Podcast • February 2, 2017

The Great Trump Debate: Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader

On Super Bowl weekend, we’ve lined up a couple of hall of fame political players who run outside Establishment lines to help us watch the game that’s unfolding so far in the Trump White House.  Pat ...

On Super Bowl weekend, we’ve lined up a couple of hall of fame political players who run outside Establishment lines to help us watch the game that’s unfolding so far in the Trump White House.  Pat Buchanan was the pit-bull strategist in Richard Nixon’s White House; he’s a Latin-Mass Catholic, a cultural conservative and America First nationalist who’s turned sharply anti-Empire, calmly post-Cold War with Russia and flat-out anti-war in the Middle East.  Ralph Nader was Mr. Citizen as auto-safety crusader, then first among the relentless Raiders against corporate power, and a prickly third-party candidate in three presidential campaigns.

It was this left-right pair that practically called the game for Trump way back in August 2015. Both said that a man backed by his own billionaire funds and showbiz glam could run the ball all the way to the White House.

Buchanan and Nader on NBC’s Meet the Press, October 1, 2000.

After the election, though, both men are turning their eyes to the man who may be quarterbacking the presidency: Steve Bannon.

Buchanan—a “paleoconservative” who coined the term “America First,” essentially drafting the Bannon playbook—now hopes that Trump doesn’t drop the ball after his executive order blitz. “Republicans have waited a long time for this,” Buchanan says. “[Trump] ought to keep moving on ahead, take the hits he’s gonna take.” If he keeps it up, Bannon might bring the political right “very close to a political revolution.”

Nader, as a green-tinted independent on the left, understands the enthusiasm that his longtime sparring partner has for Trumpism. Yet he also sees the contradictions and challenges Trump presents, not only for Buchanan’s vision of America, but also for Nader’s own: Both men share a strong, anti-corporate stance and are worried about the  Goldman Sachs and Wall Street executives Trumped has packed his cabinet with. What Buchanan and Nader fear most is that a thin-skinned president, egged on by his hawkish advisors, could spark a war with Iran if provoked.

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

Strategically, Nader thinks the Republican team does have the chemistry they need to pull of their so-called political revolution: “You’re gonna get very very serious early-year conflicts here that are going to be very, very destabilizing,” he says. “Republicans on the hill they don’t know what the hell is coming.”

And everyone on the sidelines worries – if the Trump’s team fumbles, who will be there to pick up the ball?

Podcast • June 5, 2014

How Would Burke Makeover the GOP?

Next time on Open Source, the conservative hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman who befriended the American Revolution, hated the French version, loved liberty and hated violence, and believed that empires like his and ours must answer to the whole world. Move over, Bush and Boehner. What if Edmund Burke were leading our Republicans in 2014?

Edmund-Burke-portrait-006

Guest List

David Bromwich introduces us to the conservative hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman who befriended the American Revolution, hated the French version, loved liberty and hated violence, and believed that empires like his and ours must answer to the whole world. Move over, Bush and Boehner. What if Edmund Burke were leading our Republicans in 2014?

Ever wondered how the political map of the United States has changed over the past 225 years. Here’s an interactive map showing the liberal-conservative spectrum of the first 112 Congresses.

 

Reading List 

• Adam Gopnik offers a smart survey of the many Burkes in The New Yorker (paywall);

• Robert Kagan, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire”, from Foreign Policy, to be read against Professor Bromwich’s excellent essay, “Moral Imagination.”

• Yuval Levin, presented as a Burkean intellectual historian and the new Irving Kristol;

• Mike Lind on the coming realignment of the political tendencies in America, breaking along more traditional conservative lines.

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 ...

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.
And 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.

Podcast • November 1, 2013

Nicholson Baker Writes a Protest Song

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies. Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in ...

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies.

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

Nicholson Baker‘s voice has a blushing transparency that will make you lean in here. He’s made a brilliant career out of a writer’s stray wit and the sparkling streams of one man’s mind. “His sentences have more pixel density than those of any living novelist,” Dwight Garner beams in the Times. Like his model John Updike, Baker is a champion noticer. In our conversations, and in his porniad House of Holes, he’s also magnetized by sex and very funny, too. But he’s political, as Updike declined to be. Baker gave us a brave and studious case for pacifism in Human Smoke, his pointillistic history of World War 2. And now in Traveling Sprinkler he emerges, through his fictional hero Paul Chowder, as a song-writer and (about time!) a fantasy radio guy and a podcaster.

Nick Baker introduced Paul Chowder four years ago in The Anthologist as a “confessional poet of a sort,” an often blocked writer of an introduction to a compiliation called Only Rhyme. In Traveling Sprinkler — lawn hardware making its circuitous path around the green landscape of his obsessions — Paul Chowder turns out to be less melodic than Cole Porter, less memorable than Tracy Chapman or Leonard Cohen. But the disarmed and endearing voice of Nicholson Baker is giving us the sense of a necessary human experiment (for all of us) and an homage to the triumphs of the masters:

It’s hard to sing, because when you sing as a writer you have lots of little squirrely black shapes on the page to hide behind. It’s of course very open and confessional but you have that nice scrim; you’re behind this shield of the 26 letters. But when you sing the words with your own voice with all of its own imprecisions and its desire to lose the pitch and all that stuff, it is so naked and so frightening… Music is so instantly graspable, and yet so mysterious. It’s so subtle and complicated; a slight change in harmony, a choice of doubling up a particular instrument, of adding a little reverb — all these things can change the texture of a moment so much. Yet all of them are entirely beyond speech. There’s no way you can codify or even talk about them verbally. So they’re in that way puzzling but also entertaining. All you’re trying to do if you’re writing a song is make something beautiful in some way — at least something that some one can tap his or her foot to — maybe dance around the room or sing along with, that someone will respond in a positive way…

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

You can try this out and home. And you can look for inspiration to Nicholson Baker’s Protest Songs on YouTube.

Podcast • July 1, 2013

Qais Akbar Omar: What We Owe the Afghans

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood ...
Qais Akbar Omar's view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes.  The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 2006, in flight from the fighting in Kabul.

Qais Akbar Omar’s view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes. The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 1993 When he went back and took this photo in 2006, the Buddhas were gone.

qais omar akbar

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood in Heaven and a civil war in Hell. In the most exciting days of his life, we’re sharing his idyllic view of the Bamyan valley from the eyes of the giant Buddha statues, before the Taliban blew them up. Then come the breakdown years of holy gangsterism and grotesque cruelty. Alongside young Qais, we’re staring down mad dogs who mean to tear him apart — and a man, believe it or not, making ready to bite him to death.

Qais Akbar Omar was studying business at Brandeis University when we started our conversations a year ago. Since then he has entered Leslie Epstein’s graduate program in novel writing at Boston University. Rug making is the link, as it also underlies the “strategic patience” he is recommending to Americans in the world. His grandfather was a rug trader, but young Qais was the first in his line to learn the rug-maker’s knots. When he started writing his personal history, he started noticing “how words are like knots in a carpet. One connects to the next until several make a thought, the way knots make a pattern.” He speaks now of this first book, A Fort of Nine Towers, as “the most complex and difficult carpet I have ever woven.” Of the post-American Afghanistan emerging, he says: “I know it will take a long time. I am a carpet weaver. I know how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears.”

In all his adventures and in his cathartic recounting of horrific fear, pain and loss, Qais has absorbed and adopted the stoic voice of his beloved grandfather. Old man and teenager are held together at one point in a ditch filled with dead bodies, under a sign promising “you will not walk out alive.” His grandfather tells Qais to write an answer in charcoal on their cell wall: “Death only breaks the cage, but it does not hurt the bird.”

There’s a challenge in this tempered memoir of a people, a culture and a U.S. warzone we barely got to know: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart,” Qais writes. “Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.” For American readers the particular challenge, as I take it, is to look inward at the presumption and folly of our faraway military interventions. In this case: our appropriation of Afghanistan as a key battlefield of the Cold War.

Of the Americans’ long half-trillion-dollar engagement, direct and covert, for 30 years (his own lifetime) Qais Akbar Omar writes scathingly: “We are waiting to see what they will build, besides their military bases.” What Americans have not helped Afghans build is sewers, a electrical grid or clean-water systems. What we have not learned is the double lesson dealt to Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.: that the Pushtun tribesmen of the Central Asian mountains are not to be dominated by outsiders; and that they have their own venerable shuras and the loya jirga, or grand council, for managing their many differences.

“One thing Afghans talk about,” Omar is saying, “is that Europeans and Americans owe Afghanistan this much — to bring peace to this country for defeating the Soviets and ending the Cold War.”

The way it works in Afghanistan is that with the local shura or jirga you invite the head of the town or the heads of each tribe and you sit together in a big mosque. Whether it takes one day or one month you talk about things and you come to solutions, and go on to the next thing… Militarily you fight with them for centuries. And they fight back. Afghanistan is 75 percent mountain, and every Afghan who fights back believes he is a child of the mountain. How do you fight the mountain and its children? It just doesn’t work that way. The best way is the tradition of the jirga or shura. Where is the problem? Where is the solution everyone benefits from? And then let’s go for that.

Qais Akbar Omar in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 2013.

Podcast • May 12, 2013

William Dalrymple: Lessons Too Late on Afghanistan

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in ...

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in 2003 to the Bush team, then diverting its military fire to Iraq. But for the rest of us this gruesome tale, Return of a King, might have clarified the clichés about Afghanistan the graveyard of empires — and the abounding cruelties, waste, hatred and blowback that come with invading it.

For American readers, Dalrymple’s bloody, brilliant narrative of Britain’s greatest imperial catastrophe asks anew why our governments have followed the same arrogant course — how Britain can still be used to represent the lure of empire, not the sorrows and the price of empire. What if the rule had been: “wherever the US finds itself embroiled in a place with an English cemetery: go home!”

Podcast • March 18, 2013

David Bromwich: on the Rand Paul “Convergence”

 …During the Cold War we faced an enemy that could annihilate us, as we could annihilate them if there were a nuclear war. And yet we didn’t commit all of our resources to war. We ...

 …During the Cold War we faced an enemy that could annihilate us, as we could annihilate them if there were a nuclear war. And yet we didn’t commit all of our resources to war. We didn’t think of ourselves as a nation at war. Now we do, and it’s a terrible thing, and it’s not being talked about.

David Bromwich at Yale, in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 2013

David Bromwich is my favorite “close reader” of the American story in the Age of Obama. He’s the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, found also at HuffPo and the London Review of Books. His lens on politics is literary. Sweeping a wide horizon, his focus is on language, ideas, rhetoric and character. His biggest disappointment in the Obama years, he’s saying here, is the seal the president has place on “aberrational policies” initiated by George Bush and Dick Cheney — not (mercifully) including torture.

We’ve gone from massive invasion and bombing to this sort of selective, more antiseptic strategy of drone warfare. But the idea that we’re in a war — it’s not called the global war on terror anymore — but that we’re in a war; that the war is perhaps endless; and that serious, mature judgment should favor the intelligent tactics for prosecuting the war, rather than questioning it completely… What’s needed from people of any radically constitutional temper is to break that and do the sort of thing that Rand Paul lately urged, namely vote again on the authorization for the use of force from 2001…

RP filibusI came with questions about Senator Rand Paul’s electrifying impromptu filibuster against the Drone War. Were we getting a glimpse of the long-bruited “convergence” of rebel spirits “right and left” against the permanent war? The bridge between Rand Paul and Glenn Greenwald on drone warfare looks like the bridge Ralph Nader imagined with Rand’s father Ron Paul last year on state capitalism. Can Rand Paul’s words on the Senate floor bridge Tea Party and OCCUPY angers, over a stagnant mainstream?

Professor Bromwich saw more of Rand Paul’s 13-hour marathon than I did, with some of the same awe. Not since the Vietnam debates in the 1970s had we heard “a sustained performance of persuasive argument, whether you were persuaded or not.” And still we feel it’s what lawmakers ought to be able to do: master an issue and speak their convictions. “Most Americans under 50 can’t remember any such thing. Am I right?” Bromwich puzzled. “There’s no other living politician who has exemplified this ability — which seems native to and necessary to constitutional government.”

Like Senator Paul, David Bromwich could leave you asking: what’s not to argue about here?

My reaction to drone warfare is uncomplicated. I find it terrifying and I find it a portent of a future where total surveillance is combined with a possibility of violence occuring anywhere, any time, against victims chosen by a state, somewhere. That’s very close to Orwell’s image of a future…

What the distant “deciders” of death underestimate, in the Bromwich view, is the perspective of people on the ground.

What they don’t, I think, grasp is what it must be like for the relative, the mother, father, child, close friend, of somebody who’s suddenly hit by one of these missiles. The whole world is blasted. The person’s annihilated, not a scrap of him left. And it comes from the sky and you know it comes from the United States. I think the emotion, the passion that invades a person seeing that happen to someone you care for must be: murder in your heart. There must be a feeling so strong one can’t compare to what happens in a shooting war or even under massive bombing. It so specific, it seems so aimed, it seems so god-like, and it seems so evil.

This impact of drone warfare which has been testified to by civilians in Pakistan, by tribesmen in Pakistan and elsewhere, just doesn’t seem to hit home with Americans. But I think in a funny way that sympathy with it was reflected in the filibuster we saw a few days ago. And it may awaken people a little bit. One of the things we Americans are worst at is sympathizing with the casualties we inflict. This is true of Vietnam and Iraq — where in Vietnam we killed, who knows, 2-millions and upward; in Iraq, a half million or a million. And yet, no talk about it. No talk about it, ever! But individuate it to the one person, the woman or man who sees a member of their family, or a close friend, blown up like that by a drone. I think that could strike people.

That kind of shooting seems to me utterly corrupting of American morale, and to encourage a kind of violence so abstract and so remote one can’t even see what a future humanity would be like that followed this example.

David Bromwich at Yale, in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 2013

And of course, David Bromwich is invoking also the subject of his biography-in-progress, Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), the great Irish Whig in England’s Parliament. Friend of the American Revolution, scourge of the French, Burke was the patron saint of William F. Buckley’s conservative revival back in the day. But as the ferocious prosecutor of Warren Hastings for the predatory crimes of the East India Company in India, Burke could serve again as a paragon of the coming convergence. Burke stood, as David Bromwich is reminding me, for the restraint of power, for empire as “a generous partnership with other peoples,” for “a natural equality of mankind at large” and for a code of imperial justice to enforce it.

Podcast • November 7, 2012

Nadia Khiari’s “Willis in Tunis”: Born Again in Revolution

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nadia Khiari (7 min, 5.1 meg) TUNIS — Nadia Khiari is considering my question: what’s the artist’s job in a revolution? She was a successful French-schooled painter when ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nadia Khiari (7 min, 5.1 meg)

TUNIS — Nadia Khiari is considering my question: what’s the artist’s job in a revolution? She was a successful French-schooled painter when the “Jasmin Revolution” caught fire in Tunisia in January last year. Her graffiti and political cartoons have gone viral on the Web since then, in the voice of her cat, “Willis in Tunis.” She has stopped painting altogether.

“For me it’s not a job. It’s a freedom. Like I’m being born. Before the revolution, I was a zombie. I think, but I cannot express myself. So I didn’t feel like I was alive. With the revolution I was born, like a baby. My first screaming was my drawing. And now for me its a revolution in my art, totally. I can finally express myself and say what I think and criticize the government. For me I can finally do my passion: cartoons.”

Nadia Khiari “Willis in Tunis” – Born Again in Revolution from BicycleMark on Vimeo.

“Willis in Tunis” claws at the Islamist Ennahdhu party that dominates the new parliament elected last fall. Nadia doubts the government’s sincerity and its competence, but not that the revolution is still moving. “It’s not finished, it’s the beginning… We all have to learn what is democracy, how to have democracy in our own families — the father, the mother, the children, and then in the country. We lived 50 years in a dictatorship, so we will not learn in one year what is freedom of speech, what is freedom of mind, what is freedom of women. We are building it. It will take time. I am optimistic.”

Nadia is making connections (as Amin Maalouf did) between families and nations in the inner life of this “Arab Spring,” coming up on its second anniversary. “I know in my family, I had restrictions. My education was strict, but I knew that my family loved me. In this situation now the government wants to put restrictions, but I don’t think they love me…”

Will Tunisians fight for their freedom if it’s tested? “Yes, sure. You know, freedom is something so incredible. We all discover it. From one day to the other we were totally free and we could speak in the streets, in the cafe, of political things, and criticize the government and everything. And it is so good. So it will be very, very difficult to take it back. I don’t think — if they want — they could close our mouth…”

We thank her, and she shouts “Banzai!” as if to say, Hurrah for the Revolution.

Podcast • October 20, 2012

Roger Owen on the Arab Revolution: Year Two… of Ten

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Roger Owen(25 min, 15 meg) Roger Owen is giving us a framework for our conversational plunge next month into North Africa and the “Arab Spring,” coming up on ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with
Roger Owen(25 min, 15 meg)

Roger Owen is giving us a framework for our conversational plunge next month into North Africa and the “Arab Spring,” coming up on its second birthday. Better to speak of the “Arab revolution,” he begins. Tahrir Square marked an historic surge of people power led by the young, to transform a whole society “root and branch,” as well as a way of government.

“We’re in Year 2,” he says, with 5 or 10 more to resolve contradictions and colossal tensions between kids who started the revolt and Muslim Brothers who rode it into power. It’s not been a bloody convulsion to compare with 1789 in France, but neither was it mere springtime effervescence like the student revolts in Paris, 1968. Tough tyrants have fallen, but in Egypt notably, it’s history still in the making — a devilishly complicated struggle among the “deep state,” the Army and government bureaucracies, the Islamic tendency and the cosmopolitan elite in a massively poor country.

Roger Owen is the Harvard eminence on Middle East history and politics. He speaks with the Oxford accent of an old British hand in the Arab Mediterranean. His new book details The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. Think Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya and Assad next, presumably, in Syria. And still the new patterns of Arab politics and culture are in formation and in doubt.

I am asking him if we’re looking broadly at a second anti-colonial wave against the West — a revolt in Egypt particularly against U. S. overlordship. “You could say that the Tahrir Revolution (February 2011) is a kind of completion of the 1952 (Nasser) Revolution,” he had remarked earlier. But there’s no simple cycle at work. 1952 was a colonels’ revolt to liberate Egypt from King Farouk and British domination. Tahrir Square was supposed to liberate the Egyptians to choose their own constitution and be involved in their own politics. The wider world has changed meantime. The Soviet Union, which befriended Nasser, is gone — and with it the appeal of Big Projects and heavy industry. Egypt is tuned to other ideas of modernization.

“Egypt is a wonderful place,” Professor Owen is saying, “very confident in its Egyptian-ness. But they’re also aware they’ve never really sat down and worked out their place in the world. They’ve always said ‘no’ to certain kinds of things: ‘we don’t want to be ruled.’ But what is Egypt for? That’s up for grabs.”

We leave in 2 weeks for a listening tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Beirut on a project we’re calling Arab Artists in the Revolution, with thanks to our Kickstarter backers. We’ll be blogging and podcasting as we go, and gathering conversations for material for a broadcast series this winter. If you have leads, comments, suggestions or introductions, please post them here.

Podcast • October 7, 2012

Pankaj Mishra: Briefing our “Foreign Policy” Debate

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Pankaj Mishra with Chris Lydon, October 1, 2012

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