Podcast • March 2, 2017

‘Deportation Nation’

The ICE age: ICE for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Federal agents that will swoop down if they think your citizenship is irregular. Suspense, surprise, and a certain arbitrary striking power are essentials in the ...

The ICE age: ICE for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Federal agents that will swoop down if they think your citizenship is irregular. Suspense, surprise, and a certain arbitrary striking power are essentials in the ICE process. It’s the hallmark of the early Trump Era in police work, though it’s not exactly new. 

President Obama deported more migrants than all the presidents before him: locking many thousands of people up for nothing worse than lacking ‘papers.’ But in the Trump era, there’s now a special emphasis on the fear of “crimmigration”: the supposed overlap between illegal acts and an illegal status in the U.S.

Why put that criminal brand on mostly hard-working, tax-paying family people who get in much less trouble, in fact, than U.S..-born citizens? And why now, when the tide of migration is mostly going out?

We’re joined this week by Daniel Kanstroom, author of Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American Historytracks the story of how a supposed nation of immigrants decides who stays and who’s gotta go. He says we’ve reached a crisis point under Trump, but the crisis has been building for thirty years.

Mary Waters, sociologist at Harvard, is increasingly concerned by the parallels between mass deportation and mass incarceration. She termed the phenomenon “crimmigration.” In order to resist this system, she writes, “we need a model of a social movement that is not based in civil rights, because we have defined millions of people living in this country as being outside of civil society.

Roberto Gonzales spent 12 years following the lives of undocumented teenagers in Los Angeles. His heart-breaking account in Lives in Limbo paints a tragic portrait of squandered potential and unrealized dreams. For undocumented teenagers, adulthood marks a transition to illegality — a period of ever-narrowing opportunities. One teenager named Esperanza lamented to  Roberto: “I would have been the walking truth instead of a walking shadow.”

We also spent sometime digging into the stories of undocumented immigrants here in Boston. You can here some their voices in our Soundcloud playlist list below

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You can also read the transcript of our conversation with “Amber”—a longtime WBUR caller and undocumented immigrant—here on our Medium page.

[lead illustration by Susan Coyne]

July 8, 2015

Oxi Means… “Maybe”: The Vote in Greece

On Sunday, 62% of Greek votes, encouraged by their radical-left prime minister, Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, registered a desperation “no” vote to a swap of further fiscal tightening at home for debt relief from its ...

On Sunday, 62% of Greek votes, encouraged by their radical-left prime minister, Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, registered a desperation “no” vote to a swap of further fiscal tightening at home for debt relief from its European creditors. The night of the vote ended in celebrations in Athens’ central Syntagma Square.

But just before showtime on Thursday night, the story shifted with a jolt: after much posturing, Tsipras and the Greek delegation capitulated to many of their creditors’ demands in hopes of staying in the Euro. Syriza’s turn from defiance to compliance may leave the millions of “no” voters — part of what our guest Richard Parker calls a global “neglectorate” — feeling more discouraged than ever before. But it remains to be seen how the Greece situation will shake out.

Mark Blyth wasn’t so convinced that what looked like a final surrender of the radical left in Greece was anything more than one more kick of the can down the road of untenable austerity economics in Europe — one headed for a ‘breakdown’:

I think I recall looking at the BBC website yesterday and happening upon a link that said, “June 23: Greeks at final last stop.” And here we are again. So a proposal has been submitted, which seems to be a bit of capitulation, but it hasn’t been accepted yet. And there has to be the other side of that trade: are they going to get anything back? Because if not, we’re simply doing a rerun of where we were before we had the referendum. And if that’s the case, then there’s going to be a breakdown. We’ve had a situation where the European Central Bank has been squeezing the Greek banks to make sure that by Friday, everyone’s sufficiently freaked out to have them sign whatever they want. But that’s exactly the type of tactics that backfired and brought 61% of people out to vote no. So I’m far from convinced that we’re at the end of the road…

It’s very similar to the Scottish independence referendum. Let me tell you why. If you break this down, the really dramatic thing is the way the different age groups voted. So I saw a poll for Greece, 12 hours before they actually took the vote. 71% of people under 35 were going to vote no. So all the older people are gonna vote yes. The exact same thing happened when they took the Scottish referendum — why? If you’re old, and you’ve got a lot of assets, you don’t want uncertainty over those assets. You don’t want your nice Euro-denominated house to suddenly be new drachmas. If, however, you’ve been through hell and back over the past five years — you’re asset-negative, you’re up to your eyes in debt, and you’re unemployed — asset uncertainty is somebody else’s problem. I’m going to vote no. You have this generational split on top of lots of different asset splits, and that’s the way this worked out.

We do know that those young Greeks are the ones want out of an economic dive as long and painful as our Great Depression. Watch the six-year change in unemployment: in America, 1929 to 1934, versus Greece, 2009 – 2015.

Screenshot 2015-07-08 15.30.37

In March 1933, four years into the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt signed the first unemployment relief legislation through “useful public work.” No such luck in Greece: in the poorest Athenian neighborhoods, joblessness has topped 60% this year, and last year at least 1 in 10 Greek children was suffering food insecurity. Hundreds of thousands of well-educated Greeks have left the country, and the future seems to hold only more misery.

Our guest Mark Blyth declared in January that we’re watching the all-but-Homeric battle of austerity and democracy on the southern edge of the Eurozone, where deep budget cuts have become the only possible solution to economic shock. Blyth and our guest, the translator and Europe-watcher Arthur Goldhammer, are concerned about the blowback of EU overreach — not on the left but on the right:

For those who fear Syriza and its left-wing counterparts, it is worth looking at the alternatives on the radical right. From Britain to Hungary, political parties—whose ideology spans the spectrum from the explicitly Nazi (the Golden Dawn in Greece) to the nationalist–populist (the United Kingdom Independence Party and the French National Front)—are busy working to channel public anger in a different direction. Harkening back to Europe’s darkest days, they translate negotiable conflicts over economic policy into non-negotiable conflicts over ethnic identity. They attack European integration even more than the left-wing parties, question the democratic rights of existing citizens, and fan the flames of xenophobia toward ethnic minorities and immigrants. If Europe’s ruling elites want to save the European project, and the Euro at the heart of it, they need to start actively engaging with democratic left-wing parties such as Syriza and Podemos rather than shunning them. If they don’t, they will drive some of these parties into volatile left–right alliances, or, if they fail in their mandates, leave the stage open to political forces whose goals will be far more radical than mere debt restructuring and opposition to austerity.

And Richard Parker— a sage of politics at home and abroad, who once advised George Papandreou and his PASOK party — offers a diagnosis of global democracy: big, bruising institutions, public and private, have created an international “neglectorate” that’s mad as hell and in resistance. Parker hears that voice in on the left and the right, in the Greek no! and the Irish yes! to same-sex marriage, and in the rise of political outsiders sounding the alarm here in America — from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

The last piece of tape we have to Ingrid Rowland, an American art historian based in Rome and a prolific contributor to The New York Review of Books. She told us of a striking performance of Aeschylus’ early drama, The Suppliants, in the ancient Greek theater at Syracuse in Sicily. It seemed to speak to every corner of the European questions at issue: migration, debt, welcome and power. Here’s a trailer for that play:

Tell us: what do you make of the Greek decision to vote “no”? Were you surprised at the decision to sign on to the austerity package after all? what’s up ahead for embattled Europe? Do you feel neglected, and what referendum would you have us all vote yes/no on: bank bailouts, fossil fuels, drones, etc.? 

sgtest

March 20, 2014

Putin, Ukraine and Reading the Russians

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

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

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

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

February 27, 2014

Nasser Rabbat: Life and Death in Syria

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, a Damascene from way back.  The question we ask him is, “What will we say happened to Syria in front of our eyes, ...

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, a Damascene from way back.  The question we ask him is, “What will we say happened to Syria in front of our eyes, and was non-intervention in Syria as damaging in the end as previous American interventions have been?”

Nasser Rabbat wrote a marvelous account of his father’s death last year, a man who lived through most of the 20th century, and a great deal of Syria’s national history. It is the story of both a man and his nation, and it’s available in English at The Atlantic.

He wanted to go back to Damascus and die in Damascus. So how do I sum up his life? A Lebanese cardiologist was summoned to come and see him. My dad was half-drugged and had an IV in his hand and oxygen in his nose. The doctor was saying, “So what is paining you the most, where do you feel pain?” And my dad, in a very soft voice, answered the question, “Syria, the problem in Syria.”

 

Podcast • November 8, 2013

Stephen Kinzer on the Dulles Brothers

Steve Kinzer is raising sharp questions for today about the late, unlamented Dulles brothers — John Foster and Allen Dulles, who ruled US diplomacy and spy-craft in the Eisenhower 1950s. The Brothers are the subjects now of Kinzer’s double biography and eye-popping polemic. Are the Dulleses the missing keys to our 50-year understanding of John F. Kennedy’s tortured foreign adventures in office, and perhaps of his death?


Steve Kinzer
is raising sharp questions for today about the late, unlamented Dulles brothers — John Foster and Allen Dulles, who ruled US diplomacy and spy-craft in the Eisenhower 1950s. The Brothers are the subjects now of Kinzer’s double biography and eye-popping polemic. Are the Dulleses the missing keys to our 50-year understanding of John F. Kennedy’s tortured foreign adventures in office, and perhaps of his death? How and why did the “compulsive activism” and “secret world war” of the Dulles brothers persist for five decades after they were gone? In President Obama’s big turn in the Middle East — that is, in the refusal to bomb Syria and the warming contacts with Iran — is it too much to see that the Dulleses’ open and covert Cold War ways of waging world dominance are coming apart even as we speak? Of the Obama re-direction since late August, Steve Kinzer is telling me:

I found those two episodes most interesting. First, the President of the US announced… he was going to bomb Syria, but many in Congress and in the country were against it, and he called it off. I can’t remember any episode like this in my lifetime, where a president of the United States announced he wanted to bomb a country — but the American people were against it? This is something quite remarkable. We’ve always supported military action when presidents decide to launch them. Then came the telephone call between President Obama and the president of Iran. This is another supreme violation of another basic Dulles principle. The Dulles brothers believed you should never have dialogue with your enemy. They were strong against, for example, any summits between American leaders and Soviet leaders. They felt that this would only destroy the paradigm of conflict. It makes the other person seem possibly sane and rational, and then you can no longer portray them as evil and threatening. So these two episodes — the refusal to bomb Syria and the contact with Iran — make me ask this question: did the Dulles Era just end?

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon about The Brothers in Boston, November, 2013

The Kennedy term began in 1961 with two explosive mines hidden in the works: the CIA’s Bay of Pigs raid on Cuba by mercenaries and Cuban exiles; and the assassination of the Congo’s first independent Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Three weeks into his term, Kennedy urged that Lumumba, beleaguered by Belgian interests and the CIA, be restored to power. “It was a remarkable change of heart for the United States,” Kinzer writes in The Brothers, “but it came too late.” Unknown to the new president of the United States, Lumumba had been kidnapped, brutalized, butchered and dissolved in acid three days before JFK’s inauguration. The Congo has never had a popular democratic government since then.

The two operations at the end of the Dulles era, the one against Fidel Castro in Cuba and the one against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, have a number of interesting aspects in common. One of the most interesting ones is that President Eisenhower — who fervently supported covert action, though nobody understood that at the time, of course — personally, though slightly indirectly, ordered not just those operations in Cuba and the Congo, but the assassination of those two leaders. So we have in the space of one summer Eisenhower ordering two assassinations, and as far as we know, no president had done that before. The way that Allen Dulles electrified Eisenhower and the National Security Council to galvanize them into action in the Congo was to say to them – Lumumba is going to become the African Castro… When Lumumba came to New York to the United Nations, he gave a number of press conferences and at one of them he was asked whether he feared for his life, and he said: “if I am killed, it will be because a foreigner has paid a Conglolese,” and that is exactly what happened!

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

JFK fired Allen Dulles for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and started cutting the CIA budgets sharply. After his death, Kennedy was quoted by intimates to the effect that he wanted “to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” But of course Allen Dulles not only outlived Kennedy but got to have a strong voice on the Warren Commission that investigated Kennedy’s murder. Kinzer writes that Allen Dulles took the opportunity to coach the Warren Commmission staff on what questions to ask the CIA — and to coach the CIA on how to answer them. I’m asking Steve Kinzer if Allen Dulles — exiled from his agency, shamed by President Kennedy — shouldn’t be classified by 1963 as “rogue CIA,” and whether, when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tells Charlie Rose that “rogue CIA” may have killed his uncle, Allen Dulles should not be on the list of suspects:

I find it a fascinating possibility. Nonetheless I’ve never seen any real evidence of it. So if there is ‘plausible deniability,’ it’s still in effect. Of course, ‘rogue CIA’ and Allen Dulles are not necessarily the same thing. If Allen Dulles was not involved, there could still be a rogue CIA. I mean, Richard Bissell was still involved in this project. We had a number of other figures, still very active, many of whom were very angry at Kennedy. I guess the pieces are out there, but I still have never seen anything that makes me seriously believe that the CIA could have been involved. That means either that they weren’t, or that they cover up things just as well as the CIA has sometimes been able to do.

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

Stephen Kinzer’s double biography of The Brothers is part of an epic series by now of Kinzer takes on All the Shah’s Men in Iran, on Overthrow as a habit in American foreign policy, on a Reset of US alliances that may be evolving in the Middle East. Check our several conversations with Steve Kinzer over the years — on the original sin of American policy in the Mideast, on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and on the changing balance of interests out there. And please add your responses in a comment here.

Podcast • June 4, 2013

JFK & his Papa: David Nasaw’s light on The Patriarch

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the ...

JFK & JPK 63

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the legend in a delicious impromptu line in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s court account of A Thousand Days. The story was that late in the 1960 campaign, when the Jack and Bobby Kennedy were both extending themselves to keep Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail in Georgia, King’s venerable namesake, “Daddy” King of Atlanta, a lifelong Republican, announced that he’d never thought he could vote for a Catholic… “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father,” JFK said, in Schlesinger’s telling. The line JFK added “quizzically,” was “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”

The gap was broader than that. Joe Kennedy had been an outspoken isolationist even as Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain; he was a Neville Chamberlain appeasement guy while JFK was learning to love Churchill’s rhetoric of indomitability. Joe Kennedy, tainted by soft-core anti-Semitism, was “absolutely, totally opposed” to the war in which his 3 older sons raced to enlist.

So the differences are sharp and significant, but in the masterful researches and close readings of David Nasaw, the continuities are clear, too, and for a new century maybe more telling. Joe Kennedy’s was ready to “make a deal” with Hitler in 1939-40 on the realistic reading that England was not prepared to defend itself in battle. This became JFK’s college thesis and first book, Why England Slept, an echo of his father’s analysis.

The flip side of Joe Kennedy’s appeasement policy was his zeal to negotiate a rescue of European Jews and a peace that would have saved Europe from war’s devastation. Nasaw is emphatic in our conversation on the point that Joe Kennedy knew more, cared more and was ready to do more about the Jews’ predicament than either Roosevelt or Churchill. The instinct for negotiation shows up, of course, in JFK’s inaugural doctrine: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” And it’s confirmed in all the posthumous evidence of JFK’s mostly secret scurrying in his last year of life to make back-channel peace with Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro — to end nuclear testing, to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, in truth to cancel the Cold War. Both father and son can be read (in part anyway) as rueful, near-radical peaceniks up against the merciless war habit.

Joe Kennedy could count the price of war in his own family. “I hate to think how much money I would give up rather than sacrifice Joe and Jack in a war,” he wrote his father in law in 1937. John Kennedy, in the American University Speech in June, 1963 which now sounds like the heart of the man and his most precious legacy, spoke with the same poignancy in plain language: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Podcast • April 14, 2011

Pratap Mehta: Pakistan’s Perpetual Identity Crisis

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

The reconsideration of partition is a critical, current existential question not only for South Asians, but also for Americans who watch the continuous outrages from Taliban and CIA sanctuaries inside Pakistan. It’s a question on many levels — terrorism, geopolitics, ethnicity and religion — but, Pratap Mehta says, “it’s fundamentally the question of the identity of a country.”

In his telling of the partition story, the contemporary reality of Pakistan grew out of a failure to answer a core challenge of creating a nation-state: how do you protect a minority? It’s Mehta’s view that the framers of the modern subcontinent — notably Gandhi, Jinnah & Nehru — never imagined a stable solution to this question. He blames two shortcomings of the political discourse at the time of India’s independence:

The first is that it was always assumed that the pull of religious identities in India is so deep that any conception of citizenship that fully detaches the idea of citizenship from religious identity is not going to be a tenable one.

The second is that Gandhi in particular, and the Congress Party in general, had a conception of India which was really a kind of federation of communities. So the Congress Party saw [the creation of India] as about friendship among a federation of communities, not as a project of liberating individuals from the burden of community identity to be whatever it is that they wished to be.

The other way of thinking about this, which is to think about a conception of citizenship where identities matter less to what political rights you have, that was never considered seriously as a political project. Perhaps that would have provided a much more ideologically coherent way of dealing with the challenges of creating a modern nation-state.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 12, 2011.

Unlike many other Open Source talkers on Pakistan, Pratap Mehta does not immediately link its Islamization to the United States and its 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Reagan and his CIA-Mujahideen military complex were indeed powerful players in the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, he agrees, but the turn began first during a national identity crisis precipitated by another partition, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Suddenly, Mehta is telling us, Pakistan could no longer define itself as the unique homeland for Muslims in the subcontinent. In search of identity, and distinction from its new neighbor to the east, Pakistan turned towards a West Asian brand of Islam, the hardline Saudi Wahhabism that has become a definitive ideology in today’s Islamic extremism.

Mehta is hopeful, though, that in open democratic elections Islamic parties would remain relatively marginalized, that despite the push to convert Pakistan into a West Asian style Islamic state since 1971, “the cultural weight of it being a South Asian country” with a tradition of secular Islam “remains strong enough to be an antidote.”

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.

Podcast • February 25, 2011

Peter Hessler’s New China: Is this any way to live?

Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just that he’d taken McPhee’s writing course at Princeton — known ...

Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just that he’d taken McPhee’s writing course at Princeton — known sometimes as The Literature of Fact. (“I prefer to call it factual writing,” McPhee has said.) It’s more that Hessler got the hang of circling a vast subject until the proportions of the story reveal themselves. (“Cycles of one year, fifty years, a thousand years: all these different cycles spinning around…” as McPhee put it, about his masterpiece on Alaska, Coming into the Country). In China, Peter Hessler made it a habit to return on schedule again and again to families and factories that intrigued him; sometimes he had five years’ observation under his belt before he began to write his story — in The New Yorker and then in books like Country Driving, his latest. Our conversation here is about the unconventional fruits of that long grazing — not least the discovery that this “new China” we find so challenging is just as new and maybe much more pressured and exhausting for the Chinese. The Wei family, for example — Hessler’s friends and neighbors in a small town north of Beijing — set the pattern over the last decade of spiking prosperity and crashing all-around health.

I was with [Wei Ziqi, the father of the Wei family,] through a number of events, including his son’s becoming very sick, to the point where his life was in danger and Wei Ziqi and I, and the other family members had to work together to try to get him medical care… The next year is when his business really started to take off. One thing that really struck me was that he had been so incredibly calm while his son was sick, very rational and easy to talk to and amazingly stoic, and I found him much more unsettled by his initial business success. … Then I realized, people in this village are used to people being sick, they’ve been through this before, that’s an experience that they know how to handle in a sense. But they’re not used to having a loan out, they’re not used to having a new business, they’re not used to trying to interact with city folk who are customers, and that was harder for him. … In America, people who had gone through this illness with a child would have been devastated at points, and he never had that reaction. But he was much more stressed by having a loan, which doesn’t stress out Americans very much (maybe it does now).

Business in China comes with a lot of vices. When I first met him, he had a very healthy lifestyle, he was working in the fields and so on. In China, if you’re a business man, you smoke. It’s part of the routine … it’s a very important type of communication between males in China. … Most men doing business smoke. So he started smoking, he also started drinking. … The more successful he became, the more he smoked and the more he drank.

Peter Hessler in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 9, 2011.

Peter Hessler lives and writes in Colorado now, waiting a New Yorker assignment to the Middle East. He came home at a moment when “Americans are not feeling great about themselves,” but he’s been feeing what we take for granted: striking examples of “common decency” every day in America, people volunteering serious time and talent to local life, social involvement not to be observed in China. What he remembers about China is “energy… buzz, people on the move. They are good-humored people. They get the joke.” What he notes about both places is that “It’s not a race. It’s not a zero-sum game. I don’t think it’s as directly competitive as people say. China and the US have been good for each other over the last twenty years. It’s great for the US that this has been a stable part of the world.”

Podcast • February 23, 2011

Philip Weiss: A Jewish Argument around the Arab Revolt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3) Photo from bigthink.comPhilip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The 55-year-old ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3)

Photo from bigthink.com

Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The 55-year-old meta-journalist dedicates his website MondoWeiss to “the war of ideas in the Middle East.” His project is more daring and difficult than that sounds. Really it’s to start something between a moral argument and a civil war over the big book of Jewish tradition and “spiritual wholeness” — over US national interests, the Palestinian condition, Israel and the whole modern idea of Zionism, by which he means the judgment from 19th and 20th Century European experience that Jews cannot be safe as a tiny minority in non-Jewish countries.

On the page and in conversation Philip Weiss is celebrating the revolution in Egypt for the bold non-violent genius of the Arab street. It moves him to tears that youngsters are using the social Web — Western technologies of gossip and hooking up — to liberate a great people. He also writes bitingly that the revolution is a gift for us Americans, too, to help us purge decades of disinformation and denial about what our policies have accomplished.

Not the least of many ironies in the story is Philip Weiss’s acknowledgment of “another feature writer,” the Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl (1860 – 1904), usually cited as the father of Zionism. Herzl grew up, as Weiss did, a “Christmas tree Jew,” but he was alert to the reality of his day in Vienna and Paris in the late 19th Century — personal threats to Herzl and shouts of “Death to Jews” on the streets of Europe’s capitals. “Anti-Semitism made me Jewish again,” was Herzl’s line. Philip Weiss’s analog is “Neo-conservatism made me Jewish again.” The reality of Philip Weiss’s day in America is that “I went to Harvard-fucking-College. I lead a really privileged life. I’ve never had an obstacle placed in my way, career wise, that I didn’t put there myself. And that is true of my whole generation, and the next generation… So what does that say — what does that real experience say — about the central tenet of Zionism which is that a minority is unsafe in a Western country? It’s bullshit — that’s what it says. And the type of society that we treasure in which a minority is safe and free is one that we as a community are destroying in the Middle East! destroying that idea! … The denial of the real conditions of Palestinian life by Jews is shocking to me… that my people would be so blind to the suffering.”

We are sitting in Philip Weiss’ living room in a snow-bound house high above the Hudson River, an hour north of Manhattan. Iraq was “a war of ideas,” he’s arguing — many of them out of the Jewish-American right wing. It’s not enough to hate “that bastard Bush,” as his mother does, because George Bush wouldn’t know an idea if one bit him. The Best and the Brightest, Phil Weiss reminds you, was not about JFK but about his brains-trust. Iraq “came out of a Jewish neo-con fantasy… We haven’t dealt with it, but we’re starting. In five years it will be debated at centers for Jewish history. It will take a while.”

I want a civil war in Jewish life. My dream is to have a Jewish family on stage, arguing about this in front of everyone. Remember what it did for gay rights that Lance Loud was coming out on television in the early 70s. That family — whatever price they paid in their privacy, and certainly they entertained us — also helped liberate a lot of suffering homosexuals… I want the Jewish family on stage to be having that reality show around this issue. So that people get to see my surrogate in that family — there are many of them out there, the young Jews. I want to see the tears. I want to see the rage. I want to see the charges of betrayal. I want this all out on the stage. I want “you’re a traitor,” “you’re a self-hating Jew,” I want the whole fuckin’ thing. I want everybody to watch, because it’s vital. It’s just like the gay people. In the Jewish family, these people have been closeted. You know, I never thought about this before: they are just like the gay people, when they were closeted. A lot of them are afraid to come out, and a lot of people who help me on the website are not public. A lot of the Arabs aren’t, and a lot of the academic and government officials aren’t because their careers would suffer. One guy says: “you can’t use my name because my father will have a heart attack.” But this should be done publicly. Right now I want to tap into reality, and I’m actually trying to find a Jewish family that will do it. Because the Neo Cons believe what they believe. But I think as soon as they start offering their bullshit on stage, and start talking about Anti-Semitism on stage, I want Americans to understand what price we’re paying for the belief that Anti-Semitism is a persistent factor in Western society, and that Jews need a refuge. Americans have a right to judge the reality of that statement.

Philip Weiss in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cold Spring, New York, February 16, 2011.