Podcast • September 17, 2010

Andrew Bacevich: how war without end became the rule

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Andrew Bacevich (43 minutes, 20 mb mp3) Andrew Bacevich is the soldier turned writer who’s still unlearning and puncturing the Washington Rules of national security. The rules have ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Andrew Bacevich (43 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Andrew Bacevich is the soldier turned writer who’s still unlearning and puncturing the Washington Rules of national security. The rules have turned into doctrines, he’s telling us, of global war forever. He is talking about the scales that have fallen from the eyes of a slow learner, as he calls himself — a dutiful, conformist Army officer who woke up at the end of the Cold War twenty years ago to the thought that the orthodoxy he’d accepted was a sham.

Andrew Bacevich’s military career ran from West Point to Vietnam to the first Gulf War in 1991. The short form of the story he’s been writing for a decade now is: how unexamined failure in Vietnam became by today a sort of repetition compulsion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington Rules is Andrew Bacevich’s fourth book in a project to unmask American empire, militarism, over-reach and what sustains them.

Podcast • September 16, 2010

Arianna Huffington: who will change the conversation?

Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America ...

Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America to ask her, as queen of the media transformation: why does our public chatter in a campaign year sound so idiotic? So full of mis- and dis-information, so full of untethered rage?

We got into it by way of Edmund Burke, the 18th Century’s great conservative English Parliamentarian who put the worst malefactors of the British Empire (the Cheneys, Rumsfelds and Bushes of his time) on trial.

CL: You mention Burke… I didn’t realize we were on the same fan-page, but Edmund Burke is to me the missing voice in America today. He believed in empire, but in responsible empire — empire that cared as much for Indian people and Indian prosperity and Indian welfare as it cared for the English…

AH: America is in many ways acting like a declining empire. If you look at Afghanistan for example, only a declining empire with a perverse sense of priorities would be spending hundreds of billions of dollars conducting a war which is unwinnable, which is not in our national security interests … I quote Arnold Toynbee in the book, who said that empires more often die because they commit suicide rather than from murder. Imagine what would happen if that 2 billion dollars a week that we’re spending in Afghanistan were brought here to help rebuild the country and get jobs for people and rebuild our infrastructure. You mentioned Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. There’s no question that the fundamental mistake the Obama White House made was to appoint people whose view of the world was so Wall Street-centric to run economic policy. It was a little bit like having pre-Gallilean people, who believe that everything revolves around the earth, produce navigation maps. It wasn’t going to work, the ships were going to sink.

CL: I want to ask you the media question. Who are we going to believe to tell us this story? Who’s going to confirm in a kind of fundamental American narrative that we’re in the gravest risk of facing a kind of terminal imperial moment?

AH: Well, it’s not a Who. You see that is really what is different. That’s a very important question, because what is different is that we’re not waiting for some Walter Cronkite voice to tell us this is how it is. This is what is new and what is exciting: we all have to tell the story. We all have to tell the story of our time, and people are saying it online. So our job is to collect these thousands of stories and create a mosaic.

CL: I do want Walter Cronkite in a way to announce this. I still want the gods of my youth — Walter Lippmann, and James Reston, and page one of the New York Times — to confirm what we all know, but know in isolation. I’m still looking for a figure that’s vaguely authoritative, in touch with the historical narrative, with a base broader than one, who also can write commanding prose. I want someone not just to tell a story on a video screen, but to change the overall narrative. The overall narrative that people say is going to prevail in the elections this fall is that we’re taxed too much, that the government takes our money and throws it away, or that Obama’s a Muslim, or that some guy in the South wants to burn the Koran. We are awash in these basically idiotic narratives that are fundamentally out of touch.

AH: Chris, Chris, Chris, let me hold your hand. Get over it. There isn’t going to be a Walter Cronkite to tell us how it is.

CL: There is one, and his name is Glenn Beck —

AH: No, that’s the point. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement is responding to the incredible abuse of power by our establishments. Their response is potentially dangerous, but there is a lot of legitimate anger out there… If you scratch the surface of whatever the Tea Partiers are saying, underneath it is this incredible anger at the bailout. Right now, there are going to be two forces: the Tea Party response, which very often becomes anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, basically the scapegoating that we’ve seen throughout history. And then there can be a constructive response. Yes, the system is screwed up, we need to try and fix the system, while we’re fixing it we need to see what can we do in our own communities, in our own families, to turn things around. If we don’t do that, we are basically ceding the future to the forces of anger that are really creating these idiotic narratives to make sense of what has happened in their lives.

Arianna Huffington with Chris Lydon at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, September 13, 2010

Podcast • October 19, 2009

Chris Hedges: Requiem for the Reading Republic

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. When I got to the New York Times (some years before Chris Hedges) in the late Sixties, Alden Whitman had the bad news moniker, writing obits of great figures for the paper of record. When Alden Whitman knocked on your door for a long interview about your life, you were supposed to know it was almost over. It’s Chris Hedges’s gig now, observing all of us. After most of 20 years as a war correspondent with the Times, Chris Hedges in 2003 charged his paper and others with “shameful cheerleading” for the war in Iraq, and left to study up again on ancient history, theology and classic literature, and to write his own classic, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. In his new jeremiad, Empire of Illusion, pro wrestling and pornography are the bookend spectacles in a parody culture all around us now — the grotesque joke representations of power and eros in the end times. I find these resonant arguments, from the rare daily-news ace who’s trained himself also in the long view:

To believe somehow that we are the culmination, that time is linear, that we are progressing morally, is to ignore human history and human nature, and essentially to remain in a state of infantilism. That’s what illusion is about. If we had an understanding of what the dying days, the twilight hours of great civilizations were like we would be able to see all the flashing lights, the warning signs around us. But I think that the illiteracy which has gripped the country (a third of this country is either illiterate, or is technically literate but doesn’t read anymore); that shift from a print based culture into an image based culture, the belief that how we are made to feel is a form of knowledge, propaganda being a kind of ideology — these are the hallmarks of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are image based, spectacle based states.

We have set the ground for a seamless transfer from a democracy into a kind of corporate state. With the corporate state always comes the rise of the surveillance or the security state. We lack the capacity, having been unmoored from print, and relying on skillfully manipulated images, to fight back… We see it in the environmental crisis; we are literally destroying the ecosystem that sustains the human species; the gap widens between the illusion of the world we think we live in, and the reality of that world.  What you’ve done is render huge segments of the population into a kind of childishness which makes them emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unprepared for what it is they are about to face. They will react like all children, which is to reach out for demagogues who promise a new glory, vengeance and moral renewal.

CL: What survives of American hegemony if in fact it’s over?

CH: Well, it is over. We can’t continue to borrow, to sustain either a level of consumption or the empire that we demand. It’s just a question of when, and how do we respond. I don’t think learning to live without the piles of junk that have been bequeathed to us by consumer culture is going to impoverish our lifestyle. I don’t think that learning a new humility as empire is dismantled is a negative. We will have to learn another language other than the language of force by which we speak to most of the rest of the world, certainly those in the Middle East. It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of hope or a life of meaning or a life of richness; it just means a different kind of life. The danger is not grasping this reality. That’s the danger. if we’re not prepared for this reality, if we continue to live as the most delusional nation on the planet, than we we will end up like Yugoslavia. The war in Yugoslavia was caused by the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia — it vomited up figures like Slobodan Milosevic; the Weimar republic did the same; did the collapse of Czarist Russia…

What remains? I think that unfortunately American culture (or cultures, for we once had many cultures with their own iconography and aesthetic, and a decentralized press that gave expression to local communities) was dismantled and destroyed in the 20th century and replaced with mass corporate culture… The drive of corporate culture was to implant the need for consumption as a kind of inner compulsion. Drawing on Freud, it was about manipulating people, appealing to subliminal desires and anxieties, often creating those anxieties, to fuel a kind of wild orgy of consumable products that were supposed to sort of ameliorate our alienation and atomization and loneliness and despair. And all of that is falling down around us. And yet we haven’t recognized that reality. It’s not unique. There’s that emotional incapacity to understand how fragile the world is around us and how rapidly it can disintegrate. I think having been a war correspondent, and having lived in societies that did disintegrate, I’m much more conscious. I can walk in my supermarket and imagine all the windows knocked out and the shelves bare and the neon lights hanging, because I’ve seen it. There’s that dual capacity to see how swiftly and quickly any society can collapse.

CL: We elected a president who promised literally a kind of transformation. I don’t want to to argue Obama politics, so much as just to ask: is transformation an illusion?

CH: Well, we elected a brand. We elected a presidential candidate who campaigned, like his rival, primarily on a personal narrative. You had rallies where people were chanting slogans like “yes we can,” which they stole by the way from FedEx-Kinko’s. It was campaign by experience: it was a very effective way of making us feel a certain way about a candidate. But Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state anymore than George W. Bush threatened the core of the corporate state.  That has been more than evidenced by Obama’s willingness to continue the looting of the American treasury, the largest transference of wealth upwards in American history. In the 17th century in England, speculators were hung. In our society they are given tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, and they run the government.

Chris Hedges in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 8, 2009.

Podcast • August 28, 2009

Jackson Lears: on Obama’s Sorrows of Empire

Jackson Lears‘ cultural history, Rebirth of a Nation, from the Civil War to World War One, is the flip side of Louis Menand’s dazzling take on the same period, The Metaphysical Club (2001). Menand wrote ...


Jackson Lears‘ cultural history, Rebirth of a Nation, from the Civil War to World War One, is the flip side of Louis Menand’s dazzling take on the same period, The Metaphysical Club (2001).

Menand wrote about the invention of Pragmatism. What became known as the American philosophy was conceived deliberately as an antidote to the unbridled passions that had just taken more than 600,000 American lives and nearly broke the Union.

Lears is writing about the war virus that survived the pragmatists’ “cure.”

Menand’s heroes were Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and John Dewey.

In Lears’ rueful reconsideration of the story, Teddy Roosevelt reemerges as the poster-face of the era: the first captain of American empire and true ancestor of the bathetic George W. Bush.

The first Gilded Age and its lingering effects are almost reducible to a contest of ideas and temperaments between a great teacher and his student who became a giant president.

“Unless we keep the barbarian virtues,” Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1899, “gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”

William James, who’d tutored Roosevelt at Harvard, made precisely the opposite point in The Moral Equivalent of War (1910) : that the claw-and-fang ferocity that bred the species was now undoing us. “And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the sciences of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity.”

Vice President Roosevelt promoted the US war in the Philippines (1899 – 1902), then as President inherited the waging of it.

James — in league with Mark Twain, Samuel Gompers, Andrew Carnegie and others — denounced America’s colonial venture, anticipating the over-the-top curses of President Obama’s onetime pastor in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright. “God dam the U.S. for its vile conduct” in the Philippines, said James, our greatest public intellectual. American intervention would destroy “the one sacred thing in the world, the spontaneous budding of a national life” among the Filipinos. “We can destroy their ideals, but we can’t give them ours.”

But this story of the two cordial enemies, Professor James and President Roosevelt, is just a piece of the contest over Republic and Empire, as old as the European settlement of the continent: were we to be a city on a hill, or an empire of liberty? It is an argument that raged recently through the punditry around the war in Iraq, with Paul Krugman, Jon Stewart, Gore Vidal and Andrew Bacevich in what could be called (but never is) the Party of the Republic, and Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Robert Kagan and Tom Friedman in the Party of Empire. It is a story as current today as Barack Obama’s difficulty reconciling the health of the people (call it: healthcare for all) and extended war in Afghanistan.

Jackson Lears explains that he undertook his new book “in sadness and anger” in 2003, asking why Americans keep talking themselves into faraway wars of choice – to wit: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – knowing the horrific price in blood and treasure and reputation. Lears’ answer took him back more than a century to an American longing for regeneration after the Civil War: it’s a longing to start over, maybe to be born again, one-by-one and as a nation, to exercise a manly, muscular Christianity, with a wispy wish that maybe war makes us stronger, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

In our conversation, Lears’ answer extends to a melancholy reflection on the Obama doldrums of August, 2009:

JL: Like a lot of other people, I was moved profoundly by the victory of Obama. Moved to tears, in fact, about the sense of possibility that this seemed to restore. I kept thinking about the term ‘deliverance’ — I thought of this as a deliverance from a nightmarish period in our history, and a period where really there had been a kind of unfolding coup d’etat, [the Bush administration] running roughshod over civil liberties and certainly the republican tradition. And Obama seemed to promise, certainly in his campaign rhetoric, a fundamental departure from the kind of imperial abuses that Bush and company had specialized in and had deployed so effectively and relentlessly while they were in power. Obama seemed to promise deliverance. That was the word that came to mind for me. And regeneration, of course, along with that.

CL: You’re putting a lot of those Obama hopes in the past tense…

JL: I don’t see the kind of leadership that Obama had a mandate to provide. He could have made more things happen, certainly with respect to health care, and could have taken command of the debate and framed it more effectively rather than bending over backwards to create this bipartisan solution that I think is an utter delusion when you are dealing with the kind of rabid free market ideologues that are left on the Republican side, now that all of the moderates have been defeated by Democrats.

I am very dispirited by this—I haven’t given up hope altogether because I think that Obama represents, in some ways, the soft imperial side of the American imperial tradition rather than the hard Teddy Roosevelt side. He represents the Woodrow Wilson side, the side that, at least, sees war as a last resort, rather than something that is actually desirable. It is less bellicose in rhetoric and it can be persuaded to sit down and talk about things in ways that the more extreme militarists cannot. Nevertheless, in its very benign quality, the humanitarian interventionist argument can be quite seductive and ultimately quite dangerous as well, and that is what I fear I see happening in Afghanistan…

I am concerned that even as he embodies a more multicultural and more pluralistic perspective, and certainly a more diplomatic perspective than a militarist one, his willingness to talk to Iran, for example, is a sign for some cause for hope. But I also think the universalist aims — the old Wilsonian tradition — is not dead by any means: we can go marching abroad in search of monsters with the best of intentions and those adventures can go horribly awry. There is a great deal of hubris involved in either case, it seems, whether you are taking the harder line or the softer line.

Jackson Lears in conversation with Chris Lydon, New Brunswick, NJ and Boston, August 27, 2009.

Podcast • May 28, 2009

Booker Prize Winner Marlon James

Poets and writers come to the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica from every corner of the world, and still the overpowering voice in the fiction readings belongs to a native son from down the road ...

Poets and writers come to the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica from every corner of the world, and still the overpowering voice in the fiction readings belongs to a native son from down the road in Kingston. Marlon James, in his second novel, The Book of Night Women, has conjured a teen-age female narrator, also a green-eyed black-skinned heroine named Lilith, and a blood-curdling conspiracy of female slaves in Jamaica in the year 1800. Their mission is to burn, kill and destroy a merciless slave plantation with the same rapacious cruelty that the British masters (and a very Irish overlord) use to run it. The Book of Night Women is not so much a historical novel as a very modern elaboration of violence that strips the souls of people. You feel you’re not just reading it; you’re becoming a witness to sexual, verbal and physical ferocity that scars and reduces everybody; and then you’re a witness also to love — unnamed, but exquisitely articulated — where you least expected it. “I didn’t want to let anybody off the hook in this book, including the victims,” Marlon James remarks in our conversation. There’s a writer here with a book and a “dynamism of spoken language” that are very much for us and our world.

One of the concerns from critics was why in such a forward-looking time I was writing a backward-looking novel? You know: “Black is the new president,” “we’re post-racial” and all of that. There are a lot of answers to that, and not just the very typical one, that you need to know your history and so on. But I wasn’t writing a historical novel. There are many ways, I hope, in which this novel is in dialogue with the President. The first is the ownership of language. The story is old, but the idea of telling a story in the voices of the people who went through it is still a pretty new thing. The idea of a slave’s story or the story of urban poverty being in the voice of the people who experienced it is new, and it’s pretty radical when you look at the British West Indies. The first publisher to see The Book of Night Women was a British publisher who turned it down. And her request to me was to reconsider writing it in the third-person in standard English. And what struck me there was that even in 2007, people still refuse to have stories told by the people who experienced it, in a language that breaks standard English, that accepts lyricism, that breaks words here, that joins words here. It is a slavery novel but it is also a novel that acknowledges the dynamism of spoken dialect English. And owning it…

I didn’t want to let anybody off the hook in this novel, including the victims. And I think that it is something that had to be said. It’s too easy. I always say it and I say this sometimes when I lecture: if blacks accuse whites of denial, then blacks could accuse themselves of myth-making — that that there were all oppressive whites and all oppressed blacks. So that is why the idea of slaves owning slaves is so painful for some people to read. It’s a fact; it happened. Slaves themselves became the masters after the rebellions. I knew I could have written a very black and white story and probably still have been praised for it, largely–it must be said–out of guilt. I know I could have written about horrendous white masters beating poor slaves and have gotten away with it. To me that is intellectually dishonest. I think the more humane thing, but also a dialogue that has more to do with what is going on now, is one that recognizes all the ambiguities: that even such a dark world is still pretty gray…

It is not just a matter of knowing history so that you don’t repeat it. It is that you are headless without history. And I don’t think it is being taught enough. If I thought it was being taught enough I wouldn’t have written the book… Toni Morrison has said she writes the books that she wanted to read but could never find. And I agree with that totally. There is certainly a rich tradition of slave narratives and so on, but it is still not enough. Even the most enduring and the most lauded works about slavery tend to be about American Slavery– like Beloved. And Caribbean slavery was such a radically different thing: it was so violent. You can’t help but be hyper-violent when you are talking about West Indian slavery. And it is not even the violence itself, but the uncertainty that makes it even more violent…the slaves were not beaten into submission, they were very proud warriors from kingdoms who were just defeated in war. They were prisoners of a war of sorts, not necessarily victims who were waiting to be captured. And when you put that in a mix with people who come from Britain, mostly men, who are being thrust into this world where anything goes, it is bound to be explosive. And I think that story hasn’t been told enough.

Marlon James in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Podcast • May 27, 2009

Pico Iyer in Jamaica: center of word and world

Calabash, the Caribbean literary festival, is an outdoor church of the written word, rocking and resonating on the south coast of Jamaica with the voices of poets and writers from Hong Kong, New York, Barbados, ...

Calabash, the Caribbean literary festival, is an outdoor church of the written word, rocking and resonating on the south coast of Jamaica with the voices of poets and writers from Hong Kong, New York, Barbados, Nigeria, London, San Diego and Boston, among other home addresses.

In this first of our conversations from Treasure Beach, Pico Iyer is preaching. All his life, the Dalai Lama has been friend and inspiration. Zadie Smith is queen of his literary realm. And now Barack Obama is his “global soul in the White House.” Pico is our model of “global attitude,” in short. Born in England of Indian parents, he went to school and university in the United States and has lived 21 years now in rural Japan, on a tourist visa.

We’re at the center of the word, and the center of the world, now.

When I was born, everyone would have said the center was London or New York. The world has grown so much more interestingly complex, so quickly, that a literary event in Jamaica finds a much larger audience than a literary event in London or New York would.

A 21st-century novel is much more likely to be set in Bombay, than London or New York. I think of London as the capital of the 19th-century novel, New York as the capital of the 20th-century novel, and Bombay — by which I also mean Kingston, and Port of Spain, Lahore and Lagos and other places — those are the capitals of the 21st-century novel in the English language.

Before coming to Jamaica, I might have thought of it as a marginal place. Now that I’ve been here, I can’t say that. It’s not at the margins. You’re right that it’s on the edge of the great America as Ireland was on the edge of Britain, but it’s as central as New York. It has the same number of influences coming here – you an Irish-American person, and here’s me, an Indian-Japanese person. We’re converging by the sea in Jamaica, surrounded by other mongrels, like ourselves. And the conversation is at least as rich here, as in New York, but perhaps richer. We can’t talk anymore about a center of empire and a victim of empire. The empire is global and Jamaica is having its say, to London and New York, and London and New York have to attend to it.

It’s interesting that the writer that you and I have most celebrated during this conversation, Zadie Smith, is half Jamaican, half English – she lives in New York. But in her life, because she’s such an accomplished novelist and essayist at her young age, she is a way of saying, “I’m going to bring my Jamaican heritage as well as my English and American heritage into the center of Western thinking, and the center of Western writing,” in exactly the same way that Barack Obama willy nilly is bringing Kenya into the White House, and into the center of traditional power. So that Kenya now can say, “We have our guy in the White House. The most powerful man in the world is from our little tribe.” They can legitimately say it as much as somebody from Kansas can say it. And I think Jamaica now is empowered in that same way. They can say that one of most exciting novelists in the English language, Zadie Smith, is coming from Jamaica, and is channeling Jamaica into, and bringing it together with her English part, and now her American life.

And I think that that’s the excitement: that Jamaica is now a center of the world, and there isn’t the center of the world, there isn’t one center of the world. The center of the world is everywhere.

Pico Iyer in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Podcast • April 30, 2009

Angles on Empire: Book Week at Brown

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Der Derian and Catherine Lutz (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3) We’re taking two fresh measures here of the United States as military colossus — in two new ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Der Derian and Catherine Lutz (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

We’re taking two fresh measures here of the United States as military colossus — in two new books from the Watson Institute this spring. Two common points here: you won’t forget these perspectives once you’ve taken in the view; and you won’t see them anytime soon on page one of the New York Times. One is about our military real estate: 900-plus US military bases around the world — many of them toxic, more and more of them under local protest. The other is about the cultural process of war: the technology, media, narrative story line, TV and digital graphics of military power into the 21st Century. The anthropologist Catherine Lutz edited The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts. Political theorist James Der Derian wrote Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial Media-Entertainment Network.

I asked James Der Derian to take apart the pun in his title about virtue, virtuality, virtuosity…

JDD: I was hoping that “virtuous war” would be a felicitous oxymoron — the tension between the idea of war, which is bloody and dirty, and the whole idea in the virtuous that you can do good through something so blunt as warfare. Part of it comes out of the humanitarian intervention systems that evolved out of earlier administrations; we shouldn’t put this all on the doorstep of the Bush administration. You see it coming together, the virtual and the virtuous, both in doctrine and technology. The idea that what we can do should determine what we should do is part of the notion of “virtuous.” At one time the words “virtual” and “virtuous” were synonymous. They went down separate tracks in the Middle Ages. They always contained this idea of producing an effect at a distance, which technology can do; but it was about producing a good effect. Christ was in some ways a “virtual” tool of God. The notion also in Greek thinking as well of how the gods operated carried the idea of “virtuosity.” So in the United States it becomes almost a “deus ex machina” — to use war — in particular, a high-tech, low-casualty (at least for our side) form of warfare — to solve some of these intractable problems.

CL: What is the connection between the “war on terror” and your “virtuous war”?

James Der Derian: virtual virtuosity

JDD: It speaks to the virtualization of the enemy During the Cold War we had a fairly obvious enemy other. General Powell at one point said we’re being deprived of enemies: all we had left at one point was the North Koreans. In one way when you talk about the War on Terror, it’s to recognize that the old models, the old paradigms of war (particularly the idea of organized violence among and between states) no longer holds. And yet the master narrative continues. So you’re looking for some “other” to plug into this notion of “the enemy.” One reason why the President and others use the term “war on terror,” as absurd as it sounds, is that we didn’t want to recognize the face that you could have 19 terrorists spend about $500-thousand and incur close to $25-billion in immediate destruction, not including the Iraq war that followed, which is going to top out probably around $1-trillion before we get out of there.

CL: Is it possible that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda mastered virtuous or virtual warfare before we did?

JDD: No, but it you look at what Bin Laden said in a famous interview in 2004, he’s talking about how “we’re going to provoke the superpower, provoke the Crusader, and we’re basically going to beggar them.” He was very savvy about the notion of how to magnify this minuscule group of really pathological heretics within Islam into this colossus that would produce this over-reaction — would call out almost an auto-immune response where our attempt at a cure would be worse than the disease. In that case, Bin Laden was incredibly rational and savvy about how to magnify what was a pretty insignificant force into something that now can play on the same field as the superpower.

James Der Derian in conversation with Chris Lydon and Catherine Lutz at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 28, 2009.

Cathy Lutz picked up immediately on the convergence of these two scholars’ perspectives.

Catherine Lutz: a fantastical system

I think that’s exactly the way to look at the American military bases — as a response that has a certain rationality but ends up being a completely overwrought response to the notion of empire — of the desire that the United States has a role, should play and can play a role in controlling events around the world. Hence this global spread and distribution of these bases with that dream behind it of global control, global surveillance, global knowledge. The assumption that there’s a lot of rationality in the system as a whole — we need to rethink that. There’s rationality in parts of it, different forms of rationality, but they form up into what we can see is a pretty fantastical system… It costs over $100-billion in the US military budget. It’s a very significant investment in a certain kind of idea of the world, and the US role in it.

Catherine Lutz in conversation with Chris Lydon and James Der Derian at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 28, 2009.

Podcast • April 3, 2009

Mahmood Mamdani: You (and I) got Darfur Wrong

Who can imagine that a Save Darfur coalition vocally including Al Sharpton (“we know when America comes together, we can stop anything in the world”), Mia Farrow, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Elie Wiesel ...

Who can imagine that a Save Darfur coalition vocally including Al Sharpton (“we know when America comes together, we can stop anything in the world”), Mia Farrow, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Elie Wiesel (“Darfur today is the world’s capital of human suffering”), Nat Hentoff, Bob Geldof, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Harold Pinter, Oprah Winfrey, the gold-medal speed skater Joey Cheek, Tony Blair and Dario Fo might be profoundly shallow in its reading of the brutal warfare in Sudan five years ago… and just as wrong-headed in its drum beat for an American intervention?

Mahmood Mamdani: on the "pornography of evil"

Mahmood Mamdani: on the “pornography of evil”

Mahmood Mamdani can. We are talking here about his book Saviors and Survivors and his argument that the Darfur rescue campaign, which became a sacred cause of our civil religion, was not so much the moral alternative to Iraq, the Bush “war on terror,” and Cheney-think as it was a variation and extension of the same toolkit. I begin with a sort of confession that I may be a sample of Mamdani’s problem — having drenched myself in Nicholas Kristof‘s New York Times columns and largely absorbed the common framework that Darfur was about Arabs slaughtering Africans, and that somebody had to something about it.

If you represent my problem, then I think you also represent my solution. If you interviewed Nicholas Kristof, then you participated in shaping to some extent that audience which is the constituency of Save Darfur. I need to get to that audience because I need to turn a sermon into a debate and a discussion. I need to sow some seeds of doubt about what have been presumed to be simply goodwill gestures. I need to convince that audience that there is a politics around this — not simply good intentions and moralism and a fight against evil. I need to tell them that there is no such thing as a trans-historical evil in the world in which we live; that, in fact, all violence without exception has causes, and the causes are historical. And if you want to do something about the violence, we need to do something about the causes. The idea that violence is its own explanation is an idea which will take us nowhere except into a cycle of violence.

Mahmood Mamdani in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 2, 2009.

What held the Save Darfur campaign together? In his book, Mamdani concludes that inside the hyped numbers and moral spin was a sort of conspiracy of prejudices and neo-imperial impulses to head off the unity and independence of Africa.

The Save Darfur lobby in the United States has turned the tragedy of the people of Darfur into a knife with which to slice Africa by demonizing one group of Africans, African Arabs…

The Save Darfur lobby demands, above all else, justice, the right of the international community — really the big powers in the Security Council — to punish “failed” or “rogue” states, even if it be at the cost of more bloodshed and a diminished possibility of reconciliation. More than anything else, “the responsibility to protect” is a right to punish without being held accountable — a clarion call for the recolonization of “failed” states in Africa. In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa.

Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror., p. 300. Pantheon, 2009.

Mahmoud Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman professor of government at Columbia, is a socio-historical anthropologist of Africa and also of American media and fashions in public wisdom. He is taking apart American attitudes that took hold around Iraq and the so-called “war on terror” and that will surely affect our path to Afghanistan and the Obama team’s reconception of our American place in the world.

I loved this conversation as a short course in how to think like an anthropologist — how to peel back events to find unwritten rules and unseen implications in a social order — Africa’s and ours.

Listen for the ideas here that reach beyond Africa, anger and accustion. The most challenging may be the argument that “survivors’ justice” (“inside” repairs, modeled on South Africa’s “truth and reconciliation” process) comes to seem much more promising than “victors’ justice” (“outside” punishment, as in the Nuremberg Trials, and de-Baathification in Iraq) as means of reforming politics and remaking broken societies.

Podcast • March 19, 2009

Obama as Gorbachev: a Regime in Crisis

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations on the global crisis. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) 1. Unless the West suddenly gets a new act together, China wins the global crisis — because it has cash, ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations on the global crisis. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

1. Unless the West suddenly gets a new act together, China wins the global crisis — because it has cash, a production machine, an orderly, top-down system co-designed by Milton Friedman and Stalin, and a domestic market of customers if and when export demand collapses.

2. The turmoil in finance capital has also the dimensions of a “civilizational” crisis (what do we stand for after greed and consumption… of such things as a new Paris Hilton line of apparel, for dogs?) and an advancing crisis of the human habitat, our lifeline with nature.

3. One way to see Barack Obama in this situation is as “our Gorbachev”: the designated captain whose assignment is to save the crumbling pillar on our side of the old Cold War, or surrender the regime.

By the old rule that the trick in life is to locate three main points (in anything), there’s my free translation of a fascinating Watson Institute conference last weekend. Between the lines, most of it, but clear enough.

Ugo Mattei is the “color” man in this conversation. He’s a law professor in Turin and Los Angeles, a Gramscian lefty, who contributed the Obama-Gorbachev connection and said that what the world really wants from the United States at this point is “a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy.”

Ugo Mattei: historic proportions

You can’t transform human experience into a technological game. There has been a complete distortion, I think, in the way of thinking in these last 25 or 30 years in the United States: that just because they were enjoying a technological advantage, that meant that they were intellectually superior to the others. So either there is now a humble declaration of bankruptcy of this kind of attitude, and all the rest will follow, or we’re back to the beginning. There is so much to be done in dismantling the military apparatus, and nothing is happening on this side. Talking about the “greening” of capitalism and all this kind of stuff while the world is infected by American military bases, with nuclear weapons, with consuming a lot of energy, creating a disaster wherever they are (socially, morally, intellectually) is only once again talking of all these things as if they can be understood in terms of numbers. This thing has to be understood politically. It requires a new humanism. It requires a vision of the long-term. It requires a real transformation. This is why I hope the crisis is going to go really, really bad, so that then we can restart.

Ugo Mattei in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 14, 2009 at the Watson Institute.

Alfred Gusenbauer is the credentialed heavy-hitter here. A Socialist former Chancellor of Austria, he sounds troubled by the Obama team’s emphasis on a unilateral re-stimulation of an overfed American economy.

Alfred Gusenbauer: rebalance or fall

In history, a crisis of this size normally led to revolution or war. Our task nowadays is to handle the crisis, overcome the crisis at least without war, but with a revolution of our minds. I think it is utterly necessary…

I think that there are still three options: one is the fundamental crash of the world economy. The second is what we call the Japanese experience: more or less stagnation for the next ten years. And the third is that we will be able to solve the crisis within the next two or three years. But this only will be possible if there is an international management that is trying to reconcile some of the fundamental imbalances that are inherent in the world economy. Without balancing those, there is no way out of the crisis…

The pursuit of greed will not help to solve the crisis. There will not be recovery without redistribution… If nations or social classes pursue what they have done, and what led to the crisis, there will be no way out. One has to understand that the key to the recovery is the abandonment of the concept of greed and to adopt a concept of sharing.

Alfred Gusenbauer in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 14, 2009 at the Watson Institute.

The other strong contributors here are sociologist Ho-fung Hung of Indiana University, Bloomington; journalist and documentarian Nandan Unnikrishnan of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi; and the Indian businessman Samir Saran.

Podcast • March 5, 2009

Fred Kaplan on the Neo-Cons: Daytime Dreamers

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Fred Kaplan and James Der Derian. (61 minutes, 28 mb mp3) Fred Kaplan: a short history of bad ideas Fred Kaplan, the “War Stories” columnist at Slate, reminds ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Fred Kaplan and James Der Derian. (61 minutes, 28 mb mp3)

Fred Kaplan: a short history of bad ideas

Fred Kaplan, the “War Stories” columnist at Slate, reminds us in his trashing of the Bush-Cheney neo-cons, Daydream Believers, not only that his barbed book title comes from T. E. Lawrence, but that Lawrence had aimed the dagger at his own over-reaching imperial self.

“All men dream: but not equally,” Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

In our studio / classroom with James Der Derian‘s global security students at Brown’s Watson Institute, Fred Kaplan extends his argument about “a few grand ideas” that “wrecked American power.” Among the bad ideas, in Kaplan’s reading, were the oversold “revolution in military affairs” and the Rumsfeldian dogmas it spawned about the political utility of super-high-tech weaponry. Another one, he says here, was the notion that United States came out of the Cold War stronger — not perhaps unhinged by the loss of a balance wheel in world affairs. Kaplan’s conversation picks up where Parag Khanna‘s left off, as to the sins of the Bush years and the depth of the Obama predicament today:

The U. S. Government’s recent actions — the willful disregard of international treaties, the documented instances of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the often-arbitrary detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the illegal “renderings” of suspected terrorists on foreign soil, the harsh treatment of civilians under the occupation of Iraq, in the eyes of some the fact of the occupation itself — have undermined America’s authority as a moral or legal arbiter.

Quite apart from questions of war, these actions have also tarnished America’s stature as a beacon of democracy. In many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, the word “democracy” is now discredited. Sadder still, the smattering of individuals and movements struggling for Western-style reforms shun association with the United States, knowing it would only hurt their cause…

Fred Kaplan in Daydream Believers (Wiley), p. 197

There’s a great cameo appearance here by Sergei Khrushchev, historian son of the late Soviet Premier Nikita and a longtime fellow at the Watson Institute. Quoth Sergei:

Sergei Khrushchev: the old illusion

About Afghanistan, what is happening now reminds me, one by one, of what happened with the Soviet Union. Soviet generals were against the invasion of Afghanistan. But then after, when they entered there, each two months, they said: an additional division… and maybe we will take over. At last it was finished with 150,000 [troops] that could not control Afghanistan at all. The biggest mistake, what I think is happening now, is this illusion — and your illusion also — that anybody can control Afghanistan. Nobody can control Afghanistan from outside, because we are alien and they will be united against us.

Sergei Khrushchev with Fred Kaplan in James Der Derian’s seminar at Brown, March 4, 2009.