Podcast • December 28, 2017

Billy Bragg’s Guide to the Music of Dissent (rebroadcast)

We’re ringing in the new year with a rerun of our conversation with Billy Bragg, a troubadour for British radicalism for more than thirty years as well as a democratic guitar-playing socialist with a steadfast ...

We’re ringing in the new year with a rerun of our conversation with Billy Bragg, a troubadour for British radicalism for more than thirty years as well as a democratic guitar-playing socialist with a steadfast commitment to fighting fascism, racism, and homophobia.

He was the voice of the striking miners in the 80s—reminding us that there is power in a union, despite what Thatcher & Reagan might have told you.

In the 90s, he tapped into a well of forgotten American lyricism, singing and writing music for hundreds of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs, and reminding us that all those fascists were always bound to lose.  

Today, Bragg, like the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the U.S. , stands out as a survivor—someone who carried the torch for socialist ideas and sentiments through the Clinton/Blair years and the long age of acquiescence. Theres’s a new audience of young people carrying his ideas forward now, but with a different tune: hip-hop and grime are the soundtrack of today’s resistance—not white guys with guitars—but the sentiment remains the same. Their history, as well as their lyrics, rhymes with Bragg’s own.

[A playlist of our favorite Bragg songs, curated by Zach Goldhammer, Susan Coyne, Pat Tomaino, Becca DeGregorio, and Conor Gillies]

As an elder statesman for youthful rebellion, Bragg wants to remind us how this whole subculture began. In his new book, Roots, Radicals, and Rockers, Bragg brings us back to 1950s England, where a new form of music called skiffle helped invent the first generation of true teenagers in England.

In his story, it’s the working-class English kids who picked up guitars in the playground and started singing American blues songs—like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line”—and who kicked off a 60- year tradition of dissenting music in the Anglophone world. It was not political music per se, but it was the first rumblings of an anti-conformist rebellion in the UK.

We pick-up Bragg’s story with the first skiffle superstar, Lonnie Donegan,

That spirit of rebellion continued to echo through the British Invasion in the 60s, the first wave of punk in the late 70s, and of course, in Bragg’s own thirty year career.

But today, Bragg says it’s a new sound carrying this rebellious tradition forward. Now, Britain’s music of dissent is being made by Grime artists, blending high-speed English rap with West Indian dancehall beats. These were the musicians who also formed an unlikely alliance with Jeremy Corbyn in the last election.

 

We’ll be listening carefully and trying to figure out where this new musical momentum will carry us next. You can also keep listening  with us—there’s a playlist of all the songs featured in this  week’s show here.

[Lead illustration by Susan Coyne. Prints are available at coyneworks.com]

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

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 • November 23, 2017

The Coming Crisis in Opioid Nation

This Thanksgiving, we’re replaying our episode on the issue of opioids. Their epidemic running rampant has a 30-year back story and a grisly punch-line for 2017: drug deaths this year alone are heading toward the US ...

This Thanksgiving, we’re replaying our episode on the issue of opioids. Their epidemic running rampant has a 30-year back story and a grisly punch-line for 2017: drug deaths this year alone are heading toward the US death toll in Vietnam over ten years. The damage has proportions of a plague, or a war that will stamp a generation: let it grow at this rate and in ten years it will be taking more American lives than AIDS at its peak; than breast cancer, than World War Two, than the US Civil War.  There’s a palpable near-panic at what can look like collective mass suicide.  There’s torpor, too, a post-war feeling, after the drugs won.  There’s dismay about a marketized industry in man-made drugs that manages somehow to kill its customers and keep growing.

Here’s a short list of what’s strange and different about this opioid epidemic.  The poisons of choice and convenience are cheaper, laced with synthetics like fentanyl, much more powerful and more available than poppy heroin ever was.  The problem is everywhere – rustic New Hampshire a spike on the national map.  And the devastation is almost out of control: deaths on the order of 50-thousand a year, drug dependency for 2-million Americans, 10 percent of them getting treatment.  An aggressive, expanding marketplace is choking on a 30-year promotion of pain meds, like Percocet, addiction warnings long muffled and unheard.  For most new users of illegal opioids, the gateway is an array of prescription painkillers like Oxycontin.  The racial profile and the enforcement culture around drug abuse are markedly changed: opioids can be blamed for a shocking turn down in life-expectancy for white males in the US; but the stigma and the racialized rage around drugs are much reduced. We speak of drug addiction more realistically now, more humanely perhaps, as a disease, no longer a crime.

And so our crash course begins this week, to feel the size and shape and hear the sound of a full-blown public health nightmare in a circle of purgatory or possibly hell, known as the opioid epidemic.

[see Max Blau’s STAT forecast to understand just how bad this crisis could become] Dr. Jessie Gaeta is the medical doctor that addicts meet at the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless next to Boston Medical Center on Albany Street.  Her patients, she says, are the furthest “downstream” in the opioid crisis — literally collapsing from overdose — or in horrible fear of withdrawal.  They come back and back, needing a safe space or maybe emergency treatment, like oxygen and a drug called Nar-can, which revives people who are unconscious and at risk of death. Doctor Gaeta walked us around the block the main drag of the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. She calls it “Recovery Road”, but it’s better known as “Methadone Mile”.

Kathleen Frydl

Kathleen Frydl is a political historian at the University of California, Davis and author of the The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973In conversation, she shares with us the genealogy of the opioid epidemic, chronicling how prescription painkillers became the gateway to what is now the gravest drug crisis in our history.

As Frydl has written for Dissent, our national politics may be the ideology that has hijacked our political system over the last 40 years.

Neoliberalism: government austerity, unrestrained free trade, and the deregulation of markets. All of these present dangers that have played a role in the opioid crisis, but none has been more pernicious than austerity, an obsession over government deficits and debt that favors the privatization of public assets and services—and one that has exacted steep costs from the institutional culture and operation of the nation’s drug safety watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The writer Michael Clune was born in Ireland, raised in Chicago, with a yen for books. He was studying at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for his Ph.D. in English when he met the high of heroin and then the black hole that he decided over and over was inescapable.  He got out 15 years ago with a qualified recognition of what heroin does.  He begins here from his book White Out.

Michael Patrick MacDonald has another narrative of addiction. He first told a version of it in his memoir, All Souls, which focused in on these crisis in South Boston in the 1980s: a proud old Irish-American community coming apart around poverty, crime, drugs, and then gentrification.  His line—developed as a witness over the last thirty years—is that addiction is almost always about one thing: trauma.

In my experience with the populations I’ve worked with, what I’ve seen over and over is that people who are struggling, especially people struggling with any kind of pain killing addiction, are coming from a life of trauma, basically post-traumatic stress … [South Boston] was sort of invisible for people wanting to work on those issues. 

Donna Murch

Finally, a primer on the opioid plague before it engulfs us.  How like, how unlike, the flood of crack cocaine that hit black America in the 1980s?  That epidemic accelerated the War on Drugs, the quasi-military transformation of policing, and 40 years of mass incarceration.  We asked Donna Murch — historian at Rutgers, a chronicler of Black Power and the Black Panther, as well as a critical observer of drugs, punishment, and the carceral state—to compare these two crises. She urges us to recognize that the drug war is still ongoing and we may need some version of a Truth & Reconciliation process to begin repairing the damage:

[By] using the racial contrast between the way these two different problems are being treated to really highlight the deep role of structural racism and to think about most urgently how to get people out of prison and make sure they’re not being put in prison. 

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

October 12, 2017

Thelonious Monk at 100

At Thelonious Monk’s hundredth birthday, it’s our ears that have changed, not his sound.  Instead of odd angles and eccentricity we hear orchids in music, various and beautiful.  The truth of the man’s life is ...

At Thelonious Monk’s hundredth birthday, it’s our ears that have changed, not his sound.  Instead of odd angles and eccentricity we hear orchids in music, various and beautiful.  The truth of the man’s life is clearer, too: drawn back from the ragged edge to the creative center of classically American music.  

The quirky story of Thelonious Sphere Monk made a new sort of sense in Robin Kelley’ grand biography in 2009.  Monk was one of the be-bop revolutionaries, it’s always said, uptown in Manhattan in 1941, but Robin Kelley revealed him as a child of Fats Waller stride piano and all the music of 1930s Harlem and well beyond it.

He mumbled at the piano and danced around it. He showed up late sometimes, sometimes disappeared, and did time for small drug offenses. But inside Robin Kelley’s biography is an unshakably original, purposeful musician, ever a generous genius, an attentive father, son, and husband, in triumph and in trouble.

What Monk did was take the oldest, rooted tradition of the piano, in Harlem, New York, all over the country. And then he combined it with a future we have yet to achieve. It’s collapsing space and time. And his whole approach to the piano is one that brings past and present and future together in one. And he had never ever left his roots as a stride pianist — all the way to the very last tune he ever played.

Monk wrote close to a hundred songs still being interpreted and reinvented. He was musician beyond category, or genre, or period, in Kelly’s persuasive account. It’s fun to see Monk now an African-American Emersonian. His line, for instance, that “the piano ain’t got no wrong notes,” resonates with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s war on conformity and consistency. “To believe your own sound,” paraphrasing Emerson’s line in Self Reliance, “that is genius.”  

Robin D. G. Kelley in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 18, 2009

September 20, 2017

Claire Messud: Best Friends…For Now

Claire Messud is a novelist of social nuance, especially concerning the crushable inner lives of girls. You could say her new book The Burning Girl, is a suburban Boston version of Elena Ferrante’s Linu and Lena ...

Claire Messud is a novelist of social nuance, especially concerning the crushable inner lives of girls. You could say her new book The Burning Girl, is a suburban Boston version of Elena Ferrante’s Linu and Lena in 1960s Naples, or Zadie Smith’s Swing Time soul sisters in interracial London. But it would be unfair to not least acknowledge guy fixations on the same rough terrain back to Tom Sawyer: boy friendships at the brink.

For me, The Burning Girl about Cassie and Julie coming apart became my own unwritten novel from 8th grade: what happened to Ronnie, Binker and Eddie?  What was going on in our families, our secret selves at age 12?  Claire Messud’s general answer is: you’ll never know for sure, and you’ll never stop wondering. We spoke on this point and more on the Brattle Theatre stage in Harvard Square.

One of my preoccupations is the degree to which in fact we are uncertain about so much, and yet, it is a very uncomfortable thing to be. And so, we tell stories in order–in fact–to resolve and cover over our uncertainties… You have a constellation of points, and then you think, “I know. That girl who was caught giving blow jobs, I know that story; I know that girl.” Right? And we don’t ask further questions. We tell a story, and we simplify it. The story of a friendship between two girls coming unravelled, I know that story. I’ve heard that story a thousand times. But actually, you never know the story.

Podcast • August 23, 2017

Akhil Sharma’s Life of Adventure and Delight

Akhil Sharma is a magician with language, on the page and in what feels for me anyway like instantly intimate conversation. He walks into my living room and immediately he’s teaching me something about myself. ...

Akhil Sharma is a magician with language, on the page and in what feels for me anyway like instantly intimate conversation. He walks into my living room and immediately he’s teaching me something about myself. I find him mesmerizing, instructive, dear. We’re talking about three years’ worth of his New Yorker stories that all grow out of the shattered boyhood he detailed in his novelized memoir Family Life. It was all about Indian strivers in Queens in the dazed 30-year aftermath of a horrific accident. Watching and coping refined Akhil Sharma’s eye for lonely people in a lonely place.

 

In his stories there’s a wider canvas of Indian men and women in import-export businesses and creaky arranged marriages,liars, lovers, cheats among them, in dark places cut through with blazing laugh lines. Sexual obsession feels like the thematic symptom of a nameless distress – though there is pleasure in the stories and in Akhil Sharma’s presence, too. In my house in Boston he gave us a taste from “The Well,” one of eight stories in the collection titled A Life of Adventure and Delight.

June 8, 2017

The Chomsky Effect With Robert Barsky

Noam Chomsky had two giant careers: one in the science of language, another in the rough and tumble of anti-war politics, beckoning the question is it one Chomsky or two? In our two weeks of interviewing, ...

Noam Chomsky had two giant careers: one in the science of language, another in the rough and tumble of anti-war politics, beckoning the question is it one Chomsky or two? In our two weeks of interviewing, reading and discussing the man, I was searching for the larger idea or human impulse that drives the stubborn peacenik and the father of modern linguistics.

You can feel some of the answer in Chomsky’s voice and presence, but we got outside clarification too from his biographer Robert Barsky, who’s puzzled through the Chomsky links for years – and talked with Chomsky about them. I asked Robert Barsky to lay out the foundational principles of Chomsky’s thought – first about language acquisition, and then about power:

At the end of the day, so much of Noam Chomsky’s work is about power. If power is in the business of teaching us how to be good consumers, if power is in the business of keeping us down, if power is in the business of teaching us how to vote against our own best interests, then what is the opposite? The opposite is: how do you promote creativity? How do you promote people’s ability to think for themselves? How do promote people’s understanding of their connection to the people around them in ways that are going to benefit themselves and their environment as opposed to just allow them to have more power.

That I think is at the very heart of Noam Chomsky linguistically, in terms of academics and in terms of his social thought.

Noam Chomsky’s student and friend Robert Barsky teaches law and literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Twenty years ago he wrote Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent and after that: The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower.

Listen to our full hour on (and with) Noam Chomsky here.

May 3, 2017

Ian Johnson and the Souls of China

Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Wall Street Journal–mostly economics–but then discovered what felt like a bigger story: a full-blown spiritual crisis inside a frenzied money culture.  In Chinese villages and ...

Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Wall Street Journal–mostly economics–but then discovered what felt like a bigger story: a full-blown spiritual crisis inside a frenzied money culture.  In Chinese villages and booming big cities alike, what he came to see unmistakably over 6 years on the road was a restoration taking place across the peculiar mix of Chinese religion: Buddhist meditation, Daoist exercises, Confucian moral discipline.

In his new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After MaoJohnson says the spiritual revival in modern China is centered not so much on the God questions as on how to organize Chinese life again around communities of belief, ritual and practice.  What Confucianist advice do you want before you invest? Do we head for a cave together for peace and quiet? What Johnson sees is a vast identity search in a people tossed and tussled by outsiders and now by a century of their own modern  revolutions, people still fiercely hungry in an historic boom time:

Theology does not play a huge role in Chinese religion… Using the tools of Greek logic to prove or disprove a proposition is not something you find too much in Chinese religion. Most people are happy to participate because they feel it gives structure to their lives, and ritual. Though we often think of ritual being empty or unimportant, it’s really the profound question of how you act in a certain situation. Like, what’s the proper way to mourn a dead person? What’s the proper way to behave in relation to other people in society? Those are pretty important questions. Those are actually quite profound. I think what also I found is that there’s a great exuberance in the religious life of China. If you think of a pilgrimage outside of Beijing to Myao Fung Shin, there’s a whole lot of people drinking and smoking cigarettes and cursing and yelling. It’s not all sitting, quietly meditating and saying, “Ohmm.”

 

– Ian Johnson in conversation with Christopher Lydon 4/10/17.

Podcast • March 28, 2017

A Survivor’s Guide to Tyranny

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has 20 pills he wants us to take, and keep taking, perhaps to save our country. The stark premise that he laid out for us a month ago is that the ...

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has 20 pills he wants us to take, and keep taking, perhaps to save our country. The stark premise that he laid out for us a month ago is that the real project of Donald Trump and Company is “regime change.” When they mock the legal restraints of “so-called judges” and call journalism “the opposition,” we should understand that they’re test-marketing their contempt for the rule of law and the constitutional protection of critical freedom. So Tim Snyder has written out his pocket-size get-real manual, called: On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

These are warnings Europe didn’t hear in the 1930s, that grate on American ears today, but try them out:

  • Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  • Make eye contact and small talk.
  • Hinder the one-party state.
  • Investigate.
  • Be calm when the unthinkable arrives, and more…

The sidelight that fascinates here is on President Trump’s Russia-gate. Snyder is not much worried that Vladimir Putin’s hacking tipped our presidential race. But steeped in the horrible history of 1930s Europe, Snyder is alarmed about every tolerant gesture President Trump makes toward Putin and his Russia. “The way the Russian system has worked,” Snyder says, “since Putin’s elevation to power in 1999, is that… episodes of terrorism have been used at every step to do away with democratic and liberal institutions and to replace them with an ever harsher and more effective authoritarian regime.” When Donald Trump sweet-talks Vladimir Putin, Tim Snyder is telling us, we should be seeing his Russia as “a possible negative future for the United States.”

P.S. – Timothy Snyder’s call-to-action manual is back in the news this week, with On Tyranny’s Amazon page being hacked. As reported in The Guardian, Snyder responded, “The hack basically confirms several of the lessons in On Tyranny, such as [No] 14, on the importance of digital privacy.”

Podcast • March 21, 2017

Mohsin Hamid and the ‘Unwritten Constitution’

The Pakistani fictionist Mohsin Hamid is acutely expert on our American hang-ups about others who look something like him. His new novel, Exit West, is a very modern sort of love story about a thoughtful ...

The Pakistani fictionist Mohsin Hamid is acutely expert on our American hang-ups about others who look something like him. His new novel, Exit West, is a very modern sort of love story about a thoughtful young man and driven young woman, on the run together from their exploding homeland – through tunnels to Greece and Africa and then Bay Area California.

For American readers, part of his drift is: get used to these people—it’s going be another long century of massive migrations, no matter what. Then further: We’re not going to want Canada to take the title that has served the US so well, as the ‘nation of all nations.’ And third, maybe: deal with it, people. In the dark night of our souls, we know deep down that we’re all lonely migrants, eternal strangers in strange lands. And then, relax about it; migrant-ness is part of the human condition.

We’re in my house in Boston for this second podcast round with Mohsin Hamid; the first was in his writing room at home in Lahore in the ancient Punjab: that about his hit novel that became a major movie, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about what the shock of 9/11 could do to a Princeton-educated, mostly Americanized Asian, like Mohsin Hamid himself. This time I asked him to begin with a sample of his surreal new novel about the blank, dark doors that deliver frantic refugees to their next home far away:

It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat. Saeed was emerging and Nadia crawled forward to give him space, and as she did so she noticed the sinks and mirrors for the first time, the tiles of the floor, the stalls behind her, all the doors of which save one were normal doors, all but the one through which she had come, and through which Saeed was now coming, which was black, and she understood that she was in the bathroom of some public place, and she listened intently but it was silent, the only noises emanating from her, from her breathing, and from Saeed, his quiet grunts like those of a man exercising, or having sex…

Make room for Mohsin Hamid on the long shelf of Indian and Pakistani writers who’ve been tuning our taste: among them Salman Rushdie, Pico Iyer, Akhil Sharma, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Mohammed Hanif.