Podcast • April 17, 2018

Barbara Ehrenreich on the Cult of Wellness

This is an unlocked, bonus segment of Open Source. You can hear weekly conversations and extended interviews like this one by subscribing and supporting our work on Patreon. In her new book, Natural Causes: An ...

This is an unlocked, bonus segment of Open Source. You can hear weekly conversations and extended interviews like this one by subscribing and supporting our work on Patreon.

In her new book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, the veteran reporter Barbara Ehrenreich takes aim at a host of maladies in the world of modern medicine: bloated hospital and insurance industries, Silicon Valley charlatans preaching everlasting life, and especially wellness and self-help gurus. Against the fitness entrepreneurs and “positive thinkers,” Ehrenreich (who has a PhD in cellular immunology) is putting forward a “dystopian view of the body.” She writes: “The body is not a smooth-running machine in which each part obediently performs its tasks for the benefit of the common good. It is at best a confederation of parts—cells, tissues, even thought patterns—that may seek to advance their own agendas, whether or not they are destructive of the whole.”

Ehrenreich argues that a delusion of Control pervades the culture, and good or bad health is increasingly pinned on “individual responsbility.” Dying is not a crime, she says, neither a sign of weakness. In conversation here, she’s expanding on these themes, as well as the ironies of “successful aging,” and what exactly is wrong with the Ray Kurzweil view of the human body.

Produced by Homa Sarabi-Daunais and Conor Gillies. Photo by Reed Young for The Guardian, 2014.

Podcast • January 4, 2018

Mark Blyth’s State of the Union

The people’s economist Mark Blyth is a perpetual fan favorite for Open Source listeners. The Brown University professor, who never left behind his working-class Scottish roots, brings a vernacular wisdom and wit to his deep ...

The people’s economist Mark Blyth is a perpetual fan favorite for Open Source listeners. The Brown University professor, who never left behind his working-class Scottish roots, brings a vernacular wisdom and wit to his deep analysis of inequality, austerity, and popular unrest. He also often sees what the rest of us tend to miss. In 2016, he predicted both of the year’s major upset victories: the American election of Donald J. Trump as well the British vote for Brexit. You can listen to our own shell-shocked phone call with Blyth just after the Brexit vote here:

For all the gritty and scandalous detail in both scenes, he’ll keep telling you: it’s a malady in the money system, a global tsunami of populist resentment that’s driving events.  And furthermore: at the start of 2018, that populism is still popular. Today, we couldn’t imagine a better guest to help us ring in this topsy-turvy new year.

So what’s the matter with the world today, according to Mark Blyth? He sees at least two major issues: class warfare and intergenerational struggle. The former problem is, in some ways, an old story—one which our party leaders have largely ignored for over the last three decades. The rhetoric of resurgent populism and nationalism are really just responses to deepening inequality in a rapidly globalizing world, as Blyth explains:

Has politics fundamentally changed because of Trump? No. Politics fundamentally changed because the people in charge basically ignored millions of Americans and what was happening to their standard of living their communities what was happening to the life chances and opportunities. [The people in charge] basically lived on the coasts and said to each other, “Gee isn’t everything swell?” And they got a really surprise when about 40 million of them said actually no we don’t like what you’re doing.  … meanwhile, our “elites”— whether it’s Tony Blair, whether it’s the Clintons, or whoever has the means thinks “everything’s great, the new global economy! We’re all doing fabulous!” But you’re only doing fabulous because you only talk to each other. You only live in half a dozen places and you all have tons of cash so if you travel internationally everybody’s like you. You’re not a nationalist, you don’t have a national or local identity, you’re rich enough to be a global cosmopolitan and you can enjoy all of the fruits of globalization, but not everybody else can. Put that all that together and it’s self-explanatory.

The second major issue Blyth lays out is the hoarding of wealth by those who grew up and entered the work force during the so-called “golden age” of economic prosperity in America. So, if you’re looking for someone to blame, Blyth says, blame the boomers:

They’re not  awful in the sense that they are awful people. They’re just following the incentives mean laid out to them in a free market system to accumulate as much assets as possible and leave it to their kids which means they hate inheritance taxes they want to pay a little marginal rates and they continually vote down things like bonds for schools bonds for subways Boston et cetera et cetera. So they’re acting in a completely understandable way which for them is individually rational but it’s just really crap for everybody else who come in behind them who can’t accumulate assets in the same way precisely because they’ve done that.

If you’re still eager to hear more from Mark, you can search the archives here on our site and find more than a dozen conversations with the scotsman stretching back to 2008. As always, make sure to drop us a note in the comments section below.

Podcast • December 21, 2017

American Socrates: The Life and Mind of Noam Chomsky (rebroadcast)

Noam Chomsky for 50 years has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting … not the city-square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger. ...

Noam Chomsky for 50 years has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting … not the city-square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger. This holiday season, we’re rerunning our conversation with him.

The world in trouble today still beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door, if only because he’s been forthright for so long about a whirlwind coming.  Not that the world quite knows what do with Noam Chomsky’s warnings of disaster in the making. Remember the famous faltering of the patrician TV host William F. Buckley Jr., meeting Chomsky’s icy anger about the war in Vietnam, in 1969.

It’s a strange thing about Noam Chomsky: the New York Times calls him ‘arguably’ the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop media stars on network television almost never do. And yet the man is universally famous and revered in his 89th year: he’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam war and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations.  He remains a rock-star on college campuses, here and abroad; yet he’s still an alien in the places where policy gets made.  On his home ground at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is a notably accessible old professor who answers his email and receives visitors like us with a twinkle.  

Last week, we visited Chomsky with an open ended mission in mind: We were looking for a non-standard account of our recent history from a man known for telling the truth. We’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks, but how. He’d  written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, also, in his words, a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.”

In the opening moments of our conversation, recorded and captured in the video below, Chomsky lays out a succinct demonstration of his method that might be applied to our present-day political crisis:

 “I think the fate of the species depends on it because, remember, it’s not just inequality, stagnation. It’s terminal disaster. We have constructed a perfect storm. That should be the screaming headlines every day. Since the Second World War, we have created two means of destruction. Since the neoliberal era, we have dismantled the way of handling them. That’s our pincers. That’s what we face, and if that problem isn’t solved we’re done with.”

Over the years Noam Chomsky has defended his heavyweight debating title against all comers: YouTube has him in the ring with Michel Foucault on the nature of human nature; with Alan Dershowitz on Israel; with John Silber on Central America. But looking beyond his intellectual pugilism, Chomsky’s life might be defined as much by his allies as his enemies.

One of Chomsky’s longest running partnerships is with his assistant, Bev Stohl, who serves as the gatekeeper in and out of Chomsky world at MIT. She’s a sprightly writer and wit who’s learned over most of two decades that a lot of laughter helps in living with genius. We caught up with Bev and her office pup Roxy this week.

Another critical alliance comes from Robert Barksy, the author of two admiring, critical books—Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent and  The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory TowerAs an admirer and biographer of Chomsky, Barsky helps us fill in the story of how NC became the most widely cited author and innovator in the literature of contemporary science as well as a by-word for rational humanism.

Our hour only is only the beginning of the Noam story though. For more, read our friend George Scialabba‘s many excellent essays on Chomsky—a man he ranks among his triumvirate intellectual heroes (along with Christopher Lasch and Richard Rorty). Here’s a good place to start for beginners.

Also, be sure to check out the Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance‘s musical tribute “Noam Chomsky Is A Soft Revolution” which puts the linguist in a class of musical as well as political and literary dissidents—Dr. John, James Brown, and Willie Nelson as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Che Guevara.

Finally, watch these two bite-sized bits of Noam discussing two giant-sized philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Adam Smith.

Also, read a full transcript of the show on Medium.

Extra Credit Assignment from Prof. Barsky

“For brief introductions to the incredibly complex world that Chomsky describes, it might be worth watching a few videos. There is an incredibly important one that was done years ago on the BBC that offers a one hour summary of the basic philosophical tenants that underwrites his thought, and the interviewer is a very brilliant English philosopher. I have had occasion to talk about this interview with Noam and he agreed, and bemoaned that such programs are no longer easily found.
 The other incredibly important source to understand the generation preceding Noam, is the remarkable film by Joseph Dorman called Arguing the World. References made in this film to a tiny Jewish Zionist organization that existed from 1928 to 1943, started at Harvard, that set forth some crucial ideas that were to both reflect and guide the work of Chomsky’s teacher, Zellig Harris (I talk about this at length in my book about Harris). The group is called Avukah , and I have been working on a film and book about it for many years. Joseph’s film is a model for what I’m trying to do, and many of the people mentioned herein have direct or indirect influence on Noam’s thinking.”

Podcast • October 3, 2017

Karl Ove Knausgaard on Art and Loneliness

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6-volume selfie that a lot of us can’t stop reading. My Struggle he called it, looking inward and talking to himself for thousands of pages. Autumn, his new book, is ...

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6-volume selfie that a lot of us can’t stop reading. My Struggle he called it, looking inward and talking to himself for thousands of pages. Autumn, his new book, is a relief for him and us: It looks outward, in short pieces, letters to a new daughter before she was born, about Stubble Fields, Telephones, Wellington boots, chimneys, the painter Vincent Van Gogh. You name it, he’ll write it, a theme a day as in the college course we wish we’d taken.

In conversation it’s not one guy introspecting, it’s two guys groping for a connection, sitting in the back of my house in Boston for most of an hour in the storm season of 2017. What’s the difference, I’m asking, between his narcissism and President Trump’s?

We’re jumping from Russian novels to gene editing to the experience of loneliness, and I’m finding him wide open to engagement. He’s generous, transparent, in effect: innocent. Here’s an excerpt of the interview below:

Karl Ove Knausgaard: The books I’d been writing before were so introspective and so analytic and so self-analyzing. That’s very much about relations, very much about psychology, and it’s basically all about the interior life. And this book is the opposite. I’m looking at something outside of myself, and it is the things themselves that should be in the center, basically yes removed from myself. But from thing to me was to see what happens if you write, you know in your own style personally, about something objective that happens with an encyclopedia thought of the world, you know. Everything becomes, in the end, very personal anyway somehow. It’s impossible to remove yourself. You never think of quality of writing in an encyclopedic text, you know, in a dictionary. It’s just like it’s a matter of fact: this is the world. But what you discover when you write about it that’s just not true. The objective world just doesn’t exist. It’s all a relationship between me and the world and you and the world. There is nothing else.

Christopher Lydon: So why get out of yourself after so long inside? Was it for relief?

KOK: Yeah, very much a relief. It was joyful to write this book, and it wasn’t joyful to write My Struggle, as my previous book was called. But a joyful part is, you know, because I am writing about joyful things. I’m writing about being alive in this world, which is joyful. We do forget it all the time, but it is. And this book is mainly set in a garden and a house, and that’s it. That’s where the world is. I mean, even when there are hurricanes and, you know, climate change and all the wars and hunger and all of this, this is still true. It does exist.

Video: On Van Gogh and the Life of an Artist


Video by Zach Goldhammer. Illustrations by Susan Coyne.

This Week's Show •

Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words ...

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words have become the rallying cries for a new rising generation—in film, in music, and in the press.

Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, sees Baldwin as a mirror on American life:

He went really deep into what the society is, you know, and he was the only one who was able to formulate it in a way that a scholar of course would understand it but also the man in the streets would understand it in a way where he could be very critical to the white liberal but without pushing them away. But he found a way to put every one of us, whether black or white, in front of the reality. He put a mirror in front of us in a way that you can’t look away.

Teju Cole views the Baldwin of today as a master aphorist: a pithy prophet well-suited to the twitter age and “the go-to quote factory of those who are woke”. On a deeper level, Cole finds kinship in Baldwin’s transnational sense of self.  Cole guides us through his own pilgrimage to Leukerbad, Switzerland—the remote town where Baldwin composed his seminal essay “Stranger in the Village”:

The essay I ended up writing about this journey to Leukerbad became also a kind of exercise in Baldwinian form … I deeply love the essay that he wrote about being there, and in my essay, which I call “Black Body,” I wanted to think about what it meant to inhabit somebody else’s space. I was inhabiting his space and, in a sense in the essay, I was inhabiting his prose style. … it was conscious to allow that to happen, to allow the visceral effect of being there as he was there, walking the streets as he walked the streets, to let all of that come through and still have it be analytical.

Cornel West reminds us of Baldwin’s unpopularity, and his nagging truth-telling habit that alienated him, in later years, from the white liberal media professional who first popularized his work, as well as from the radical black nationalists. But for Brother West, this outsider truth-teller “was really a kind of Democratic saint, if you define a saint as a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart.”

“He was heartbroken.” Cornel says, “America broke his heart, day in and day out.”

And Ed Pavlic, author of Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, hears in Baldwin’s words echoes of the black musicians Baldwin dearly loved – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson et al. Above all else though, Pavlic reminds us of Baldwin’s deep love for Ray Charles, highlighting the concert Baldwin and Charles organized together at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1973 Newport Folk Festival.

 

Illustrations by Susan Coyne. This program was originally broadcast February 2017.

 

 

This Week's Show •

Lessons from Nixonland

Welcome back to Nixonland: After four decades, the Oval Office is once again the seat of empire, occupied by a paranoid pilot hellbent on an unremittingly personal fight, and no holds are barred. Between US Presidents ...

Welcome back to Nixonland: After four decades, the Oval Office is once again the seat of empire, occupied by a paranoid pilot hellbent on an unremittingly personal fight, and no holds are barred.

Between US Presidents 37 and 45, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, the links of language and temperament are getting uncannily close—their political predicaments, too. Even beyond the Saturday Night Massacre parallels and the rising calls for impeachment, there are other points of comparisons.

Both Trump and Nixon, for instance, refer to their stalwart base using the same title: the silent majority. Both presidents also share a certain adversarial view of the political press. Trump has called the media his opposition.  Nixon made them his enemies.  For the benefit of Henry Kissinger and others on his staff, Nixon—inadvertently taping himself—turned his sentiments into a sort of prose poem:

The press is the enemy
The press is the enemy
The press is the enemy
The establishment is the enemy
The professors are the enemy
The professors are the enemy
Write that on a blackboard 100 times
And never forget it….
To understand how and why the ambient fears of the Nixon presidential years are now resurfacing in the Trump White House, we talk to the man who might be the missing link: Patrick J. Buchanan. Buchanan is one man who’s not just looking at a movie he’s seen before. He was, after all, a major player in the prequel: writing some of Richard Nixon’s most famous fighting lines. You could say he anticipated the movie playing now in his own right-wing populist “America First” presidential campaigns in the 90s and then 2000—first as a Republican, then as an independent.
John Aloysius Farrell, the esteemed biographer of Tip O’Neill in the Congress, and Clarence Darrow in the courtroom, joins us. He’s spiced up the Nixon legend in a big one-volume life full of fresh letters and tapes and lines we’d almost forgottento David Frost, famously, when he spelled out the ultimate executive privilege: “When the president does it,” Nixon said, “that means that it is not illegal.” Beverly Gage—historian at Yale working on a new biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the founding G-man of the FBI—discusses another set of parallels: from Nixon-Hoover to Trump-Comey. She tells a broader story about the culture of an institution that has always chafed against the presidential leash. Glenn Greenwald—co-founder of The Intercept and one of the main journalists who broke the Snowden story—draws out the parallels between Daniel Ellsberg‘s Pentagon Papers and today’s Wikileakers, including Snowden and recently released Chelsea Manning. We’re asking Glenn, of the latest flurry of Trump scandals: “Do you ever feel like we’re in a game of distraction—to keep our eyes off the ball?”
While he may not have admitted to being a crook, President Richard Nixon would have certainly admitted to being a cinephile.  During his abbreviated time in office, he viewed an astonishing 528 films.  In this short essay film, Boston Globe film critic Mary Feeney explores Richard Nixon’s devoted relationship to the movies.

Podcast • May 11, 2017

JFK Turns 100

In John F. Kennedy’s hundredth birthday spring, we’re looking again at the family portrait we all know, by the painter Jamie Wyeth. His canvas summoned the late president as a ruddy sort of ghost, face aglow against deep ...

In John F. Kennedy’s hundredth birthday spring, we’re looking again at the family portrait we all know, by the painter Jamie Wyeth.

His canvas summoned the late president as a ruddy sort of ghost, face aglow against deep brown shadows, beefy hand in front of his chin, eyes all alert but just out of alignment, one looks into you, one past you. He’s returned from another place, mouth open a crack, not quite smiling. The mind of an A student, hesitating, kindling a wise-crack, maybe hiding something, pain of injury perhaps, or illness. He looks not combative exactly but forceful, open to the fun of teasing or an argument, open to the pleasure of his own company.

 

We’re taking fresh impressions of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on his hundredth birthday. The historian Fredrik Logevall, who’s working on a new one-volume JFK biography, was born in Sweden in 1963, the year Kennedy was assassinated. A year later, Wyeth undertook his most noted portrait at the age of 18. He’s 70 now, and his iconic portrait of JFK (beloved by Jackie, besmirched by Bobby) now calls the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston home.

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Poet laureate of Open Source, Eileen Myles tells us about how President Kennedy shaped her childhood as a young, scrappy Catholic kid growing up in a Kennedy worshipping family.  Here, she reads us her complicated ode to the Kennedys in a An American Poem.

Also on the phone with us: a chorus of Kennedy watchers, family members, and journalists, including Marty Nolan, Richard Reeves, Sally Fay, Caitlin Flanagan, and Bobby Shriver.

 

Podcast • March 2, 2017

‘Deportation Nation’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

:

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

[lead illustration by Susan Coyne]

Podcast • February 28, 2017

George Saunders in the Afterlife

The story master George Saunders is widely revered as the nicest guy in the writing game, but it’s sweeter and deeper than that. I met him in the Boston Public Library the other day to gab about ...

The story master George Saunders is widely revered as the nicest guy in the writing game, but it’s sweeter and deeper than that. I met him in the Boston Public Library the other day to gab about his spooky transcendental first novel — about Abraham Lincoln in limbo with the son that died in the White House; immediately I was reminded of what Maxim Gorki noticed about Anton Chekhov, a Saunders idol: “In Anton Chekhov’s presence,” Gorki said, “every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self…”

And so it went for us with George Saunders. He’s famous for writing: “Stay open, forever, so open it hurts,” and he talks that way about everything – about his and his wife’s version of Tibetan Buddhism, for example; about his very complicated feelings inside Trump campaign rallies; about the notion he teaches that “if death is in the room,” as it is in throughout his new novel, the writing and the reading get pretty interesting. The book in question is titled Lincoln in the Bardo – using the Tibetan word for a mysterious space underground for lost souls after death, but not quite dead. He gave me a feeling it’s a zone we all might well get to know better.

Podcast • February 7, 2017

Stephen Kinzer: America’s Empire State of Mind

Why are we everywhere in the world, so often with guns drawn? The provocative reporter Stephen Kinzer has covered a number of our “regime-change” interventions in the world, from Guatemala to the Middle East. And ...

Why are we everywhere in the world, so often with guns drawn? The provocative reporter Stephen Kinzer has covered a number of our “regime-change” interventions in the world, from Guatemala to the Middle East. And in book after book, he’s sharpened the question: how did our country that was born in proud rebellion against the British Empire become the mightiest empire of them all — taking on the sorrows and burdens and expenses that come with most of a thousand military bases around the world. And how has the instinct to intervene persisted through so many bitter mistakes and losses, from the first de-stabilization of democratic Iran in the 1950s to Vietnam in the 60s to Iraq yesterday and Afghanistan today?

In Kinzer’s new book, called The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, the short answer to the big question is a conflict in our blood: We are isolationists to the bone, and incurably drawn to trouble, both. Once upon a time, the biggest names in the country — President Teddy Roosevelt and his arch enemy Mark Twain — argued the difference at the top of their lungs. Steve Kinzer surfaces their argument again.