Podcast • April 19, 2011

“A Dirty Shirt at Night”: Jimmy Breslin on …

Jimmy Breslin is the newspaper columnist whose gruff prose has extended the whole human comedy of New York to the world, first in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, and later the Daily ...

breslin wideJimmy Breslin is the newspaper columnist whose gruff prose has extended the whole human comedy of New York to the world, first in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, and later the Daily News and Newsday.

Breslin is telling us the story of Branch Rickey, the owner of the old Brooklyn Dodgers who integrated baseball — and changed our country — when he hired Jackie Robinson back in 1947. Rickey, Breslin says, “decided that there was a great American sin, and a great America to be gained by putting a black into baseball. He could see things.”

Jimmy Breslin can see things too. In our conversation, he’s musing far and wide about the great America that’s been gained, and the one that’s still in the offing. It’s all delivered in the unmistakeable style that he calls “a dirty shirt at night.”

He’s sharing observations on everything from “Who killed the newspaper?”;

The thing in the air, where you don’t have to read. What is it? — Google, internet, this, that. You’re gettin’ beat by the air. The air. The air wins. …

to the future of The New York Times;

The New York Times? 82 words in a lede sentence, I’m reading one day, and you expect it to last against the words that come whizzing through the air? No. It cannot be. Not for long.

to Obama;

Obama comes from Robinson. There was a White House waiting for him because of Robinson. You put a black into the White House! Tell me that isn’t amazing. It makes the mouth drop open. Then the first thing he does is he’s in support of three wars. And I’m supposed to like him. Hard-ly.

to the view from his apartment, 38 floors above Columbus Circle;

The river is marvelous. I just look at the river; with the clouds, on prime days, it’s beautiful. It’s not going to help you — you better sit down and write! But it’s good to gaze once in a while.

to the origins of the Breslin – (Norman) Mailer bid for NYC government;

BAR! One hand on the wood of a bar while we expounded what we were going to do. It was a night at the bar and it spilled into too many.

to the right wing today,

Why do they waste their freaking time with those views in a country like this? What are you worried about saving money for so much? Spend the money! Spend more. Help people, be known for it and you’ll find there’s more money there than they believe is.

and being called a “master.”

It’s marvelous to be embarrassed.

Jimmy Breslin with Chris Lydon, NYC, April 2011.

Podcast • October 19, 2009

Chris Hedges: Requiem for the Reading Republic

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. When I got to the New York Times (some years before Chris Hedges) in the late Sixties, Alden Whitman had the bad news moniker, writing obits of great figures for the paper of record. When Alden Whitman knocked on your door for a long interview about your life, you were supposed to know it was almost over. It’s Chris Hedges’s gig now, observing all of us. After most of 20 years as a war correspondent with the Times, Chris Hedges in 2003 charged his paper and others with “shameful cheerleading” for the war in Iraq, and left to study up again on ancient history, theology and classic literature, and to write his own classic, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. In his new jeremiad, Empire of Illusion, pro wrestling and pornography are the bookend spectacles in a parody culture all around us now — the grotesque joke representations of power and eros in the end times. I find these resonant arguments, from the rare daily-news ace who’s trained himself also in the long view:

To believe somehow that we are the culmination, that time is linear, that we are progressing morally, is to ignore human history and human nature, and essentially to remain in a state of infantilism. That’s what illusion is about. If we had an understanding of what the dying days, the twilight hours of great civilizations were like we would be able to see all the flashing lights, the warning signs around us. But I think that the illiteracy which has gripped the country (a third of this country is either illiterate, or is technically literate but doesn’t read anymore); that shift from a print based culture into an image based culture, the belief that how we are made to feel is a form of knowledge, propaganda being a kind of ideology — these are the hallmarks of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are image based, spectacle based states.

We have set the ground for a seamless transfer from a democracy into a kind of corporate state. With the corporate state always comes the rise of the surveillance or the security state. We lack the capacity, having been unmoored from print, and relying on skillfully manipulated images, to fight back… We see it in the environmental crisis; we are literally destroying the ecosystem that sustains the human species; the gap widens between the illusion of the world we think we live in, and the reality of that world.  What you’ve done is render huge segments of the population into a kind of childishness which makes them emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unprepared for what it is they are about to face. They will react like all children, which is to reach out for demagogues who promise a new glory, vengeance and moral renewal.

CL: What survives of American hegemony if in fact it’s over?

CH: Well, it is over. We can’t continue to borrow, to sustain either a level of consumption or the empire that we demand. It’s just a question of when, and how do we respond. I don’t think learning to live without the piles of junk that have been bequeathed to us by consumer culture is going to impoverish our lifestyle. I don’t think that learning a new humility as empire is dismantled is a negative. We will have to learn another language other than the language of force by which we speak to most of the rest of the world, certainly those in the Middle East. It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of hope or a life of meaning or a life of richness; it just means a different kind of life. The danger is not grasping this reality. That’s the danger. if we’re not prepared for this reality, if we continue to live as the most delusional nation on the planet, than we we will end up like Yugoslavia. The war in Yugoslavia was caused by the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia — it vomited up figures like Slobodan Milosevic; the Weimar republic did the same; did the collapse of Czarist Russia…

What remains? I think that unfortunately American culture (or cultures, for we once had many cultures with their own iconography and aesthetic, and a decentralized press that gave expression to local communities) was dismantled and destroyed in the 20th century and replaced with mass corporate culture… The drive of corporate culture was to implant the need for consumption as a kind of inner compulsion. Drawing on Freud, it was about manipulating people, appealing to subliminal desires and anxieties, often creating those anxieties, to fuel a kind of wild orgy of consumable products that were supposed to sort of ameliorate our alienation and atomization and loneliness and despair. And all of that is falling down around us. And yet we haven’t recognized that reality. It’s not unique. There’s that emotional incapacity to understand how fragile the world is around us and how rapidly it can disintegrate. I think having been a war correspondent, and having lived in societies that did disintegrate, I’m much more conscious. I can walk in my supermarket and imagine all the windows knocked out and the shelves bare and the neon lights hanging, because I’ve seen it. There’s that dual capacity to see how swiftly and quickly any society can collapse.

CL: We elected a president who promised literally a kind of transformation. I don’t want to to argue Obama politics, so much as just to ask: is transformation an illusion?

CH: Well, we elected a brand. We elected a presidential candidate who campaigned, like his rival, primarily on a personal narrative. You had rallies where people were chanting slogans like “yes we can,” which they stole by the way from FedEx-Kinko’s. It was campaign by experience: it was a very effective way of making us feel a certain way about a candidate. But Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state anymore than George W. Bush threatened the core of the corporate state.  That has been more than evidenced by Obama’s willingness to continue the looting of the American treasury, the largest transference of wealth upwards in American history. In the 17th century in England, speculators were hung. In our society they are given tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, and they run the government.

Chris Hedges in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 8, 2009.