From the Archives • March 12, 2014

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here in New York…there are people playing together just for fun, or for mutual betterment…. People are in it because they love it, and that love is constantly expressed in wonder at new music and at new possibilities and new discoveries and new talent, new players on the scene who have something new to offer.
Architecture is a fair metaphor. The analogy holds up. Architecture is about creating spaces. You’re creating spaces for people to move around in. That’s what we’re doing. And you want people to be free, but you also want to offer them things, to offer them possibilities. You want to frame their activities in a way that helps infuse it with meaning.

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

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

From the Archives • March 3, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — ...

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — musical highlights of a comprehensive revolution. It was one of two modern migrations, it’s been said, that made American culture what it is — of blacks from the Jim Crow South, and of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. The movement of masses is an ageless, ongoing piece of human history: in India and China today, more people migrate internally from village to city in one year than left the South from the onset of World War I (1915) to the end of the Civil Rights era (1970), as Isabel Wilkerson frames her story. But was there ever a migration that beyond moving people transformed a national culture as ours did? Songs, games, language, art, style, worship, every kind of entertainment including pro sports — in fact almost all we feel about ourselves, how we look to the world, changed in the sweep of Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent story, The Warmth of Other Suns. Great swaths of the pop and serious culture I grew up in – my children as well – were fruit of Ms. Wilkerson’s story: Jazz and its immortals like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, Miles Davis, the Basie and Ellington bands and stars like Duke’s greatest soloist Johnny brussellHodges, whose family moved from Virginia to Boston very early in the century; Mahalia Jackson and Gospel music; Rhythm and Blues, Ray Charles, the Motown sound, the Jackson family and little Michael; sports immortals like Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, and athletes without number are players in this story. Writers, actors, politicians, comedians… Toni Morison, Spike Lee, Michelle Obama are all children of the Great Migration.

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

They lived under a caste system … known as Jim Crow. Bill Russell’s family experienced some of the harsh realities of that. One story involving Bill Russell’s father involves a day where he was just wanting to get gas. The custom in the Jim Crow South is that when an African American was in line for something, any white southerner who came up could cut in line. One white motorist after another had shown up and gone in front of him, and he had to wait, and he had to wait, and he had to wait. Eventually he decided he would just back out and drive the half-hour to the next gas station where he might be able to get served. As he was beginning to back out, the owner of the gas station stopped pumping gas for the white motorist he was working with and got a shotgun, held it to Bill Russell’s father’s head and said “You’ll leave when I tell you to leave. Don’t ever let me see you trying that again.” His mother was, around the same time, stopped on the street because she was dressed in her Sunday clothes. … A police officer stopped her and said “You go home right now and take that off. That is not what a colored woman should be wearing.” … The family decided that they would leave Monroe Louisiana, a very difficult decision, for a far away place, Oakland California. And it was there that Bill Russell had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, to be able to go to an NCAA school; he would never had had the opportunity to do that had they stayed in the South. He ended up leading the Dons of UCSF to two NCAA championships, and then of course came to the attention of the Celtics… Basketball would not be what we know it to be, had this Great Migration not occurred. And he’s but one person out of this entire experience of six million people who migrated.

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

Podcast • January 30, 2014

The Infinite Boston Tour

David Foster Wallace’s biographer, D. T. Max , says Infinite Jest is the contemporary novel that has the best chance of being read fifty years from now. Sven Birkerts, a critic who knew Wallace, says the popularity ...

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David Foster Wallace’s biographer, D. T. Max , says Infinite Jest is the contemporary novel that has the best chance of being read fifty years from now. Sven Birkerts, a critic who knew Wallace, says the popularity of the book amounts to ”a whole generation saying, ‘We’re kind of crazy, but we’re also really smart. And D.F.W. is our man.'”

It may be a book of global significance, but today we explore the idea that Infinite Jest is fundamentally a Boston novel, that Infinite Jest is to Boston what Ulysses is to Dublin.

Last week the writer Bill Lattanzi led us on a tour of Infinite Boston, inspired partly by Bill Beutler’s website. The tour begins in the “seat of empire,” so to speak, Harvard Square — epicenter of the ivy-clad buildings, cobblestone streets, churches, libraries, museums, the ancient glory of Boston and New England — which is to say, everything that David Foster Wallace did not write about. We are looking at the Boston traversed by addicts, the homeless, the-down-on-their-luck. We stop at the Harvard Square Homeless Center and Cambridge City Hospital, and Wallace’s apartment on the Somerville edge of Inman Square. We walk his main drag, the stretch of Prospect Street connecting Inman and Central Square. We hop on the T moving across the Charles to Brighton, where Wallace spent time after leaving McLean Hospital and where he found some essential characters and atmosphere of Infinite Jest. As Bill says, we walk through “the Boston of Wallace’s imagination.”

This Week's Show • June 26, 2014

David Foster Wallace’s 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
D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace's 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: the “clot and snarl of Prospect St in Cambridge,” that “Fresh Killed” poultry sign 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 of one man’s battlefield, with re-enactments every day.

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.”

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

Podcast • December 27, 2013

Katherine Powers: The Lost Art of American Catholicism

“The baby is crying like hell now. I am not liking it one bit and do not expect to grow used to it. What a foul fiend I am to have for a father… You ...

kath powers 4 300

“The baby is crying like hell now. I am not liking it one bit and do not expect to grow used to it. What a foul fiend I am to have for a father… You ask me how it feels to be a father. About the same, I think… If you must get married, I say to young people, be sure you can afford a fifteen-room house and servants. That comes as a blow to them. They read The Catholic Worker and all the rest and are accustomed to thinking in terms of Mary and Joseph and the manger. We have the manger, but we are not Mary and Joseph. Anyway, we are not Joseph.”

J. F. Powers in a letter to the poet Robert Lowell, November 26, 1947

Katherine Powers — “the baby” at left and above, the first of five — wrote one of the resonant and memorable (and best reviewed: here and here) books of 2013. Suitable Accommodations is the “autobiography” of her father, the novelist and short-story master J. F. Powers (1917 – 1999). She assembled it really, from his letters. But it reads and lingers like the novel her famous father meant to write and didn’t, about the family life of an Irish-American and very Catholic artist in the 20th Century Mid-West. We’re talking about the rueful ironies, disappointments and human contradictions of a religious imagination in mid-century America. And I’m presuming to take it personally because I hear so much of my own upbringing in Katherine’s story.

She is evoking a post-war moment, when religion in general and Catholicism as it touched us could be felt not as a political/ethnic pigeonhole but as a vocation or the choice of an unconventional or alternative life. “Movement Catholicism” of the 1950s was big-family time — Trapp Family time before “The Sound of Music” — full of rural aspiration and voluntary poverty, beekeeping and organic gardening, liturgical reform and home-grown art, with a variety of American cultural eminences busy in the background like Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell and Katherine Ann Porter (for whom Katherine Ann Powers was named). As Paul Elie notes in an astute review, “Having J. F. Powers in The New Yorker was like having JFK in the White House,” in the same moment, too, even if Powers didn’t like the Kennedys at all. “Too bad it isn’t Gene [McCarthy] instead of Jack,” he noted after the Kennedy election in 1960, “if we have to have a Catholic.”

It was another country and another culture, gone now with barely a trace, it seems. J. F. Powers’ made it his role to write about priests, the way Ring Lardner had written about ball players. His best novel, Morte d’Urban, about a comic climber in the church, won the National Book Award 50 years ago – in a head-to-head race with Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Updike’s Pigeon Feathers. The charm of Powers’ work is a bit of a mystery today. His art did not penetrate the darkness of those rectories. Neither did it catch much inner light of Christian strivers or the spiritual imagination. In Katherine’s reconstruction of her father’s life, a gray Chekhovian fog of self-pity and missed opportunity hangs over the landscape and an under-lived life. All the more remarkable that she has given us a an elegant, selfish man, a writer both stylish and blocked, a reluctant but prolific father, in a telling more poignant than her papa’s best stuff.

September 24, 2013

Linda Ronstadt: The Best Singers and Songs

  When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, ...

 

When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponsell in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse…

Linda Ronstadt in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.

This is fun. Linda Ronstadt, the multi-platinum queen of crossover singing — country and folk rock to Puccini’s “La Boheme” to Gilbert & Sullivan on Broadway to flamenco to Mexican wedding songs to the Great American Songbook and duets with Sinatra — throws out the line in her memoir Simple Dreams that the American popular song is the greatest gift this country ever presented to the world. So for a Coolidge Corner movie house packed with loving boomers, we’re just riffing here about singers and songs — the personal favorites, the masterpieces, the ones we called “pop” and “love songs” that may last as long as Schubert and Brahms. It is touching to hear this modest star say that she was never competitive, didn’t chase hits, but realized at midlife that she’d always aspired to raise the best material she could find to the distinction of “art songs.” So, doubtless, did Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Rosemary Clooney, Marvin Gaye, Frank Loesser, Sarah Vaughan… Judgment takes a while, even among the principals — as in Ira Gershwin’s famous line that “we never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” But Linda Ronstadt was a sport when I asked: could we close with a fast baker’s dozen of pearls in the pop music of our times — songs we could send to Mars to show what’s possible. 13. Someone to Watch over Me, from the Gershwins, Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle. 12. Little Girl Blue, from Rodgers and Hart, Janis Joplin and Nina Simone. 11. Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, the song Sinatra couldn’t handle but Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane immortalized. 10. What’s New? by Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke. This is the Linda Ronstadt version with Nelson Riddle. And then there’s Coltrane. 9. The Londonderry Air, the melody of “Danny Boy,” which my mother sang every day of our young lives to the words: “Would God I Were the Tender Apple Blossom.” “The most beautiful melody ever,” as Linda said, but it’s Irish! at least till Ben Webster found it and wouldn’t let it go. 8. George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” the Sarah Vaughan version with Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes. 7. A Frank Loesser threesome: Marlon Brando singing “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” in the movie Guys and Dolls.  “Never never will I marry,” a Linda choice.  Betty Carter and Ray Charles singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” my pick, and “one of my favorites of all time ever, ever, ever,” Linda said. 6. Al Hibbler singing Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing till you hear from Me.” 5. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Jennifer Warnes singing Leonard Cohen’s song. 4. Estrella Morente, singing “En el alto del cerro de palomares.” 3. Lola Bertran singing Paloma Negra. 2. Trio Calavera, singing “almost anything.” 1. Marvin Gaye singing “What’s going On?”  “O my God, I kissed Marvin Gaye one night… He was vocalist extraordinaire,” Linda said, at the crossroads of jazz, R’n’B and pop.  “And he was a good kisser. No question, this is an art song!”

May 2, 2013

Where’s the Hodges – Carney Monument in Boston?

 If Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney had grown up together a few blocks apart in, say, Paris, there would be statues in their honor, and streets named after them. In New York, they’d be remembered ...

 

The singer, the arranger and the Duke’s Men: Saxophonists Johnny Hodges (left) and Harry Carney, with Sy Oliver and Frank Sinatra (1946).

The singer, the arranger and the Duke’s Men: Saxophonists Johnny Hodges (left) and Harry Carney, with Sy Oliver and Frank Sinatra (1946).

If Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney had grown up together a few blocks apart in, say, Paris, there would be statues in their honor, and streets named after them. In New York, they’d be remembered with a monument — as in Ottawa there’s now a fine public sculpture of native son Oscar Peterson at his piano. In Boston, the obligation rests with Northeastern University — spreading out on that hallowed ground of Lower Roxbury — to give the city a Hodges-Carney museum of the incredibly fruitful core and hatchery of black Boston. Hodges (1906 – 1970), raised on Hammond St, off Tremont, first gave the alto saxophone its full range: earthy and lyrical, pristine and sexy, like a whisper in your heart. The star soloist in the Ellington orchestra, he had “a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes,” as Duke Ellington put it when Hodges died; “our band will never sound the same.” Harry Carney (1910 – 1974), from Cunard Street across the way, invented the full voice of the baritone sax and anchored the Ellington reed section through 40 years of immortal music. The South End of their boyhoods – what the retired minister Michael Haynes calls the “strategic strip” between Massachusetts Avenue and Ruggles Street – was the Boston where drummer Roy Haynes and dancer Jimmy Slyde grew up, where Sammy Davis Jr. lived for many years. Of course, it wasn’t all show biz. This was where aspiring black Boston was formed in playgrounds, churches, schools and parades — the Boston that Alan Crite painted in spirit and detail. If we don’t mark the memories on this spot, we could to lose it for all time.

Parade on Hammond Street, 1935.  By the "Harlem Renaissance" painter Alan Crite (1910 - 2007.

Parade on Hammond Street, 1935. By the “Harlem Renaissance” painter Alan Crite (1910 – 2007).

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 ...

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 • April 13, 2012

Jay Rosen on our Media Malaise: Who Will Tell the People?

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn't believe -- it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call "media" has been transformed by the digital revolution.

 

Jay Rosen – NYU journalism professor, social-media rock star and most thoughtful of press watchers – thinks the critical news stories of our time have grown “Too Big to Tell.”

We’re pulling on a thread — “what are we going through?” essentially — that began with the late Tony Judt‘s last book of sermons Ill Fares the Land and continued with Timothy Snyder and Thinking the Twentieth Century. It’s a wide-open inquiry that needs your nudges. Listen and comment, please!

Here’s Jay Rosen on the media piece:

It’s impossible to register in our public conversation an America in decline, a loss of confidence. We also haven’t dealt with the huge crisis of accountability. Nobody’s accountable for anything in this country. Who’s accountable for a phony case for war, put forward in 2002 and 2003? Nobody! Who’s accountable for a financial crash and corrupt financial practices that went on for years and made lots of people rich? Nobody! Who’s responsible for failing to detect a phony case for war — in the press? Nobody. Just to take an example: David Gregory [of NBC] to this day maintains that he and his colleagues reporting on the White House and the Bush Administration did a great job in the run-up to the war. He says this today. His reward for that is not to be laughed out of the profession but to get Tim Russert’s chair on Meet the Press. He’s bigger than ever! To me just that little story tells the tale of accountability in the United States. And it’s that group of people that still has a hold on the political conversation, even though fewer people believe them or pay attention or rely on them. And so the alternative to a reality-based politics, which we do not have, is just a huge increase in cynicism.

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn’t believe — it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call “media” has been transformed by the digital revolution. The tools of publishing and broadcasting have all been distributed, which is to say: democratized. Critically independent websites like Politico, TPM, Daily Kos and TruthDig have taken root, and vast horizontal networks like Facebook thrive. Yet, on the other hand, in some strange way “the conversation” has not moved. If anything, Jay Rosen says, the grip of reality has been weakened. As Joan Didion remarked in 1988 about the specialized and professionalized “process” around a presidential campaign: “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” I am asking Jay Rosen: are we looking at the end of something, or the beginning of something else?

I would say ‘the end’ in this sense: the only real program for change we have now is: Collapse! Because we have these institutions that don’t work. They are in many ways constructed on illusions or lies. They go… go… go… go… go… until the day that they don’t. Like the whole mortgage-fueled financial system, right? It worked… it worked… it worked… it worked… and then one day it collapsed, with a lot of destruction and almost a kind of violence. We’re now in a period where we can’t reform, so we’re waiting for various forms of collapse. Now in the aftermath, yeah, sometimes that can be the start of something. But I don’t see right now any alternative. The institutions that are supposed to be able to take account of reality — name it, frame it, allow for a contest of ideas, permit a choice of large directions to be made and therefore allow us to find some sort of imperfect remedy — just don’t work. And so the alternative is: Collapse. But in the collapse there are new tools, there are new ideas, there’s another generation. Certainly it’s not going to be you and me! And so there’s where the case for optimism is. We still need people like Tony Judt. We need writers just trying to make sense of their own experience, who can name and frame what they see. But the tools for ignoring those people roar. They are powerful, too.

Jay Rosen with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 5, 2012

This all calls to mind our last conversation with the late Anthony Shadid, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his people-first coverage of the war in Iraq. What the most honored of reporters on the Middle East wanted to get off his chest with me two years ago was that “I find it almost painful to come home to the States…” He was in grave distress wondering if anyone had read his stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, about the war at the level of Iraqi villages and families. “I think it’s just spectacular that we don’t appreciate the devastation that has been wrought in Iraq over the past 7 or 8 years. It’s just spectacular. There was an incredible amount of arrogance that went into this entire experience on the part of journalists, on the part of policy makers and the military. There wasn’t even a desire to learn. It does give you pause.”