Podcast • November 1, 2012

Camille Paglia: a rapturous rap on art and nature

Camille Paglia and I are celebrating 20 years of strong conversation here. She’s been a blazing torch of my adult education, but here’s what I still don’t get: why does a scholar of such urgent ...

Camille Paglia and I are celebrating 20 years of strong conversation here. She’s been a blazing torch of my adult education, but here’s what I still don’t get: why does a scholar of such urgent interest in the sacred and the divine, such a compelling preacher of awe, reverence, amazement and, yes, worship of the universe for its magnitude and complexity and of the beauty and poetry of religious expression in art and all the sacred books… why does this marvelous woman call herself an atheist? Am I missing something?

In Glittering Images, her new how-to manual on the “close reading” of paintings, sculpture, architecture and movies, the thread is Divinity — in all its punishing power, redemptive energy and insatiable fascination, from the earliest Egyptian ritual art to “the Force” in George Lucas’s “Star Wars” films. She is scathing, as usual, about the “very wizened, crabbed way of approaching art” in the secular humanist formulas of academia. But in the end she calls herself a secular humanist, too.

She is a defiantly different sort of atheist, as she was always a defiantly different sort of feminist. As in this characteristic digression: Just compare the title of Christopher Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great, to what I think is probably the best sentence I’ve ever written, in Sexual Personae, where I say: ‘God is man’s greatest idea.’ Now I think I have the correct atheism; and Christopher Hitchens, who was a sybarite, did not!” And still I wonder if she doesn’t protest too much, or miss her own point. In another impulsive digression she remarks: “I’m someone who, like, almost worships the weather. A storm or a hurricane coming is almost a mystical experience.”

I remind her that I am still waiting for the synthesis she was developing years ago, maybe from childhood: an “Italian Catholic Paganism” for our times. She inscribed my copy of Glittering Images for my five-year-old grand-daughter. “Now here is a little handbook, okay?” she says, “that can help you to begin that journey in the history of art.” And then the point to be remembered: “It is a spiritual journey!”

Podcast • August 15, 2012

Jackson Lears: Too Scary to Talk About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 2, 2012

Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture : A Different Country Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast • May 11, 2012

Dan Ariely on the “Irrationality” of American inequality

Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational fame, makes the arresting point that from the standpoint of fairness and equity in the distribution of wealth and power, the vast majority of Americans (90-plus percent) would prefer to ...

Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational fame, makes the arresting point that from the standpoint of fairness and equity in the distribution of wealth and power, the vast majority of Americans (90-plus percent) would prefer to be living in Sweden. Which is to say: Mitt Romney’s scariest nightmare, “a European-style welfare state,” may be just the briar patch that most of us Bre’r Rabbits long for.

Dan Ariely is the Israeli-American psychologist, now at Duke, who has made a big name and career in the Dan Kahneman school of “behavioral economics.” The special Ariely gift is for surveys and social experiments that probe the gap between what we want and what we choose when we buy a house, pick a mate or vote for president. I’m bringing to the conversation my own probe for symptoms and causes behind Tony Judt‘s dying diagnosis, in Ill Fares the Land, that “something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today… We cannot go on living like this.”

Main roots of Judt’s and our own unease seem to pop right out of Dan Ariely’s experimental surveys — typically clever in their simplicity. First, when he asks his thousands of respondents to estimate the real division of wealth in the US, and then to propose an ideal distribution, we Americans confirm our sentimental attachment to a polite tilt of privilege. We cherish our mythic legacy of quasi-egalitarian social democracy, with no extreme concentrations of wealth or poverty. But what our answers really confirm is our delusion about the economy we live in now. The top 20 percent of the people in fact own 84 percent of the goods, and the bottom 40 percent of us, barely floating on a sea of debt, own less than half of one percent of the wealth of the nation. We live across roughly double the rich-poor gap measured in Germany, Japan and Denmark. By the standard “Gini coefficient” of wealth inequality, the US ranks with Turkestan and Tunisia, just a tad more equal than Chad and Sri Lanka.

The second key question in Ariely’s survey is even simpler; the answer is a slam dunk. Respondents were shown two pie charts — one with the actual American shares of wealth, in which 60 percent of the population nearly disappears with less than 5 percent ownership altogether; in the alternative, modeled on Sweden, the top 20 percent owns 36 percent of the wealth (almost double its claim by sheer numbers) and the bottom 20 percent owns 11 percent (about half its numerical share). In Dan Ariely’s study (with Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School), 92 percent of us Americans want to live Swedish-style instead. Women (93 percent in favor of the Swedish model) are a ever so slightly more egalitarian than men (90 percent for Sweden). But the results come out very nearly the same — Republicans and Democrats, richer and poorer, NPR listeners and readers of Forbes Magazine.

What we hear eternally in political chatter is Joe the Plumber’s dread of “spread the wealth” government, and Newt Gingrich’s alarm about “European Socialism.” And now the screech from Mitt Romney’s ex-Bain partner Edward Conard in the Times Magazine that we need bigger payoffs and “twice as many people” in the high-end investor class — in short, that we need a lot more inequality. But Dan Ariely’s evidence is that in the most steeply skewed social order in the industrialized world, we’re miserable about being skewered on the contradictions in a proud democracy that’s eroding fast at the foundations.

Dan Ariely brings, yes, the social-democratic biases of the Israeli left. He is imprinted unmistakably — body and soul — with the scars of severe burns he suffered as a teenager in a freak explosion: his face and most of his skin were remade over three excruciating years in hospital, all of the immeasurable expense covered by Israel’s socialized healthcare. Without it, as he told me, his family would have been bankrupted, his care might well have been curtailed.

The hope in Dan Ariely’s forecast for American politics and culture is for people who can hold out a while. How much do we need to change? I asked him:

A lot. I’m not a Biblical scholar, but after Moses came down from the mountain and saw the people of Israel celebrating the Golden Calf, God basically punished them by getting them to walk in the desert for 40 years, so that a generation would die. It might take a generation. That might be a reasonable time scale. The current generation that is running things might not be the right one. It might be that the generation that went to college during the financial crisis is the right generation — even if a lot of them are out of work. They’re thinking about what to do. They don’t have the Princeton-to-Wall Street path. They’re thinking of other things they might do with their lives, and because they don’t necessarily have jobs they are open to following their passions. My understanding is that volunteering is up. People are trying all kinds of things. There’s an increasing interest in graduate degrees — education is always counter-cyclical to the economy. This is a generation that saw the breakage of some ideologies of perfect capitalism, ready to revise their thinking. And they might be the right people to envision a new approach. The protests are a good signal. They’re a step in the right direction.

Dan Ariely with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 2012

Podcast • April 27, 2012

Daron Acemoglu on “Extractive” Politics and Us

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daron Acemoglu (42 min, 19 meg) Daron Acemoglu pops up in his office at MIT with the big bold energy of the book that’s made him famous. Like ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daron Acemoglu (42 min, 19 meg)

Daron Acemoglu pops up in his office at MIT with the big bold energy of the book that’s made him famous. Like Why Nations Fail, Professor Acemoglu is large-size and learned, young in spirit, digressive, reader-friendly and not at all shy about the after-argument around the epic account of economic inequality he wrote with political scientist James Robinson at Harvard.

The book is a theory of “development” wound through 500 years of mostly predatory colonial history. The argument can be made simple enough: that the mal-distribution of money and happiness in our polarized world is rooted not, for example, in the geography of foodstuffs (the Jared Diamond account in Guns, Germs and Steel), and not in the burdens of climate, bad soil and disease (a main line in Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty). No, no no… Acemoglu and Robinson affirm what feels intuitive anyway. The big difference in the world is between political arrangements designed and built to serve the many — or the few. It’s between state structures (usually resembling their dominant industries) that are purposefully maintained as “inclusive,” in the interest of pluralism, innovation and the common good; or “extractive,” for the benefit of an economic and power elite.

It’s the after-argument around Why Nations Fail that becomes the core of our conversation. I’m asking: isn’t a main warning in Why Nations Fail directed at the United States? Aren’t the scariest symptoms of “extractive” politics on our home turf, where the financial elite is throwing billions this year at both parties to block economic reform and taxes on itself? And shouldn’t we see a striking fit here with historian Tony Judt’s last judgment in Ill Fares the Land that an American “way of life” is on a cliff edge, desperately in need of a new public conversation?

On the broad questions Daron Acemoglu is both gravely worried and tentatively optimistic. What “really worries” him about the United States is that we’ve “already started the slide toward extractive institutions.” It’s not just the wealth inequality “that has soared over the last three or four decades.” It’s the eclipse of the myth and often the reality that Average Joes rule our politics. “That you cannot say today. Today the political system, I believe, is largely just listening to the very rich. The SuperPacs are the icing on the cake. It’s lobbying and campaign contributions — just the fact that whenever politicians want to get advice they turn to the very wealthy.” Citizens United and SuperPacs made a bad situation worse. “That’s where the slide becomes very serious,” he said.

And still, Acemoglu is optimistic because “we’ve been here before.” At the end of the 19th Century and the Gilded Age, when economic inequality was even higher than today, American politics was open enough to let Populist and Progressive movements take root in both parties, to enlist Teddy Roosevelt in the war against monopolists and “malefactors of great wealth,” to sustain a long reform era that delivered antitrust laws, direct election of Senators and voting rights for women. “That sort of thing was possible 100 years ago. The question is: is it possible today?”

The sharpest rejoinder is from Acemoglu’s close friend and MIT colleague Simon Johnson of Thirteen Bankers fame, the onetime IMF economist who described our problem as “state capture” by the financial industry, meaning we’re a banana republic owned by big money. “The Acemoglu-Robinson book is ultimately upbeat about the United States. We have built strong economic and political institutions, and these will prevail. I’m not so sanguine,” Johnson wrote in the New York Times recently. “I’m surveying the political landscape closely for anyone who can play the role of Teddy Roosevelt, using legal tools to break monopoly “trusts” and shifting the mainstream consensus decisively toward imposing constraints on the abuse of power by powerful individuals. So far, I see no one truly in the Roosevelt tradition with a realistic chance of election, while the rich become more powerful and the powerful become even richer.”

Professor Acemoglu concurred heartily with the Johnson diagnosis, then tossed the question back at us — that is, at all of us. “Is the system open enough to finally rally around somebody to stop the slide?”

Podcast • April 24, 2012

Andrew Bacevich: Here’s who Lost the American Century!

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall ...

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. I take it personally, still with a pang — seeing the American glory days of my boyhood through rose-tinted glasses, Bacevich tells me. But I might also date our downfall much earlier than Bacevich does — in 1971, one could argue, the year when the cosmopolitan giant of our journalism Walter Lippmann, stricken by the heedless slaughter in Vietnam, declared: “I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.”

I’ve always told my kids that the American Century could be summed up on two fingers: (1) the timely and decisive — late! — entry of US fighting forces into the European War; and (2) the sound of Count Basie’s band. You can still hear in the Basie recordings: the rhythm of our industrial production, the cultural glory of the great black migration out of the South, not to mention the transnational chic of Basie’s big hit in 1955, “April in Paris,” written by the Russian-American Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky. Now there was American power! What happened?

If the erosion of “social democracy” is the great lament of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, which prompted this series of conversations, it’s the want of “pragmatic realism” in American foreign policy that binds the eight striking essays Andrew Bacevich has gathered into The Short American Century. Jackson Lears contributes the definition of pragmatic realism, from William James, as the tradition that, “at its best, counseled war only as the last resort — the least desirable alternative in the policy maker’s arsenal.” Others recount the decline of our postwar multi-lateralism — remember the Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and NATO — and the eclipse, especially under George W. Bush, of Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” And meantime our Empire of Production became an Empire of Consumption, then of trillion-dollar deficits, an Empire of Debt.

Andrew Bacevich likes to describe himself as a conservative Catholic from the Midwest. He is a West Pointer who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Long before his son and namesake was killed in action in the Iraq War, Bacevich had taken his history Ph.D. at Princeton and embarked on a series of studies of The Limits of Power and American Militarism — of the arrogance of empire, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the spirit of the “Who lost China?” nagging in the McCarthy era, I am asking him simply: “Who lost our Century?”

I’d probably nominate the post-Cold War presidents as a group — for the remilitarization of American foreign policy. Reagan’s role, of course, is to revise the image of the American military and the American soldier — in a sense to banish the negative image from Vietnam. George Herbert Walker Bush’s contribution was to inaugurate a new era of interventionism — in Panama certainly, in the first Persian Gulf War, but also not to be forgotten, in Somalia — his going-away gift to the nation. But I would very much then include Bill Clinton in my list of villains, because it is really during the Clinton era — this draft-dodger of the Vietnam era who seemed to represent the inverse of the militarist. But it’s Bill Clinton who becomes more promiscuous in his use of American military power than any preceding American president: upping the ante in Somalia; intervention in Haiti, intervention in Bosnia, intervention in Kosovo, any number of dust-ups with Saddam Hussein… That’s the circumstance that George W. Bush inherits, and I certainly don’t want to let him off the hook. But to understand the hubris of George W. Bush’s vision of a “global war on terror” that is going to liberate the Islamic world — that vision is rooted in expectations about the efficacy of military power that grew out of the Clinton years and the years when his father was president. So all these people, I think, should plead guilty to the charge of abusing and misusing American military power and accelerating the end of the American Century…

The pattern continues. The expectation of the people who voted for Obama — and that certainly includes me — was that his ascendance would mark a break in the trajectory of ever-increasing emphasis on military power to try to sustain what remains of the American Century. And he has been a major disappointment. Now he would say: hey, I promised to end the Iraq War, and I ended it. I would respond: Yes, Mr. President, but in addition you both expanded and prolonged the Aghanistan war; you extended the Afghan war into Pakistan. You opened up new fronts in this supposed global war on terror — in Yemen, in Somalia. A couple of weeks ago there was a drone strike in the Philippines…

That hard experience and candor haven’t made it to the presidential campaign where, as Jackson Lears writes, “The vision of the American Century persists, even as its economic basis crumbles.” To Andrew Bacevich, we look like a chicken just after it’s lost its head.

We are running around the world using hard power in questionable circumstances, yielding ambiguous results. And meanwhile here at home we’ve had five years, is it, of trillion-dollar deficits. The American Century is running on fumes at this point.

Andrew Bacevich with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 20, 2012

Next round: Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Why Nations Fail on the political structure of inequality.

Podcast • April 11, 2012

Tim Snyder and Tony Judt: another narrative for Campaign 2012

  Timothy Snyder, a rising-star historian at Yale (most recently of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), is turning up the heat on his friend Tony Judt’s parting sermons about “social democracy.” I’m taking Tony ...


Timothy Snyder, a rising-star historian at Yale (most recently of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), is turning up the heat on his friend Tony Judt’s parting sermons about “social democracy.” I’m taking Tony Judt’s last books as “a catalog of the malaise” in the land, and as a catalyst of an Open Source quest for an alternative narrative of the 2012 presidential campaign. Grab a line, please! Tim Snyder drew almost literally the last words out of Tony Judt as he succumbed two years ago to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Thinking the Twentieth Century is their “talking book,” which they spoke and edited together. It’s Judt’s intellectual autobiography and a shared reflection on history at a dicey moment in the Western world. Tony Judt’s hope was in the “social democratic” compromises that keep alive dreams of equality, inclusion and fairness on a capitalist playing field. Tim Snyder adds his own high notes of urgency. What’s ruinous today, he’s saying, is not the cost of “social democracy” in education, public health, and modern transport, which can be shown to pay for themselves. Rather it’s inequality and social isolation that exact a price in many measures of health and happiness — in crime, mental illness, life expectancy and social stability. The problem in Europe, Snyder says, is typified by Greece, which “like the United States has lots of wealth inequality and lots of rich people who avoid paying taxes.”

This is another lesson of history: you can tell states are about to fall when the wealthy people who have been their bulwark are no longer contributing. They’re making bets elsewhere, and the state isn’t strong enough to make them pay taxes. And that’s kind of where we are now, which is why I worry. Not only do we have very rich people who don’t pay very many taxes, but we have this idea that it’s bad to make them pay taxes. And Mitt Romney incorporates that argument.

Timothy Snyder with Chris Lydon in the historians’ lounge at Yale, April 9, 2012

I hear a piercing cri de coeur in Tony Judt’s last several books, touching something much hotter and heavier than the campaign rancor so far, clearer and deeper than anything the Tea Party or Occupy have articulated, but not so distant from the general panic attack that many millions among us are facing:

We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of our daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have also lost control, to forces beyond their reach…

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 2010. p. 217.

Tim Snyder is speaking also of something gone drastically wrong in the public conversation. We now have a 24-hour news cycle, as he puts it, and an ever narrower discourse. It annoyed Tony Judt, he says, that we call ourselves a nation of non-conformism and free speech, when in truth “our intellectual life is impoverished compared with many democracies in the world or with the U. S. 50 years ago.” Here’s the Tony Judt version in print:

We cannot hope to reconstruct our dilapidated public conversation — no less than our crumbling infrastructure — unless we become sufficiently angry at our present condition. No democratic state should be able to make illegal war on the basis of a deliberate lie and get away with it. The silence surrounding the contemptibly inadequate response of the Bush Administration to Hurricane Katrina bespeaks a depressing cynicism toward the responsibilities and capacities of the state: we expect Washington to under-perform… Most people don’t feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance. They are told what to think and how to think it. They are made to feel inadequate as soon as issues of detail are engaged; and as for general objectives, they are encouraged to believe that these have long since been determined.

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 2010. pp. 161, 172…

Tony Judt acted out a rare conviction in the power of the word — and of his own words to the last breath. He believed it was the intellectuals’ job not only to broaden the public conversation but to change it. “If we do not talk differently,” he wrote , “we shall not think differently.” So a central part of this Tony Judt challenge we’re pursuing has to do with the mainstream American discourse we call “media” — how it works and what we make of it. Our next conversation in this thread is with the ever provocative champion of “civic media,” and now a star of “social media,” Jay Rosen of the dauntless and durable PressThink website, who chanced also to be Tony Judt’s colleague at New York University. By way of reintroducing Tony Judt, consider his passion for trains, and train stations — those “cathedrals of modern life,” collective projects for individual and common benefit, as he wrote. In Mumbai and Milan, Paris and New York, trains and their stations remain both “perennially contemporary” and “aesthetically appealing” — quite unlike airports. And they work! — much as they were designed to work from the beginning. Tim Snyder makes trains a sort of lesson that Tony Judt learned in scholarship, in life, in politics — that “we don’t become individuals all by ourselves. We can’t become responsible, we can’t become interesting, we can’t become individuals of any sort without some sort of collectivity. And I think trains were all about that…”

When you’re on a train, you can be all alone — reading your book, you don’t have to be paying attention to anyone else. But you are with other people, even if the only thing you have in common with the others is that you’re going to the same place, in the same direction. But the process of being on the train is one of looking around and noticing differences, right? So you can be alone together. Which is different from, on the one hand, the American practice of commuting in your car by yourself, staying up late playing a video game, where you’re alone alone. It’s also different from the kind of radical socialist or communist dream of being together together, where we’re all part of the same working class and we’re going to get rid of all those other people who aren’t… It’s somewhere right in the middle. It’s alone together. Together alone. Trains give us that, and in some sense I think that’s what modern society has to be like. The alone-alone is kind of a nightmare. The together-together is kind of a nightmare. It’s the alone-together, you know, which is tenable and which we can make if we want to make it.

Timothy Snyder with Chris Lydon in the historians’ lounge at Yale, April 9, 2012

Comments, please! Or email to chris@radioopensource.org. And thanks!

Podcast • March 28, 2012

Mark Blyth (8): How Germany gets to eat our lunch

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (32 min, 15 meg) Mark Blyth is back in the pub, just in time, with the economic script for 2012. You remember the Sean Connery version ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (32 min, 15 meg)

Mark Blyth is back in the pub, just in time, with the economic script for 2012. You remember the Sean Connery version of a trans-Atlantic political economist at Brown? As usual, he’s talking faster through that Glasgow brogue than I can listen or think. But when I transcribe him, I begin to get his big picture: of Europe still strangling itself with debt born of Euro-nomics, while Germany (despite everything) takes care of industrial business. The US, meanwhile, looks to be tip-toeing away from financial meltdown but neglecting its old productive core.

Nobody’s noticed this. Two years ago the Germans decided they were phasing out nuclear power, completely. Nuclear power is around 20 percent of their electricity generating capacity. If you spend any time in Germany in the winter, you will know one thing: it faces Russia, and it’s cold. This is not something you screw around with. So what are these guys going to do? Well, when you think about Germany, you think about — apart from austerity and madness in the Eurozone — you think of really good engineers, right? You think about people that still have serious apprenticeships, serious skills, an entire engineering culture… (I’m sure I’m talking into a German microphone; that means it isn’t going to break.) The point is: what they’ve basically decided to do is go all-out into alternative energy. They’re going to put about 300-billion Euros into it just to get started over the next ten years. They’re bringing together all the top guys and top firms in collaborative research. They’re not competing; they’re trying to develop the best technologies — wind, solar, everything. Why? Because they know something we’re in denial about. Oil is running out. That’s a fact. The planet’s warming up. That’s a fact. You can call it Climate Change Chicanery if you want; but you’re not paying attention. The Germans don’t believe any of that stuff, and they know we’ve got one shot, and one shot only. Whoever figures out how to make sustainable green tech in the next 30 years gets to sell it to everybody else for the next 1000. That’s what they’ve figured out. What are we doing? We’re shutting down our engineering. We’re hollowing out our skills. We’re closing down our options. The Germans are going to have our lunch. The Chinese will be in for the appetizers, but the Germans are going to take the main.

On the Occupy movement which Mark Blyth says could be back any minute because the streams of discontent are o’errunning their banks — sky-high college costs and 20-percent youth unemployment feeding the flood: You heard it here first that it wasn’t the scruffy kids who started Occupy. It was their parents.

A lot of this is an inter-generational problem. My colleague Sven Steinmo — a Norwegian-American who teaches now in Florence — finds himself telling his kids when they ask what he wants for Christmas or his birthday: ‘I want nothing! I have everything! My generation has absolutely everything.’ He came of age in the 1960s when it was perfectly possible to go to Berkeley for $400, and he did. And then grad school, and then a job in a higher-ed system that was expanding. And then he lived through the 1980s and 90s when investments were booming. And now he’s the guy who’s coming up for a pension, and he’s got two houses and lives in Italy. And all the people coming after him, including his kids between them, can’t afford a mortgage. So there’s an interesting problem. The people who vote in the US, and the people the politicians pander to, tend to be old, and gray. They have the money. They have the pensions. They have it all, and they’re not giving it up for anyone. So you have an inter-generational conflict that hasn’t yet spoken its name. Maybe that’s the way Occupy comes back.

Mark Blyth with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 26, 2012

Hang in for the Blyth case — listen three times if you must, as I do — that there’s no plausible alternative out there to an “American-dominated global order.” It has everything to do with the point that China’s assets are still, in the end, our paper.

Podcast • March 5, 2012

Lisa Randall: What we talk about when we talk about science…

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lisa Randall (39 min, 18 meg)  I do theoretical physics. I like being able to decide every day what to think about… Lisa Randall with Chris Lydon in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lisa Randall (39 min, 18 meg)

 I do theoretical physics. I like being able to decide every day what to think about…

Lisa Randall with Chris Lydon in her Harvard Lab, March 1, 2012.

Lisa Randall — our village explainer of 21st Century science — is talking about subatomic particles. What I’m hearing are resonances of what used to be called a religious curiosity and hunger.

What big science wants to measure, she’s saying, in the speed-of-light smash-ups of protons inside CERN’s Large Hadron Collider on the border of Switzerland and France, is “the strong force that holds things together.” And I’m wondering out loud: aren’t we all searching for the strong force that holds things together?

It’s not just that the elusive “Higgs boson” in the LHC’s simulation of the Big Bang’s aftermath is often called “the God particle.” (Leon Lederman, who wrote the book, actually wanted to call it “the god-damned particle,” according to Lisa Randall, but his publisher wouldn’t let him). It’s more that so much of our conversation corresponds with the language of religion — starting with experimental leaps of faith, invisible planes of reality, unprovable understandings and the driven pursuit of the unknowable.

I like the line attributed to Chris Hill of the Fermi Lab — using the churchy word “rubric” which used to mean the headings in the Roman Missal printed in red. “The Higgs boson is really a rubric,” said Mr. Hill in Discover magazine. “We don’t know what we’re talking about.”

What I like about Lisa Randall’s books — Warped Passages, about extra dimensions, and now Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about inner and outer limits of the cosmos — is the air of assurance and also mystery. In her office at Harvard, she is touching on the approachable and the sublime, relaxed about the overlapping metaphors and human interests, the “common questions” arising from religion and science. And of course there is a faith inside science. As she says, “You have to believe it’s worth pursuing.”

Podcast • February 27, 2012

Dimitar Sasselov: new life in a young universe

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Dimitar Sasselov (47 min, 21 meg) Dimitar Sasselov is bent on expanding a public conversation between astronomy and biology. Between the infinitely vast and the infinitesimally tiny. Between ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Dimitar Sasselov (47 min, 21 meg)

Dimitar Sasselov is bent on expanding a public conversation between astronomy and biology. Between the infinitely vast and the infinitesimally tiny. Between “the big cold world of inanimate matter, plants, stars and galaxies — and what we call ‘life.'”

Where to look anew for extraterrestrial life is, relatively, the easy part. It’s on the earth-like planets (700-plus so far) that keep turning up on NASA’s space-based telescopes scanning the furthest stars. The hard part is just what to look for. “We don’t really know how to look for life that is anything but a carbon copy of ours,” Dimitar Sasselov is telling me.

We take it for granted that forces like gravity and the elements of our periodic table are everywhere the same, but what if life is not?

DS: Steven Jay Gould liked to say that if you rewind the reel and play the movie again — the movie, the history of life — it’s not going to be the same movie. And I believe he was right… It’s not going to be the same actors. It’s not going to be the same screenplay. But it’s going to be based on what’s near and dear to us. For life, that means there are functions which make a difference between life and non-life: the ability to self-sustain; the ability to adapt; the ability to create a system which is potentially and essentially eternal…

CL: What if the DNA and RNA decks — unlike the rules of gravity — have been re-shuffled out there?

DS: This is the big question. Not the historical origin of life, but: Is it a universal chemical law that biochemistries will be based on the same molecular rules as we are? Or are alternative biochemistries possible and, in fact, contingent on the environments that develop on those other planets? … Will we discover something we hadn’t imagined? Will we miss it altogether because we don’t know what we’re looking for?

The astronomist Dimitar Sasselov and I are picking up a conversation that began by accident late last year in the Boston Public Library. His work in the “Origins of Life” initiative at Harvard and his book on The Life of Super-Earths make a wonderful argument that science is social and that serendipity is vital. His main co-conspirator through through the last five years has been the Nobel Prize molecular biologist Jack W. Szostak, whose focus has been the lab construction of synthetic cellular life — light years, so to speak, from astronomy. Sasselov is remembering with pleasure, too, that he learned a lot about “the acoustics of stars” from horn players in the brass section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra when he arrived from Bulgaria twenty-odd years ago. He pines a bit for the cross-pollinating “intelligentsia” of Sofia in the bad old days of his growing up. And he will make you wonder what it would take to generate a public conversation across the spectrum of basic and applied sciences that are humming inside the innovative core of Boston-Cambridge today. To me Dimitar Sasselov sounds like the sort of scientist the rest of us could rally round, and of course he makes me wonder how the curious minds of Open Source could get in on his project.

He had an adept answer on the general question of Earth chauvinism — on the patriotism of the planet that expects life everywhere to be an imitation of ours. Where, I asked, would he place himself between the intuitive notion of Earth and Us at the center of things and Douglas Adams’ retort in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that we live on an “utterly insignificant little blue-green planet” with an ape-descended population so primitive we think digital watches are a big deal:

I think we are unique and exceptional, just because we explore this universe with our own roots. It’s a big point of my book that our planet is not the cradle of life or a home for life. The planet and life on it are the same thing. We are part of that living planet. If there are millions of those living planets in our galaxy, and there are a trillion of those galaxies out there, we are not alone… So yes, we are earth-centric because our roots are here, but that’s a good thing. That’s the same as bringing our own perspective to a brotherhood of perspectives out there — our own culture, if you will, where culture now is the biochemistry which makes us, where our self is not just homosapiens but the entire microbiome of trillions of microbes that live inside us, on top of us, as a part of ourselves. We are not who we think we are. And in a certain sense, that should bring us down to earth, literally, and also take this earth as one of those unique yet common trees of life which are, if not the first in this galaxy, certainly of the first generation in this young universe. So I see it both ways: I see both the Copernican principle of mediocrity: that we are not the center of this universe; and also I see us as proud Earthlings moving out there, exploring this universe and bringing with this exploration our own unique earthly roots with us.

Dimitar Sasselov, with Chris Lydon at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, February 21, 2012.