This Week's Show •

Going Nativist

The battle over the travel ban echoes our history from the founding, slicing deep into the heart of American sympathies: Are refugees and migrants coming ashore to be seen as humble ‘guests of the nation?’ or ...

The battle over the travel ban echoes our history from the founding, slicing deep into the heart of American sympathies: Are refugees and migrants coming ashore to be seen as humble ‘guests of the nation?’ or as American as anyone, just for getting through the gate? George Washington said he was building an “asylum for the oppressed” of all nations.  And so the Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles, with her world-wide welcome. 

Italian Immigrants at Ellis Island

Kansan-Kenyan Barack Obama embodied the whole dream: an America for searchers, strivers, migrants like his father: the polyglot nation-of-all-nations, not the world’s master but the world’s story. And now the counter-story from the man who doubted that Obama was born American, much less that he belonged in the White House. 

The ‘who we are’ question, between Immigration Nation and Fortress America, is one that all our show guests have explored deeply and widely, traversing all sorts of social, political and historical terrains. Neil Swidey, a staff writer for the Globe, brings back to life the story of the anti-Immigration movement in Boston at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a story of Brahmins and ‘barbarians’; a story of privilege, of savage inhumanity, and of unenlightened righteousness.

Francis Fukuyama reframes the argument in ideological terms, arguing that to be an American is to espouse a particular political creed. In his own words:

You have political values that define what it means to be American. It’s not tied to religion, to ethnicity, to race. So that anyone who espouses those values can be an American.

Aziz Rana partly agrees with Fukuyama, that a kind of American creed rests at the foundation of American identity. Or at least it did, at one particular period of time. From the mid-20th century on through to the end of the Cold War, a form of American identity was manufactured as a weapon to be used in ideological warfare with the Soviet Union. Prior to WWII, American identity was inextricably bound up with race.

Nadeem Mazen, brings in local politico perspective to our immigration debate here in Greater Boston. In 2013, Mazen became the first Muslim city councilor in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and was recently re-elected after running a Bernie-esque hyperprogressive grassroots campaign. His position on the city council and his work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) inspired the Bannon-led newsroom at Breitbart to label him “Hamas on the Charles.” Now, Mazen is striking back at the islamophobes in the White House and making a general call for Muslim-Americans to run for public office.

Sheida Dayani, a Persian-born poet and translator, tells us about her initial reaction to “the human ban” and how paradoxically she feels most American when teaching Persian texts to her students at Harvard.

Listen below to her poem entitled The Ordinary Man of this Neighborhood.

January 19, 2017

The Obama Years

What the “Yes I Can” president wanted most of all was to bring together a robust democracy in spirit if not every line of substance. What he ran into was a rockslide of revolt and ...

What the “Yes I Can” president wanted most of all was to bring together a robust democracy in spirit if not every line of substance. What he ran into was a rockslide of revolt and a singular embodiment of it: a three-ring circus of a successor, Donald Trump, who seems to be the very opposite in tone and temperament of Barack Obama. 

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, many of us, like Marilynne Robinson, beloved novelist and personal friend of the president, will miss a lot from Mr. Obama. Robinson says the transnational aspects of Obama embody the very best in us, and, she tells us, “Our refusal to acknowledge him as he was really is a refusal to acknowledge ourselves as we are.” Robinson speaks of Obama as a “saintly man” with an impossible job:

This idea of the transformative leader, I think that that Obama is smarter than that. He knows that change is incremental and that it is collective. But what liberals tend to do–and I call myself a liberal under every possible circumstance, I’d put it on my headstone–but what they tend to do is create some ideal that nobody could live up to and then diminish what is good, what is accomplished by comparison with this almost childlike, supposed expectation. It’s no way to run anything.

Bromwich, Sterling professor of English at Yale, sees Obama differently. Bromwich was a supporter in 2008, but in 2009 became a skeptic who saw serious limits to the man’s gracious style:

…you can’t keep giving that reconciliatory post-war speech with a euphemistic and gentle rhetoric appropriate to a magnanimous victor in a war. Obama wanted to be the magnanimous victor and conciliator before he even fought a contest… and that’s a temperamental quirk so strange…. a fixed, false idea that he could be the unifier.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Nathan Robinson and Randall Kennedy join us to hash out the meaning of the Obama years in the context of the inauguration.

Illustration by Susan Coyne

This Week's Show •

Democracy’s Dark Side

This week, the third in a series on our democracy in 2016, we’re discussing what you can’t change with a vote — at least for now. Change is the electoral mood for now, with Bernie Sanders ...

This week, the third in a series on our democracy in 2016, we’re discussing what you can’t change with a vote — at least for now.

Change is the electoral mood for now, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s victories in New Hampshire in the news. But change was the watchword of Barack Obama, too. What is an uneasy electorate asking for seven years later, and why aren’t they getting it?

Michael Glennon has a theory. He’s a former Senate lawyer who today teaches at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In his book, National Security and Double Government, Glennon wants to explain the durability of national habits like the drone war, crackdowns on journalists, widespread surveillance, and secrecy by getting voters to see our government as split in two.

Obama-Denver-columns

There’s the traditional front — “The Making of the President,” the State of the Union, the Capitol Hill roll call, the marble columns. But beneath that Madisonian world is a secret 20th-century establishment of bureaucrats, experts, contractors, and civil servants who do a lot of deciding themselves, on matters of national security and surveillance, diplomacy, trade, and regulation. And, in a dangerous and complex empire, their indispensable number and their power grows year after year.

Glennon insists that he isn’t speaking about a shadowy secret government, or the Freemasons. Rather, he’s talking about hypertalented, hard-working people who make their homes in the D.C. metro area, and who draft the memos, legal briefs, and war plans that end up deciding our common future.

Truman-jpg

The dark-matter influence of this group becomes especially clear when it comes to the stubbornness of the security state: from Harry Truman begging the nation to rethink the privileges of the CIA — an agency he founded — one month after John Kennedy was killed in Dallas (above), to George W. Bush being repeatedly left (like his father) “out of the loop” by the intelligence services, and misled about the nature of the post-9/11 program of torturing America’s prisoners. Or finally Barack Obama, who is reported to have declared, on the subject of drones, “the CIA gets what it wants.” This is the long story of the Castro assassinations, the Church Committee (below), and the torture report.

There’s a chaotic, exciting feeling in the air in 2016 — but should we have to hold our applause for the spectacle and take a second look under the hood of the government itself?

Let us know what you think in the comments or on our Facebook page.

ChurchCmteAP

This Week's Show •

Violent Extremism, East and West

Next Wednesday the White House is convening a summit on ‘countering violent extremism.’ The details are sketchy — a press release announces that the meeting will “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, ...

Next Wednesday the White House is convening a summit on ‘countering violent extremism.’ The details are sketchy — a press release announces that the meeting will “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence”.

The details of the summit are sketchy — a press release declares that the meeting will “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence”.

Meanwhile this week President Obama has asked for a limited three-year extension of war powers in Iraq, with his staff still hoping “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. We’re asking about the long-term plan to solve a long-term problem of grievance and retribution in the Muslim world: is there one? and what does it look like?

We’re in the last week of our Kickstarter campaign, and every dollar given now is matched 2 for 1. Please give, if you haven’t already!

In the 14th year of the ‘long war’ in the Middle East, we’re trying to contain a new threat: to catch would-be terrorists before they turn into the Tsarnaevs, or the Kouachi brothers who shocked Paris last month with their assault on Charlie Hebdo, or one of the hundreds of people worldwide who have flocked to Syrian battlefields.

There will be sessions on detecting warning signs on Twitter and Facebook and case studies from Singapore and the European Union. The National Counterterrorism Center has already drafted a checklist that will score families on their vulnerability to political and religious violence, on a sixty-point scale, based on factors like “perceived sense of being treated unjustly,” “witnessing violence,” and “experiences of trauma”. It’s pretty technocratic stuff!

Radicalization-diagram

On the other hand, Newt Gingrich, sometimes thought of us as the Republican Party’s thinking man, isn’t beating around the bush in the pages of the Wall Street Journal: we’re at war with radical Islam, we’re losing, and we don’t have a clue how to win. If, as Gingrich suggested last month, the ‘long war’ on Islamic extremism needs a grand strategist like George Kennan, what would the ‘grand strategy’ be?

So set aside the checklists and the so-called “clash of civilizations”. Let’s look at the biggest possible picture. What kind of common sense do we need to break this decades-long cycle of violence and revenge in the Middle East and here at home?

Moazzam Begg’s Story

Born in England, captured in Pakistan, and now twice freed on terror charges, Moazzam Begg is a controversial figure, but he’s one of the people we most wanted to hear in a conversation about the low moments of the terror war and the hope of a better future.

We knew his story and the horrible content of his testimony, but he surprised us by telling us just how well he’d come to know some of the guards at Guantanamo Bay. And he told us that he hoped that reconciliation could come in the form of truth and reconciliation, on the South African model.

Podcast • January 27, 2015

Steve Brill’s Bitter Pill

Steve Brill is our guest. He’s an old-fashioned reporter at book length – out of the David Halberstam school. He’s taken apart the passage of Obamacare in an investigation he titled America’s Bitter Pill: Money, ...

Steve Brill is our guest. He’s an old-fashioned reporter at book length – out of the David Halberstam school. He’s taken apart the passage of Obamacare in an investigation he titled America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.

Short form: It’s the story of a messy democracy awash in special-interest money trying to reform a messy health care system itself awash in money and private powers. The moral is every bit of the discontent; everything that’s wrong with Obamacare comes directly out of the way the bill was cooked. There were many steps in good directions, Steve Brill would tell you, but still our politics and our doctoring both need emergency care.

Among the Washington compromises and insurance-industry negotiations, we’re discussing a story that hits close to home here in Boston, too: that of the medical device industry. As Steve Brill says:

The medical device industry is one of the most profitable industries. Their profit margins are through the roof; the leading medical device company, Medtronic, has much higher profit margins even than Apple.

So part of the Obamacare law that made some sense was: they put an excise tax of 3% on all medical devices—all durable medical equipment, as they call it. Now the rationale was we’re about to give people who make pacemakers, and artificial hips, and artificial knees, and neurostimulators for your back that nobody really needs but everybody gets—we’re about to give them tens of millions of new customers. Let’s get a little bit of a tax on them. It’s an excise tax, which means it’s not just on domestic companies, it’s on foreign companies.

And the industry howled. They said: This is a jobs killer; this is a profit killer; it’s terrible. And it wasn’t just the Republicans. In Washington, when it comes to healthcare lobbying it is bipartisan.

The sainted Elizabeth Warren is trying to get that tax repealed. Al Franken is trying to get that tax repealed, as well as the Republicans. It’s the one bipartisan thing going on capitol hill—is let’s repeal the medical device tax—because their tentacles are so deep on capitol hill.

Now is it a jobs killer? Is it a profits killer? Let’s look at Medtronic. Since Obamacare was signed, Medtronic’s profit is up 67% and it’s added more than 5,000 people to the payroll. Doesn’t sound like a jobs killer; doesn’t sound like a profit killer. … Obamacare is a gravy train for these companies. The idea that a 3% tax has hurt them is hilarious, there’s just no evidence of it.

Podcast • September 9, 2013

David Bromwich on Democracy and War with Syria

There is a tendency of men of power, especially great power in the United States, to become so isolated that their thinking grows fantastic. I just mean: dominated by fantasy. We like to think an ...

There is a tendency of men of power, especially great power in the United States, to become so isolated that their thinking grows fantastic. I just mean: dominated by fantasy. We like to think an obviously intelligent and fairly balanced person as Obama seemed to be would escape that curse, but I don’t think so. I think of a few counter-examples: of Jimmy Carter, who has become wiser about the world in his after-years than he was as president… And I think of John Kennedy in the last year of his presidency where so much more wisdom and rueful knowledge of the limits of power, and the limits that ought to be placed on power by itself, seemed to inhabit the man. Obama’s progression has not been like theirs. It’s been from an outside, ironic and interestingly non-attached point of view to something much more oriented to the conventional routes of American power.

David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English, with Chris Lydon in New Haven, September 6, 2013.

With David Bromwich, close-reader of the history unfolding before our eyes, I am looking for a bright side. We are having a national conversation, after all, about war, war powers, presidential authority, intervention. It could be a democratic moment to rejoice in. President Obama has asked the people through the Congress and the Constitution to join in a freighted decision on war and peace, and the country is responding. At the same time the president indicates he is ready to override the people’s skepticism and maybe a Congressional vote for restraint. The Nobel Peace Prize president is “Pleading for War,” in one Huffington Post headline. Mr. Obama is disappointed but not yet persuaded or moved by the anti-war consensus of the G-20 leaders, the almost-unanimous European Union, the United Nations Secretary General and the Pope. Professor Bromwich wonders, not alone and not for the first time, whether Americans have ever heard from President Obama a “consistent view” of his or our international role. “There’s something unhinged about the quality of the different voices we are hearing around the White House,” Bromwich is telling me. “I think the least you can say against President Obama right now is that he does not seem to be in control.”

It turns out, in a long conversation about the immeasurably grave Syrian question before the country, that we both have John F. Kennedy on our minds approaching the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I’m asking David Bromwich: how was it that the American crisis in civil rights made JFK a deeper, more serious person, and the near-catastrophe around Russian missiles in Cuba led Kennedy to the nuclear test ban treaty. How is it that the apparent collapse of the Arab Spring, the anxiety around what could be a nuclear Iran, have not seemed to penetrate and enliven the Obama circle in any comparable way.

I think Kennedy had an outgoing temperament and almost an appetite for action, for activity not just on the public stage but with public consequences. Not all of this was good by any means. But he had learned a lot, had become a wiser and a lonelier figure by 1963, partly because he saw what he was up against in the military. I like the story of John Frankenheimer, the director of “The Manchurian Candidate,” requesting from Kennedy to borrow rooms in the White House for the making of “Seven Days in May,” a good thriller about a military conspiracy to take over the government of the United States. And Kennedy let them have it. He went away for a couple of days and said to Frankenheimer: “These people,” meaning the military, “are crazy! The American people need to understand that.” Why is that unimaginable coming from Obama? It’s that there isn’t that feeling of first-hand engagement, of wanting to wrestle with problems. It is an unusual human characteristic, and as Kennedy’s example again shows, it carries with it some risky materials as well. But I think Obama is prudent and holds back, and takes the messages that are borne in on him. I think a Kennedy sort of personality, coming into office in 2009, 2010, 2011, would have seen Iran as a possibly soluble — and as the major — problem for the United States, because it impinges so much on dealings with Russia and China as well, and on the Middle East. And Iran had allied itself with the U.S. in the war on Afghanistan, and then found itself utterly rebuffed by Cheney and Bush after the help they gave in 2001, 2002 — put into the outer darkness, called part of ‘the axis of evil.’ Obama seemed to intend to change all that. But now, with the election of a new president in Iran, would have been the moment to recognize, as Kennedy did about the test ban: now I can get some action; it’s going to be hard, but I’ll do it… Now would be the moment to seek some sort of arrangement with Iran whereby they will never go to nuclear weapons, but they will be satisfied with their ability to use nuclear power domestically. This would have required enormous risk, and real courage, as it did for Kennedy to go after the test ban and push it through. Let’s never underestimate it; it’s one of the most remarkable presidential achievements of my lifetime. And it would take courage for Obama to do that, courage to go against Israel. But he would have to have initiative, too, and he would have to be pushing it himself. And that appetite doesn’t seem to be there.

I am puzzling about what seemed a long silence from Israel on this matter of striking Syria — a silence becoming less silent, David Bromwich observes. According to the New York Times over the weekend, 250 AIPAC lobbyists have been preparing to work the House of Representatives this week in favor of the Obama attacks. Professor Bromwich is quoting an Israeli diplomat in last Friday’s Times, to the effect that Israel sees in Syria a “playoff situation” in which one wants both sides to lose — the Assad government and the jihadist rebels. “Let them both bleed and hemorrhage to death — that’s the strategic thinking here,” said the Israeli diplomat.

If Israel emerges alone as the sole country in the entire Middle East that is not a devastation, and that is solid-looking and modern and Western in ways that Americans identify with, then Israel and the United States can march forward hand-in-hand toward whatever future. I think that’s the short- and middle-term so-called strategic thinking that’s guiding this. I think it’s very wrong. I want Israel to survive, and I don’t think it will survive well or happily on these terms. But that’s the calculation under Netanyahu now… So they do back limited attacks on Syria, and you can bet that behind the scenes the pressure from the Israeli government is much stronger than is leaked out to the Times. And we’re going to have a siege of it, I’m pretty sure, next week.

David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English, with Chris Lydon in New Haven, September 6, 2013.

So, I ask, when that irresistible force meets the immovable object of resistance at the American grassroots, what happens in the U. S. House? “For anyone who perceives what’s happening,” Professor Bromwich said, “it is one of the most astonishing confrontations between influence and democratic sentiment that has ever been.”

Podcast • June 25, 2013

Jeff Sachs on JFK’s last year: Between Doom and Miracle

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 futures. And we are all mortal. ...

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 futures. And we are all mortal.

President Kennedy’s “peace” speech., Ted Sorensen’s favorite, at American University, June 10, 1963


Jeff Sachs
will remind you, first, of the loopy vertigo of the JFK years, through the “annus mirabilis” that ended in assassination. From the prophet’s vision of the Inaugural speech (“For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life…”) it was 100 days to the blundered mugging of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Then it was 600 days to the brink of annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But at 1000 days, as if by a miracle, the president had made a resolve to “move the world” onto a plausible path to peace.

Jeffrey Sachs, the global economist of hunger, health and the human emergency, makes a striking personal turn in his fervid rediscovery of John F. Kennedy 50 years later: To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. Ours is a public conversation at the JFK Library in Boston, opening the semi-centennial reflections on the 35th President. It’s not exactly history or biography that Sachs is giving us, but really one hyper-kinetic and troubled public man’s ardent close-reading of another. JFK’s “peace” speech at American University 50 years ago this month is the critical Sorensen-Kennedy text. Senate ratification of Kennedy’s Test Ban Treaty with Nikita Khrushchev is the under-appreciated monument to the era. And still I’m pressing a what-if question prompted by James Douglass’s under-noticed inquiry, JFK and the Unspeakable: what if it was precisely President Kennedy’s turn to peace — to ending the Cold War, to leaving Vietnam and learning to live with Castro and Cuba — that got our 35th president killed?

jfk amuJames Douglass’s view is a version of Oliver Stone‘s in the movie JFK: that President Kennedy was targeted for death by the security establishment of his own government. What Douglass adds to Stone is the Christian mysticism of Thomas Merton, who wrote at the time that John Kennedy, like peace-makers before and since, had been marked for assassination; but also that he was summoning a miracle to stave off Armageddon.

Jeff Sachs finesses the question of a conspiracy to kill JFK, but he agrees that Thomas Merton gave us the “moral narrative” that runs under the story of Kennedy’s last year, no matter who it was that ordered his death.

We came — it’s trite to say, and impossible to fathom — we came within one shot of ending the world on several occasions. It’s unbelievable. It is a miracle that we got through this; there was no right to expect it… It’s not that JFK woke up exactly, because he was awake. But he stopped stumbling. And he absolutely said, in October: ‘I’ve got to lead.’ He took the decision of leadership. And that is part of what I’m arguing for because I don’t find that our politicians lead very much these days. You know, I voted twice for President Obama but I don’t believe he leads. So I believe this is relevant now. You have to take risks. I was very unhappy with a line in President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem two months ago — another fine address, because our president can give a wonderful address. But it’s the difference between making a wonderful address and making peace that bothers me. In that address President Obama actually said to the young people in Jerusalem: don’t expect politicians to lead; you have to demand for us to lead! John Kennedy did not say to the people on June 10, 1963: ‘I’m just going to sit there till you start demanding peace.’ He said: ‘We have to find the courage to move to peace.’ He didn’t say, ‘you have to make me do it,’ or ‘I’m going to follow what you say,’ which is what President Obama literally said in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to pick on him, but we’re not going to get peace in the Middle East until he leads. That’s the difference here. It was the decision to lead, but it was also of course this incredible deep realization that there were two people who had stared into the darkness like no one else in human history. JFK and Nikita Khrushchev felt that bond as deeply as you can with another human being. They knew that each was threatened by dark forces around them. They were beseiged by their hard-liners. In this sense that [Douglass] book is right — that Kennedy had to overcome a profound sense of pessimism and recklessness in order to get this done. If you had just gone with the military, they’d have destroyed the planet ten times over, no question about it.

Jeffrey Sachs in conversation with Chris Lydon at the JFK Library, June 2013.

Podcast • October 7, 2012

Pankaj Mishra: Briefing our “Foreign Policy” Debate

“What a disaster! What an affliction! What kind of a situation is this? …England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan, and the great Indian Peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have ...

“What a disaster! What an affliction! What kind of a situation is this? …England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan, and the great Indian Peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have taken possession of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; the Netherlands have become a despotic ruler of Java and the Oceanic islands; Russia has captured West Turkistan… What is the cause of this measureless decline? … God protect us! What should be done then? … except to say that ‘God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.'”

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, (1838 – 97), itinerant writer and activist, perhaps a British spy, but remembered as “the father of Islamic modernism” and also “the man who first raised the voice of awareness in the dormant East.”


Pankaj Mishra
is sounding a wake-up call about “angry Asia” — from an alarm clock that, he’ll tell you, has been ringing for more than a century. He’s made it a story for today on the conviction that de-colonization is still the world’s pre-occupying project: to regain dignity that non-Westerners remember enjoying before the Europeans came. From the Ruins of Empire is Pankaj Mishra’s re-introduction of “The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” the god-parents of Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh and Nasser. No less an icon on the East-West bridge than Nobel-laureate Orham Pamauk testifies that Pankaj Mishra is giving us “modern history as it has been felt by the majority of the world’s population from Turkey to China.”

Are we ready for this? Not the least of the story is why American ears generally tune it out. But Mishra has addressed his polemical history sharply to us and our 2012 moment. You can read From the Ruins of Empire as a riposte, a decade later, to Mishra’s bête noire Niall Ferguson, the Scots’ historian and self-styled captain of the “neo-imperialist gang,” who argued on the eve of the Iraq War that it was the Americans’ turn to take up the “white man’s burden” and rule the world.

Since then, Mishra writes, “the spell of Western power has finally been broken” — by the abandonment of a smashed Iraq and the US-NATO retreat from Afghanistan, also of course by the global finance bust. But the argument is still out there in our presidential race, between Mitt Romney, of No Apology, and Barack Obama, of the faint-hearted gestures of friendship with the Muslim world and the Arab Spring. Mishra’s issues are urgently in the news, moreover, when President Morsi of Egypt, the first national chief from the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, tells the New York Times that it’s time for new terms in an American relationship that was “essentially purchased” over the years — at a price of “the dislike, if not hatred, of the peoples of the region.”

What’s called the “Arab Spring” of 2011 and now “the Arab revolution” looks to Pankaj Mishra like a piece from an old pattern, “a form of delayed de-colonization where people who were denied sovereignty and self-determination have now finally broken through and ended this unnaturally prolonged Western domination over their countries… ” He sees big risks and maybe bad collisions ahead. In the long history of empires, he observes, there are few graceful exits.

I think American loans to a country like Egypt, which were predicated on Egypt being a loyal and pliant ally in the region and essentially signing off on most of what Israel does, for instance, in that part of the world, and keeping Gaza more or less an open prison — those kinds of long-term commitments made to Egypt are now going to collide with the Egyptian search for dignity in that region and Egypt’s search for an older leadership role in the region…

“So I think all of these previous alliances with the United Statres and various deals will now be under pressure from these new promises and commitments the Egyptian leadership to accommodate the aspirations and longings of its own people. Morsi was very clear about this in the interview he gave the New York Times just now. ‘The people are paramount’ — wasn’t it fascinating? He was very blunt. ‘We cannot simply do what the United States tells us to do. We are now accountable to the people.’ And the people — he was too polite to say — are deeply distrustful of the United States for its role in the country’s politics. Until the very last moment, Hillary Clinton was claiming Mubarak as a family friend; people in Egypt don’t forget this, and they haven’t forgotten the way the Mubaraks were being propped up and their brutality was being justified by successive American administrations. So much of what was being projected as American soft power and American military power has lost its potency in that part of the world. One has to remember that so much of the decline of that soft power has also coincided with the emergence of different kinds of Arab media, whether it’s Al Jazeera or satellite television or televangelism, which is a huge phenomenon in large parts of the Arab world. So they have their own sources of moral and cultural authority, and the shaping of political imaginations that happens in those cutures is a process over which the American media have no control whatsoever.”

Pankaj Mishra with Chris Lydon, October 1, 2012

“This is not at all,” as Pankra Mishrea notes, “the way Americans or Western Europeans have seen the same history. We do inhabit different universes altogether.”

Podcast • August 15, 2012

Jackson Lears: Too Scary to Talk About

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jackson Lears (30 min, 16 meg) Jackson Lears, the American cultural historian at Rutgers, is touching on themes somewhere below the waves of our 2012 campaign: the blotted ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jackson Lears (30 min, 16 meg)

Jackson Lears, the American cultural historian at Rutgers, is touching on themes somewhere below the waves of our 2012 campaign: the blotted copybook of Capitalism, and the intuition of a “pre-World War One moment,” coming up on a century after the Guns of August, 1914. A “perfect storm” in 2013 is what the doom economist Nouriel Roubini sees developing at the junction of European debt, the stall in US growth and East Asian production, and war in the Middle East, starting with Iran. But who’s to worry? Lears speaks of the suffering and anxiety that plain people know but politics avoids.

Our public process, he’s observing, still treats the Money Men as

“… a meritocratic elite that can’t be penetrated. It seems to me that this explains the Democratic Party in its attacks on Mitt Romney. The Democratic Party is in bed with Wall Street, too, just as the Republicans are. The attacks on Romney tend to focus on the question of his personal income tax. Will he release his returns or not? Or they focus on what he did when he worked for Bain Capital… rather than talking about the broad structural structural and systemic questions of what neo-liberalism generally has done to us — what the regime of deregulated capital that we’ve had in place for the last 30-plus years has done to everyday people and their everyday lives. This is something that is not admitted into the charmed circle of responsible opinion. You’re not supposed to ask: Is it really in everyone’s best interest to allow multi-national capital the kind of free-floating freedom that it now is allowed, world-wide. Is there in fact an argument? Tony Judt‘s argument would be: well, there’s only one way to build a humane social democracy, and that’s by creating a welfare state to contain the excesses of capitalism. And I would agree with that. My difference from him would be that you have to do it with an American accent; you’d have to do it in an American idiom which would be an idiom of small-market populism rather than European big-government. Because there’s a suspicion — and I think it’s a justifiable one — of “the state” in this culture, going back to Jefferson’s time. It tends to undermine any attempt to ‘Europeanize’ the American economy.

In Jackson Lears’ take, the same demons spook the almost-centennial of World War I.

As Mark Twain said: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes! … Even the Germans who are supposedly the models of fiscal responsibility have now seen their credit rating downgraded by Moody’s, so that national sovereignty is being abridged by these private organizations that have arrogated this power to themselves to evaluate the stability and strength of national economies. So we have this odd mix of globalized capital and national government power, national sovereignty, and nations often having to bend their knees to that globalized capital. This could very well provoke, and indeed already has provoked, a great deal of populist outrage, which could also end up being right-wing nationalist outrage… there is this ferment beneath the surface of anger, much of it economically based, much of it could be racially or ethnically motivated. Add that to the possibility of resource wars in the future, the possibility that countries like China and India are not going to want to restrict their own economic growth in the name of environmental responsibility, any more than than the U.S. has been willing to. You can see how the World War I analogy comes to people’s minds… as an instance of a general sense of imminent catastrophe and as a kind of unfolding apocalypse that comes from the inability of democratically elected leaders to come to terms and confront the powers they and their predecessors have unleashed… I think we’re looking at a crisis that was induced by specifically neo-liberal globalizing capital policies but has yet to reveal its true significance, and that of course is only going to play out over time.

Rescuing “capitalism” from its heavenly post somewhere between timeless Natural Law and “God’s work” undertaken by Goldman Sachs is another piece of Jackson Lears’ professional agenda, for another conversation. As teacher, writer and editor of the Raritan Quarterly, Lears’ object is encouraging the vigorous young “History of Capitalism” subfield in his ancient discipline. It’s part of the project that Daniel Rogers at Princeton also noted — to put history back into historical studies after Francis Fukuyama’s infamous The End of History.

August 2, 2012

Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture : A Different Country Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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