Brothers are the subjects now of Kinzer’s double biography and eye-popping polemic. Are the Dulleses the missing keys to our 50-year understanding of John F. Kennedy’s tortured foreign adventures in office, and perhaps of his death?

Stephen_Kinzer 2Steve Kinzer is raising sharp questions for today about the late, unlamented Dulles brothers — John Foster and Allen Dulles, who ruled US diplomacy and spy-craft in the Eisenhower 1950s. The Brothers are the subjects now of Kinzer’s double biography and eye-popping polemic. Are the Dulleses the missing keys to our 50-year understanding of John F. Kennedy’s tortured foreign adventures in office, and perhaps of his death? How and why did the “compulsive activism” and “secret world war” of the Dulles brothers persist for five decades after they were gone? In President Obama’s big turn in the Middle East — that is, in the refusal to bomb Syria and the warming contacts with Iran — is it too much to see that the Dulleses’ open and covert Cold War ways of waging world dominance are coming apart even as we speak? Of the Obama re-direction since late August, Steve Kinzer is telling me:

I found those two episodes most interesting. First, the President of the US announced… he was going to bomb Syria, but many in Congress and in the country were against it, and he called it off. I can’t remember any episode like this in my lifetime, where a president of the United States announced he wanted to bomb a country — but the American people were against it? This is something quite remarkable. We’ve always supported military action when presidents decide to launch them. Then came the telephone call between President Obama and the president of Iran. This is another supreme violation of another basic Dulles principle. The Dulles brothers believed you should never have dialogue with your enemy. They were strong against, for example, any summits between American leaders and Soviet leaders. They felt that this would only destroy the paradigm of conflict. It makes the other person seem possibly sane and rational, and then you can no longer portray them as evil and threatening. So these two episodes — the refusal to bomb Syria and the contact with Iran — make me ask this question: did the Dulles Era just end?

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon about The Brothers in Boston, November, 2013

The Kennedy term began in 1961 with two explosive mines hidden in the works: the CIA’s Bay of Pigs raid on Cuba by mercenaries and Cuban exiles; and the assassination of the Congo’s first independent Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Three weeks into his term, Kennedy urged that Lumumba, beleaguered by Belgian interests and the CIA, be restored to power. “It was a remarkable change of heart for the United States,” Kinzer writes in The Brothers, “but it came too late.” Unknown to the new president of the United States, Lumumba had been kidnapped, brutalized, butchered and dissolved in acid three days before JFK’s inauguration. The Congo has never had a popular democratic government since then.

The two operations at the end of the Dulles era, the one against Fidel Castro in Cuba and the one against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, have a number of interesting aspects in common. One of the most interesting ones is that President Eisenhower — who fervently supported covert action, though nobody understood that at the time, of course — personally, though slightly indirectly, ordered not just those operations in Cuba and the Congo, but the assassination of those two leaders. So we have in the space of one summer Eisenhower ordering two assassinations, and as far as we know, no president had done that before. The way that Allen Dulles electrified Eisenhower and the National Security Council to galvanize them into action in the Congo was to say to them – Lumumba is going to become the African Castro… When Lumumba came to New York to the United Nations, he gave a number of press conferences and at one of them he was asked whether he feared for his life, and he said: “if I am killed, it will be because a foreigner has paid a Conglolese,” and that is exactly what happened!

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

JFK fired Allen Dulles for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and started cutting the CIA budgets sharply. After his death, Kennedy was quoted by intimates to the effect that he wanted “to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” But of course Allen Dulles not only outlived Kennedy but got to have a strong voice on the Warren Commission that investigated Kennedy’s murder. Kinzer writes that Allen Dulles took the opportunity to coach the Warren Commmission staff on what questions to ask the CIA — and to coach the CIA on how to answer them. I’m asking Steve Kinzer if Allen Dulles — exiled from his agency, shamed by President Kennedy — shouldn’t be classified by 1963 as “rogue CIA,” and whether, when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tells Charlie Rose that “rogue CIA” may have killed his uncle, Allen Dulles should not be on the list of suspects:

I find it a fascinating possibility. Nonetheless I’ve never seen any real evidence of it. So if there is ‘plausible deniability,’ it’s still in effect. Of course, ‘rogue CIA’ and Allen Dulles are not necessarily the same thing. If Allen Dulles was not involved, there could still be a rogue CIA. I mean, Richard Bissell was still involved in this project. We had a number of other figures, still very active, many of whom were very angry at Kennedy. I guess the pieces are out there, but I still have never seen anything that makes me seriously believe that the CIA could have been involved. That means either that they weren’t, or that they cover up things just as well as the CIA has sometimes been able to do.

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

Stephen Kinzer’s double biography of The Brothers is part of an epic series by now of Kinzer takes on All the Shah’s Men in Iran, on Overthrow as a habit in American foreign policy, on a Reset of US alliances that may be evolving in the Middle East. Check our several conversations with Steve Kinzer over the years — on the original sin of American policy in the Mideast, on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and on the changing balance of interests out there. And please add your responses in a comment here.