This Week's Show •

The Doomsday Machine in 2017

Nukes are on people’s nerves again, for good reason.  Our tremors, though, could be a symptom of sanity.  What do you mean: fire and fury, the incineration of nations, on one man’s decision? What they ...

Nukes are on people’s nerves again, for good reason.  Our tremors, though, could be a symptom of sanity.  What do you mean: fire and fury, the incineration of nations, on one man’s decision? What they never told us was that the Cold War could end, but the worst thing about it—the Age of Nuclear Anxiety—could keep right on going. Why is the worst of all weapons still out there, 25 years later?  

Daniel Ellsberg after releasing the Pentagon Papers (Wally Fong / AP)

Daniel Ellsberg knew he was risking life in prison for leaking the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War. But even then, most of 50 years ago, he was compiling a more awful story he wanted to liberate. And now, at the age of 86, he’s done it with the publication of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. His latest book gives us the official and documentary version of our nuclear nightmare. The real story strangely resembles the black-humor script of Doctor Strangelove.  Hearing Ellsberg’s stories, you may be reminded of the War Room scene from Kubrick’s film with our president and the Russian ambassador talking total world destruction, on autopilot:

The strangest part of Daniel Ellsberg’s Confessions is his argument that the movie parody is still running in real life: the doomsday machines are still on hair-triggers.

Elaine Scarry is a literary scholar who happens to be an expert on what nuclear weapons have done to democracy. Her book, Thermonuclear Monarchy, is an essential guide to this terrifying power.  In October, Elaine Scarry, helped convene a huge conference of citizens and experts around this mystery of presidential authority over nukes.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts is the lonely-looking Democrat in Congress who wants to contain the president’s nuclear authority. He announced recently that he was filing a bill to prevent President Trump from launching a first strike on North Korea without first getting a congressional declaration of war. 

William Perry helped build Silicon Valley as the tech capital, then ran the Pentagon in Bill Clinton’s presidency.  He was one of four old establishment figures who ten years ago called for “a world free of nuclear weapons”—alongside George Shultz, Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger. Time Magazine called them “The Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse.”  Today, William Perry, at age 90, says the danger of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and that most people are blissfully unaware of it.

Vincent Intondi takes on a lot of unconventional angles in his book, African Americans Against the BombHe reminds us that black American artists and political leaders—from Langston Hughes and Charlie Parker to Bayard Rustin and MLK— have long been on the front lines of the disarmament fight. Today, he says, it’s still people of color—primarily in the global south—leading the charge for nuclear abolition.

 

November 2, 2017

Trump Goes to China

President Trump is on tour in Asia this weekend: relieved maybe to be “getting out of Dodge” as his campaign team is getting indicted in D.C.  But it’s awkward, and unprecedented over there, too, that our ...

President Trump is on tour in Asia this weekend: relieved maybe to be “getting out of Dodge” as his campaign team is getting indicted in D.C.  But it’s awkward, and unprecedented over there, too, that our president knows he’s meeting—as The Economist put it— “plausibly… the world’s most powerful leader” in China’s party chairman, Xi Jinping. 

The new power in China doesn’t come just from Chairman Xi. You can see the new order arranging itself around the other men now rushing to meet with the Chinese leader before Trump’s visit.

That’s two tiers of almost 40 technologists and billionaires – ours and theirs: Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma, Elon Musk, Google, Apple – toeing the line in a photo op with Xi Jinping.

Bill Kirby is the Harvard Business School’s eye on Chinese enterprise, old and new. In our conversation, Bill is pulling on the thread of his last book, Can China Lead??

Donald Trump and Xi Jin Ping meet in China, 45 years down a road that opened in front of our guest Chas Freeman. He was the foreign service officer at the start of his own brilliant career, translating the breakthrough meetings with Henry Kissinger, Chou En Lai, President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao, among others. He is giving us a tough-minded review of the needs and wants of the strongest Chinese leadership since Mao, running a “police state” at home and a vast “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project “from Portugal to the Bering Straits.”

We’re also interested in cultural puzzles and contradictions in modern “Chimerica.”  The bilingual, and profoundly bi-cultural Kaiser Kuo, the Chinese rocker and host of the Sinica Podcast, gives us his take from his new homebase in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Ian Johnson, Pulitzer Prize winner for the Wall Street Journal, describes China’s spiritual crisis and revival over the the last decade in his book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. We continue our earlier discussion with Johnson on the evolving spiritual and moral values in modern China.

The education reformer in Beijing, Jiang Xueqin — Chinese to the bone, with a Yale undergraduate degree as well — is telling us of his own work in the gap between China’s prodigious achievements in math and science, and the unmet goals in ’emotional intelligence’ and humanities.

Podcast • September 7, 2017

Let Us Now Praise John Ashbery

John Ashbery seemed to lower, not raise, his voice when he spoke his poems. “Hammer and tongs, as it were, tended to drive ideas and meanings away,” he thought.  “They only come back in when ...

John Ashbery seemed to lower, not raise, his voice when he spoke his poems. “Hammer and tongs, as it were, tended to drive ideas and meanings away,” he thought.  “They only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat will rub against your leg.” One of his innumerable tricks was that “who, me?” question in his poems, as if to ask: “Why not you?” John Ashbery had the most imitated voice in American poetry through the second half of the 20th Century. What’s obscure in hindsight is the tag of obscurity on his work. Slippery, shape-shifting, elliptical–for sure. But clearly now: soulful, musical, funny, conversational and beautiful.  Just life, just poetry, he’d have said.  

Frontispiece for Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror shot by Richard Avedon

The poem is you, John Ashbery says, but our guard stays up. Ashbery is a by-word for difficulty, at least puzzlement in contemporary poetry—off limits, almost by definition. So our first question is: am I ready for this? Must we do poetry push-ups, or or take a course, first? Steph Burt says emphatically: No! Spoken with the authority of Harvard’s chief critic and guide to contemporary poetry:

In Ashbury you almost never need to get the joke or get the reference. There is not one right answer; there are multiple answers. There is not a consistent situation where you need to decode the poem and realize that actually it’s about Spiro Agnew or actually it’s about this event in Scotland in 1750. The poem is supposed to slip away from you no matter where you start.

The name John Ashbery will stand not only for poems but for a long era and an aesthetic sensibility touching all the arts. He had really intended to be a painter, he said, until he discovered that poetry was easier. After college, his first real job was writing reviews of the Paris art scene in the 1950s. He knew everything about music, old and new, serious and pop; and became a connoisseur of art films, and even wrote one. The avant-garde film-maker Guy Maddin, now teaching at Harvard, told us this week about Ashbery leaping into a project with him, to compose a new monolog for an old movie title from the 1930s, “How to Take a Bath.”

Screenshot from Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (2015)

Elsewhere Ashbery said that his writing was not made for analysis; it is analogous, he said, to “an immersive experience like bathing.” So Ashbery was drawn to film, and filmmakers to him. Jim Jarmusch, for example: a hero of the independents since the 80s for movies like Stranger than Paradise, and Coffee and Cigarettes and last year for Paterson, about a working-class poet in the New Jersey hometown of medical doc and poet William Carlos Williams. Jim Jarmusch celebrated his Ashbery connection with us this week.

                                       

The flood tide of Ashbery imitations, and parodies, must have passed before the poet’s death last weekend, at 90. But young poets just finding their voices are still finding Ashbery inescapable and influential. Rickey Laurentiis is one of them: 28 years old, born in New Orleans, African-American, now living in New York.  In an essay recently, Laurentiis asked: “If a black poet opens a book of Ashbery in a forest, will anyone believe him? Where do I fit in these traditions?”

 

He spoke to us on the phone this week of Ashbery as an “acquired taste” — one he has learned love. One of his favorite Ashbery poems, How to Continue, ends with this exquisitely poignant stanza:

And when it became time to go
they none of them would leave without the other
for they said we are all one here
and if one of us goes the other will not go
and the wind whispered it to the stars
the people all got up to go
and looked back on love
Finally, we’re joined live by two of our favorite poets, Adam Fitzgerald and Eileen Myles, who were both deeply and personally influenced by Ashbery’s life and work.

Podcast • August 17, 2017

The Plague of Fascism in America

It’s plague time in America. We’ve reacquainted ourselves with the wannabe centurions of white supremacy: their faces, their weapons, their torches. We have a new notion of what homegrown American fascism could look like in the ...

It’s plague time in America. We’ve reacquainted ourselves with the wannabe centurions of white supremacy: their faces, their weapons, their torches. We have a new notion of what homegrown American fascism could look like in the 21st century. We can see it all too clearly here in Vice‘s low-light reel from Charlottesville:

The sense of a dreaded illness engulfs us, as the classic novel of Europe’s 20th century fascist breakdown warned us. Albert Camus’ Plague closes on the doctor’s note that the germ of our problem never dies or disappears: 

 it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

A similar plague is testing us now, with no signs of hope or help coming from the White House. We know that those obnoxious nationalists of the alt-right with their klan and nazi banners feel comfortably in tune with the man in the White House. We also now see that Drumpf could happily serve as president of their confederacy.

For guidance through this maelstrom, we turn first to Peniel Joseph—historian of black power and biographer of Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael)—to relearn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and later responses to the non-violent model of resistance.

We’re looking for wisdom from Nikhil Pal Singh, the Indian-born scholar of black radicalism and the international dimensions of the struggle for liberation. He reads our current moment, in part, through the lens of a globalized economy: a desperate sense of loss inflaming racial tensions for working-class Americans, with the financial elites stoking the flames.

What’s happened to the American working class as a whole during the period of the 1990s and 2000s is that there has been a dramatic kind of downscaling and the recognition has been belated by American elites who did not respond to this generational crisis. And Drumpf swoops and tells a certain kind of story about it that seems plausible because it plays to a sense of victimization — but, also, a sense that the enemies are these nefarious forces who have stolen their birthright. But, actually, the people who’ve stolen their birthright are very, very close to home.

For a read on the new faces and forces in American fascism, Southern Poverty Law Center president Richard Cohen gives us his anatomy of the alt-right movement. In studio, we’re also joined by the staunch free-speech defender Wendy Kaminer, preacher Mariama White-Hammond, poet Adam Fitzgerald, and the novelist James Carroll.

August 10, 2017

Harder, Better, Faster, CRISPR

The dawn of a new age flashed across the news this summer – dateline Oregon: scientists from the US, China and South Korea together had tweaked the genes of a living human embryo to correct ...

The dawn of a new age flashed across the news this summer – dateline Oregon: scientists from the US, China and South Korea together had tweaked the genes of a living human embryo to correct an inherited flaw that has caused heart failure and sudden death in a lot of young athletes.  And so, finally, suddenly we enter the CRISPR age in bio-technology, when human science takes charge of the human genetic lifeline, to fix it here, tune it there, perhaps re-tailor it in useful ways.  We could be doing it soon with hundred-dollar DIY kits, at home. The Chinese are doing it, too.

As the pioneer in the CRISPR breakthrough Jennifer Doudna says: we have the ability now to edit the DNA of every living person and future generations, too.  “In essence,” Doudna writes, it means the power “to direct the evolution of our own species.”  “Unprecedented in the history of life on earth,” she adds, “beyond our comprehension,” and raising “impossible but essential” questions for which as individuals and as a species, we are “woefully unprepared.”  Jennifer Doudna’s colleague at UC-Berkeley, Michael Eisen starts off our conversation this week. He’s a genetic biologist — who works mainly on fruit flies — and a member of the Berkeley team that epically battled against the MIT-Harvard-Broad Institute faction, over patent claims on CRISPR and its applications.  Online, Michael Eisen has eloquently argued against the whole idea of patenting a public resource.

 

Ben Mezrich who dreamed up “The Social Network” about the making of Facebook and the IT billionaire class. He has a new block-buster in book form, soon to be a movie called “Woolly,” about the mammoth last seen as the Ice Age melted down. The human hero of the story is George Church —  the giant Harvard biologist who means to revive the woolly mammoth with its DNA and his own CRISPR tools. Imagine Indiana Jones in Jurassic Park. 

Antonio Regalado is a key journalist on the CRISPR beat, a minute-to-minute reporter online for the Tech Review, which is owned and managed by MIT.  Among the levels of his CRISPR coverage: the science, the people who do it, the motivations and the money. He tells us:

People are getting rich. In the case of the CRISPR companies, I can see how many shares the scientific founders from around Cambridge have and the amounts are large: eight, nine million, ten million dollars. And yet when I interact with the scientists themselves—George Church, for instance with his sort of lumpy shoes, you know, does money motivate him? He doesn’t act like it. So I think fundamentally I’ve got to believe that people are motivated by the fact that they’re discovering stuff and the glory and that is worth more than the money. But I might be naive.

There are agitated voices inside biology and outside it who want to be heard in the CRISPR conversation, and we invited two of them to speak up. Robert Pogue Harrison is humanities professor, a Dante specialist, at Stanford who podcasts on a great variety of civilized subjects.  Earlier this summer when the Templeton Foundation brought the superstars of CRISPR world to a weekend retreat in California, Robert Harrison was invited to sit in alongside George Church of Harvard and Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley, and speak for the long philosophical and moral view of a scientific revolution. On the phone this week Professor Harrison told us he came away from that meeting more perturbed than he went in. What struck him most was the widespread sanguinity among the scientists.  Under the azure Californian sky, CRISPR-potentiated nightmare scenarios seemed impossible to imagine:

My sense was that most of the people there felt or at least pretended to feel assured that as long as we all remain reasonable as long as we all put our minds together and make informed decisions about CRISPR’s use that everything’s going to be fine. I would have preferred more discussion of the potentially destructive and even catastrophic risks that such a technology introduces into the biosphere.

 

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office

Ting Wu leads a genetic biology lab at the Harvard Medical School. And she’s married to her most famous colleague George Church, with whom she has had running debates morning and night for most of 30 years.  In her office this week we asked her to draw some lines she argues over with her husband. She told us: “I am not a line drawer.”  Rather, she’s more of a potentialist — a firm believer that the happiness of future descendents will be largely determined by our willingness to allow for a panoply of personal genetic expressions.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

August 3, 2017

This is Your Brain on Trump

If you can believe your eyes, and ears, your screens, your Twitter feed, this is your mind, your country, our very public American life, “on Trump.”  There is no following this story, this confounding condition, this ...

If you can believe your eyes, and ears, your screens, your Twitter feed, this is your mind, your country, our very public American life, “on Trump.”  There is no following this story, this confounding condition, this inescapable event called Trump.  

In a sort of 6-months checkup, we’re just taking impressions from near and far: what does it mean for a country, a culture, for our sleep cycles, our sanity, to be “on Trump,” for so long now? And what is it doing to us, alone or together?

Emmett Rensin is a young counter-commentator, still in his 20s.  His vision of the new culture war jumped off the page of the Los Angeles Review of Books.  It’s a fight in our collective soul between the raging Id – the fantasy desires  — of the new power center; and the Blathering Super Ego – the No-impulse in the technocratic center. He tells us that the Establishment-aligned Super Ego is:

A collective of human beings who have absorbed and internalized very deeply this whole notion of like what politics is; what are adult politics; what are the standards of behavior; what can win, what can’t win; how to behave. And they’re watching that just get blown up.

This week, the subject is the unavoidable You Know Who, and what a two-year fixation on a single tragi-comic anti-hero is doing to the mind and spirit of the Great Republic. Laurie Penny is a young English writer who emerged — as Christopher Hitchens did many years ago — as a columnist with the New Statesman in London.  She calls herself a feminist and “social justice bard.” In our conversation, she shares how the culture wars of today are being fought on the battlefield of our collective imagination. She believes that storytelling — liberated from old models based around heroic white masculinity — will prove decisive. 

Angela Nagle was born American in Houston of Irish parents, then grew up in Dublin, where she writes for The Irish Times and a host of hot online sites.  She is known as an astute tracker of the big trends and hidden nooks in the Alt-Right online culture. Her new book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right chronicles her intrepid journey through these dark, shadowy digital worlds.

We asked David Bosworth, our seer in Seattle, for the long view of the Trump moment in the history of our culture, our tech, our economy. He’s a critic who writes novels, too, and a celebrated teacher at the University of Washington.  He tells us that we’re looking at the birth of something as big and complex as the birth of modernity in the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes.  The future is unforeseeable, he says, but it was made in our time in America.

And some advice: People write their headaches to Liza Featherstone at The Nation Magazine under the heading: “Asking for a Friend.”  If you want your Trump-addled brain to come back to life, Liza has a life tip for you.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

Podcast • July 27, 2017

Billy Bragg’s Guide to the Music of Dissent

Billy Bragg has been the premier troubadour for British radicalism for more than thirty years: a democratic socialist with a guitar and a steadfast commitment to fighting fascism, racism, and homophobia. He was the voice of ...

Billy Bragg has been the premier troubadour for British radicalism for more than thirty years: a democratic socialist with a guitar and 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.

This Week's Show •

The Coming Crisis in Opioid Nation

The opioid epidemic running rampant this summer 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 opioid epidemic running rampant this summer 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.  

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, 1940-1973. In 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.

 

This Week's Show •

Walden & the Natural World of Transcendentalism

Henry David Thoreau, our specimen of American genius in nature, wrote famously short, and long.  “Simplify,” in a one-word sentence of good advice.  But then 2-million words on 7-thousand pages in his quotable lifetime journal. ...

Henry David Thoreau, our specimen of American genius in nature, wrote famously short, and long.  “Simplify,” in a one-word sentence of good advice.  But then 2-million words on 7-thousand pages in his quotable lifetime journal.  

It’s one of many odd points to notice about Thoreau at his 200th birthday: that the non-stop writer was equally a man of action, a scientist and a high-flying poet whose imagination saw that “the bluebird carries the sky on his back;” and still a workman with callused hands, at home in the wild, a walker four hours a day on average, in no particular direction.  His transcendentalism was all about the blossoming intersection of nature-study and introspection, fact and idea, detail and ideals.  In his pine grove, on his river, at his pond, the outdoor Thoreau.

N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) Walden Pond Revisited, 1942

What does a Transcendentalist do, we were asking in the first of three bicentennial Thoreau shows?  All the answers are to be found in the canoe trip that became a masterpiece, titled: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. What the Transcendentalist does is soar – between water below and sky above; between this day and eternity, between Nature, and human society.

We start our journey at the South Bridge Boat House near Thoreau’s house on Main Street in Concord, just upstream from the Concord River itself.  A naturalist philosopher in the Thoreau lineage, Alex Strong from Maine, is one of our guides.  During our trip down Thoreau’s “little Nile”,  Alex tells us about what the strapping, young 22 year old was learning on his voyage: 

He was learning about big-N Nature when he was studying the Perch, studying when flowers bloomed, where the bees were. The notes he took, the meticulous notes, weren’t just about the little details; they’re about understanding the whole picture and keeping nature sacred while understanding it, in all its finite mundane details.

Next up, the still-water Walden, a pond in Concord, Massachusetts where Henry Thoreau wrote his great book in a cabin by the shore. In 1845 Walden was a woodlot next to the new railway where the 28-year-old poet went to “suck out the marrow of life,” whatever it turned out to be. Our guide to the pond and the book, the young philosopher John Kaag had been in and out of the Walden water the other morning before we got there.

 

Photo by Michael J. Lutch

While we’re here, at Walden, we decided to stop and consider the statuesque, very tall, dark-green, almost black, pine trees all around Walden Pond, trees that Thoreau came to consider cousins, virtually human.  Richard Higgins, widely traveled in Concord today, has written a book on Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and he has no doubt that Thoreau spoke it fluently, from the heart.

Finally, we conclude with a Thoreauvian meditation on walking. Real walkers are born, not made, Thoreau liked to say.  “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”  These days the woods and the bookstores are full of such walkers.  Andrew Forsthoefel made his reputation in public radio walking 4000 miles from Philadelphia to San Francisco, with a sign that said “walking to listen” and recording back-road stories. And then there’s the literary traveler Paul Theroux, of Cape Cod and Hawaii, of the Mosquito Coast and The Great Railway Bazaar. He has spent a lifetime on trains, and in kayaks, and a lot of it on his own two feet in China, in our own Deep South and specially in Africa.  In our conversation, Theroux extends Thoreau’s idea that walking is in-born, into some more than others.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

June 15, 2017

Something’s Happening Here

In the first summer of Trump, 2017, there’s something happening and it feels bigger than the Comey hearings, even Russia-gate. Who knew that a British election with an inconclusive photo finish could re-channel the anger ...

In the first summer of Trump, 2017, there’s something happening and it feels bigger than the Comey hearings, even Russia-gate. Who knew that a British election with an inconclusive photo finish could re-channel the anger that drives the global mood?  The unheralded Jeremy Corbyn at the left end of the Labor Party is the mouse that roared, and turned the ‘age of anger’ in a different direction.

Corbyn didn’t play the bellowing populist, but he spoke the part.  How about a government “for the many, not the few,” Corbyn asked.  And millions of new UK voters said, “Yes!” In the face of terrorist outrages in Manchester, then London, just before the voting, Corbyn said: “we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working.”  It is now Corbyn’s moment to be the standard of unconventional talk that resonates far and wide.  

Our show begins with Naomi Klein.  Among book-writers on the left, from Michelle Alexander to Bill McKibben to Michael Moore, the line on Naomi Klein is that nobody faster is better, and nobody better is faster. No Is Not Enough is her quick handbook for the Trump era.  Her line since No Logo has been that corporate and consumer culture are both hazardous for people and the planet. And Donald Trump? He’s to be seen not as cause of the problem but as evidence of it:  

“I am not interested in looking at Trump as just like an aberrant personality and psychoanalyzing of him. He is a symptom. I see him as dystopian fiction come to life, you know, and you read dystopian fiction–whether it’s 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale or whether you go see a film like The Hunger Games or Elysium–and inevitably we see a story of a bubble of ultra-rich big winners and hordes of locked out losers. What this entire genre is doing and has always done is take the trends and the culture and follows them to their logical conclusion. They hold up a mirror and say: Do you like what you see? I mean, this is not supposed to be a system that’s telling us to go to this dangerous future. It’s telling us to get off that road. That’s the idea. It’s supposed to be holding up a mirror and telling society to swerve. So, you know, I want to look at the roads that lead to Trump much more than I want to look at Trump himself.”

David Graeber, a Yale-trained cultural anthropologist, emerged as something of a cult writer behind the Occupy movement of six years ago — meaning, in his case, a tracker of the invisible stitching around matters of debt and wealth from ancient times.  

He has prophesied at different times a standard 15-hour work week and the dissolution of the US empire.  In the matter of Tory rule in England,  David Graeber has been writing since before the Brexit vote about an “efflorescence of resistance” breaking through — he says — ‘a culture of despair.’

Finally, the Indian-born writer Pankaj Mishra, now London based and widely published in the most respected British and American press, is acutely aware that he embodies a contradiction.  His argument in his contentious new book, Age of Anger, is that the European Enlightenment from the 18th Century, modernity itself and globalization have been critical to his success and, at the same time, responsible for the shilling of so many false promises — prosperity, equality, and security — to the great masses of have-nots. (For more Mishra, listen to our 2012 interview with Pankaj on foreign policy)