Podcast • October 1, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917 – 2012: In Memoriam

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

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

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

Dear Chris,

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

All the best,

Thanks,

Eric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CL: And why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast • September 8, 2012

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

Mary McGrath photo Ralph Nader on Main Street can still see the flatbed trucks hauling textile machinery out of his hometown in the 1950s, his high school years. The work of Winsted and New England ...
Mary McGrath photo

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 2, 2012

Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture : A Different Country Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast • July 11, 2012

Chris Hayes: Smart Guy against the “Smart Guys”

Part of what makes the strange disorienting nature of our time is that the old institutions have been discredited but remain in power. The people who run them remain in power. There’s been the discrediting ...

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

Chris Hayes with Chris Lydon at Rockefeller Center, July 9, 2012
Chris Hayes has done a 180 on Groucho Marx, who said he wouldn’t join a club that would have him as a member. Chris Hayes has rushed the media elite that he knows is sinking. He won’t save it alone, of course, but he’s a temptation or maybe a model for wary 30-somethings like himself, for people who’ve stopped listening to anyone in authority. A great deal of his book Twilight of the Elites and of our conversation is fixed on his own mixed emotions about being the “it” boy in a dubious game and a bad time — in the “fail decade,” as he calls the opening era of his adulthood. He seems to be writing and living out a warning to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast • April 24, 2012

Andrew Bacevich: Here’s who Lost the American Century!

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall ...

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. I take it personally, still with a pang — seeing the American glory days of my boyhood through rose-tinted glasses, Bacevich tells me. But I might also date our downfall much earlier than Bacevich does — in 1971, one could argue, the year when the cosmopolitan giant of our journalism Walter Lippmann, stricken by the heedless slaughter in Vietnam, declared: “I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.”

I’ve always told my kids that the American Century could be summed up on two fingers: (1) the timely and decisive — late! — entry of US fighting forces into the European War; and (2) the sound of Count Basie’s band. You can still hear in the Basie recordings: the rhythm of our industrial production, the cultural glory of the great black migration out of the South, not to mention the transnational chic of Basie’s big hit in 1955, “April in Paris,” written by the Russian-American Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky. Now there was American power! What happened?

If the erosion of “social democracy” is the great lament of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, which prompted this series of conversations, it’s the want of “pragmatic realism” in American foreign policy that binds the eight striking essays Andrew Bacevich has gathered into The Short American Century. Jackson Lears contributes the definition of pragmatic realism, from William James, as the tradition that, “at its best, counseled war only as the last resort — the least desirable alternative in the policy maker’s arsenal.” Others recount the decline of our postwar multi-lateralism — remember the Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and NATO — and the eclipse, especially under George W. Bush, of Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” And meantime our Empire of Production became an Empire of Consumption, then of trillion-dollar deficits, an Empire of Debt.

Andrew Bacevich likes to describe himself as a conservative Catholic from the Midwest. He is a West Pointer who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Long before his son and namesake was killed in action in the Iraq War, Bacevich had taken his history Ph.D. at Princeton and embarked on a series of studies of The Limits of Power and American Militarism — of the arrogance of empire, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the spirit of the “Who lost China?” nagging in the McCarthy era, I am asking him simply: “Who lost our Century?”

I’d probably nominate the post-Cold War presidents as a group — for the remilitarization of American foreign policy. Reagan’s role, of course, is to revise the image of the American military and the American soldier — in a sense to banish the negative image from Vietnam. George Herbert Walker Bush’s contribution was to inaugurate a new era of interventionism — in Panama certainly, in the first Persian Gulf War, but also not to be forgotten, in Somalia — his going-away gift to the nation. But I would very much then include Bill Clinton in my list of villains, because it is really during the Clinton era — this draft-dodger of the Vietnam era who seemed to represent the inverse of the militarist. But it’s Bill Clinton who becomes more promiscuous in his use of American military power than any preceding American president: upping the ante in Somalia; intervention in Haiti, intervention in Bosnia, intervention in Kosovo, any number of dust-ups with Saddam Hussein… That’s the circumstance that George W. Bush inherits, and I certainly don’t want to let him off the hook. But to understand the hubris of George W. Bush’s vision of a “global war on terror” that is going to liberate the Islamic world — that vision is rooted in expectations about the efficacy of military power that grew out of the Clinton years and the years when his father was president. So all these people, I think, should plead guilty to the charge of abusing and misusing American military power and accelerating the end of the American Century…

The pattern continues. The expectation of the people who voted for Obama — and that certainly includes me — was that his ascendance would mark a break in the trajectory of ever-increasing emphasis on military power to try to sustain what remains of the American Century. And he has been a major disappointment. Now he would say: hey, I promised to end the Iraq War, and I ended it. I would respond: Yes, Mr. President, but in addition you both expanded and prolonged the Aghanistan war; you extended the Afghan war into Pakistan. You opened up new fronts in this supposed global war on terror — in Yemen, in Somalia. A couple of weeks ago there was a drone strike in the Philippines…

That hard experience and candor haven’t made it to the presidential campaign where, as Jackson Lears writes, “The vision of the American Century persists, even as its economic basis crumbles.” To Andrew Bacevich, we look like a chicken just after it’s lost its head.

We are running around the world using hard power in questionable circumstances, yielding ambiguous results. And meanwhile here at home we’ve had five years, is it, of trillion-dollar deficits. The American Century is running on fumes at this point.

Andrew Bacevich with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 20, 2012

Next round: Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Why Nations Fail on the political structure of inequality.

Podcast • April 3, 2012

Daisy Rockwell and the Iconography of Terror

Daisy Rockwell is making sport with the icons of terror, rattling the cage of images we’re in. She’s a painter who tweets — who’s becoming famous and controversial for her artful irreverence online and her ...

Daisy Rockwell is making sport with the icons of terror, rattling the cage of images we’re in. She’s a painter who tweets — who’s becoming famous and controversial for her artful irreverence online and her written commentary in The Little Book of Terror. In her studio in Lebanon, New Hampshire, I’m looking and listening and feeling, finally — Bravo! Shame on us if we can’t take the joke.

Daisy Rockwell is a portraitist whose subjects are dead, generally remembered for mug-shot images. One of her takes on Saddam Hussein is a painter’s improvisation on a news photo of the late Iraqi dictator in the hands of American dentists. “He wasn’t actually wearing that clownish nightgown; I just put that in there. But the rest of it is truthful,” she says, reconsidering “a masterful piece of propaganda” in the original that said: we’re giving him the best dental care in the world! with the coded message that we’re torturing him. He’s getting a root canal, she supposes, “with a little too little anesthesia.”

Her painting of Osama Bin Laden’s death mask draws on her fascination with the gruesome beauty of medieval Italian paintings — of crucifixions and beheadings. “I was interested in the idea that pictures of people in death are seen differently depending on who’s looking: to some people it might be triumphant blood lust, to others it’s a scene of martyrdom.” Daisy Rockwell’s last glimpse of OBL suggests a Russian icon — if not of a saint, perhaps of a wan old man waving a helpless goodbye at a killer force of US Navy Seals who will riddle him with bullets and dump him in the sea. It’s a commentary on overkill.

For many Americans it has taken the horror story of Army Sergeant Robert Bales in Afghanistan last month to focus the point that we ask such different questions about “our” killing sprees and “theirs.” When one of our own (“Our Bobby” back in hometown Ohio) runs amok and wastes 16 unarmed Afghan villagers, our serious media show us his high-school yearbook and query whether a good soldier was unhinged by drink or grief or too many tours of duty, or “just snapped.” A raggedy-bearded Muslim terrorist, or suspect, can be classified by his picture alone as a religious maniac, a hater, a personification of evil. Daisy Rockwell’s modest project is to apply concentrated curiosity, imagination and a certain bleak humor to every face she studies. “I look as hard as I can at somebody. I have to get to know them. My research findings are the painting. What you see is what I got out of it.”

In the sometimes fierce reactions to her work, it’s is part of the story that Daisy inherited both her name and a gift for iconic imagery from her grandfather. Norman Rockwell is remembered for enshrining mid-century American contentment and small-town goodness in the brilliant anecdotes he painted on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. Daisy is dug in against the grain of a different era, maybe a different country. Looking at her story-telling brushwork, I feel both continuity and defiance. But then Daisy suggests with a laugh that we knew all along that Norman Rockwell — the man his analyst Erik Erikson said “painted his happiness, but did not live it” — was not quite as simple as the stories he told.

There’s more continuity than even I would originally have thought. I paint portraits. I’m interested in the Zeitgeist — that kind of thing… Norman Rockwell is hugely symbolic in American culture. His name is an adjective. People say: ‘oh, they have such a Norman Rockwell family.’ In fact I was in the locker room of the gym shortly after Christmas and I heard a woman say: ‘Every year I invite my family over the holidays and I expect Norman Rockwell’s family. But instead they come.’ And then she said on second thought as she walked away, ‘but then I expect his family was just as bad.’ … I’m not being a disloyal grandchild by painting terrorists. I’m just looking at the imagery we’re being presented and questioning it.

Daisy Rockwell with Chris Lydon in Lebanon, New Hampshire. March 26, 2012

Norman Rockwell’s Post cover ‘Freedom from Fear’ 1943

Podcast • October 3, 2011

Amitav Ghosh and his addictive empire trilogy

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Amitav Ghosh (35 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Amitav Ghosh — Indian born and educated, at home in New York — is our epic novelist of empire, then and ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Amitav Ghosh (35 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Amitav Ghosh — Indian born and educated, at home in New York — is our epic novelist of empire, then and now. River of Smoke is part two of his trilogy on Opium, the narcotic fuel of the British Empire in the 19th Century. Reading it, you have to wonder if he isn’t writing by loose analogy about Oil, trade and world domination in the 21st Century, too. About us, that is.

An aggressive imperial theology of “freedom” and free trade is among his links or parallelisms. In River of Smoke, opium trader Ben Burnham is sanctifying Britain’s mid-19th Century Opium Wars that forced Indian opium and mass addiction on China:

“It is not my hand that passes sentence upon those who choose the indulgence of opium. It is the work of another invisible, omnipotent; it is the hand of freedom; of the market, of the spirit of liberty itself, which is none other than the breath of God.”

Just yesterday it seems, George W. Bush was justifying the US invasion of Iraq:

“God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.”

Three years ago Amitav Ghosh told me he’d written Sea of Poppies (2008), first in the novel series, in a fury against Bush’s war. He wrote River of Smoke in Obama time, and still he is playing with resonances between centuries and characters, real and conjured. In conversation again, I’m presuming to suggest I can see what he’s up to: he’s keeping an anthropologist’s wide-angle diary on 2011 and transposing much of it back into a Melvillian setting on the high seas and in the traders’ quarter of Canton around 1838.

In the Age of Obama, the war rhetoric is cooler but the wars go on. So the new book is full of mixed bloods and cultural crossings. The main character is a Indian Parsi named Bahram (not Barack), but like Barack he’s driven by ambition into the muck and mire of his trade even if his heart isn’t in it. Bahram is the first brown man in the all-white Chamber of Commerce in Canton, which doesn’t finally accept the outsider. He’s a very decent man who introspects on the morality of selling dope and seems about to renounce it when he puts himself into a deep opium dream and …

Amitav Ghosh is up to much else, including endless delicious variations on creole dishes and pidgin phrasings — the hybridization of peoples and cultures in an earlier round of globalization. China is a central preoccupation in River of Smoke, as it is in our world of 2011. One class of Ghosh’s English cast is pushing opium on China. But there’s another great enterpriser, Fitcher Penrose, who’s making a lively business getting plants out of China for commercial development in England. Azaleas, chrysanthemums, wisteria, hydrangeas, and many more flowering plants originated in China, plus rhubarb; and there’s a fantasy cure-all Golden Camellia that Penrose & Co. are hunting down -– all to suggest the fabulous breadth and depth of China’s historical-cultural treasure. Then and now, Amitav Ghosh seems to be asking how we will come to see China not as a faceless mass of people, or as a factory, but as a civilization.

Podcast • May 19, 2011

Simon Schama: this “imperial calamity” we inherited

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no ...

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no way out, he seems to conclude — no relief from the burdens and sorrows of empire. I am wondering: what teaches a great power that its time is running out? “Bankruptcy!” he exclaims, about the British experience. In the American struggle with strategic decline, Schama says, there will be no silencing the “neurotic insistence” on American exceptionalism, and no cure for “the testosterone of fury.”

“Obama’s whole project, which is incredibly difficult to bring off, is basically to be the manager of declining expectations. Now you can’t go to the hustings and say to the people: my plan for the future of the Great American Republic is that we become more ordinary, that we run foreign policy on the cheap, and have a humble posture in the world. You really have to educate the American public in a more realistic way about what’s possible in the American future — but not in an election year. As we say, good luck on that, mate.”

My other country is a small island, 60 million population. It took a long time — I grew up in a period of declinism, really, where we got used to runs on the pound, botched fiascos — a long, bloody, somber education in our limitations. But there was something always about the British temper that was historically ironic. At least when I grew up, notwithstanding the gorgeousness of Churchillian rhetoric, there was also the sense that history is a kind of tableau of the tragic irony of overreach; even Thucydides saw that.

Irony is in very short supply on Capitol Hill, and it’s regarded as a kind of jaded, European admission of defeat. We’ve got back now to our founding fathers. The only figure among the great founding fathers who had no problem with irony at the same time as he had no problem about envisioning a great continental democratic future was of course the peerless Benjamin Franklin, who did put all those things together in an un-defensive way. And we’ve just blocked that ever since.

I suspect I’ll be long since gone to the buttercups and the tombs of my fathers, but in the end — and I guess the question is more about imperial Rome — we will simply, over a long period of time, become accustomed to our limitations. And at some point in the future there will be some Edward Gibbon sitting in the ruins, meditating on the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, and nailing it.

Simon Schama with Chris Lydon at Columbia University in NYC, May 12, 2011.

Podcast • April 29, 2011

Maya Jasanoff: This Empire We Inherited

Maya Jasanoff is letting me lay down my how-did-we-become-an-empire obsessions before a rising star among imperial historians. She teaches the Harvard course on the British Empire. William Dalrymple calls her “a bit of a genius” ...
Maya Jasanoff is letting me lay down my how-did-we-become-an-empire obsessions before a rising star among imperial historians. She teaches the Harvard course on the British Empire. William Dalrymple calls her “a bit of a genius” for her big new book Liberty’s Exiles — representative tales of the 60,000 English loyalists who fled the independent United States after 1783 and remade Britain’s fortunes around the world in a century-plus of glory. My questions are: how did we Americans — with anti-imperialism in our revolutionary roots, in our sentimental DNA — let ourselves in for the burdens and sorrows of empire, the corruption and disrepute of empire? And what should we suppose is our chance of escaping the fate of empires?

The start of Professor Jasanoff’s answer is that global ambition, maybe hubris, were written into the American story, into Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty,” from the beginning. The end of it is that the United States — assuming the British mantle in the 20th Century, fighting on old British battlegrounds (Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt) in the 21st — finds itself now roughly where Britain was in 1900, Boer War time. That is: powerful, wounded, demoralized, rightly worried about a gathering of forces against us and perhaps even a cataclysm of World War I proportions.

She does not like my polar cartoons of the British empire — which gave the world Shakespeare, Milton and the rules of law and commerce in, say, Niall Ferguson‘s fond fancy; or else “the worst war crime in the history of the species,” as David Rieff once put it to me. The real pity of the American empire, she’s saying, is that half-wit slogans — “freedom” and “democracy” — for military and oil adventures have made cynics of us all about what a privileged society might share with others. It’s another sad difference between the American and British Empires, Maya Jasanoff notes, that we do not believe in our mission enough to debate it, or call it by its proper name.

I think the divergence between rhetoric and reality is much greater for us now. I think that what we’ve really forgotten here is that being a republican nation-state is not incompatible with being an empire, that in the era of our founding, being an empire was what America aspired to. Now we tend to dupe ourselves by saying we’re a great democracy, we’re a great republic, we’re promoting that around the world, when plainly our own democracy is very much in trouble and plainly our role in the world is not quite as benign as we like to think.

In Britain there were always the critics, there were always people challenging empire, there were also always the people lauding imperial intervention. But I don’t think anyone would be in disagreement about the fact that Britain was an empire, that Britain was involved around he world in these ways, that this was central to what being British was being about. And I think that there’s a kind of honesty in that, for all its bleakness if you don’t like the idea of empire. I think you have to applaud the kind of honesty that goes into saying this is who we are and this is what we’re doing. It allows for a degree of public debate and engagement with what it means to be an empire that we are really lacking in America right now.

Maya Jasanoff with Chris Lydon at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, April 28, 2011.

Podcast • March 1, 2011

Parag Khanna: Why Nobody Runs the World

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3) Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3)

Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three years ago that the United States’ “unipolar moment” had expired in the ruins of Iraq. Who Shrank the Superpower? was the cover headline on Khanna’s debut in the New York Times Sunday Magazine — counting on top of military costs the loss of American moral and economic “soft power” in the era of George W. Bush’s unilateralism. Globalization, as Parag Khanna argued in his first book, The Second World, had become a three-way street, meaning that aspiring peoples between the “first” and “third” world (think: Venezuela, Turkey, Kazakhstan) had the choice now of modernizing with the financial and technical help of (1) the U.S. (2) China or (3) Europe– and that the American route was looking less and less attractive.

The title of Khanna’s new book, How to Run the World was slapped on with deepest irony, or perhaps cynically for the airport racks, because it suggests the opposite of his essential point: that power in the world has devolved into a possibly benign anarchy as in the Middle Ages — that what looked like a “unipolar” world at the end of the Cold War has become not so much a “multipolar” as a “heteropolar” system today. The power of states (and the United States) continues to ebb, and the non-state actors include a mismatching multitude of impulses and institutions, public and private — including the stateless statesman George Soros, the Arab money pool known as Dubai, Cameron Sinclair and his Architects for Humanity, the Catholic Church and Al Qaeda. Nobody runs a networked world, and nobody is about to:

We still accord this privileged status, intellectually or otherwise, to the nation, the state, the territorial, that bounded geographic unit, as if, if and when a terrorist group or a company really does become as important as a state it would become a state. That’s not true at all. We are in a trans-national, trans-territorial sort of space globally, in which Royal Dutch Shell is perfectly happy not being a state as such. It has a global footprint and global operations. The Gates Foundation does not have to be a state to influence policies of hundreds of countries when it comes to public health. George Soros calls himself very proudly a stateless statesman, because of the diplomacy that he conducts everywhere on behalf of the causes that he holds dear.

So to me the idea that something is becoming like a state is a linear projection, a teleological assumption that more power means becoming more like a state. That’s not what the new Middle Ages, as I’m calling it, is really going to look like. Religious groups and religious actors, even those in the world of Islam who want a global caliphate, are really thinking much more about spreading that geography and community of belief, more than they’re thinking about what straight-line borders are they going to put down on a map. So I think we have to be very imaginative about what forms about identity and power are going to shape the 21st Century and focus ever less on just who is a state and who is not a state. …

Parag Khanna in conversation with Chris Lydon.