May 8, 2014

Who Needs College Anyway?

On the way to commencement season, what’s college really good for, if the cost is out of sight, and your degree doesn’t point you to a job; if there’s too much drinking, cheating and grade inflation; if it’s not safe enough for women; what if the whole bloated model is outdated in a digital age? Who’s got a better idea? Schools are almost out, but will they still be there in September?
Higher Ed By The Numbers
What's the Matter With College?

Guest List

Liz McMillen, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education

Joseph Moore, president of Lesley University

Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor at the University of Virginia and cultural historian

Thomas Frank, founding editor of The Baffler.

On the way to commencement season, what’s college really good for, if the cost is out of sight, and your degree doesn’t point you to a job; if there’s too much drinking, cheating and grade inflation; if it’s not safe enough for women. What if the whole bloated model is outdated in a digital age? Who’s got a better idea? Schools are almost out; will they still be there in September?

Reading List

• Liz McMillen’s talk, “What is College For, Anyway?” tells you the signal changes in the college experience over a generation;

• In a New York Times blog, Suzanne Mettler argues that college is not leveling the playing field, it’s doing the opposite;

• Thomas Frank’s essay from The Baffler, “Academy Fight Song;”

• Siva’s blog post, “Going Public the UVa Way;”

…We must stop using business language to describe universities. It’s not only misguided and inaccurate, but it also sets up bad incentives and standards. The University of Virginia is a wealthy and stable institution, a collection of public services, a space for thought and research, a living museum, a public forum, a stage for athletics competition, and an incubator of dreams and careers. But it’s not a firm, so it’s certainly not a “brand.”

…and the case he makes in Bookforum for “academic calling in a neoliberal age”;

• Clay Shirky on the coming money crunch in higher ed;

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

• We’re also reading two public worries about the university from two different sides of the conversation. The first is Noam Chomsky’s recent talk, “The Death of American Universities,” published at Jacobin. Chomsky sees universities caught in a corporate drift; he wants us to double back in search of the old Enlightenment idea of  learning. Education’s not filling a vessel, but

…laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure… But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education.

• David Brooks wrote about Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova meeting in Berlin in his column “Love Story.” Two thinkers meet, turn over the canons in their heads and recognize each other. The story ends with Berlin collapsing, lovestruck, on his bed back at home.

I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion — the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.

Does this sound nostalgic, or are minds meeting in this way on American campuses? What do you think? Leave a comment or send us a message.

April 17, 2014

What Do We Make of The Big Bang?

In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths to come to grips with the beginning of everything? So we're clearing the deck to listen to wisdom of the physicists: where did we come from, what are we made of, what happens next, and why? And what do we do with what we're learning?

Antarctica: South Pole Telescope

Guest List

Prof. Alan Guth, the theoretical physicist at MIT who predicted cosmic inflation more than thirty years ago;
Prof. Max Tegmark, at MIT, the specialist on the cosmic microwave background;
Prof. Robert Kirshner, the observer-physicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Clowes Professor of Science.

 

In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths, and the matters of the day, to come to grips with the beginning of everything? We’re clearing our heads to listen to the wisdom of the physicists, in their words and images, to get to the bottom of some pretty basic questions.

Our “Top Ten” Questions:

1. Where did it all come from?
2. Where is it going?
3. What is it made of?
4. What is driving it all?
5. How big is it?
6. How will it all end?
7. What is real?
8. How do we know?
9. Where do we come into it?
10. Is there any meaning to it?

guth

A page from Alan Guth’s 1979 notebook, in which he theorizes cosmic inflation

 

April 10, 2014

Are We Numb to Nukes?

We’re thinking our way through a plausible nuclear emergency with Elaine Scarry who reminds you – we’ve got a weapons monarchy in this democracy. How can we call it a democracy, the rule of the people, when there’s one man’s finger on the trigger that could destroy us all?
Eric Schlosser: Nuclear Nightmares
Cold Wars, and How to Survive Them
Richard Rhodes: Is the Knowledge of Nukes Enough?
Nukes by the Numbers

Missile-defense-system

Guest List

Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, and author of Thermonuclear Monarchy, along with The Body in Pain and On Beauty and Being Just;
Hugh Gusterson, anthropologist, professor at George Mason University, and author of People of the Bomb and Nuclear Rites.

We’re thinking our way through a plausible nuclear emergency with Elaine Scarry who reminds you – we’ve got a weapons monarchy in this democracy. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin wall and a nuclear football still accompanies the president at all times,  nuclear missile silos still dot the great plains, and hundreds of nukes remain constantly on alert. How can we call it a democracy, the rule of the people, when there’s one man’s finger on the trigger that could destroy us all?

Other people have shown, without alluding to nuclear weapons, how odd the picture of Hobbes had gotten around the 1950s and beyond. He seemed to have been turned into a monster. And yet, if you look at the timing, that is the nuclear age, and he was made to serve that purpose. These things take many different forms, and if our structures of thermonuclear monarchy demand that we give up the Constitution, it’s not that an executive goes out and says  (except maybe Nixon), “Okay, now I’m saying let’s get rid of the Constitution.” That would be preposterous. But, people start giving all different kinds of accounts of why we don’t need to follow the Constitution. “Oh, that was something from several centuries ago,” “Oh, that was something associated with nation-states and we’re above thinking of nation states now.”

Now, sometimes, you do have executives willing to say, “Look, we can’t do things constitutionally because I have a lot of power here.” There’s the amazing moment when Dick Cheney said—and I cite this in the book—on a television program, in response to questions about torture in the Bush administration and Guantanamo, instead of saying, “You’re over-estimating executive power,” says, “You guys are not thinking clearly. What we did is nothing compared to the power the president has. Day and night, he’s being followed around with a nuclear briefcase. Don’t deceive yourself. His power is far beyond what you imagine.”

We seldom have people talking so candidly, and when they do, we think, “Oh that’s just a bizarre stylistic feature of Dick Cheney.” That’s not a bizarre feature; that’s a candid statement of fact.

Elaine Scarry in The American Reader

Take a look at Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto’s animated view of every nuclear test from 1945 to 1998 — no less terrifying because of its retro look:

 Reading List

• More of Elaine Scarry’s interview with The American Reader, and a feature on the book in Harvard Magazine;

• Hugh Gusterson’s audit on an Orientalist double standard in nuclear weapons:

The presumed contrast between the West, where leaders are disciplined by democracy, and the Third World, where they are not, does not hold up so well under examination. The governments of Britain, France, and Israel, not to mention the United States, all made their initial decisions to acquire nuclear weapons without any public debate or knowledge. Only in India was the question of whether or not to cross the nuclear threshold an election issue. Pakistan also had a period of public debate before conducting its first nuclear test… There also have been problems with U.S. command and control.

• Louis Menand’s review of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, “Nukes of Hazard,” The New Yorker, and an excerpt from the book;
• The Memory Palace (audio), “Babysitting,” a radio story on Donald Hornig, babysitter to the bomb.

 

 

April 3, 2014

Iraq: What’s Known, What’s Unknown, What We Don’t Want to Know

The best question about the Iraq war perhaps isn't for the architects, but for us: what does it say about our system, our media, our country, and our age that we haven't held anyone responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq apart from Chelsea Manning and a few enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib? Isn't there a lesson for us in the life and times of Donald Rumsfeld?
Stephen Kinzer: Are the Dulles Brothers Finally Out of Power?
Lawrence Wilkerson: Why Does Rumsfeld Always Win?
Phil Klay: Redeployment
Rumsfeld, Snowflake by Snowflake

TheUnknownKnown

Guest List

Mark Danner, supreme chronicler of the wars and of America’s military misadventures for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books.

Stephen Kinzer, reporter, academic, and author, most recently of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a first-rate thinker on war and foreign policy.

Errol Morris’s movie The Unknown Known is the provocation this week: cinema sequel to the Oscar winning documentary on Robert McNamara and Vietnam, “The Fog of War.”  The Rumsfeld questions implied by Morris but unanswered in the movie begin with who Rumsfeld was, and what he was up to; how has the experience of a trillion-dollar catastrophe sailed past any apparent reflection or rethinking on the part of the Iraq War’s architect. The journalist Mark Danner, who covered the war and is now covering the aftermath, says the inconvenient truth here is that the public doesn’t want to reconsider it either, because we’re all implicated in the shame. 

Rumsfeld spent 33 hours talking into Errol Morris’s camera — an exercise in cheerful deflection, denial and a good deal of distortion of the checkable record, including his own public memos and comments.  The architects won’t answer them, so the questions come back to us, whether we want them or not. What does it say about our system, our media, our country, and our age that we haven’t held anyone responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq apart from Chelsea Manning and a few enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib? Isn’t there a lesson for us in the life and times of Donald Rumsfeld?

Reading List

• Mark Danner’s three-part series on Rumsfeld for the New York Review of Books, listed here;
• Errol Morris’s  massive four-part series chasing after the philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld for The New York Times — it begins here;
• Lawrence Wilkerson’s interview with us on the subject of Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq;
• The transcript from Bill Moyers’s troubling documentary on how America was sold that war;
• And our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s latest comment on the war, in anticipation of his forthcoming book, The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War.

And check out our extra content this week: an interview with the veteran-writer Phil Klay, a reflection in memos on the making of The Unknown Known, and archive interviews with guests Lawrence Wilkerson and Steve Kinzer.

March 27, 2014

The Transcendentalists Are Coming!

This week on Open Source, revisiting the birthplace of the American mind. Five houses on three streets within a period of five years in Concord, Massachusetts launched American literature and poetry, the environmental movement, progressive politics, feminism, and new ideas about religion and education. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, and their friends and neighbors. Where is the center of the rebellious mind today and what is it saying?
Robert Richardson on Emerson's Apostasy
Harold Bloom: "Emerson Speaks to Me"
A Walk in the Woods with Robert Richardson
Cornel West on Emerson's Enduring Importance
The Transcendentalist Ripple Effect

Emerson-house

Guest List

This week on Open Source, revisiting the birthplace of the American mind. Five houses on three streets  within a period of five years in Concord, Massachusetts launched American literature and poetry, the environmental movement, progressive politics, feminism, and new ideas about religion and education. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, and their friends and neighbors. The Transcendentalists are coming. What is the legacy of this American renaissance? What do these thinkers mean to you?

Please record a voice message we can use on the show.

Reading List

• Geraldine Brooks, “Orpheus at the Plough,” a short biography of A. Bronson Alcott in The New Yorker;

• Kathryn Harrison, “Vindication,” a review of Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life;

• The critic Sven Birkerts on translating Emerson into today’s language;

• Paul Harding’s interview with the literary journal, Tin House:

adore the transcendentalists. Emerson is right at the top of my list. Thoreau is not too far behind. I also think of Hawthorne, Melville… even Wallace Stevens kind of comes out of that tradition. Emily Dickenson—Writers like that. Some people do think Tinkers has sort of an archaic feel, maybe just because it’s set 90 to 100 years ago, and goes even further back. Some of that has to do with the fact that I like the idea of stripping away some of the more prominent distractions of current material culture, which I think can set up sort of a veil of white noise—It’s difficult to see or hear somebody’s mind. 

• and Dan McKanan’s essay on the spiritual heritage of the Occupy movement.

March 20, 2014

Putin, Ukraine and Reading the Russians

Russian troops are encircling naval bases, Crimea is locked down. We Americans are looking across an ocean, flummoxed in a familiar way by the mind and the mission of the Russian president and people. Why do we keep getting Russia wrong? Putin is only the latest in a series of Russian leaders that have divided American thinkers and policymakers against themselves. Is he a realist, or is he ruled by his emotions? by Cold War nostalgia? by a vision of Eurasian Union? Is he a fascist or a plutocrat, or is he simply reacting to the West’s expansion of NATO? Is he winning — or has he overplayed his hand?
What Would Tolstoy Say About Russia and Ukraine?
My Debt to Suzanne Massie
Suzanne Massie: Reagan and Russia

Red Square

Guest List

  • Suzanne Massie, is the connoisseur of Russian art, music and literature whose private tutelage of Ronald Reagan gets major credit for his historic walk through Red Square — and maybe for the cultural thaw that ended the Cold War. Her new book is the terrific memoir, Trust but Verify: Reagan, Russia, and Me.
  • Mark Kramersenior fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center and director of its Cold War Studies Program.
  • Maxim D. Shrayer professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies at Boston College, and author of Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story and other books.
  • Svetlana Boym, Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University and the author of Another Freedom, a reflection on the cross-cultural conception of freedom.

This week, on Open Source: Russian troops are encircling naval bases, Crimea is locked down. We Americans are looking across an ocean, flummoxed in a familiar way by the mind and the mission of the Russian president and people.

Suzanne Massie, who persuaded Ronald Reagan that he could hate Communism and love the Russian people in the same career, puts it this way: Why do we keep getting Russia wrong? Putin is only the latest in a series of Russian leaders that have divided American thinkers and policymakers against themselves. Is he a realist, or is he ruled by his emotions? by Cold War nostalgia? by a vision of Eurasian Union? Is he a fascist or a plutocrat, or is he simply reacting to the West’s expansion of NATO? Is he winning — or has he overplayed his hand?

We turn to Massie and other close familiars of Russian culture and history to try and figure out how to read the Russians, now and forever. Thought experiment: given that many of our best insights into Russian character and temperament come to use from their literary geniuses, can we summon some collective judgment on Putin, Ukraine and the Crimea from the contentious, often dissident wisdom of Tolstoy, the humanist; Dostoevsky, the Slavic Nationalist; Chekhov, the gentle star of both Moscow and Yalta; Solzhenitsyn, who argued forcefully that Ukraine must be an eternal part of Russia; and Vladimir Nabokov, who sailed out of Russia for the last time from the Crimea?

Reading List

March 13, 2014

Will We Ever Get Over 9/11?

Are we getting over 9.11? What is it doing to our character, our culture, our Constitution? We’ve been through the flags-everywhere stage, the foreign invasion response, the big build-up of surveillance and eavesdropping, interrogation, with torture – all in the name of security, but do we have a word for the fear we sense inside the new Security State?
The Armor You Have
Pico Iyer: An Empire in Isolation

Mayor Bloomberg Visits Lower Manhattan Security Initiative With Police Chief Ray Kelly

Guest List

Here’s an awkward question that may be urgent: Are we getting over 9.11?  Will we ever? Do we want to?  Is it a scar by now, or a wound still bleeding? Is it a post-traumatic-stress disorder?  What is it doing to our character, our culture, our Constitution?  After a monstrous attack on the American superpower, is there anything like those five stages of individual grief — some version of the famous Kubler-Ross steps: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance?  We’ve been through the flags-everywhere stage, the foreign invasion response, the big build-up of surveillance and eavesdropping, interrogation, with torture – all in the name of security, but do we have a word for the fear we sense inside the new Security State?  Do we have a word for the anxiety that a War on Terror can feed on itself forever? A decade and a half out, are we a different country?

We’re imagining this as an ongoing series, with conversations and podcasts to be added as we go. Have you any suggestions for people we should speak with? Writers? Historians? Critics? Your next-door neighbor?

Reading List

Osama expected to die by violence, as he did.  Sadly, he probably died a satisfied man.  In addition to alienating Muslims and the West from each other, as was his aim, he achieved so many other transformations of the order he sought to overthrow… He catalyzed two wars.  He bears responsibility for the death of thousands in the West and hundreds of thousands in this region.  The unfunded financial burden of the conflicts he ignited has come close to bankrupting the United States.  Indirectly, it is upending the international monetary system.  It has produced recession in the West.  Osama will have been pleased.

February 28, 2014

The Syria Test

Guest List Stephen Walt, Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, author of the bombshell book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and a columnist at Foreign Policy. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a Pakistani academic, a commentator at Pulse, and author of the forthcoming The Road to Iraq: The Making ...
Nasser Rabbat: Life and Death in Syria
Palestinians waiting for food at the Yarmouk camp in Damascus a month ago -- in a photo released yesterday by United Nations.

Palestinians waiting for food at the Yarmouk camp in Damascus a month ago — in a photo released yesterday by United Nations and printed on page A7 of the New York Times today. (UNRWA Photo)

Guest List

Stephen Walt, Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, author of the bombshell book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a Pakistani academic, a commentator at Pulse, and author of the forthcoming The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War.
Dr. Laurence Ronan, a staff physician at Mass General Hospital, director of the Thomas S. Durant, M.D., Fellowship in Refugee Medicine, and medical director for the Boston Red Sox, calling in from spring training.
Nabih Bulos, professional violinist and war correspondent, born in Jordan to Palestinian parents, who returned from a trip to Damascus two weeks ago.

With Iraq and Afghanistan bleeding in our rear-view mirror, is there a case still to be made for American intervention with anything more than words in Syria’s miserable meltdown? The news and pictures from Syria are perfectly awful – sarin gas against civilians succeeded by barrel bombs on Aleppo, millions of Syrians on the run, all varieties of torture, targeting of children and doctors, a death toll in two-and-a-half years of warfare approaching 150,000, and no end in sight. But is there anything like a constructive case for American intervention?

Our guest Steve Walt from Harvard was a leader of the “realist” school of American strategy before it was fashionable. He warned all along that war with Iraq would undermine the US interest; today he’s saying we should be fighting the temptation to commit American power in Syria. Our guest from London, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, is the historian of folly in Iraq, the “Neoconservative War,” he calls it. But he’s telling us that Syria is different – a murderous tyranny that only the threat of American force can check. And Nabih Bulos, the Los Angeles Times journalist, is just back from Damascus and a tour of the besieged city of Homs and Yarmouk refugee camp inside the city.

What should we have done, what can we still do, and is it too late to pass the test in Syria?

Reading List

February 20, 2014

Rites of Passage: Docs and Nurses in the Developing World

A new rite of passage is taking hold among ambitious young doctors entering modern practice in a new century. It can take a year or two after medical school: working far corners of the poor world, and sometimes later years split back and forth between ...

Ophelia Dahl - Vogue

A new rite of passage is taking hold among ambitious young doctors entering modern practice in a new century. It can take a year or two after medical school: working far corners of the poor world, and sometimes later years split back and forth between a community clinic in rural Malawi and a neurology fellowship at Mass General in Boston. The trend is striking: of the new medical doctors coming out of US medical schools in the mid-80s, one in twenty had spent some real time abroad in healthcare.  Ten years ago it was one in 5. Last year it was one in 3.  So more and more doctors, yours and mine, acting locally, will be thinking globally, with many implications.

Our radio conversation is about the lessons that flow both ways.  Some have to do with technology and drugs, but many more with building ground support in community clinics; also with the training of nurses, even with refining the bedside manner and hands-on, make-do skills of American doctors who arrive, as they say, with “sandals on the ground.”  They come back “thinking different” about who needs what kind of doctoring in the States. Consider this, for example: Bill Gates’s foundation report this winter predicts there will be no more poor countries by 2035, that’s two decades out; we’ll just have an awful lot of poor people in middle-income countries.   We know that problem in the US, and we haven’t turned it around.  But there are clues out there in the developing world and lessons coming home with the young doctors: lessons in community care outside the big hospital ERs; lessons in “accompanying” care, lessons in prevention, in doing more with less and getting sharply better outcomes, also in putting moral urgency behind more effective care for everybody.

Guests

  • Ophelia Dahl is the executive director and a co-founder (with Paul Farmer, Jim Kim, the late Tom White, and others) of Partners in Health, the Boston-based non-profit that has taken as its mission to bring great health care to the world’s poorest people and “to serve as an antidote to despair”.
  • Dr. Daniel Palazuelos is PIH’s chief strategist at its site in Chiapas, Mexico, and directs their efforts to ensure the success of their community-health workers, who are charged with the “accompaniment” of patients.
  • Pat Daoust is the chief nursing officer at SEED Global Health, an organization dedicated to training a new generation of health professionals for work in the developing world. Daoust has served as one of the leading figures in HIV/AIDS nursing for decades, first with the AIDS Action Committee, then with the Harvard AIDS Initiative in Botswana and Ethiopia.

Reading List

  • In “Partners in Help,” Paul Farmer gives an ethos of “accompaniment” to those working with the poor and the ill — work tirelessly, with an open mind, and until you’re no longer needed:

There’s an element of mystery, of openness, of trust, in accompaniment. The companion, the accompagnateur, says: “I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads; I’ll share your fate for a while. And by ‘a while,’ I don’t mean a little while.” Accompaniment is about sticking with a task until it’s deemed completed, not by the accompagnateur but by the person being accompanied.

  • Slow Ideas,” Atul Gawande’s latest essay in The New Yorker, tells us that the important changes in medicine will depend not on easy technological fixes, but on big and sometimes grueling social change.
  • In “From Haiti to Harvard,” on WBUR’s own Commonhealth blog, Rachel Zimmerman tells of the difficulties that community health workers in Boston face every day — and of the promise they represent for the American medical establishment.
  • Our guest, Dr. Daniel Palazuelos, wrote a short piece about the myths and realities surrounding community health workers abroad.
  • And the 2014 annual letter of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation looks forward to the hoped-for end of global poverty as we know it.

February 13, 2014

Boston Noir

Noir heroes tend not to be gangsters of Whitey Bulger’s grandeur; not tough cops either: they’re punched-out boxers and junkies, little perps, prisoners, victims reduced to victimizing each other and themselves.
Nick Flynn Reads "Embrace Noir"
Nick Flynn: The Day Lou Reed Died
Howie Winter, Whitey Bulger's rival inside the Winter Hill King, kissing criminal-turned-actor Alex Rocco, with Robert Mitchum in the front at left. (Photo courtesy Howie Carr/Emily Sweeney.)

Howie Winter, Whitey Bulger’s rival inside the Winter Hill King, kissing criminal-turned-actor Alex Rocco, with Robert Mitchum in the front at left. (Photo courtesy Howie Carr/Emily Sweeney.)

Boston noir is an art of darkness, under an overcast sky and fishy salt-air smell of the  waterfront. It’s now a sort of signature of our city, in novels that became movies, like The Town, The Departed, and The Fighter. You can hear a lot of it  in the broken voice of Robert Mitchum, playing the title character in the movie, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.  He’s in a breakfast joint with a rookie gun dealer, warning him that there’s a price to be paid for screwing up, as he did in a botched gun sale, earning a new set of knuckles:

They just come up to you and say, “Look. You made somebody mad. You made a big mistake and now there’s somebody doing time for it. There’s nothing personal in it, you understand, it just has to be done. Now get your hand out there.” You think about not doing it, you know. When I was a kid in Sunday school, this nun, she used to say, “Stick your hand out. ” I stick my hand out. Whap! She’d knock me across the knuckles with a steel-edge ruler. So one day I says, when she told me, “Stick your hand out” I says, “No. ” She whapped me right across the face with the ruler. Same thing. They put your hand in a drawer. Somebody kicks the drawer shut. Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard.

Dennis Lehane, who wrote Mystic River, says noir is working-class tragedy — different from other kinds. “In Shakespeare,” Lehane puts it, “tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs.”  Noir heroes tend not to be gangsters of Whitey Bulger’s grandeur; not tough cops either: they’re punched-out boxers and junkies, little perps, prisoners, victims reduced to victimizing each other and themselves.  Noir is the bottom of underground capitalism, talking to itself.  It’s bad things happening to bad guys, giving and getting the punishment they think they deserve.

Guests

Rick Marinick, author of Boyos and In for a Pound, the state trooper turned gangster who served 18 years in prison for multiple armored-car robbery convictions;

Nick Flynn, a playwright, poet, and memoirist born and raised in Scituate, son of an alcoholic bank-robber, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Reenactments; and

Anna Mundow, author of the “Crime and Punishment” column in the Barnes and Noble Review, contributor to The Boston Globe and longtime correspondent for The Irish Times.

Reading List

  • Two noir manifestoes, one old and one new. The first is Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder“, with its classic vision of the heroic detective:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…

More noir images from camera of Leslie Jones, preserved on the Boston Public Library’s Flickr page. Use arrows to navigate, and see more here.