Podcast • November 27, 2013

Graham Robb: Rescuing those Celts!

Graham Robb, stellar historian and writer, draws on the “archives of the bicycle,” much as Simon Schama says he draws on the “archives of the feet,” walking battlefields and inaugural parades. Graham Robb pedaled 14,000 ...

celt village 2Graham Robb, stellar historian and writer, draws on the “archives of the bicycle,” much as Simon Schama says he draws on the “archives of the feet,” walking battlefields and inaugural parades. Graham Robb pedaled 14,000 miles through France in the course of re-casting the evolution of a nation of Frenchmen (just in the 20th Century) out of a wild diversity of villages.
And now he’s applied the bicycle method to rediscover a Celtic world of Stone Age Europe, six to eight centuries before Christ – a world built of wood that’s long since disappeared. And yet the bicyclist sees more than meets the eye of the documentary historian, specially with computer maps to draw on.

With his Rediscovery of Middle Earth, the idea was to bicycle through the fantasy land of Camelot and Tolkein’s landscape of the Hobbit and the Rings. And then surprise, surprise: a real civilization appears in the mist of those “middle places.” Robb’s rediscovered Celts were a scientific people with a well-schooled culture in many ways more attractive than Caesar’s Roman juggernaut that crushed the Celts and drove their Druids out of continental Europe – out to the British Isles and the wide world’s imagination. So the conversation here is about what Graham Robb found out about the Celts, and crucially, too, about how he found it.

We think of the Celts as the people who were defeated and crushed by the Romans. Caesar himself explained that his policy included deliberate genocide. He would wipe out entire tribes, either by killing them all or by selling most of them into slavery or multilating all the male members of a particular tribe so they would never bother Rome again. Good old Caesar. His history was a work of propaganda, because even in Rome some people were appalled at what he was doing in Gaul. And the crucial thing about the Roman conquest of the Celtic world is that this wasn’t a simple military conquest. Caesar traveled with huge numbers of merchants and traders who were prospecting the new market in basically gold, precious metals and slaves. And that was going to be the basis of Caesar’s political power, because he was reducing people’s taxes back in Rome and creating a safe buffer zone between Rome and the barbarian world. And that’s why he tends to present the Celts as mud-smeared hooligan barbarians, and that image still survives today, at least in Britain. Certainly when the English think of the Scottish or Welsh or Irish Celts, those are the kinds of images that still come up…

In many ways it was a more sophisticated civilization than Rome. And one of the reasons the Romans were so keen to make the Celts look ridiculous is that every Roman knew that in 387 B.C., before there was a Roman empire, the Celtic army marched into Rome and captured it and plundered it and massacred the citizens of Rome. That was a huge humiliation which the Romans never forgot. So when they set about massacring Celtic tribes that was something in the back of their minds. This was the enormous threat beyond the Alps that had to be eradicated. Ironically it’s because the Celts had moved into Northern Italy and colonized it, and created towns like Milan and Turin and Bologna – which all have Celtic names, not Roman names, not from Latin — they had been driven out by the Romans when the empire began to expand. But it was the Celts who first introduced the Romans to all the sophisticated technology, particularly of transport: the carts and carriages and high-speed chariots and roads. And that’s why in Latin almost every word for wheeled vehicle is actually a Celtic word. For example… there’s the word for chariot itself: currus in Latin, which comes from a Celtic word. Which means that the Celts gave us the word: car. That’s where the word comes from.

Graham Robb in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

Graham Robb calls to mind the amazing persistence of regional-tribal folkways and social-cultural traits as David Hackett Fisher traced them from 17th Century England to modern America in the classic Albion’s Seed. He reminds me also of the recent novel of New York, Open City, imagined by the Nigerian-American Teju Cole. Teju Cole and Graham Robb share a gifted eye for stripping away the visible and seeing history and pre-history, half-hidden like the thousands of miles of stone walls in the re-grown forests of New England, for example. The way to imagine the Middle Earth of Tolkein and King Arthur and the Celts, Graham Robb is telling us, is as a world many of us are still living in.

Podcast • May 19, 2011

Simon Schama: this “imperial calamity” we inherited

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no ...

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no way out, he seems to conclude — no relief from the burdens and sorrows of empire. I am wondering: what teaches a great power that its time is running out? “Bankruptcy!” he exclaims, about the British experience. In the American struggle with strategic decline, Schama says, there will be no silencing the “neurotic insistence” on American exceptionalism, and no cure for “the testosterone of fury.”

“Obama’s whole project, which is incredibly difficult to bring off, is basically to be the manager of declining expectations. Now you can’t go to the hustings and say to the people: my plan for the future of the Great American Republic is that we become more ordinary, that we run foreign policy on the cheap, and have a humble posture in the world. You really have to educate the American public in a more realistic way about what’s possible in the American future — but not in an election year. As we say, good luck on that, mate.”

My other country is a small island, 60 million population. It took a long time — I grew up in a period of declinism, really, where we got used to runs on the pound, botched fiascos — a long, bloody, somber education in our limitations. But there was something always about the British temper that was historically ironic. At least when I grew up, notwithstanding the gorgeousness of Churchillian rhetoric, there was also the sense that history is a kind of tableau of the tragic irony of overreach; even Thucydides saw that.

Irony is in very short supply on Capitol Hill, and it’s regarded as a kind of jaded, European admission of defeat. We’ve got back now to our founding fathers. The only figure among the great founding fathers who had no problem with irony at the same time as he had no problem about envisioning a great continental democratic future was of course the peerless Benjamin Franklin, who did put all those things together in an un-defensive way. And we’ve just blocked that ever since.

I suspect I’ll be long since gone to the buttercups and the tombs of my fathers, but in the end — and I guess the question is more about imperial Rome — we will simply, over a long period of time, become accustomed to our limitations. And at some point in the future there will be some Edward Gibbon sitting in the ruins, meditating on the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, and nailing it.

Simon Schama with Chris Lydon at Columbia University in NYC, May 12, 2011.

Podcast • April 29, 2011

Maya Jasanoff: This Empire We Inherited

Maya Jasanoff is letting me lay down my how-did-we-become-an-empire obsessions before a rising star among imperial historians. She teaches the Harvard course on the British Empire. William Dalrymple calls her “a bit of a genius” ...
Maya Jasanoff is letting me lay down my how-did-we-become-an-empire obsessions before a rising star among imperial historians. She teaches the Harvard course on the British Empire. William Dalrymple calls her “a bit of a genius” for her big new book Liberty’s Exiles — representative tales of the 60,000 English loyalists who fled the independent United States after 1783 and remade Britain’s fortunes around the world in a century-plus of glory. My questions are: how did we Americans — with anti-imperialism in our revolutionary roots, in our sentimental DNA — let ourselves in for the burdens and sorrows of empire, the corruption and disrepute of empire? And what should we suppose is our chance of escaping the fate of empires?

The start of Professor Jasanoff’s answer is that global ambition, maybe hubris, were written into the American story, into Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty,” from the beginning. The end of it is that the United States — assuming the British mantle in the 20th Century, fighting on old British battlegrounds (Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt) in the 21st — finds itself now roughly where Britain was in 1900, Boer War time. That is: powerful, wounded, demoralized, rightly worried about a gathering of forces against us and perhaps even a cataclysm of World War I proportions.

She does not like my polar cartoons of the British empire — which gave the world Shakespeare, Milton and the rules of law and commerce in, say, Niall Ferguson‘s fond fancy; or else “the worst war crime in the history of the species,” as David Rieff once put it to me. The real pity of the American empire, she’s saying, is that half-wit slogans — “freedom” and “democracy” — for military and oil adventures have made cynics of us all about what a privileged society might share with others. It’s another sad difference between the American and British Empires, Maya Jasanoff notes, that we do not believe in our mission enough to debate it, or call it by its proper name.

I think the divergence between rhetoric and reality is much greater for us now. I think that what we’ve really forgotten here is that being a republican nation-state is not incompatible with being an empire, that in the era of our founding, being an empire was what America aspired to. Now we tend to dupe ourselves by saying we’re a great democracy, we’re a great republic, we’re promoting that around the world, when plainly our own democracy is very much in trouble and plainly our role in the world is not quite as benign as we like to think.

In Britain there were always the critics, there were always people challenging empire, there were also always the people lauding imperial intervention. But I don’t think anyone would be in disagreement about the fact that Britain was an empire, that Britain was involved around he world in these ways, that this was central to what being British was being about. And I think that there’s a kind of honesty in that, for all its bleakness if you don’t like the idea of empire. I think you have to applaud the kind of honesty that goes into saying this is who we are and this is what we’re doing. It allows for a degree of public debate and engagement with what it means to be an empire that we are really lacking in America right now.

Maya Jasanoff with Chris Lydon at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, April 28, 2011.

Podcast • April 24, 2009

Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover: Speaking of Burma

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Amitav Ghosh and Robert Coover (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3) Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover Our conversation draws on the novelist Robert Coover’s exercise of conscience about freedom ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Amitav Ghosh and Robert Coover (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover

Our conversation draws on the novelist Robert Coover’s exercise of conscience about freedom of expression in the world. Today. Burma was the focus this week of what’s become an annual International Writers’ Project teach-in at Brown.

Burma of the thin-skinned but immovable military regime in Rangoon. Burma of the Nobel Prize prisoner and non-violent point of resistance Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma of Kipling’s old “Road to Mandalay” (how we loved the Sinatra version) and the mahogany, jewels and oil that the British Empire stripped from the land between the 1820s and World War 2.

After our week with Burmese poets, artists and writers who’ve done hard time, some in solitary, in modern Burma, our conversation here is with Robert Coover about the artists’ predicament, and with the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, whose first big novel, The Glass Palace, retold the colonial story behind the “news” of Burma. Resonating around the conversation somewhere is the spreading scandal of official US torture of terror suspects after the 9.11 attack on New York, through the war in Iraq.

Amitav Ghosh makes a point of starting off with Burma’s colonial history. He’s driving much the same point that Mahmoom Mamdani posed against the American (typically “liberal”) reflex to moralize and racialize our stories of faraway people.

Burma experienced colonialism, perhaps, in the most extreme way, where it was almost completely ransacked. After 1885 it was, actually, strangely similar to Iraq. The British went in under the guise of freedom and so on. Shock and awe, tyranny, all those tropes were there. But then after that they were faced with this very long resistance, so the during the pacification campaign, thousands and thousands of Burmese were killed. And ever after the countryside was fairly unsettled, so there was a lot of brigandage and so on. So then after that, I think, what profoundly affected Burma was the Second World War. People don’t adequately recognize that in the Second World War, when the British were withdrawing from Burma against the Japanese attack, they adopted the “scorched earth” policy. They literally laid waste to all of the infrastructure that they themselves had built in Burma. All the bridges, all the railways, all the warehouses, all the oil pumps. Everything was just blown up. But then the Japanese did come in, and when the British were reinvading, the Japanese adopted the same policy. So Burma was flattened twice. You think of the sort of aid Europe got, the Marshall Plan and so on. After the Second World War, Burma got nothing. There it was, this really poor country, completely devastated, it had no way of really rebuilding itself. You know, what has happened in Burma is one of the great tragedies for which the whole world, in a sense, bears responsibility.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Robert Coover and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Historical amnesia is Ghosh’s thread to Iraq and the furor today about the CIA’s “harsh interrogation techniques” in the Bush years.

You know, I must say, I sort of knew that the Iraq war would be a catastrophe. But since then, so much of what happened there, actually, is incomprehensible. Leaving aside the torture, do you remember, a couple of weeks after the fall of Baghdad, there was an Iraqi general who actually went to the American authorities and surrendered? He surrendered. His sons came with him. The next he was heard of he had been wrapped in a carpet and beaten so badly that he died. Now, can you imagine an American doing that to, say, a German general in the Second World War? It is inconceivable. Can you imagine the British doing that to a French general during the Napoleonic Wars? It is literally inconceivable. How is it possible that these deep, deep taboos, not just in global culture, but specifically in Western culture, come to be flouted so easily? This other thing, this torture business, you know, the Prussian state, of all, abolished torture as a method in the 18th century because Frederick the Great said that it doesn’t work. All the things that people are saying today, he said. And ever since it has been one of the rules of warfare and, you know, the rules of warfare basically decided what civilized conduct was… So it is strange to see these arguments being rehashed over two hundred years later.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Robert Coover and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Amitav Ghosh in his public talk here relayed a subtle and fascinating piece of advice from Burma’s most famous resister, Aung San Suu Kyi. Resist politics, too, she has told her followers. That is: resist the post-modern tendency to locate morality in politics alone. This was the example of several Burmese artists at Brown this week, none more touching than the physician and writer Ma Thida, who said that she survived in prison by meditating 20 hours every day. The lesson for all of us seemed to be: remember also (quite apart from politics) the inner life, “laughter, love and joy,” as the last repositories of moral consciousness.

Robert Coover took the advice, first, with a grain of salt; and then as an embrace of art.

I have worked a lot on political issues and have always been disappointed at how few were alert to those issues and how many were sunning themselves on the green, enjoying their inner lives. But, I think that one of the roots here — it’s what we all pretend, anyway, is the root – is the thought that art itself has this function. The novel, the painting, and, now, digital art as well: all of our modes come into deep focus without having an external object at which that is aimed. So that you can be moved by music at the same time you are moved against American foreign policy. And I think that’s our hope as performers.

Robert Coover in conversation with Amitav Ghosh and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Podcast • April 3, 2009

Mahmood Mamdani: You (and I) got Darfur Wrong

Who can imagine that a Save Darfur coalition vocally including Al Sharpton (“we know when America comes together, we can stop anything in the world”), Mia Farrow, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Elie Wiesel ...

Who can imagine that a Save Darfur coalition vocally including Al Sharpton (“we know when America comes together, we can stop anything in the world”), Mia Farrow, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Elie Wiesel (“Darfur today is the world’s capital of human suffering”), Nat Hentoff, Bob Geldof, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Harold Pinter, Oprah Winfrey, the gold-medal speed skater Joey Cheek, Tony Blair and Dario Fo might be profoundly shallow in its reading of the brutal warfare in Sudan five years ago… and just as wrong-headed in its drum beat for an American intervention?

Mahmood Mamdani: on the "pornography of evil"

Mahmood Mamdani: on the “pornography of evil”

Mahmood Mamdani can. We are talking here about his book Saviors and Survivors and his argument that the Darfur rescue campaign, which became a sacred cause of our civil religion, was not so much the moral alternative to Iraq, the Bush “war on terror,” and Cheney-think as it was a variation and extension of the same toolkit. I begin with a sort of confession that I may be a sample of Mamdani’s problem — having drenched myself in Nicholas Kristof‘s New York Times columns and largely absorbed the common framework that Darfur was about Arabs slaughtering Africans, and that somebody had to something about it.

If you represent my problem, then I think you also represent my solution. If you interviewed Nicholas Kristof, then you participated in shaping to some extent that audience which is the constituency of Save Darfur. I need to get to that audience because I need to turn a sermon into a debate and a discussion. I need to sow some seeds of doubt about what have been presumed to be simply goodwill gestures. I need to convince that audience that there is a politics around this — not simply good intentions and moralism and a fight against evil. I need to tell them that there is no such thing as a trans-historical evil in the world in which we live; that, in fact, all violence without exception has causes, and the causes are historical. And if you want to do something about the violence, we need to do something about the causes. The idea that violence is its own explanation is an idea which will take us nowhere except into a cycle of violence.

Mahmood Mamdani in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 2, 2009.

What held the Save Darfur campaign together? In his book, Mamdani concludes that inside the hyped numbers and moral spin was a sort of conspiracy of prejudices and neo-imperial impulses to head off the unity and independence of Africa.

The Save Darfur lobby in the United States has turned the tragedy of the people of Darfur into a knife with which to slice Africa by demonizing one group of Africans, African Arabs…

The Save Darfur lobby demands, above all else, justice, the right of the international community — really the big powers in the Security Council — to punish “failed” or “rogue” states, even if it be at the cost of more bloodshed and a diminished possibility of reconciliation. More than anything else, “the responsibility to protect” is a right to punish without being held accountable — a clarion call for the recolonization of “failed” states in Africa. In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa.

Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror., p. 300. Pantheon, 2009.

Mahmoud Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman professor of government at Columbia, is a socio-historical anthropologist of Africa and also of American media and fashions in public wisdom. He is taking apart American attitudes that took hold around Iraq and the so-called “war on terror” and that will surely affect our path to Afghanistan and the Obama team’s reconception of our American place in the world.

I loved this conversation as a short course in how to think like an anthropologist — how to peel back events to find unwritten rules and unseen implications in a social order — Africa’s and ours.

Listen for the ideas here that reach beyond Africa, anger and accustion. The most challenging may be the argument that “survivors’ justice” (“inside” repairs, modeled on South Africa’s “truth and reconciliation” process) comes to seem much more promising than “victors’ justice” (“outside” punishment, as in the Nuremberg Trials, and de-Baathification in Iraq) as means of reforming politics and remaking broken societies.

Podcast • November 20, 2008

Amitav Ghosh and his Sea of Poppies

The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh brings the British Empire to life again — the other side of the story, so to speak, from the other side of the world. If we’d had his wondrous new ...

The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh brings the British Empire to life again — the other side of the story, so to speak, from the other side of the world. If we’d had his wondrous new novel, Sea of Poppies, six years ago, we might have saved ourselves the folly of Iraq. Instead, you could argue, we reenacted the cruel absurdities of superpower addiction and the illusions that weave themelves around it.

Sea of Poppies, the start of a projected trilogy on Britain’s Opium Wars against China, elaborates the premise that, as Ghosh says in conversation, “basically, it was opium revenues that made the British Raj in India possible. Indeed, it was silently acknowledged by the British who resisted all attempts to end the opium trade until the 1920s. In fact the British Empire didn’t long outlive the opium trade.”

Our own foreign-oil habit — yours and mine — suggests itself as the counterpart addiction that drives the American empire. Evangelical bullying and the theology of “freedom” are vital links. President Bush’s line, justifying the invasion of Iraq, has been: “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.” In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh’s kingpin Ben Burnham — closely modeled on historical figures from the Raj — has no trouble invoking his God in the service of opium.

“One of my countrymen has put the matter very simply,” as Burnham says in the novel. “‘Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.’ Truer words, I believe, were never spoken. If it is God’s will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it. For myself, I confess I can see no reason why any Englishman should abet the Manchu tyrant in depriving the people of China of this miraculous substance.”

Popular will, democracy, representative government have as little to do with the action of Ghosh’s novel as Congress did with the war in Iraq. “Parliament?” Ben Burnham scoffs to a disbelieving Indian raja. “Parliament,” Burnham laughs, “will not know of the war until it is over. Be assured, sir, that if such matters were left to Parliament there would be no Empire.”

Our free-ranging conversation touches on, among other things, Niall Ferguson‘s apology for empire; the narrowing discourse in American media; Afghanistan and Pakistan today; the polyglot world of sailing ships; the anthropological eye; and the history of Asian words in English.

It is not his project as a novelist and an Indian, Amitav Ghosh remarks, to break the “imperial gaze” of British writers from Kipling to Conrad. Rather he would love to recapture the cosmopolitan vision of the American, Herman Melville — the real precursor, he says, of Barack Obama.

Conrad’s work really doesn’t interest me that much… Conrad is writing about the age of steam, as opposed to the age of sail, which is what really interests me. The writers who have profoundly influenced me and my project are Americans, Melville most of all. To me, Melville is the greatest writer that America has ever produced. And I find his writing, his projects, so rewarding in every sense… his take his anthropological projects like Typee, or his ethnographies of the ship, like White Jacket. “Benito Cereno” precisely addresses the question of repression and rebellion, a really amazing story. Benito Cereno was based upon an episode in the memoirs of Andrew Delano, who was actually an opium trader, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ancestor…

One of the most wonderful things about Melville is that he was just about the only one of the nineteenth century nautical writers who paid enough attention to the world of the sea to actually write about Indian sailors. Even Conrad, when he does write about Indian sailors writes them as faceless and demonizes them. Melville is much more open-minded, much more curious. He’s Obama’s true precursor if you ask me.

Melville has a level of curiosity, a level of engagement with the world that is completely absent from 19th century English writing. Even though England has a long connection with Asia, it is so rare actually to find a believable representation of an Asian in English books. In Melville, on the other hand, you remember in Moby Dick, the 40th chapter, all of the sailors sing in different languages, and then suddenly you discover that this ship, which is a Nantucket whaling ship, actually has forty different nationalities on board, including Indians. In those ways, Ishmael — there you have him, a figure who is articulating a very challenging view of our relationship with nature, in terms of attention to nature; and the whole idea of the destructiveness — both the interest of whales and the horror of killing whales, and at the same time the joys of men working together in killing whales. All of these things are so richly and ambiguously rendered in Melville. In many ways, his work is inexhaustible in its inspiration.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 19, 2008.


So the first homework assignment, kids, is: read Moby Dick.

Podcast • September 5, 2008

Rory Stewart: the Post-Imperialist Poster Hero

Rory Stewart at full stride across Asia One young Scotsman’s dauntless walk across Afghanistan — at peril from bandits, wolves, dysentery, snow-blindness and Taliban thugs with Kalashnikovs — makes a crackling fine and best-selling adventure. ...

Rory Stewart at full stride across Asia

One young Scotsman’s dauntless walk across Afghanistan — at peril from bandits, wolves, dysentery, snow-blindness and Taliban thugs with Kalashnikovs — makes a crackling fine and best-selling adventure. But that can’t be the only reason Rory Stewart’s account of The Places In Between is the gift book and assigned reading for all incoming students at Brown University (also at Brandeis University and doubtless other campuses) in this war-rattled presidential campaign season of 2008.

Some wise spirit of the moment in America seems to have designated Rory Stewart as the poster hero for something we long for, or something we’re trying to learn. And it became the up-front business of my conversation with the author to nail that something: not simply why the book enthralls, but why the committees of deans want us to search its meanings.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rory Stewart (24 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

Stewart’s own message these days, seemingly at odds with the book, dwells on disengagement and abject failure:

Rory Stewart at rest

My message is not actually a very attractive one. It’s not one that resonates a great deal. Essentially what I’m trying to say is that we need to focus on what we can do rather than on what we want to do, and that’s psychologically quite difficult.

The situation in Afghanistan, the situation in Iraq — these are intolerable situations. These are situations where people want to say: surely we can’t just stand by with civil war imminent — 93 percent of the world’s heroin being produced in Afghanistan, terrorists on the Pakistani border. Surely we ought to do something. And my response is: ought implies can. We don’t have a moral obligation to do what we can’t do.

And that sense that you could be faced with an intolerable situation, whether it’s in your personal life, an illness maybe, or whether in public policy, which you can’t do anything about is something people really don’t want to take on. People prefer to pretend they can do something, or just do anything rather than admit that there’s nothing they can do.

Rory Stewart in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 27, 2008.

So what of the lure and excitement of this book, The Places In Between?

Is it about the sheer bravery of a wiry but slight, unarmed, no-tech civilian extending his curiosity and goodwill across real mountains to The Other?

Is it the example of the old-fashioned visitor who shows up, as Kipling’s Kim or the real T. E. Lawrence once did, with a gift for languages and a respectful store of cultural lore?

Is it in fact about nostalgia for paleo-colonialism — for the 19th Century civil servants of the British Empire, even in Afghanistan and Iraq. In what may be a giveaway footnote on page 247, Rory Stewart pines for the old days. “Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing…”

In the blind pit of unending Western wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, can Rory Stewart be taken to demonstrate a radically different way to engage, and still to prevail?

To my reading the most wonderfully ambiguous moment comes late in the trek toward Kabul. Government soldiers who are in fact village boys (“new uniforms from America and salaries from Iran”) waylaid Rory Stewart and, when he tried to ignore them, came after him:

I had gone twenty yards when I heard running behind me; my sleeve was grabbed; I turned to shake the man off and he punched me in the face, his knuckles striking my cheekbone just below the eye. I stumbled and then turned around with my fists ready. He stepped back and we circled each other, me feeling clumsy under my pack…

“Stop,” I said. “This is wrong. I’m a Briton. I am a guest of your Governor Khalili. You have just punched me in the face. I’m a very important man; you can’t do this to me. What is your name? … What are you all laughing at? You are evil men… thugs.”

I saw three more check posts over the next twenty kilometers… The commander announced he was driving me to the headquarters in Bamiyan — fifteen kilometers back down the road I had been walking on for three hours — for further questioning. Despite having resolved only three hours earlier never to defy a policeman again, I lost my patience.

“No, I refuse,” I replied. “I am a guest. I am a close friend of the governor. I stayed in his guesthouse. He has given me permission.” None of this was true. I walked on ignoring the angry shouts behind me, and to my relief no footsteps followed and the shouts faded. I turned up a narrow gorge toward the snow peaks, and saw no one for four hours.

Rory Stewart, The Places In Between, pages 267 – 269.

The knockout winners in these pages are Stewart’s Eton- and Oxford-accented air of authority, the power of his narrative and the primeval power, perhaps, of pale skin. Orientalism, in a word. But there is in fact nothing so simple about Rory Stewart or his views, which have kept unfolding since The Places In Between. And still I wasn’t prepared for his renunciation of “the project.”

I think at the time I wrote the book, I imagined that if you planned better, if you knew more, if you cared more, it would be possible to do better — that the failures in Bosnia and Kosovo and Afghanistan and Indonesia that I’d seen were due to amateurism; they were due to lack of planning, lack of structure, lack of strategy, lack of commitment. But I then moved from Afghanistan to Iraq. And in Iraq I saw failure on such a monumental scale that I changed my view. I no longer believe that the problem is lack of professionalism. I believe these projects are intrinsically impossible.

The problem is not simply that we don’t have imperial officers anymore, or that that we don’t create the culture wherein they could flourish. But that even if we had the context and the individuals, they too would fail. Because the growth of nationalism, of Islam, the potential for resistance, the voices of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, their capacity to disrupt these kinds of projects, are now such that even were you to transplant some Macedonian general of Alexander the Great and try to put him in charge with sway over Afghanistan — with all the charm, dynamism, charisma and savagery that that would entail– he would still fail… I changed my mind because of Iraq.

Rory Stewart in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 27, 2008.

I asked him too directly perhaps: You’ve become a poster hero, Rory Stewart, but for what? For a recovered humility, he said. For an American self-examination, I think, that runs against the grain of The Places In Between and of the presidential campaign conversation that will be at a climax when we meet Rory Stewart again at Brown. To commenters, please: what is it we’ll really want to ask him, and ourselves, in October?

Podcast • May 28, 2008

Derek Walcott: Calabash ’08

“It’s going to be nasty,” Derek Walcott said, prefacing his war on V. S. Naipaul with a warning. “The Mongoose” was the last of Walcott’s new poems at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last ...

“It’s going to be nasty,” Derek Walcott said, prefacing his war on V. S. Naipaul with a warning. “The Mongoose” was the last of Walcott’s new poems at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last weekend. He’d wondered whether he ought to read it, Walcott said, “and then I figured if I don’t do it, I’ll say: what the hell, you should have done it… I think you’ll recognize Mr. Naipaul.”

Nasty it was. And beastly (“a rodent in old age”). It was smelly (“And off the page its biles exude the stench / Of envy, la pourriture in French”).  It was indiscreetly personal (“This is a common fact in his late fiction. / He told me once he thought sex was just friction”). And in its anti-racialism, it was racial (“To show its kindness it clutches a kitten / That looks as if it’s scared of being bitten / Right at the neck; it’s the Mongoose’s nature, It cannot help that it was born in Asia”). And it was crowd-pleasingly funny (“Cursed its first breath for being Trinidadian, / Then wrote the same piece for the English Guardian. / Once he liked humans, how long ago this was. / The Mongoose wrote: A House for Mister Biswas.“).

Naipaul, 75, started it, as kids say of sandbox fights, with a book-excerpt in the Guardian last summer that was taken as a dismissal of 78-year-old Walcott (“a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting”) and yet another in a long series of insults to the black Caribbean (Walcott, said Naipaul, “sang the praises of the emptiness; he gave it a kind of intellectual substance. He gave their unhappiness a racial twist that made it more manageable.”) Walcott has jabbed before at “V. S. Nightfall.” But on Saturday came the full blitz from the Caribbean’s first Nobel prize winner for literature (in 1992) against the second (2001).

The Mongoose

I have been bitten. I must avoid infection,

Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.

Read his last novels. You’ll see just what I mean:

A lethargy approaching the obscene.

The model is Maugham, more ho-hum than Dickens.

The essays have more bite. They scatter chickens,

Like critics. But each studied phrase is poison,

Since he has made that sneering style a prison.

Their plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly.

The anti-hero is a prick named Willy,

Who lacks the conflict of a Waugh or Lawrence

And whines with his creator’s self-abhorrence…

This wasn’t what I came to Calabash for, and it wasn’t the best poetry to be heard over the long weekend. But it was the “lede,” as we newspaper guys say, on Calabash 08. And it betokened both the high hilarity and the underlying seriousness of the scene. There is venom yet in the old antagonisms of colony and empire, class and caste, Africa and India even in the context of Trinidad, where Naipaul’s ancestors came to work the cane fields after black slavery was abolished in 1833. The Walcott version here was: “Imported from India and trained to ferret snakes and elude Africans, / The Mongoose takes its orders from the Raj.” Walcott, though a world figure himself, summons the resentment of race and region against the universalist Naipaul, who “climbed to club- and gate-house with good manners, / The squirearchy from the canefields of Chiguanas.”


Walcott mocking a press photo of V. S. Naipaul: “To show its kindness it clutches a kitten / That looks as if it’s scared of being bitten… “


The mostly Jamaican audience hung on every word: 2000 or so celebrants from the avidly bookish “Calabash demographic,” as poet and organizer Kwame Dawes puts it. (The poet Valzhyna Mort from Belarus struck a chord when she remarked later that day: “You are by far the sexiest audience I’ve ever stood before!”) As Walcott hammered away at Naipaul, there were listeners who kept laughing at couplets of cleverness, and others who looked half-aghast at the fury on display. I had a sudden flash of Emile Griffiths, the welterweight champion, beating Benny Paret literally to death in Madison Square Garden in 1962, a moment of gladiatorial excess that Norman Mailer gave literary immortality. Naipaul wasn’t in the ring with Walcott, but some referees would have jumped in to save Walcott from himself. I also wondered: has Derek Walcott, whose masterwork may be Omeros, a modern Caribbean telling of Homer’s Iliad—, dwelt overlong on the rivalries of Achilles and Hector?

“The Mongoose” was not, in any event, Walcott’s only contribution. In conversation with the remarkable Ghanaian, Jamaican and now American poet and all-round all-star Kwame Dawes (of whom more later), Walcott spilled a lifetime’s learning about the lively, literary and visual arts with the relaxed air of a master practitioner and teacher.

On music: “The cliché is that the Caribbean has a rhythm. It’s not a cliché, but it’s so true and so obvious that it’s a cliché. Whether it’s Latin America or the Caribbean or Central America, the basis and beat of all those art forms are basically rhythmic, very rhythmic. And the rhythm of course is African. I don’t want to do one of those, you know, waving flags, or race, and so on… And I think it relates very strongly to the fact that the music that we speak is a language. We have a language in the music we write. And we think simultaneously in both words and music. We don’t divide ourselves into, say, composer and lyricist. This instinct of crystallizing two forms into one is a very Caribbean thing.”

On his own painting and contemporary art: “My father was a very good watercolorist, and my mother understood what we wanted to do because her husband was a writer and painter. I was completely encouraged by Harold Simmons, a painter; we used to use his studio. There’s nothing better for a young writer or painter than to have someone who takes his or her work seriously. I had great teachers. My mother was a teacher. Part of the work I do is teaching, and I enjoy working with young poets a great deal. I’m a square in terms of painting. I hate Abstract Expressionism. I cannot stand it. Which is nonsense, because there are some great Abstract Expressionists, I think. I just think it’s very hard in art to do what is—to get what is there. I think there are a lot of artists who ignore the fact that we yearn for meaning, and who think (especially in America) that meaning is passé, you know; or syntax is passé; certainly rhyme is passé. You find a lot of that in America, because America’s dictum is: everything has to be new, and everything is based on psychology rather than aesthetics. So the natural direction of any actor is toward a nervous breakdown.”

On his own life and work: “I’m 78, right? I never thought I’d get here. I thought I was going to die at 30. I saw everything. I saw the gravestone, I saw the people coming to visit it. I saw the brackets and my name, “died at 25.” Oh, my God, fifty years later I’m still here… I’m going to be reading some stuff that — I say to myself: this is very simple, this is very ordinary. And I think I am delighting in that, not from any sense of resignation about anything. I just don’t like it now when any art makes a fuss. I don’t like any over-agitated poetry, because I know the technique, I know what people are doing. I know they’re going to be very bright. I don’t want to be bright. I don’t want to be intimidated when I read a poem, or challenged, or grabbed by the collar. I just want them to let me alone, please. Let me read the poem in peace, you know. And so I am coming to a point where even if it appears to be resignation and repetition, I don’t care as long as it’s clear, as long as what I am saying is at least honest emotionally.”

Derek Walcott had top billing before he got to Calabash, and “The Mongoose” was the talk of the festival to the end. My mission, however, was to catch the rhythm and melody of the Caribbean as a commentary on the Obama moment in the States, what feels like a challenge to the imagination of the whole wide world. So the conversations from Calabash 08 have just begun.

Podcast • February 4, 2008

After the Empire: Must Reading from Parag Khanna

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Parag Khanna here (60 minutes, 27 mb mp3) Everybody’s homework assignment this week is, first, to absorb Parag Khanna‘s breathtaking revisioning of the United States in the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Parag Khanna here (60 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Everybody’s homework assignment this week is, first, to absorb Parag Khanna‘s breathtaking revisioning of the United States in the world, and, second, to add your comment on the late great American Empire. Can it have come and gone so fast? Parag Khanna will join us in class with James Der Derian, the master of global security and media studies at Brown, on Thursday afternoon.

Parag Khanna: Who Shrunk US Power?

Parag Khanna’s scorecard-lineup of the “post-American world” is more striking for appearing counterintuitively in the safe, smug New York Times Sunday magazine. Five years ago in the same spot, Michael Ignatieff’s version at the start of the Iraq war was titled: The American Empire: Get Used to It. The headling on Parag Khanna’s piece was Who Shrank the Superpower? (Answer: GWB and “imperial overstretch.”) The main points, Letterman-style, might be these:

10. The Big Three in the real world these days are China, the European Union, and with a worrisome limp, the U. S. of A.

9. The big-name non-contenders are Russia, Islam and India.

8. The swing-states out there are the nations of what Parag Khanna calls “the second world.” Think Malaysia, Morocco, Venezuela, Vietnam, Turkey, Brazil, Kazakhstan: nations not of the First nor the Third World, but a mix of both: places often with their own “fissured personalities.” Their primary interests seems to be economic inclusion and self-development. Their acquired skill is in playing several angles of international politics at once. “Right now,” writes Parag Khanna, “from the Middle East to Southeast Asic, the hero of the second world — including its democracies — is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.”

7. Our American cultural power is declining with our political charm.

Many poor regions of the world have realized that they want the European dream, not the American dream. Africa wants a real African Union, like the E.U.; we offer no equivalent. Activists in the Middle East want parliamentary democracy like Europe’s, not American-style presidential strongman rule. Many of the foreign students we shunned after 9/11 are now in London and Berlin: twice as many Chinese study in Europe as in the U.S. We didn’t educate them, so we have no claims on their brains or loyalties as we have in decades past…

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

6. China is the counter-broker of what we have thought of as our unanswerable power. As in: “Every country in the world currently considered a rogue state by the U.S. now enjoys a diplomatic, economic or strategic lifeline from China, Iran being the most prominent example.”

5. Globalization is a three-way street.

” Globalization is not synonymous with Americanization; in fact, nothing has brought about the erosion of American primacy faster than globalization… The second world’s priority is not to become America but to succees by any means necessary… the new reality of global affairs is that there is not one way to win allies and influence countries but three: America’s coalition (as in “coalition of the willing”), Europe’s consensus and China’s consultative styles. The geopolitical marketplace will decide which will lead the 21st Century.”

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

4. Russia — being bought out by Europe even as it becomes a petro-vassal of China — is reduced to being “the ultimate second-world swing state… For all its muscle flexing, Russia is also disappearing. Its population decline is a staggering half million citizens per year or more, meaning it will be not much larger than Turkey by 2025 or so — spread across a land so vast that it no longer even makes sense as a country.”

3. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela signals an ideological awakening in Latin America, but Brazil marks out an even more important structural shift in China’s direction, virtually a “strategic alliance.”

Their economies are remarkably complementary, with Brazil shipping iron ire, timber, zinc, beef, milk and soybeans to China and China investing in Brazil’s hydroelectric dams, steel mills and show factories… Latin America has mostly been a geopolitical afterthought over the centuries, but in the 21st century, all resources will be competed for, and none are too far away.

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

2. “Despite the ‘mirage of immortality’ that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.”

1. We have very little time to adjust our thinking and our policies. “Maintaining America’s empire can only get costlier in blood and treasure. It isn’t worth it, and history promises the effort will fail. It already has.”

Comments please, and push-back questions for Parag Khanna.

Podcast • January 21, 2008

The post-imperial maestro: Sir Colin Davis

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Sir Colin Davis here (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3) Sir Colin Davis, at play Sir Colin Davis — “the reluctant king of English music making,” the FT calls ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Sir Colin Davis here (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

colin davisSir Colin Davis, at play

Sir Colin Davis — “the reluctant king of English music making,” the FT calls him — recounts in conversation a turning point in his life that sounds like a parable for each and all of us and maybe for great nations, too. The year must have been 1962. Davis, who’s now 80, was then 35, a tempestuous young superstar conductor with the BBC and other symphony orchestras in London. He had just come through “the last night at the Proms,” the traditional spring revels, when…

… suddenly I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. I really wanted to be a musician, not a success. I wanted to make the most beautiful music possible.. That maybe didn’t happen in five minutes. It was a big crisis in the middle of my life. I didn’t like the life I was leading. My first marriage had gone to pieces. I had to start again. And one of the things I did was: I talked a lot to my mother and my sisters, and I went back to the places I remembered as a kid, because they told me I was a very jolly child, up to the age of five. So that must be there somewhere: things like that don’t disappear; they lie at the bottom of a pile of rubbish you’ve thrown on it. So I went back to try to find that spring of natural good nature, natural peace with the little world of a child of five. And I got married again and had five children — and they all play musical instruments. It really dates from then. And even then there were still remains of the fiery intolerant bad-tempered fellow. But the one thing I hung onto was music. Not to exploit music but really to try to get as far as I could to the essence of it.”

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

You must picture, to get the sense of this rambling, riffing exchange, a notably relaxed, handsome Englishman — supple on the podium, soft-spoken off it — who could make you think at different moments of Peter O’Toole or Noel Coward but also James Bond. He received me on the morning after an open rehearsal of Mozart and Schubert with pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This week he is conducting Edward Elgar’s oratorio, based on Cardinal Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius. Gesturally, Davis’s manner with orchestra players reminds you that not for nothing do they speak of “playing” music. In person he is almost continuously laughing quietly. His physical ease, he says, “may have something to do with the fact that I sleep with my Alexander Technique teacher.” He introduced his wife to the art of focused mind-body relaxation, and now she coaches him and others. Alexander Technique, he observes, can save musicians from an early, spastic end. “When you let things happen,” as he says, “there’s a chance that you might hear the music.” Colin Davis is a prodigious knitter — yes, as in the flowered cardigan he was making for Ms. Uchida (the only woman beside his wife he knits for). And he is an incessant reader. “I think if you stop reading, your mind just closes down.” 2007 was a big reading year: all of Dickens, and a start on Balzac’s four-score-and-some novels. “One is pushing one’s ignorance as far as it will go,” he says, laughing again. So we speak also of an obscure modernist classic he swears by, Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil (1945), which I’d read under his influence. The book details the deathbed consciousness of Augustus Caesar’s court poet in his final hours, despairing of art as well as power and eager to destroy his epic Aeneid before he dies. Broch’s is a book, to Colin Davis’s mind, that is “trying to say what only music can say” and what Mozart in particular does say– about twilight mysteries, the organic “humus of existence,” the breath, in and out, of melancholy and consolation in life, about laughter and death, childhood and loss. Broch’s Virgil, in his last conversation with Augustus, says his life as a writer was wasted and wishes rather that he’d made “one useful human gesture.” And how did Colin Davis fix on his own “human gesture?”

To begin with, my passion for music was so intolerable that it was only gradually that it turned around from domination and telling people what to do, to trying to make this have nothing to do with tyranny and fear, because no good music ever came of any of that.

You listen to the great dominating maestros, like Toscanini in Verdi’s Requiem: it’s amazingly disciplined but it’s completely heartless to me. It’s a fantastic piece, and all that’s in it cannot come from the will to dominate other people. So that had to go. When it’s a big problem for yourself, you can only nibble away at it gradually, like a sort of miniature beaver, until the edifice collapses. And you don’t want anymore to do with that. But of course there are a lot of people who wouldn’t accept that, but I’m still there. There are some people who have a kind of Jehovah complex. They want to be dominated. They want to be told what to do, so they don’t have to be responsible. Now I don’t think great music is made like that. When everyone in the orchestra feels responsible for this piece of music, that’s when life begins.

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

How much of this can be translated into public life?

… These two demons — power and money — are running the show, and they’ve gone mad. They’re just false values. Those are the two things you really have to tackle if you want to be a human being. You’ve got to come to grips with not wanting power over other people and not working for money… Q. And how do great nations come to grip with that idea? A. Well, they don’t, do they? And the more you read, the more you realize it’s never been any different… For the private person to strut around the town, and to admire yourself when you shave in the morning is really a catastrophe for a human being. Q. Can the world at large ever taste and share the fruits of a lifetime in music? A. The attention of the world is not focused on the potential message of music. It’s all in The Death of Virgil and Augustus’s bread and circuses… That kind of world has no interest… Evolution hasn’t been kind. Brains can’t organize the world. It’s a bad business, and what can poor little Mozart do about that?

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

And what is his account of that post-imperial Englishness I sense in Davis’s music and his gab? “Perhaps,” he said, “it’s a curious mix of skepticism, lust for reading, and trying to follow Broch’s advice that the most important thing in the end is common decency.”