This Week's Show •

Thank You, Patrick Lydon

This is family talk in rural Ireland toward the end of an extraordinary life. My brother Patrick was the youngest of six, the saint among us and always the brightest company. Two winters ago he’d ...

This is family talk in rural Ireland toward the end of an extraordinary life. My brother Patrick was the youngest of six, the saint among us and always the brightest company. Two winters ago he’d struck an odd note in our regular catching-up by phone, from his community farm in County Kilkenny to my base in Boston. He said, “Chris, I’ve aged more in the last 10 weeks than in the last 10 years.” To walk 50 yards had become an ordeal. The villain turned up in a Dublin exam: it was ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease of the “motor neurons,” which spares the victim’s thinking and speech even as it cripples the body. There was nothing to be done about this – except, I ventured, to record a gabby memoir in the time we had, over Zoom, and then face-to-face on the porch of Patrick’s little farmhouse in the town of Callan. We are tracking the glow of a soul. What had made such a life even possible?

Patrick was the brother who never had a salary, or a personal savings account. His famous high school, Phillips Exeter, gave him its highest award, for a life “non sibi,” not for self. He’d found his match in Gladys Kinghorn, from Aberdeen in Scotland, visionary and inexhaustible, like himself. What they did together over 50 years across the southeast of Ireland was build a network of farms and school communities to support people with Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy. In Patrick’s Camphill communities, inspired by the Austrian guru Rudolf Steiner, support was founded on love and attention. Music became central in Camphill therapy. So was gardening, both vegetables and flowers. There may be more to see and say about Patrick, but I’m just as hungry for other accounts around the self-disciplined blossoming of beautiful lives.

Special thanks to the Irish filmmaker Eamon Little, who recorded the sound of this podcast. With Curious Dog Films, he is making a feature documentary on Patrick Lydon, titled Born That Way.

This Week's Show •

Moonshot Economics

This show first aired on September 16, 2021. It’s hard not to notice that we’re flunking tests, right and left, and running out of strategies against global-size troubles. COVID, we said, was our test for ...

This show first aired on September 16, 2021.

It’s hard not to notice that we’re flunking tests, right and left, and running out of strategies against global-size troubles. COVID, we said, was our test for the age of viruses. At summer’s end the variants are gaining and most of the world is unvaccinated. Afghanistan became a 20-year test of the notion that a public-private force of money, drones, a few troops, and contractors on the ground could win an asymmetrical war against the Taliban, and terror. We didn’t. And now comes Mariana Mazzucato, the brassy Italian-English-American who says: it’s our thinking that’s got to change, and find its way back to the idealism and scale of JFK’s space program.

The Apollo 11 lunar module.

We’ve got COVID, climate, chaos in the rush from Afghanistan, plus cruelties of capitalism and a cultural rift in the heart of the country. Who are we by now? Who remembers a certain cool competence in the self-image of Americans? And who can imagine recovering it? Mariana Mazzucato wants to tell you: she can! Born in Italy, raised in the US, holding forth now from University College London, she’s got an audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Her message is: we’ll change our luck only by transforming ourselves with ideas and dreams at the grand scale of the emergencies in energy, jobs, health, and justice. When she speaks of a Moonshot Mission to change capitalism, she’s evoking John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon in the ’60s. On the 2021 agenda, I’m asking her to grade our wins and losses in the struggle with COVID so far, and the prospects in our struggle to save the climate.

This Week's Show •

Mann the Magician

This show originally aired on September 23, 2021. Thomas Mann was one of those cultural giants the world doesn’t seem to make anymore—artists with authority, almost as big as their countries, at the level of ...

This show originally aired on September 23, 2021.

Thomas Mann was one of those cultural giants the world doesn’t seem to make anymore—artists with authority, almost as big as their countries, at the level of Mark Twain, say, Voltaire, or Emerson! In his heyday a century ago Thomas Mann was called “the life of the mind in Germany”: the darkly philosophical novelist of obsession and illness in The Magic Mountain, the tale-spinner of Death in Venice, about a master writer, like himself, who falls quite madly in love with the sheer beauty of a 14-year-old boy on the beach. But Thomas Mann had a secret: he had been that love-stricken man on the beach. He was a happy husband, the father of six, and all his long life scanning for love that was not allowed. The trick today is to reimagine a whole Thomas Mann, and the novelist Colm Tóibín has pulled it off.

With Colm Tóibín at the James family gravesite in Cambridge. Photo credit: Benjamen Walker.

The Irish and transnational novelist Colm Tóibín is inviting us into a rare feast for alert readers this hour. The Magician is his new title: it’s a biography in the form of a novel about the twentieth-century German master Thomas Mann, both statesman and artist. The rare part is that Colm Tóibín is also giving us a sort of anatomy lesson in the processes that make high art and artists: the family politics, the erotic engines seen and unseen, the historical memory in a country and culture that were coming apart. Toss in what Thomas Mann felt was the spiritual energy that reached him through art and music especially. The Magician is a marvel, and so is Colm Tóibín.

This Week's Show •

Liner Notes for the Revolution

This show was originally broadcast on July 15, 2021. We know their songs, not so much what they were going through, those Black women artists who wrote and sang so many anthems of American life: ...

This show was originally broadcast on July 15, 2021.

We know their songs, not so much what they were going through, those Black women artists who wrote and sang so many anthems of American life: Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” and Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”; stars beyond category like Ethel Waters singing “Shake that Thing” in the ’20s; then Gospel hits like “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” on tour in the 1950s with evangelist Billy Graham. Billie Holiday gave the world “Strange Fruit.” Nina Simone went deep with “Sinnerman.” Eartha Kitt was sly and sexy with a French twist on “C’est Si Bon.” Mahalia Jackson sang Duke Ellington’s spiritual “Come Sunday.” These are “the sisters who made the modern” in Daphne Brooks’s monumental inquiry into the souls, the minds, the experience that added up to more than entertainment.

Daphne Brooks.

“From Bessie Smith to Beyoncé” is the inescapable bumper-sticker on this hour of historical, musical radio. We’re talking about a century of Black female singers in the churn of gender, race, class, region, technology, and celebrity that drive the culture and the music biz. Daphne Brooks is our archivist and our authority, professor of African American Studies at Yale. Liner Notes for the Revolution is the title of her opinionated compendium of performances we all sort of know. And there’s nothing at all shy about Daphne Brooks’s argument that runs cover to cover through her book, subtitled The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. In short, she saying Black women singers are our truth-tellers, about love and work, color, caste, God, and man, and woman.

This Week's Show •

Thoroughly Modern Mozart

This show first aired on September 30, 2021. Who else could be said to make you smarter, just listening to the sound of his music? Only Mozart, that we know. For 300-and-some years now, he ...

This show first aired on September 30, 2021.

Who else could be said to make you smarter, just listening to the sound of his music? Only Mozart, that we know. For 300-and-some years now, he has set the standard for whatever lies beyond perfection. “Too beautiful for our ears,” said the Emperor of the Enlightenment, Joseph the Second, “and far too many notes, my dear Mozart.” Too many melodic ideas, some cerebral, but mostly straight-to-the-heart. He could be more German than Handel and Bach, more singable than Italian opera. The catch with Mozart in a big new life story is that the Mozart Myths are mostly wrong: he didn’t live poor, and he wasn’t buried in a pauper’s grave. He loved gambling at billiards and told his wife his supreme gift was dancing! This was no suffering genius, but a happy man, all in all.

Mozart, with Robert Levin and Jan Swafford.

We’re speaking of Mozart, man and music, with the modern biographer of the little man from eighteenth-century Austria, and with a master performer of his keyboard inventions. Brace yourself for these Mozart professionals: you could feel you’re listening to old basketball stars talking Michael Jordan leaps and Larry Bird threes. In the Mozart case, it was said—it is still said—there was literally nothing in music he couldn’t do better than anybody else: string quartets like the best conversations, cinemascopic piano concertos, farcical operas with psychological depth, and then he could hold his audience all night improvising at the keyboard. Impossible, as they say, but it happened and we’re summoning the magic at a living-room piano in Boston. Jan Swafford has documented the story in 700 pages titled Mozart: The Reign of Love. And Robert Levin, who has recorded a vast swath of the keyboard music with Mozartian felicity, seems to have it all at his fingertips. Our conversation begins around the child prodigy and what Mozart’s father and teacher called “the Miracle of Salzburg,” January 24, 1764.

This Week's Show •

Prudent Statecraft

John Quincy Adams was the model president in the early republic who declared that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But “go abroad” we did, as the republic became ...

John Quincy Adams was the model president in the early republic who declared that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But “go abroad” we did, as the republic became a world colossus. And monsters there were in the mixed casualties of American power. 200 years later comes the question: what is left to be rescued of Quincy Adams’s “austere doctrine of restraint,” as his modern biographer puts it, his benign detachment in the wider world? Adams prescribed for his young nation that “she is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” but “she is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Really? In the twenty-first century, with the biggest military budget in human history, and fighting men standing guard around the planet?

Portrait of John Quincy Adams, by Nahum Bell Onthank.

Looking at John Quincy Adams’s original manuscript.

We’re back two centuries this hour to the source code of the American experiment: very particularly back to John Quincy Adams’s caution about United States’ role in a contentious world.

This is the concluding installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. We’ve been highlighting extra conversations lately with foreign policy thinkers on questions of statecraft—here, find a short conversation with Stephen Van Evera:

This Week's Show •

The Maelstrom of Geopolitics

A briefing session this hour from our strategic special branch, which is to say: the mind of Chas Freeman in the maelstrom of geopolitics. If President Obama had been given his first choice to sketch ...

A briefing session this hour from our strategic special branch, which is to say: the mind of Chas Freeman in the maelstrom of geopolitics. If President Obama had been given his first choice to sketch the state of the world for him every morning, it would have been the same Chas Freeman, the man who knows too much and says what he sees. It’s not what you read in the paper, or hear on NPR. In the coming world order, Chas Freeman is telling us, great empires like ours have lost their grip. China is still rising, and lesser powers too. The US is still hooked on primacy and still Number One, but only in firepower. We’re out of joint with much of the world and, it can seem, with ourselves.

Chas Freeman.

The legend of our guest Chas Freeman derives from the moment in Beijing 50 years ago, when as a young Foreign Service officer, still in his twenties, he interpreted Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong to each other in the breakthrough conversations of 1972. Even then Chas Freeman was a master of languages, history, strategy, and diplomacy. A great career ensued, and it isn’t over. He’s a writer and lecturer online now, often sharper and more believable than the news media: about the quasi-war between the United States and China, for example, becoming a proxy war in the Middle East, of all places, as he wrote this fall. The US is estranged from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel to various degrees, China now the largest trading partner and foreign investor in the Middle East—in Israeli technology, and Saudi arms production, among other things. This is not the familiar beltway picture.

This is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

This Week's Show •

Silent Spring, 60 Years Later

How’s to rescue the Earth from us people? Rachel Carson’s way – 60 years ago – was to write a book, and call it Silent Spring. She’d been a shy but defiant biologist in government ...

How’s to rescue the Earth from us people? Rachel Carson’s way – 60 years ago – was to write a book, and call it Silent Spring. She’d been a shy but defiant biologist in government service. Her book had science behind it, and the rhythm of poetry all through it: one woman’s outcry—as she herself was dying of cancer—against pesticides, most notoriously DDT, what she called “the chemical barrage” being “hurled against the fabric of life.” She was hurling her prose at not just DDT but Dupont, Monsanto, the big business of agriculture, and the slick ad slogan: “better living through chemistry.” Silent Spring became a historic bestseller and a rallying cry for the twentieth century. It’s an unmet challenge for the twenty-first.

A troubled world is tuning in on Rachel Carson again, for lots of good reasons, and so are we. She was a hard scientist of the environment who could speak bluntly—about her masterpiece Silent Spring, for example: she called it the “poison book,” or sometimes “Man Against the Earth.” She was a common-sense crusader who won sweeping victories. She wrote high-flying prose about oceans before she’d seen one, and about the love of her life, as time was running out. Her opening chapters of Silent Spring can sound today, it is said, like “God calling the world into being” back in Creation time.

This is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

This Week's Show •

Origin Stories

This show was originally broadcast on December 5, 2019. Origin stories can be educated guesses, or leaps of collective imagination as to who we are, how we got to this point. The Big Bang is ...

This show was originally broadcast on December 5, 2019.

Origin stories can be educated guesses, or leaps of collective imagination as to who we are, how we got to this point. The Big Bang is one kind, Adam and Eve make another. 1492 and 1776 are American starting points. The argument gets stickier around 1620, when Mayflower Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock; and 1619, when the first African slaves came ashore in Virginia. Just a year apart, they’re the opening chapters of two very different epics of a single nation: one born in the flight of pious Puritans to freedom, the other born in the theft of people and land to build an empire of cotton and capitalism.

It’s a funny thing about origin stories—who we are, how we got here. We know going in that the stories are made up, one way or another. And we come to find out that a lot of them are just plain wrong. Then what? The Sunday magazine of the New York Times took a bold run this past summer at the year 1620 as the start of the American story— the year, of course, when the Mayflower landed about one hundred dissenting English Puritans, our pilgrims, at Plymouth Rock. But no, the Times argued, our first chapter was dated 1619, a year earlier when a ship bearing some 20 African slaves landed in Point Comfort, Virginia, which was to say the drive to implant a slavocracy in the new world had a step on building a temple of freedom.

We’re talking with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Philip Deloria, and Peter Linebaugh about national origin stories. The thread here is storytelling that explains and often hides what happened.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is the writer and editor who led what the Times called a major initiative at the paper to reframe American history. And she strikes the keynote of this radio hour around slavery at the foundations of U.S. history and in our own origin stories in general.

Peter Linebaugh is a transnational historian of economics and culture. He’s been tracking the privatization of common land in England and the New World. 1792 is his magic start date of what is now the world system.

The historian Philip Deloria—the first tenured professor of Native American history at Harvard—considers the Native American encounters with those colonists in the 1600s.

This Week's Show •

Multipolarity

Our unipolar moment may be remembered as the United States’ turn as “king of the hill,” two decades or so between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rocket rise of China’s economy. What ...

Our unipolar moment may be remembered as the United States’ turn as “king of the hill,” two decades or so between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rocket rise of China’s economy. What comes next is the open question. Multipolarity is the tentative answer we’re getting at the end of 2022: it’s a spirit of “getting to know you” again, in a new light, as if for the first time. Joe Biden and Xi Jinping were practicing it this week on a beach in Bali, where the G20 nations were taking their stand for peace. On another beach, next to the Red Sea in Egypt, the climate defenders were taking stock of a meltdown. We seem to have fallen backwards into a short interval for reinventing order among nations.

Unipolarity is “my way or the highway” in practice. George W. Bush virtually spoke it on his way to war in Iraq in 2003. The nations of the world had to decide, he said: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Twenty years later, the nations of the world seem drawn experimentally to multipolarity as an alternative: emphasis on listening, dispersion of power, peace as a victory. Joe Biden and Xi Jinping—off their collision course of just a month ago—gave the world a fresh image of adversaries cordially relaxed at their beach resort in Bali, rejecting notions of imminent war over Taiwan. And China’s foreign ministry issued a crisp statement that could put multipolarity on a bumper-sticker; it said, “The world is big enough for the two countries to develop themselves and prosper together.” This radio hour is a multi-polar conversation, with views shaped in Brazil and India. Trita Parsi strikes the keynote: born in Iran, raised in Sweden, an American by now well known for three incisive histories of diplomacy in the Middle East, he’s been decorated in particular for “ideas improving world order.”

This is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Here, Connor Echols of Responsible Statecraft (the online magazine of the Quincy Institute), describes responses to the deadly explosion in Poland: