November 3, 2016

Class Conflict

Here in Massachusetts, in the birthplace of Horace Mann’s free American ‘common school’, an intense battle over charter schools — one with outsized national stakes — will be decided at the ballot box next week. ...

Here in Massachusetts, in the birthplace of Horace Mann’s free American ‘common school’, an intense battle over charter schools — one with outsized national stakes — will be decided at the ballot box next week. The fight, at least on the surface, concerns a question of expansion: Do we need more charter schools to meet the demands of over 32,000 students currently on the waitlist for charter enrollment, or do we need to limit the growth of new charter schools, whose growth may spell a decline in the public system?

Zoomed out, however, the question of expansion morphs into several different debates: market driven forces versus publicly funded services, stricter discipline versus free expression, longer school days and greater teacher demands versus union standards and protections.

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But what if ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on charter schools misses a bigger point? Amid all the divisiveness, all the rancorous disputes, a near-consensus still abounds: Reforms are needed to drastically improve the quality of education across the board. The real question may be: If the reachable goals are a full day’s learning, a path to work, higher education, and self-reliance, a bond with families and the real world, why shouldn’t kids find those essentials in shaped-up modern versions of community public schools?

This week we enlist the help of pioneer education reformers Linda Nathan and Paula Evans.

Both Nathan and Evans have had long careers in education reform. Both are disciples of the great reformer Ted Sizer, author of Horace’s Choice and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and both have served in positions in the public and charter system. Yet they have also been at odds with each other over specific reform tactics over the years. We brought them in to talk about the real issues overshadowed by the ballot debate.

Bringing the debate outside the commonwealth borders, we’ve also recorded a segment with Dale Russakoff, author of The Prize, which tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s 100 million dollar pledge to transform Newark schools, with a little help from Corey Booker and Chris Christie. The fiery and very funny education blogger Jennifer Berkshire joins us, too. She runs the Edushyster blog, which has been skewering various aspects of “market-based education,” from joy and achievement culture to the basic problem of teaching obedience. She serves as moderator and provocateur for this debate over the charter choice.

October 27, 2016

‘The Great Derangement’

The most urgent existential risk facing the world today has received barely a footnote’s worth of attention in this presidential campaign. Over the course of the past three presidential debates, a grand total of five ...

The most urgent existential risk facing the world today has received barely a footnote’s worth of attention in this presidential campaign. Over the course of the past three presidential debates, a grand total of five minutes and twenty-seven seconds were devoted to discussing climate change and the environment. (That equates to 2% of the total time.)

But it’s not just us Americans and our presidential candidates who are slouching away from the looming climate crisis: a recent global survey done by the United Nations reveals that climate change ranks dead last on a list of the issues that matter most to people around the world.

Climate scientists have sounded the alarm and the world has responded by hitting the snooze button. What’s going on here?

The novelist Amitav Ghosh says our inability to grasp the scale of climate change is a failure of imagination. It’s a long story that’s tangled up in the spectacle of global politics, western imperialism, and a world-wide obsession with growth. In his new book, The Great Derangement, Ghosh examines how the public consciousness has been made impotent by a neoliberal machine. We must be deranged, Ghosh says. “We live in an era that worships science. Scientism is all around us, but we can’t take on the lessons science is teaching us.”

Later, we’re joined by the acclaimed biographer Andrea Wulf who tells us about the remarkable life and mind of Alexander Von Humboldt — an 18th century Prussian scientist, who Emerson once hailed as “one of the wonders of the world.” We’ll find out what environmental insights one of the greatest scientists of the 18th century has to offer the 21st. Journalist and naturalist Michael McCarthy enters the conversation and shares with us the abundance of joys to be found in nature, as well as the heartbreaking realities of contemporary species loss.

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Contemporary illustration of Alexander von Humboldt – from the cover of ‘The Invention of Nature’.

We’re joined also by transgender signer Anohni, whose politically-charged new record Hopelessness takes direct aim at the Obama administration and its failure to bring sanity to our deranged situation. Anohni urges us to look past the charade of identity in this campaign season and turn our attention towards the existential threats to our planet. Hear an extended part of the conversation:

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Illustration by Susan Coyne 

This Week's Show •

American Wreckage

Thomas Paine, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Hobbes all agreed: A house divided against itself cannot stand. In this election season, the massive fault lines of gender, race, and class—snaking deep underneath the ...

Thomas Paine, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Hobbes all agreed: A house divided against itself cannot stand. In this election season, the massive fault lines of gender, race, and class—snaking deep underneath the foundation of American democracy—have been revealed for all to see.

In many ways, Campaign 2016 has been one long series of seismic quakes, laying wreckage to any semblance of a shared national identity. And the Big One, Trump has teased/threatened, is possibly still to come — a contested election that spills out into the streets.

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Gordon Matta Clark, Splitting (1974)

We’re joined by journalists Sarah Smarsh and Matt Taibbi. Smarsh’s recent article in the Guardian takes the media to task for their monolithic presentation of the white working-class, particularly in her own state of Kansas. Taibbi, Rolling Stone contributor and fierce Wall Street critic, envisions for us a scenario in which the specter of Trump continues to exert enormous influence long into foreseeable future of U.S. politics. He takes the long view ahead: how Trump might end up being the best thing to happen to Clinton (and her friends in finance and the pentagon) — acting as an instrument to suppress dissenting voices of any stripe. As Taibbi writes:

Trump ran as an outsider antidote to a corrupt two-party system, and instead will leave that system more entrenched than ever. If he goes on to lose, he will be our Bonaparte, the monster who will continue to terrify us even in exile, reinforcing the authority of kings. If you thought lesser-evilism was bad before, wait until the answer to every question you might have about your political leaders becomes, “Would you rather have Trump in office?”

More than Hitler or Mussolini, Bonaparte may be the most apt comparison for Trump. Even if he loses, he will continue to be an imminent danger (conveniently, for some in the Establishment) to democracy.

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Illustration by Susan Coyne.

Podcast • October 13, 2016

The Locker-Room Election

Donald Trump’s gross behavior towards women has been self-evident for years. Even The Donald himself, seen in this Howard Stern video from 2006, agrees that Donald Trump can be called a sexual predator. So how do ...

Donald Trump’s gross behavior towards women has been self-evident for years. Even The Donald himself, seen in this Howard Stern video from 2006, agrees that Donald Trump can be called a sexual predator. So how do we explain the shocked (shocked!) reaction to the non-revelation of the Billy Bush bus tape?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQTK2oTi66s

Perhaps an answer can be gleaned from an entirely separate incident. It’s October 1971 and William Friedkin’s The French Connection is playing to a packed, all African-American audience in a movie theater in Harlem. Up on the screen, Gene Hackman’s character, Popeye Doyle, turns to his partner and mutters, “Never trust a [N word].” The audience erupts — in cheers.

Why? Because finally, African-Americans were hearing the language they had always known was being said by NYC cops in real-life behind closed doors.

Jill Soloway, the creative force behind Transparent, writing in Time magazine this week describes a similar reaction to watching the bus video: “I was thrilled because it was finally out in public. What men say behind closed doors. Currently renamed as locker-room talk.”

One big takeaway: Language matters.

This week on Open Source we’re unpacking the gender politics operating behind the scenes in the Locker-Room Election.Eileen Myles wants to take Trump’s defensive words at face value: let’s talk about what “locker room banter” actually is, another hidden domain for patriarchy.

And Felix Biederman, creator of the centrist pundit parody Carl Diggler and co-host of the brilliantly vulgar Chapo Trap House podcast, helps us turn the corner into a conversation about language and the fine line between what different generations find forgivable and unforgivable in speech.

Plus, Labor of Love author Moira Weigel, political philosopher Rafia Zakaria, and Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan join us live in studio to flesh out what we’re really talking about when we talk about Trump’s words.

Podcast • September 15, 2016

What Would Keynes Do?

This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; ...

This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; instead the wedge issues are tolerance, territory, immigration, constitutional rights, political (and factual) correctness. Why is that?

There are a lot of theories bouncing around this week, and we imagine them all overlooked by John Maynard Keynes, the economic wizard behind the Bretton Woods world order and the boom years between 1930 and 1970. He may have been the last genius of economics who also understood human life, in all its excesses and “animal spirits.” What would his keen mind have brought to a moment with so much ambiguity? 

1. We’re on the comeback.

Harwood argued last Thursday that the lukewarm economy gives neither side an advantage: the Obama recovery was neither strong enough to gloat over nor weak enough to attack.  

But early this week, a Census survey of economic indicators revealed that in fact, 2015 looked like a historic uptick: median household income rose 5.2%, the biggest jump since 1967. 3.5 million Americans climbed out of poverty; unemployment dropped to 4.9%, half its post-crash high. All three stock indexes have hit record highs, and more than half of Americans say the economy seems “good”—there’s genuine relief in the air.

2. But we’re still a long way from “morning in America.”

Yet 60% of Americans still think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. The median wage may be up this year, but it’s still below its balmy 1999 high. The body is recovering, but the collective psychology is still anxious and depressed. When people look in their wallets—or toward their futures—they feel shortchanged and blame Washington. 

Our guest, the protest journalist Sarah Jaffe, calls attention to the people who are really still feeling the squeeze—of anti-Keynesian austerity and casino capitalism, for example—in her new book, Necessary Trouble. It’s a chronicle of people on the march against punitive student debt, foreclosures, and slashed public budgets—and for moving the conversation forward.

3. Growth may be ending.

Heavy-hitting economists like Larry Summers have started to worry aloud about “secular stagnation”: a period in which growth itself may slow—or stop—in our Energizer-bunny economy. What would that mean for the American dream, which depends on rising wages buying more and better goods at cheaper prices?

4. But our minds are changing, too.

A radical shift that the new bipartisan consensus emerging in the candidates: that signing onto NAFTA, letting infrastructure languish, and cutting spending was a mistake—in short, that the government still has a stimulating role to play in the American economy. 

To make the case, our good friend Mark Blyth—the Brown University political economist whose magisterial book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea lowered the hammer on the false promise of cut budgets. Mike Konczal, one of the big-thinking financial reformers and fellows at the Roosevelt Institute, will make the case that this fraught election might be concealing a new and healthy economic consensus.

Finally, Lord Robert Skidelsky paints us a portrait of Keynes himself, as a cosmopolitan elite who nonetheless empathized with those out of work and on the dole. Keynes is the kind of economist we wish we still had around, offering not only timely economic prescriptions (extend global financial regulation, double down on government infrastructure spending, experiment with basic income plans), but also a model—of a holistic, cross-disciplinary, concerned mind:

The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts …. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.

 

 

Podcast • September 8, 2016

Election 2016: Unreality T.V.

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This ...

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show.”

Hillary Clinton likes that line, too, and has used it more pointedly against the former host of The Apprentice: “You can’t say to the head of another nation’s government… if you disagree with them, ’you’re fired!’ That is not the way it works in the real world!”

It’s true, of course—but the rise of Trump reminds us that American politics lost their humble, aldermanic relationship with a simple “real world” a long way back.

Obama’s own victory was telegraphed and televised—the dignified, better-than-human First Black President got screen-tested more than once in Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert. And a Brooklyn-ready media rollout teased an age of “hope” and “change” that the candidate was unable fully to bring about.

The gap between the real and the imagined isn’t a new phenomenon—it’s old as politics itself, and only accelerated by TV. As early as 1960, Norman Mailer read John F. Kennedy aright—not as a job applicant but as an avatar for two Americas, old and new:

this candidate for all his record; his good, sound, conventional liberal record has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.

The author and journalist Ron Suskind is in our studio—he was the one who transcribed a gem of ideology from a secret source in the Bush White House:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Trump may be imperial in that same sense, if Matt Lauer’s botched tackle of the two presidential candidates is anything to go by.

For more on the realm of unreality we’re in, we turn to Veep‘s Frank Rich, and The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum (above), if the age of mass-media politics that began with the glow of Kennedy is ending with the groan of Trump—himself made-for-TV. His unpredictability, his familiar pout, his Lorax coloring and proportions are keeping him in a race and a conversation he might have lost, on the merits, long ago.

To millions of Americans, Trump has some real effects; he represents hope—maybe for boardroom efficiency or a frank simplification of political questions—or a change in atmosphere, away from managed expectations and polite coastal contempt. His may be a dark fantasy, but he sees that politicians, like TV personae real and semi-real, are in the business of fantasy, and that the “show horse” part of the job can’t be so easily shrugged off.

How do we talk about political reality from so deep inside the world of the reality show?

June 22, 2016

Give ‘Em Hill?

When almost everyone you know is scared to death at the prospect of The Donald as The President, it can feel like we’re barely thinking about his opposite number. She’s become the default choice—the option that ...

When almost everyone you know is scared to death at the prospect of The Donald as The President, it can feel like we’re barely thinking about his opposite number. She’s become the default choice—the option that isn’t chaos.

So, after the year of Trump, at last a meditation on Presumptive Candidate #2—and she’s a Hill of a lot more difficult to get a handle on. As we stand at the altar, are there any objections to this marriage? Do we have a real picture of this woman after her 40 years in politics?

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been America’s most admired woman in the world for 20 years running. She’s also the most disliked candidate (other than Trump) since 1984, and the first Democrat more disliked than liked. Can the Hillary puzzle be solved?

The Clintons’ legacy is unclear, at best. The name conjures that strange period in the 1990s: peace and prosperity right alongside scandal, pettiness, and selling out. Our guest Doug Henwood wrote a whole book called My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency(the cover is the now-iconic painting by the visual artist Sarah Sole, above).

My Turn is a well-written laundry list of private complaints and public scandals that’s bound to make you think twice about the couple, and Hillary herself. From Honduras to Libya, “superpredators” to superdelegates, Hillary isn’t just historic in the good ways—she and Bill would bring a lot of our checkered past back into the White House with them.

Then again, Ellen Fitzpatrick reminds us that female presidential candidates tend to get a lot more than the usual scrutiny—and in her book The Highest Glass Ceiling, she has the history to back it up. If you didn’t know that more than 200 women have sought the highest office in the land, then you knew that before H.R.C., none of them even got close.

And Hillary has a further, post-feminine mystique. The critic Terry Castle—who wonderfully wrote up her meeting with Clinton at a fundraiser earlier this year in the London Review of Books—sees her, admiringly, as both woman and not-a-woman. Even as first lady, she left the familiar female identifiers in the kitchen with Tammy Wynette a very long time ago.

As “Val,” a salty old bartender on Saturday Night Live, Hillary is comic, charming, even “hot”—a glimpse of the private person that so many people have come to adore. But then the last time we elected the person we’d like “to have a beer with,” we wound up with George W. Bush—who is only now, eight years after his unhappy departure, more popular with voters than Hillary

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jh2n5ki0KE

Hillary Clinton—overexposed but uncomprehended—raises all kinds of questions for voters and citizens. Where does the personal end and the political begin? What can we learn about a potential presidency by everything that came before it? And how should we read her—by what standard? As woman or war-maker, private self or public persona, historical breakthrough—or more of the same?

June 9, 2016

American Hearts and Minds

With the presidential primaries practically over, let’s take a moment on the psychiatrist’s couch, with an eye on the health of American hearts and minds. We spent months and months inside two overheated political races, ...

With the presidential primaries practically over, let’s take a moment on the psychiatrist’s couch, with an eye on the health of American hearts and minds.

We spent months and months inside two overheated political races, and nearly half of all Americans are displeased with our options.  We’re left without a feeling of confidence, let alone consensus.

But Marilynne Robinson—novelist, essayist, and friend of POTUS—declares that the political pandemonium is all to the good, if it can reintroduce us to ourselves, and to a country that many of us have ceased to understand.

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Robinson sees the world through her own Christian moral learning. So for her, America is an old and venerable civilization that has finally come to appreciate what we had in Barack Obama. We’re often saved by human ingenuity, we make a few simple requests, for solid public education and affordable healthcare, and yet we’re tempted by fear, greed and division.

Robinson recalls that we’ve been in worse scrapes before. In 1968, after the death of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Chicago convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey was marred by the protests of young antiwar voters.

After that, Humphrey was stranded, Richard Nixon ascended—and brought with him a period of democratic decay.

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What if we had a replay of that strange fractured moment in the 1960s and ’70s? And what if we asked the wisest Americans we know what to do in another moment of democratic uncertainty and disappointment?

With a very wise panel—of psychologist Andrew Solomon, philosopher Nancy Rosenblum, and historian Bruce Schulman—we’re talking through just what we’ve learned.

March 17, 2016

Donald Trump Is Breaking News

This spring and summer, millions of Americans will go to the polls and vote. For most of us, our political participation begins and ends at the ballot box. The rest is mediated: through a mix of respectable ...

This spring and summer, millions of Americans will go to the polls and vote. For most of us, our political participation begins and ends at the ballot box. The rest is mediated: through a mix of respectable newspapers and radio firebrands, punditry, hearsay, and Tweets.

The play of politics came with a set of old-saw formulas. The respectable candidates ended up winning. Ad spending buys votes. Gaffes are costly. And the party decides.

None of that has proven true this unconventional year. So maybe it’s no surprise that the big papers and networks seem to have first missed, then dismissed, then discouraged the popular movements behind Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

This exciting, profane, profound election has served as chum on the water for a media industry that was already agitated by the Internet, “disintermediation,” and vanishing income. 

But has the frenzy diverted American journalism from its fourth-estate duty: of holding candidates accountable? Giving voice to the voiceless? Referring readers to history and policy? Staying straight and honest with the citizenry? Or is that all 20th-century nostalgia?

Some of our guests, and most of our Twitter followers, feel that the big story this year was of a confrontation between a dissatisfied people and an establishment — that goes for the media, too. The big papers and networks seemed to have first missed, then dismissed, then discouraged the popular movements behind  Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But that’s just the beginning — there were lots of weird media stories on the trail this year.

Let us know your favorite subplot in the grand electoral soap opera in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

March 3, 2016

2016: Protest Vote or Cry For Help?

Act One of the freaked-out 2016 campaign for president may be drawing to a close, with Clinton and Trump continually atop polls. So what have we learned? Trump may be the big story, with more ...

Act One of the freaked-out 2016 campaign for president may be drawing to a close, with Clinton and Trump continually atop polls. So what have we learned?

Trump may be the big story, with more than 3.5 million Republicans checking his box. But then Bernie Sanders — whose path to the presidency may be murkier now — has received 2.5 million votes himself.

Seen from afar, that’s nearly 6 million primary protest votes for the unlikeliest of outsider candidates.

There’s next to no chance of an left-right merger, for all sorts of reasons. But when Sanders says working folk have had enough of a “rigged game,” and Trump tells them he’ll help them start winning again, can we hear the resonances?

Dan-Ariely-Stephen-Voss

Dan Ariely is the behavioral economist who charts the gap between what we want and the many ways in which we fail to get it.

Ariely has found that almost all Americans — 93.5% of Democrats and 90.2% of Republicans — want good healthcare, redistribution, and economic fairness, as a matter of deep principle and instinct.

But just as we end up buying checkout-line chocolate in addition to broccoli and milk, something happens on the way to the polling-place. Single-issue fixations, character biases, and media distractions come into play, and we end up voting against what we think really matters.

Ariely cheers the appearance of Sanders as a sign that a misdirected electorate has begun to realize where to apply its energy. Our third-party panel of Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader cheer on convergences of working people’s interest, in spite of the deep partisan divide.

Meanwhile the leftist novelist Benjamin Kunkel begins to look for utopia, or at least a healthy national psyche, after years of panic, crisis, and self-deception.

We put the big question for our guests: what can be made of the many “change” votes for Sanders and Trump, if neither of those candidates finds his way to the White House? If Americans are angry now, what do they want instead – and do they stand any chance of getting it in the near future?