This Week's Show •

Marx at 200

A specter is haunting human affairs these days: it’s the thought that Karl Marx (on his 200th birthday this week) may have been more right than wrong about rich-get-richer bourgeois economics.  He may have been ...

A specter is haunting human affairs these days: it’s the thought that Karl Marx (on his 200th birthday this week) may have been more right than wrong about rich-get-richer bourgeois economics.  He may have been righter still anticipating our anxious digital / global finance capitalism of 2018 than he was at describing his own unruly time in Europe in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s. For advocating communist revolution all his life, Karl Marx became a scarecrow in the garden of money and power.  He was the “best-hated man of his time,” said his friend Engels in a funeral oration. But the Times of London headline in 2008 was “He’s back,” when Wall Street melted down. Marx is back, too, in reading lists on campus and rebel dreams around the world.

“Working men of all countries, unite!” wrote the brash young philosopher/journalist Karl Marx, 29 years old, almost penniless, on the run from German and French police, new to London in 1848.  “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” And so the mythic monster, a man and his ‘ism,’ found first, full voice in a manifesto of aphorisms that can sound Shakespearean to some modern ears, almost scriptural in authority, chilling or challenging to others.


Karl Marx and his daughter Jenny, 1869

Karl Marx’s 200th birthday is the “hook,” as they say in the news game.  What hooks us, though, is the “glaring relevance,” as Luke Menand put it in The New Yorker, of Marx’s working world and our own.  It’s as if, in the din of the industrial revolution in Europe, Marx was noting down the roots of our own digital transformation today: his precarious labor is our full-blown precariat; his maldistribution of goodies is more extreme, and global.  Fragility, uncertainty, arbitrary unfairness are main marks of a genie economy out of the bottle, out of the sorcerer’s control.

Also this hour, we’ll get to Marx the gentle genius at home in a bourgeois family, the obsessive scholar trying to dope out a science of society at the same moment Charles Darwin was mapping a new science of biological nature.  And Marxism today — in the toolkit of black politics and feminism.

The omni-critic Terry Eagleton gets us started. Prolific Englishman with Irish Republican roots, he was shaped by Marxism and Catholicism.  In his politics and his religion, Terry Eagleton says he not vastly different from himself as a 16-year-old altar boy. After the 2008 economic crisis, Terry Eagleton’s book was “Why Marx was Right,” under 10 main headings, like class, violence, and utopia.

At Karl Marx’s two-century mark.  Marxism early on became a cottage industry among white men parsing words and doctrine – no matter that the burden of the system they studying fell on women, and black and brown workers out of all proportion.  The American biographer Mary Gabriel breaks the mold, on an ancient theory that the way to take the measure of a great man is to follow him home. What she found was a trove of family letters about an ostensibly conventional home: wife and daughters who worshipped the obsessive, often contrary man of the house. He makes rich, complex, deeply sad life blighted by two, some-say three suicides among the daughters who would have done anything for him.

Robin D. G. Kelley is an influential cultural historian, based now at UCLA. He’s a student of 20th Century black struggle; a biographer who broke through the mystery of jazz genius Thelonious Monk, and all the while an unorthodox Marxist in motion – in the direction of Surrealism, he says now.  He’s the authority we wanted to hear on why activism of all stripes keeps turning to the peculiar language of Marxism. Great names of black struggle from W. E. B. Dubois to Paul Robeson to Huey Newton and Rap Brown have called themselves Marxists, sometimes Maoists, sometimes Communists.

 

 

August 25, 2016

DFW, FTW: Life In the Internet Age

This week sees the opening of The End of the Tour, an updated My Dinner with Andre about David Foster Wallace’s book tour in 1996 for his immeasurable novel, Infinite Jest. On that tour Wallace stopped ...

This week sees the opening of The End of the Tour, an updated My Dinner with Andre about David Foster Wallace’s book tour in 1996 for his immeasurable novel, Infinite Jest.

On that tour Wallace stopped by our old show, The Connection, and put forward a pitch: his America — better protected, educated, and entertained than ever — was entering a sad spiritual drift. And as a recovering addict, he hoped to help himself (and others) to grope toward inward peace amid the buzz of the coming 21st-century culture.

It’s now almost 20 years later. Is there a chance Wallace, who died in 2008, was right?

His masterpiece novel, Infinite Jest, what we took to be manic imagination now looks like prophesy: it was hung up on lethally good amusement long before screen addiction became a national anxiety and people dropped dead at their keyboards in Asian arcades. Wallace foresaw about the paralyzing strangeness of watching yourself in HD; now we have the selfie stick. He thought virtual-reality porn could destroy civilization as we know it — and now that’s available in prototype (the link is news, but still not safe for work!).

The president Wallace imagined in Infinite Jest’s near future? Johnny Gentle, a dried-up celebrity-turned-wall-building-germaphobe intent on shooting American waste into space. Gentle wins on “a surreal union of both Rush L.- and Hillary R.C.-disillusioned fringes… an angry reactionary voter-spasm.” In other words, he’s Donald Trump.

So, as Trump steps in and Jon Stewart steps out of a long career of laughing ruefully at all the bad news — maybe much of what we’re going through is somewhere inside Wallace’s long body of work, a one-man epic of irony, sincerity, mania, depression, addiction and forbearance.

A.O. Scott, chief film critic at the New York Times, told us Wallace captured the new voices inside American heads better than anybody else:

He was writing in fairly early days of the Internet and in advance of a lot of the digital culture that we now tend to blame for our alienation and loneliness and melancholy… I think that that sadness, that melancholy, that sense of a disconnection, of a perpetual un-fulfillment is a condition of modern life that renews itself in every generation and in every new technological dispensation… He was a very precise mimic in a way of a certain style of consciousness that is still very much with us and has if anything, intensified as the artifice and the addictive power of television has been supplanted and trumped by the addictive power of all these other screens that we now have.

We were joined by novelist and critic Renata Adler, who mapped that melancholy onto the meta American story, not the media. Postwar triumphalism and “public happiness”  gave way to something more paranoid, desperate, and defeated.

Maria Bustillos,who writes about culture for The Awl and The New Yorker, ventured that the latest phase of web living has us almost “lethally selfish,” comfortable with markets and politics that ignore real-world strife.  But, Bustillos says the heady, town-hall spirit of early blogger time isn’t lost forever; she still sees “a humanity rising up” in the Internet and its young users.

And Paul Ford — writer, programmer, and public intellectual of the web — agreed with his pal Maria. Ford points to their own web friendship (and even to Tinder!) to say that there is life on and off the web:

It’s remarkable that you put Maria and me both on this program. We have been chatting ambiently for years. When she comes to New York City, we go out and get coffee, and she gives big, strong tremendous hugs! There is an emerging physicality and sense of literal human touch that I think actually the Internet enabled… I live in this building far out in Brooklyn and we’ve all moved in there with our kids, and half the people in there met online. There is more physicality. There are more people meeting up, more people finding spaces for each other as a result, at the ground level.

July 21, 2016

Billie Holiday at 100

The astonishment about Billie Holiday in her 100th birthday summer is how differently we hear her. Back in the day — in her music, in her autobiography — Lady Day was the full catalog of ...

The astonishment about Billie Holiday in her 100th birthday summer is how differently we hear her. Back in the day — in her music, in her autobiography — Lady Day was the full catalog of suffering in a 20th-century underground: abandonment and child prostitution on the way to drink, drug addiction, and death at 44. “The most hurt and hurting singer in jazz,” said the authoritative Nat Hentoff.

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But resurrection in art jumps out of the soundtrack here — starting with her breakthrough film with Duke Ellington in 1934, when she sings, at age 19, “Saddest tale on land or sea, was when my man walked out on me.” Then, when we hear Billie Holiday’s recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” from 1944, she has stopped at our table in a small club and started speaking directly to us. There’s no other singer who ever made us cheer and cry at the same time. So Billie Holiday stands less for all that pain than for Hemingway’s dictum that a blues hero “can be destroyed but not defeated.”

In Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, the meta-biographer John Szwed (also of Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Alan Lomax) traces the self-invention of an icon and finds the life and art of Billie Holiday running side-by-side with a truth-telling drive that did not quit. In our conversation, Szwed finds that to the end she was “smarter, tougher, funnier” than all but a few knew.

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The Lovers, by Jacob Lawrence (1946). 

Five fine singers — Dee Dee BridgewaterDominique Eade, Marissa Nadler, Janice Pendarvis, and Rebecca Sullivan — are guiding us through their favorite Holiday songs: her vocal tricks and the social, emotional resonances of her music. Re-listening with them, we begin to understand and experience not just the Billie Holiday story, but the atmosphere of Harlem streets, nightclubs, and living rooms. We hear an “unflinching” voice and a “sophisticated” new sound in music.

The greatest jazz singer? The perfect jazz singer? Perhaps the only jazz singer that ever lived.

A Very Brief History of the Microphone


Lady Day not only embraced the use of the microphone, she revolutionized it. By bringing the “Harlem cabaret style” into the studio, she helped introduce a more subtle and restrained style of singing to recorded music. Our guest John Szwed gives us the rundown on how Holiday—along with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, and Johnnie Ray—helped to permanently change the way artists approached the mic. Read the complete story on Medium.

—Zach Goldhammer

Music From The Show

  • “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (1937)
  • “Symphony in Black” (1935)
  • “Solitude” (1941)
  • “Fine and Mellow” (1939)
  • “Love For Sale” (1945)
  • “Them There Eyes” (1949)
  • “Strange Fruit” (1939)
  • “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” (1935)
  • “Me, Myself, and I” (1937)
  • “No Regrets” (1936)
  • “I’ll Get By” (1937)
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944)
  • “God Bless The Child” (1955)
  • “Gloomy Sunday” (1941)
  • “Lover Man” (1945)
  • “I’m a Fool To Want You” (1958)
  • “The End of a Love Affair” (1958)
  • “Fine and Mellow” (1957)

You can listen to an expanded playlist here.

May 26, 2016

Democracy In The Dumps

In 1989, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama pronounced that liberal democracy, on the American model, as the inevitable finish line of political evolution around the world: What we may be witnessing is not just the ...

In 1989, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama pronounced that liberal democracy, on the American model, as the inevitable finish line of political evolution around the world:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

And millions of people agreed: that our own relatively free, fair, stable, and accountable model was the political wonder of the world. (Or we told ourselves more cynically that it was the worst system of all, “except all those other forms that have been tried.”)

Would it surprise you to find out that—through the years of Bush, Obama, and now Trump—Americans have begun to lose confidence in democracy?

According to new research by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, one in six Americans would approve of the military takeover of government. More than 40 percent of the wealthiest Americans would opt for a strong, competent leader who was not accountable to voters. And only 30% of Americans born after 1980 consider it “essential” that they live in a democracy.

Even Fukuyama—one of our guests this week—has had to reevaluate his optimism about the Western model’s world-conquering prospects:

What I understand now much more clearly is that it’s much harder to get there than I had anticipated in terms of [building ] the necessary institutions. The other thing that I didn’t fully appreciate was how easy it was to backslide.

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You can hear that backsliding—the disenchantment, the decay of trust—in the voices of Trump voters from Scott Carrier‘s wonderful podcast, Home of the Brave: people like Jimmy Lee, a skilled construction worker who can’t find work for more than $8.50 an hour. He’s voting for Trump as an entrepreneur who’ll “shake up the White House.”

With Jimmy Lee in mind, we’re staging an intervention in a roaring debate—political thinkers with very different readings of what Donald Trump says about people power in America.

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Commentator Andrew Sullivan came out of retirement this month to declare, in New York magazine, that we’re witnessing too much democracy—a chaotic uprising of people power, almost a French revolution at the ballot box—and that tyranny could be near at hand. For example, as

the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

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In Dissent, Jedediah Purdy argued that Sullivan has the case exactly upside-down. Trump is a symptom of too little democracy; his voters, starved for power and economic prospects, are enraged and beset by a feckless government controlled by wealthy interests and unresponsive elites:

Far from living in a carnival of equality, they get pushed out of jobs because they are not productive enough, denied health care because they are not wealthy enough, denied good schools because they cannot afford to live in the best neighborhoods.

Sullivan and Purdy will provide their separate diagnoses on our air—and Orlando Patterson and Gordon Wood are on hand to hold this moment up to history.

This Week's Show •

Syria: The 21st-Century Disaster

Syria may be the essential 21st-century mess. Our guests, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have just published Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, a new people’s history of the civil war. They tell us that beneath a web ...

Syria may be the essential 21st-century mess.

Our guests, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have just published Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, a new people’s history of the civil war. They tell us that beneath a web of thorny conflicts — Sunni powers against Iran, Obama against Putin, interventionists against isolationists — the central story was quickly lost: a democratic uprising, against scarcity, corruption, and oppression, met with a scorched-earth crackdown by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, determined to retain power.

No matter how you look at this conflict that has displaced 10 million Syrians and taken hundreds of thousands of lives, there are grave regrets: the creation of ISIS, the reverberations of the Iraq war, American vacillation and meddling, and roads to peace not travelled (or even considered).

What might have been done, what might yet happen, and what is the lesson for the Middle East, the next president and the global community?

March 24, 2016

Weimar America?

Pundits from Glenn Beck to Roger Cohen and Chris Hedges have one other discouraged democracy on their minds this election year. They’re thinking of the German government that rose as a fresh democracy in 1919 but failed — amid economic frailty and an uninspiring ...

Pundits from Glenn Beck to Roger Cohen and Chris Hedges have one other discouraged democracy on their minds this election year.

They’re thinking of the German government that rose as a fresh democracy in 1919 but failed — amid economic frailty and an uninspiring mainstream — to resist the rise of radical new politics, and specifically of Adolf Hitler, by 1933.

So we’re spending this week on the lost world of Weimar Republic, and its lessons for today.

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You learn right away that that Berlin was an incredible place: home to Albert Einstein playing violin in the synagogue, Marlene Dietrich singing in The Blue Angel, Paul Klee painting, Walter Gropius designing, George Grosz (above) painting, and Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt thinking over power, technology, and truth. 

The present-day German flag flew over all of it, and there was indeed much of 21st-century Berlin present in the Weimar ’20s: a burgeoning gay scene, emancipated women dancing in late-night clubs packed with fashionable emigrés.

But Stefan Zweig, he of neighboring Vienna, reminds us not to take the present-day comparisons too far. All the “steeds of the Apocalypse” marched through his German-speaking world in those years: hyperinflation, the Great Depression, Communists and fascists killing each other in the street, and a rising tide of ridiculous anti-Semitism and almost-nihilistic dreams of smashing it all up.

Berlin, Tanztee im "Esplanade", 1926

One lesson, for starters: a republic is a fragile thing, as Benjamin Franklin warned all those years ago. And the Weimar example lets you know, at once, the great possibilities and the terrible perils that await the republic that fails.

Podcast • January 21, 2016

For C.D. Wright, Poet of the Ozarks

We lost C.D. Wright, our Ozarkian friend and poet, who put the history around her into verse so we might hold it in more beautiful detail — as in her nostalgic Ozark Odes and in One With Others, ...

We lost C.D. Wright, our Ozarkian friend and poet, who put the history around her into verse so we might hold it in more beautiful detail — as in her nostalgic Ozark Odes and in One With Others, Wright’s much-admired narrative poem rendering the Arkansas theater of our continuing Civil Rights epic.

Listening back to our 2011 conversation, we’re hearing Wright’s portrait of ‘V.’, her hero in life and in One With Others. The place was Forest City in the Arkansas Delta. The time was August 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, about 40 miles away. The central event was a March Against Fear led by one Sweet Willie Wine. “If white people can ride down the highways with guns in their trucks,” he insisted, “I can walk down the highway unarmed.”

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The Ozarks in Arkansas. (Creative Commons, Buffalo Outdoor Center)

V., the center of Wright’s poem, was the one white person who joined Sweet Willie and the black cause — a mother of seven whose raging erudition and reckless love of freedom in action showed Wright the provocative life and a reason to be a writer. “Just to act,” V. liked to say, “was the glorious thing.”

Shortly after she won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Wright told us about V. and her native Arkansas, then and now. One With Others renders home in mixed-media detail. Food price lists of the time and place (“Jack Sprat tea bags only 19 cents. A whole fryer is 59 cents… Cherokee freestone peaches, 5 cans for $1.”) are juxtaposed with Dear Abby advice columns in the local paper (“DEAR TOO MUCH IRONING, I would iron his underwear. You are wasting more energy complaining and arguing than it takes to iron seven pairs of shorts once a week. Everybody has a problem. What’s yours?”) and intercut with the poet’s interviews — 40 years later — about her V.:

The woman who lived next door to the old house came outside to pick up her paper. I asked if she had known my friend V who lived there in the 1960s, and she allowed that she did. Flat out she says, She didn’t trust me, and I didn’t trust her. Then she surprised me, saying, She was right. We were wrong. Then she shocked me, saying, They have souls just like us.”
— from One With Others.

We first met C.D. Wright at Brown University in 2008. As the Bush era ended, the playful Southern poetess had already turned urgently political, and angry, in her art. But she reminded us that mirth and anger, the personal and the historical are fused in the average human lifespan. As in the protestations of her grumpy subject in “Why Ralph Refuses to Dance”. As in the mountains she left and didn’t:

The Ozarks are a fixture in my mindscape, but I did not stay local in every respect. I always think of Miles Davis, “People who don’t change end up like folk musicians playing in museums, local as a motherfucker.” I would not describe my attachment to home as ghostly, but long-distanced. My ear has been licked by so many other tongues.
— from Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil.

This Week's Show •

Black Mountain College: “The Grass-Roots of Democracy”

In 1933, a group of freethinking American educators and academics took a look at their fresh, interwar world — and set about trying to remake it. They set up a campus in idyllic countryside outside Asheville, North Carolina, and Black Mountain ...

In 1933, a group of freethinking American educators and academics took a look at their fresh, interwar world — and set about trying to remake it.

They set up a campus in idyllic countryside outside Asheville, North Carolina, and Black Mountain College was born.

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Our guest, the literary historian Louis Menand, explains that B.M.C. was a philosophical experiment intent on putting the progressive philosopher John Dewey‘s ideas to work in higher education. The college curriculum was unbelievably permissive — but it did ask that students undertake their own formation as citizens of the world by means of creative expression, and hard work, in a community of likeminded people.

The college may not have lived up to its utopian self-image — the scene was frequently riven by interpersonal conflict — but it did serve as a stage-set to some of modern culture’s most interesting personalities and partnerships.

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Josef Albers — he of “Homage to the Square” — served as the head of the painting department and the school’s nerve center from 1933 to 1949. He and his wife Anni — whose beautiful weaving stands out at the ICA/Boston’s B.M.C. exhibition — fled Hitler’s rise and brought the Bauhaus School with them to America. Albers would go on to influence the great names of modern American art in his role at B.M.C., including Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Jacob Lawrence, whose 1946 painting, “The Watchmaker” leaps off the wall.

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Meanwhile, the summers saw visitors like architect Buckminster Fuller — who threw together his first, flimsy geodesic dome at B.M.C. — and the dance-and-music pairing of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. All that talent could sometimes converge, as in “Theatre Piece No. 1,” an fabled, but undocumented, mixed-media happening starring Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, David Tudor and Franz Kline.

Or, again, during the college’s cash-strapped final six years, while the voluble poet Charles Olson served as rector — and built a trailblazing poetic scene feeding into and drawing on the burgeoning Beat generation. Our guest, Globe art critic, Sebastian Smee, told the story of Olson grumpily fishing a delirious Rauschenberg out of icy Lake Eden.

So we’re looking behind B.M.C.’s famous products — the all-white canvases, the silent 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the domes and the poems  — to the effervescent human world beneath it, and for the much it tells us about vision, education, and human growth.

December 11, 2015

Prohibition, Then and Now

What do we remember about America’s thirteen-year war on alcohol at the end of the First World War? Hollywood reminds us of the glamor of both rum-runners and -drinkers, the psychopathic hubris of Al Capone, and the ingenuity ...

What do we remember about America’s thirteen-year war on alcohol at the end of the First World War? Hollywood reminds us of the glamor of both rum-runners and -drinkers, the psychopathic hubris of Al Capone, and the ingenuity and holy determination of the cops who chased them all.

We might remember the temperances ladies who called for the Eighteenth Amendment — many of them also suffragettes — threatening, “Lips that touch wine will never touch mine!,” and the jazz-hall music and roaring promiscuity that bit back at their “Noble Experiment.”

Finally, we might have a vague idea that Franklin Roosevelt, winning the White House amid Depression, brought beer back to the American people within weeks of his inauguration, ending what one reporter named the “fabulous farce!” of Prohibition.

But our guests Lisa McGirr and Khalil Gibran Muhammad want to remind us of what Prohibition left behind, including a new politics of Republican drys versus Democratic Wets; an empowered FBI, and a hyper-armed and vigilant police-and-prison establishment; an unprecedented population of white criminals who were pardoned and brought into the New Deal coalition — leaving blacks behind; and also a government ready and willing to regulate the little things of private leisure, from narcotics to sex when the need arose.

Fast forward forty years to the drug war, and Richard Nixon‘s warnings show an eerie similarity to the state’s leaders getting ready to take on alcohol. Nixon brought the logic of the Moynihan Report into the era of mass incarceration, and established a new criminal obsession with a deep racial bias. Jack Cole, former narcotics officer and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, takes us inside the moment and the mindset.

December 3, 2015

The New Nativism

It’s been a half century since John F. Kennedy declared this “a nation of immigrants,” since his successor Lyndon Johnson threw open the doors to a broad parade of people from all over the world ...

It’s been a half century since John F. Kennedy declared this “a nation of immigrants,” since his successor Lyndon Johnson threw open the doors to a broad parade of people from all over the world with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

That bill did away with a hundred-year history of ‘national origins’ exclusions — a long, legal attempt to keep American society mostly white and European. But it did not do away with a twisted feature of the American identity. This “nation of immigrants” has the homegrown double-standard of a nation of settlers, says our guest Aziz Rana, historian of The Two Faces of American Freedom. We have built exclusivity, and racial and nativist preference, into our idea of what’s American — even if we don’t recognize it.

First it was Protestants in, Catholics out; then it became white men in, people of color out. The first “illegal immigrants” weren’t Mexican, who were once allowed to pass seamlessly into the United States — they were Chinese first, then Jewish. Even LBJ’s liberal coup ended up cutting the legal limit for Latin American immigration by more than 90%.

The tide seemed to have turned: more people have left the U.S. for Mexico since 2009 than have entered the country. Pollsters believed that immigration wouldn’t be a big issue for voters in the 2016 election. They weren’t counting on Donald Trump whipping up a whirlwind of old-fashioned anxiety and anger at newcomers and outsiders, real and imaginary.

So as the nation of immigrants grows bigger, browner and in many ways more inclusive, the part of it that obsesses over the real America never quite goes away.

Then we’ll close out the show with a look at the special case of Mexico. Our guests Helen Marrow and Claudio Lomnitz look sympathetically at our younger, poorer neighbor to the south: at its people, who work hard, assimilate well, and seem sometimes to be victims of their own success in the United States, and at its culture — saturated with death, precariousness, and new kinds of freedom unknown north of the border.

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Mexican women entering the United States, photo by: Dorothea Lange, June 1938 http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa2000001731/PP/