Podcast • September 8, 2016

Election 2016: Unreality T.V.

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This ...

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show.”

Hillary Clinton likes that line, too, and has used it more pointedly against the former host of The Apprentice: “You can’t say to the head of another nation’s government… if you disagree with them, ’you’re fired!’ That is not the way it works in the real world!”

It’s true, of course—but the rise of Trump reminds us that American politics lost their humble, aldermanic relationship with a simple “real world” a long way back.

Obama’s own victory was telegraphed and televised—the dignified, better-than-human First Black President got screen-tested more than once in Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert. And a Brooklyn-ready media rollout teased an age of “hope” and “change” that the candidate was unable fully to bring about.

The gap between the real and the imagined isn’t a new phenomenon—it’s old as politics itself, and only accelerated by TV. As early as 1960, Norman Mailer read John F. Kennedy aright—not as a job applicant but as an avatar for two Americas, old and new:

this candidate for all his record; his good, sound, conventional liberal record has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.

landscape-1426109551-jfk-sunglasses-1960

The author and journalist Ron Suskind is in our studio—he was the one who transcribed a gem of ideology from a secret source in the Bush White House:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Trump may be imperial in that same sense, if Matt Lauer’s botched tackle of the two presidential candidates is anything to go by.

For more on the realm of unreality we’re in, we turn to Veep‘s Frank Rich, and The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum (above), if the age of mass-media politics that began with the glow of Kennedy is ending with the groan of Trump—himself made-for-TV. His unpredictability, his familiar pout, his Lorax coloring and proportions are keeping him in a race and a conversation he might have lost, on the merits, long ago.

To millions of Americans, Trump has some real effects; he represents hope—maybe for boardroom efficiency or a frank simplification of political questions—or a change in atmosphere, away from managed expectations and polite coastal contempt. His may be a dark fantasy, but he sees that politicians, like TV personae real and semi-real, are in the business of fantasy, and that the “show horse” part of the job can’t be so easily shrugged off.

How do we talk about political reality from so deep inside the world of the reality show?

Podcast • April 13, 2015

Barney Frank over 50 Years: the Talker of the House

Barney Frank’s memoir reminds me that we’re almost exact contemporaries – two white guys who’ve been watching a lot of the same stuff, in Boston and Washington, politics and culture, for 50 years, 1965 to ...

Barney Frank’s memoir reminds me that we’re almost exact contemporaries – two white guys who’ve been watching a lot of the same stuff, in Boston and Washington, politics and culture, for 50 years, 1965 to 2015, a long, crazy and almost coherent season of American life. We’re putting a conversation here into a time capsule.

If we’d been born a century earlier, we’d be talking about the start of an awful war in Europe and remembering an awful Civil War here. Between us, we’d have spent up-close time with Lincoln, Mark Twain, R. W. Emerson and P. T. Barnum, Henry and William James, and probably Willy’s unruly student who became president, Teddy Roosevelt.

As it is, we’ve been face-to-face with M. L. King, LBJ and all the Kennedys, James Baldwin, David Halberstam, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, Dorothy Day and Margaret Marshall, Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell, Bill Bulger and Kevin White, Howie Carr and Tom Winship, Frank Sinatra and Yo-Yo Ma, Tip O’Neill and Newt Gingrich, Anthony Lewis and George McGovern, Walter Reuther and Nelson Rockefeller, Ralph Nader and Ross Perot. But we’re trying to think about history, not celebrity. I asked Barney to begin with a list – with room for disagreement – of the most over-rated figures of our time, and the most under-sung heroes of our own experience, famous or obscure. Barney – as is his wont – accentuates the positive.

Barney Frank in conversation

By the Way • January 2, 2014

Happy New Year friends!

2014 begins for us with a new radio show on WBUR. Call it a Boston conversation with global attitude. On Thursday nights (and rebroadcast on Sunday afternoons) we’ll remind you why Boston has been the ...
boston new years

Photo thanks to Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe

2014 begins for us with a new radio show on WBUR. Call it a Boston conversation with global attitude. On Thursday nights (and rebroadcast on Sunday afternoons) we’ll remind you why Boston has been the capital of ideas in America since the heyday of Emerson and Thoreau in the 1840’s. Our first show, on January 2nd at 9pm, is about music education. We’ll begin with a look at an elementary school in Brighton, Massachusetts where every child, Pre K to 8th grade – makes music for three-and-a-half hours every day. The driving idea, spreading worldwide from Venezuela, is that every child wants to play an instrument and can. With musicians, a cognitive and development theorist and Howard Gardener from the Harvard Ed School, we’ll explore new ways to teach music and maybe new ways to organize schools. You can listen live on 90.9 or stream the show at wbur.org. We’ll have a podcast up on our site after the show.

Next up, on January 9th, is a conversation about the Pope Francis phenomenon with James Carroll who writes in the New Yorker that he’s a radical, not a liberal. We’ll examine the “conversion of the papacy” and what seems like a new Catholic conversation.

We have two other shows in the works: one on health care on January 16th with Dr. Thomas Lee of Mass General Hospital who’s written a book called “The Rise of Modern Medicine,” which is a history lesson of a kind about Boston medicine, and on January 23rd we’ll take a tour of the novelist David Foster Wallace’s Boston. Did you know that “Infinite Jest” is a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel?

As always, we’re looking for help in the planning of these shows, and we’re looking for ways to engage in conversation with you both on the air and on our website. We’ve remodeled things a bit at radioopensource.org, and we’ve added a couple of features. On the Veranda is a porch of sorts where you can share links, angles, ideas and digressions. On the top of our site we’ll feature a photo of the day, maybe a Boston vista or just a great snapshot. Send them to us, and we will reward you immeasurably.

Our show is weekly, which leaves time for podcast conversations and experiments. We’ve been reading (and recording) Chekhov stories in Chris’ living room and trying to learn WordPress. Ryan Cataloni, one of our new Emerson College friends, has given us a new look.  Keep an eye out for the work of the young filmmakers Coop Vacheron and Loni Paone, also from Emerson, and make sure and welcome our intern, Kunal Jasty.

 

By the Way • December 4, 2013

A few good men and women

Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath are putting the band back together, re-launching “Open Source” on public radio in Boston and as a podcast and conversation platform at this site. We’re looking for a few good ...

shackleton 600
Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath are putting the band back together, re-launching “Open Source” on public radio in Boston and as a podcast and conversation platform at this site. We’re looking for a few good men and women to join the adventure. There are opportunities for both full and part-time work for a few Boston-based self-starters– “self-stahtahs” as we call them in the Hub. Some experienced is required.

Web and Social Media Producer/Community Manager

We’re looking for people who still read books and who have wide interests in the arts, ideas and politics to blog, share and promote our content and conversations as well as dig up interesting new stuff to share with our audience.

We’ll need help updating, adapting and expanding our WordPress site, producing multi-media extras for it and keeping track of analytics. We have a worldwide community that wants to be involved and engaged in ongoing conversations. With an exciting new partnership with WBUR radio in Boston, we’re looking for new ways for an expanding audience to participate across our web and broadcast platforms.

Audio Producer

How are your recording and ProTools or Hindy chops? Can you help us integrate our site with SoundCloud? We’ll have more conversations to record and edit than we can handle, so we’ll need some help getting them produced and then distributed across the web and public radio outside Boston via PRX and other services.

BizDev

No one has cracked the code for supporting and sustaining high quality on-line media, but we have some interesting elements to work with in a smart, active community and a new broadcast platform. We want to be built to last. What are the media partnerships, promotions and collaborations we haven’t unlocked yet, and what are the events, special projects and features we should be cooking up?

Interns

Yes, we’ll pay you decently, and we promise you’ll be having more busy fun at a job than you thought you could.

Want to apply?

We’d love to hear from you. Send a cover letter describing your interests and why you might like to join our merry band. Include a resumé with a reference or two and your twitter handle. We look forward to meeting you.

Please contact:

Mary McGrath

mary@radioopensource.org

zadie 1Mary McGrath and Christopher Lydon have worked in public media together for nearly 20 years. They created an award-winning call-in talk show for WBUR in the 90’s called “The Connection.” They created “Open Source,” a national program and blog for public broadcasting from 2005 to 2007, which was independently produced by them and supported by the MacArthur and Schumann foundations, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and by donors. The show got credit for pioneering the use of social media in radio production and distribution. 

Since 2007, Chris has hosted hundreds conversations on the Radio Open Source website which are distributed through iTunes. Back in 2003 Chris hosted the first podcast with the web innovator Dave Winer at the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School. The new project, Open Source with Christopher Lydon, is a co-production with WBUR radio in Boston. Chris and Mary will also be producing additional conversations and content that will be available on-line in podcast form and available for broadcast outside of Boston. A fuller description of the new project is here.

 

 

Podcast • November 13, 2012

Coffee Hour: on A Week in Tunisia

Click to listen to Chris and Mark in a wrap-up exchange on the less-than-revolution in Tunisia (30 min, 12 meg)We’re lifting a ritual from the Cairo novels of the late great Naguib Mahfouz. Almost every ...

Photo credit: Malek Khadhraoui

Click to listen to Chris and Mark in a wrap-up exchange on the less-than-revolution in Tunisia (30 min, 12 meg)

We’re lifting a ritual from the Cairo novels of the late great Naguib Mahfouz. Almost every day in the home of the patriarch Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, there was a gathering of sons, daughters, cousins and strays for gossip, score-keeping, reflection, sometimes an argument. So my fellow traveler and co-podcaster Mark Fonseca Rendeiro (from Newark, N.J. and now Amsterdam) are mulling impressions out loud of a week Tunisia coming up on the second birthday of the revolt that began the “Arab Spring.” What came of that breathtaking blaze of human solidarity for, as they said, “freedom, dignity and work”? A parliament dominated by Islamists, eventually. And along the way: an explosion of palpable popular pleasure in free expression — in music, satire, film-making, and liberated political debate. Tunisia will vote again on the “Islamist tendency” in presidential elections next year. In the meantime, Mark is observing that in every argument we heard about religious activism in Tunisian politics, there was never a peep about “the rise of a religion that hates the West.” There was deference rather to the recovery of observant Muslims from 30 years and more of cruel persecution. We met Tunisians waiting hungrily for the “real revolution” yet to come, but they can’t be typical even of the left. I asked the acerbic political cartoonist Nadia Kiari if she’d ever felt Tunisians were reenacting 1789 in Paris. “I hope not!” she roared. To her the French Revolution called to mind Robespierre, the Terror, probably Napoleon’s manhandling of Egypt, “and Sarkozy,” she exclaimed — of the French president who stood with Ben Ali two years ago against the burst of freedom in Tunisia. What if Tunisians wanted something less than a revolution, and got it?

Podcast • April 13, 2012

Jay Rosen on our Media Malaise: Who Will Tell the People?

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn't believe -- it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call "media" has been transformed by the digital revolution.

 

Jay Rosen – NYU journalism professor, social-media rock star and most thoughtful of press watchers – thinks the critical news stories of our time have grown “Too Big to Tell.”

We’re pulling on a thread — “what are we going through?” essentially — that began with the late Tony Judt‘s last book of sermons Ill Fares the Land and continued with Timothy Snyder and Thinking the Twentieth Century. It’s a wide-open inquiry that needs your nudges. Listen and comment, please!

Here’s Jay Rosen on the media piece:

It’s impossible to register in our public conversation an America in decline, a loss of confidence. We also haven’t dealt with the huge crisis of accountability. Nobody’s accountable for anything in this country. Who’s accountable for a phony case for war, put forward in 2002 and 2003? Nobody! Who’s accountable for a financial crash and corrupt financial practices that went on for years and made lots of people rich? Nobody! Who’s responsible for failing to detect a phony case for war — in the press? Nobody. Just to take an example: David Gregory [of NBC] to this day maintains that he and his colleagues reporting on the White House and the Bush Administration did a great job in the run-up to the war. He says this today. His reward for that is not to be laughed out of the profession but to get Tim Russert’s chair on Meet the Press. He’s bigger than ever! To me just that little story tells the tale of accountability in the United States. And it’s that group of people that still has a hold on the political conversation, even though fewer people believe them or pay attention or rely on them. And so the alternative to a reality-based politics, which we do not have, is just a huge increase in cynicism.

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn’t believe — it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call “media” has been transformed by the digital revolution. The tools of publishing and broadcasting have all been distributed, which is to say: democratized. Critically independent websites like Politico, TPM, Daily Kos and TruthDig have taken root, and vast horizontal networks like Facebook thrive. Yet, on the other hand, in some strange way “the conversation” has not moved. If anything, Jay Rosen says, the grip of reality has been weakened. As Joan Didion remarked in 1988 about the specialized and professionalized “process” around a presidential campaign: “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” I am asking Jay Rosen: are we looking at the end of something, or the beginning of something else?

I would say ‘the end’ in this sense: the only real program for change we have now is: Collapse! Because we have these institutions that don’t work. They are in many ways constructed on illusions or lies. They go… go… go… go… go… until the day that they don’t. Like the whole mortgage-fueled financial system, right? It worked… it worked… it worked… it worked… and then one day it collapsed, with a lot of destruction and almost a kind of violence. We’re now in a period where we can’t reform, so we’re waiting for various forms of collapse. Now in the aftermath, yeah, sometimes that can be the start of something. But I don’t see right now any alternative. The institutions that are supposed to be able to take account of reality — name it, frame it, allow for a contest of ideas, permit a choice of large directions to be made and therefore allow us to find some sort of imperfect remedy — just don’t work. And so the alternative is: Collapse. But in the collapse there are new tools, there are new ideas, there’s another generation. Certainly it’s not going to be you and me! And so there’s where the case for optimism is. We still need people like Tony Judt. We need writers just trying to make sense of their own experience, who can name and frame what they see. But the tools for ignoring those people roar. They are powerful, too.

Jay Rosen with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 5, 2012

This all calls to mind our last conversation with the late Anthony Shadid, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his people-first coverage of the war in Iraq. What the most honored of reporters on the Middle East wanted to get off his chest with me two years ago was that “I find it almost painful to come home to the States…” He was in grave distress wondering if anyone had read his stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, about the war at the level of Iraqi villages and families. “I think it’s just spectacular that we don’t appreciate the devastation that has been wrought in Iraq over the past 7 or 8 years. It’s just spectacular. There was an incredible amount of arrogance that went into this entire experience on the part of journalists, on the part of policy makers and the military. There wasn’t even a desire to learn. It does give you pause.”

April 13, 2012

George Scialabba: Media Malaise and this American Condition

George Scialabba flatters and provokes with a comment on Jay Rosen‘s view of dysfunctional media and the Tony Judt thread of Open Source conversations. George is an independent essayist — erudite but not academic, as ...


George Scialabba
flatters and provokes with a comment on Jay Rosen‘s view of dysfunctional media and the Tony Judt thread of Open Source conversations. George is an independent essayist — erudite but not academic, as his friend John Summers has noted, critical but not rancorous.

We posted a general gab with George Scialabba three years ago on the occasion of his collection What are Intellectuals Good For? You can read his own strong essay on Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land on George’s website.

About Jay Rosen’s view that the American misadventure in 2012 is a story “too big to tell,” George writes:

I think the problem with the media, and public discourse generally, is the concentration of ownership. Clear Channel has wiped out radio as a democratic medium. Conglomerates own broadcast TV, and large investors press furiously on cable networks to meet profit targets. Murdoch is a journalistic pestilence, and Sam Zell, who ruined the LA Times and/or Chicago Tribune, is likewise, in his different way. Publishing is a wasteland of corporate rationalization, hopelessly profit-driven and plagued by marketing departments horning in on editorial decisions.

The problem is fundamental and systemic, not contingent. As long as information and access to audiences are treated as commodities rather than as public utilities, there will be a race to the bottom, with the inevitable degradation of quality/individuality and then wholesale abandonment, exactly as happens with other industries. The only way to halt and then reverse the hollowing out of the culture or the economy, the public or the private sphere, is robust democracy: the determined and persistent self-assertion of the populace against the many-tentacled corporate hydra, which now wholly owns government. But of course this is the worst possible time to look for such self-assertion: no unions, one in six working-age people un- or under-employed, the rest mainly dependent on employers for health-care and retirement security. Of course the populace is insecure and overstressed – not the frame of mind in which to create a vast grassroots movement, even if we weren’t continually bombarded by right-wing propaganda.

I haven’t used the word “capitalism” because I don’t think it’s necessary to decide on the exact shape of a new society before addressing the obvious malfunctions of the present one. And although I think the only lasting solutions are radical ones, that doesn’t mean that I think one must begin by seizing the state, or even running a candidate for president. I think efforts like Ralph Nader’s public service groups – ongoing, low-cost, outside the electoral racket – are useful. The Z media network here in Boston is useful. There are lots of little magazines, small publishers, independent documentaries, seat-of-the-pants websites, and of course conscientious academics like Jay Rosen. It’s not really a problem of ideas – the people and outlets I’ve just mentioned have lots of great ideas. It’s a problem of resources. In this society, as in any (forgive me) capitalist society, the people with the resources are likely to have little concern for the public good, and the people with the most concern for the public good are likely to have the fewest resources. But that’s life before democracy.

Other resources for listeners: Chomsky and Herman’s great Manufacturing Consent; Glenn Greenwald’s invaluable column in Salon; the independent community TV channel in Cambridge, which shows many superb documentaries that you’ll never see elsewhere; Ralph Nader’s underappreciated book Only the Rich Can Save Us; and of course, Radio Open Source.

Inviting further comments — please! and of course. Thank you.

Podcast • June 7, 2011

Joi Ito: How to Save the Internet from its Success

If the Internet dream could take human form, it might look and sound a lot like cheerful, boyish, 44-year-old Joi Ito, the new director of the fantasy factory known as the MIT Media Lab. Like ...

fl20061105x1aIf the Internet dream could take human form, it might look and sound a lot like cheerful, boyish, 44-year-old Joi Ito, the new director of the fantasy factory known as the MIT Media Lab. Like the Web, he’s everywhere and nowhere — often, in fact, 30,000 feet in the air, circumnavigating the planet every couple of weeks, but wrapped always in a digital cloud of conversation and omnidirectional exploration.

Joi Ito draws on Japanese roots and American experience. Born and continually tutored by his grandmother in the old cultural capital, Kyoto, he was raised also by his parents in surburban Detroit. But his air seems less East-West hybrid than a spirit of self-consciously detribalized human energy. His home airport now is Dubai, because he wanted to cultivate a Middle Eastern perspective on events, investments, social turmoil.

Joi Ito is as complexly “global” a citizen as Pico Iyer, the English-Indian writer who went to university in the States and now bases himself at TIME magazine and in Japan. But the effects, and the affect, are entirely different. Pico Iyer’s passions are literary; his oldest best friend is the Dalai Lama. Joi Ito’s issues — applied urgently to technology, culture, teaching and learning — are innovation, openness, connectedness. His passions — which seem to be engaged serially — have evolved from experimental “industrial” music, which he transported from Chicago to Tokyo, to start-up investments (early into Twitter, Kickstarter, Flickr). Then came on-line games, and scuba diving. In conversation, he might impel you to join his advanced World of Warcraft guild; but then he might make others scream “Only disconnect!” and go home to a Victorian novel.

Like the Web, Joi Ito is a natural-born connector — cherished by fellow futurists for giving them courage. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab 25 years ago and author of Being Digital says of his heir: “Joi got the job because he is the most selfless young person I know who has made his short life-time one of enablement. This is so key. The Media Lab is now much broader than I ever knew it, where the ‘media’ du jour is the mind.” Joi’s job, Negroponte adds, “is to make the Lab crazy again.”

We are talking about wrinkles in the Internet dream — about the self-cancelling possibility, for example, that digital tech has leveraged the surveillance state as much as it has linked up the social-justice crowds. I’m asking Joi Ito about Doc Searls‘ dread, that “our commons is being enclosed” by phone companies, the entertainment industry and regulators who see the Net essentially as “a better way to get TV on your mobile device, delivered for subscription and usage fees.” And I’m venting some of my own latter-day anxiety about the damage the Internet has done to the old-media institutions we miss more and more, and maybe didn’t cherish enough — the late great New York Times, to name just one.

Podcast • April 12, 2011

Thomas Balmès: An Education in Images

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Thomas Balmès (12 minutes, 6 mb mp3) Director Thomas Balmès on location in Mongolia filming “Babies” [Focus Features photo]Thomas Balmès, the French film documentarian, had a worldwide hit ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Thomas Balmès (12 minutes, 6 mb mp3)

Director Thomas Balmès on location in Mongolia filming “Babies” [Focus Features photo]

Thomas Balmès, the French film documentarian, had a worldwide hit last year with Babies. The movie was all pictures, no dialog. No text, no voice-over. No argument, no “cause.” Just irresistibly patient long shots of newborns and their parents in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and San Francisco, provoking wry comparisons and conversations (speak for yourselves) but mostly questions.

Is this the man to tune up — maybe redesign — the education of kids, and college kids, who already learn more from images and screens than they do from sentences and books? Thomas Balmès is saying that an education system that neglects to teach its students to participate in making the images they so readily consume is collapsing all around us, not least at Brown, where he was Artist-in-Residence last week. Academics (like his father, a Lacan scholar) write impenetrable texts for a closed circle of friends and rivals; students lean on screens, even in class, and learn by images without acknowledging their adopted language. The students who hovered with him all week arrive typically with ambitious and original film projects to save the world but very little idea, he said, of the how — or of craft, form and story-telling. Among the 10 “rules” that Thomas Balmes has adapted from the great Victor Kossakovsky, one suggests that while it would be nice to save the world, better perhaps for a filmmaker on a project to think of saving herself. It is part of academia’s duty, in Balmes’ view, to create at least a part of its product in today’s vernacular, a language defined overwhelmingly by images.

Today there was a survey published saying an average American child watches on average 7.5 hours of images per day — on phones, iPads, computers, TV. This is insane: to have so little concern about images in places like this to me is criminal. You need to participate in the making of these images, to be thinking about images and not learning how to communicate only through writing. It’s time that academics really taking this seriously. This is crucial. …

Students should participate in the creation of images, and not give it up to Murdoch, and others. You have people here in academia who are working in a kind of closed circle and not caring about what is going on outside. People do read, but writing cannot be the only mode of creation in the academic world. Academics must take and grasp, very rapidly, moving images, and participate in the production of these images… In France every child before 18 spends one year studying philosophy. You don’t become a philosopher, but you study. This is crucial. Reading images, understanding images, semantics, semiotics, whatever, is absolutely crucial and must be implemented at every age in the school system…

Thomas Balmès with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 8, 2011.

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.