What Fred Wiseman found in Boston City Hall is not what he was looking for. The master of documentary film is famous for his almost innocent camera eye that unlocks visual drama in big institutions ...
What Fred Wiseman found in Boston City Hall is not what he was looking for. The master of documentary film is famous for his almost innocent camera eye that unlocks visual drama in big institutions — the New York Public Library, the Paris Opera, or in his early days: Bridgewater State Mental Hospital in 1960s Massachusetts. So why not finally get inside the modern brick and concrete fortress of official life in his hometown, and see what’s going on in the faces, the meeting rooms, the tone of voice in local affairs. What he found was simpler than all that. It was the un-Trump in the un-Washington. An almost astonishing civility, good humor, what looks like good faith in the hundreds of negotiations every day that keep a community going, and growing.
Fred Wiseman shot his film “City Hall” in Boston toward the end of 2018—before COVID, before the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, before the vote that elected Joe Biden president. It was 10 weeks in the shooting in the nooks and crannies of city services. Then it was 10 months in the alchemy of editing and shaping what the legendary Wiseman eye has seen. It is now a four-and-a-half hour movie — between limited release in theaters and national exposure on public television. And already it is a field day for reviewers far and wide: an artist’s impression of local politics and public conversation that seem to have turned upside down and are not settled yet. To my eye and ear, Fred Wiseman’s “City Hall” feels like a classic that dates itself before the flood, so to speak, but is not at all frozen in time.
This hour, we’re in conversation with Fred Wiseman, speaking to us from Paris, where he distilled hundreds of hours of film into a movie. Lydia Edwards, city councilor from East Boston, also joins us.
Featured image by Adrien Toubiana, courtesy of Zipporah Films. The full Open Source panel event at City Hall, excerpted in this hour, can be found here.Our 2018 conversation with Fred Wiseman can be found at this link.
This week, we’re catching up on the split heard round the world. People laughed at Tory historian Niall Ferguson for warning that Brexit—Britain’s proposed exit from Europe—would be like his own divorce: a nasty and desolating affair that ...
This week, we’re catching up on the split heard round the world.
People laughed at Tory historian Niall Ferguson for warning that Brexit—Britain’s proposed exit from Europe—would be like his own divorce: a nasty and desolating affair that left him alone with his problems.
Our guests—many of them intelligent, cosmopolitan Brits—had nothing but distaste for the “Leave” campaign led by Nigel Farage, with his Hitlerian posters, and Boris Johnson (he of the misleading megabus). But they’d disagree on the nature of the case for remaining in a European Union: how to sell it, or whether the U.K. should do it at all.
We thought the best thing to do would be to convene our favorite Brits and Anglophiles to discuss just where this came from—and what’s next.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1989, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama pronounced that liberal democracy, on the American model, as the inevitable finish line of political evolution around the world: What we may be witnessing is not just the ...
In 1989, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama pronounced that liberal democracy, on the American model, as the inevitable finish line of political evolution around the world:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
And millions of people agreed: that our own relatively free, fair, stable, and accountable model was the political wonder of the world. (Or we told ourselves more cynically that it was the worst system of all, “except all those other forms that have been tried.”)
Would it surprise you to find out that—through the years of Bush, Obama, and now Trump—Americans have begun to lose confidence in democracy?
According to new research by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, one in six Americans would approve of the military takeover of government. More than 40 percent of the wealthiest Americans would opt for a strong, competent leader who was not accountable to voters. And only 30% of Americans born after 1980 consider it “essential” that they live in a democracy.
Even Fukuyama—one of our guests this week—has had to reevaluate his optimism about the Western model’s world-conquering prospects:
What I understand now much more clearly is that it’s much harder to get there than I had anticipated in terms of [building ] the necessary institutions. The other thing that I didn’t fully appreciate was how easy it was to backslide.
You can hear that backsliding—the disenchantment, the decay of trust—in the voices of Trump voters from Scott Carrier‘s wonderful podcast, Home of the Brave: people like Jimmy Lee, a skilled construction worker who can’t find work for more than $8.50 an hour. He’s voting for Trump as an entrepreneur who’ll “shake up the White House.”
With Jimmy Lee in mind, we’re staging an intervention in a roaring debate—political thinkers with very different readings of what Donald Trump says about people power in America.
Commentator Andrew Sullivan came out of retirement this month to declare, in New York magazine, that we’re witnessing too much democracy—a chaotic uprising of people power, almost a French revolution at the ballot box—and that tyranny could be near at hand. For example, as
the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.
In Dissent, Jedediah Purdy argued that Sullivan has the case exactly upside-down. Trump is a symptom of too little democracy; his voters, starved for power and economic prospects, are enraged and beset by a feckless government controlled by wealthy interests and unresponsive elites:
Far from living in a carnival of equality, they get pushed out of jobs because they are not productive enough, denied health care because they are not wealthy enough, denied good schools because they cannot afford to live in the best neighborhoods.
Sullivan and Purdy will provide their separate diagnoses on our air—and Orlando Patterson and Gordon Wood are on hand to hold this moment up to history.
Pundits from Glenn Beck to Roger Cohen and Chris Hedges have one other discouraged democracy on their minds this election year. They’re thinking of the German government that rose as a fresh democracy in 1919 but failed — amid economic frailty and an uninspiring ...
Pundits from Glenn Beck to Roger Cohen and Chris Hedges have one other discouraged democracy on their minds this election year.
They’re thinking of the German government that rose as a fresh democracy in 1919 but failed — amid economic frailty and an uninspiring mainstream — to resist the rise of radical new politics, and specifically of Adolf Hitler, by 1933.
So we’re spending this week on the lost world of Weimar Republic, and its lessons for today.
You learn right away that that Berlin was an incredible place: home to Albert Einstein playing violin in the synagogue, Marlene Dietrich singingin The Blue Angel, Paul Klee painting, Walter Gropius designing, George Grosz (above) painting, and Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt thinking over power, technology, and truth.
The present-day German flag flew over all of it, and there was indeed much of 21st-century Berlin present in the Weimar ’20s: a burgeoning gay scene, emancipated women dancing in late-night clubs packed with fashionable emigrés.
But Stefan Zweig, he of neighboring Vienna, reminds us not to take the present-day comparisons too far. All the “steeds of the Apocalypse” marched through his German-speaking world in those years: hyperinflation, the Great Depression, Communists and fascists killing each other in the street, and a rising tide of ridiculous anti-Semitism and almost-nihilistic dreams of smashing it all up.
One lesson, for starters: a republic is a fragile thing, as Benjamin Franklin warned all those years ago. And the Weimar example lets you know, at once, the great possibilities and the terrible perils that await the republic that fails.
In today’s Ireland, yes means no. A democratic yes to same-sex marriage signaled no! to patriarchal priests and cane-wielding nuns; no to the bankers who led the country into a devastating crash; and no to the supposed ...
In today’s Ireland, yes means no. A democratic yes to same-sex marriage signaled no! to patriarchal priests and cane-wielding nuns; no to the bankers who led the country into a devastating crash; and no to the supposed glamour of “showband” music, the goofy rock soundtrack of all old Ireland.
The country’s young artists, of all gender and sexual identities, have set themselves James Joyce’s task. They’re casting off the old and saying yes — Joyce called it “that female word” — to the new. And they’re forging new selves, a new national conscience, along the way.
You can see the change in Irish writing, vibrant again: from the traumatized modernism of Eimear McBride and the expressive, depressive stories of Colin Barrett. And in music with Snowpoet’s accompanied spoken word and the haunting harmonies of Twin Headed Wolf drawing on Gaelic roots without the traditional styles’ limited worldview.
This summer Chris went to Dublin’s National College of Art and Design for a lunchroom chat with the painters, chefs, and musicians leading the charge. He was wondering what the “Yes” vote to marriage equality meant, really, and what’s next for Ireland.
All music used in this piece is composed, performed, or produced by Irish artists.
On Sunday, 62% of Greek votes, encouraged by their radical-left prime minister, Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, registered a desperation “no” vote to a swap of further fiscal tightening at home for debt relief from its ...
On Sunday, 62% of Greek votes, encouraged by their radical-left prime minister, Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, registered a desperation “no” vote to a swap of further fiscal tightening at home for debt relief from its European creditors. The night of the vote ended in celebrations in Athens’ central Syntagma Square.
But just before showtime on Thursday night, the story shifted with a jolt: after much posturing, Tsipras and the Greek delegation capitulated to many of their creditors’ demands in hopes of staying in the Euro. Syriza’s turn from defiance to compliance may leave the millions of “no” voters — part of what our guest Richard Parker calls a global “neglectorate” — feeling more discouraged than ever before. But it remains to be seen how the Greece situation will shake out.
Mark Blyth wasn’t so convinced that what looked like a final surrender of the radical left in Greece was anything more than one more kick of the can down the road of untenable austerity economics in Europe — one headed for a ‘breakdown’:
I think I recall looking at the BBC website yesterday and happening upon a link that said, “June 23: Greeks at final last stop.” And here we are again. So a proposal has been submitted, which seems to be a bit of capitulation, but it hasn’t been accepted yet. And there has to be the other side of that trade: are they going to get anything back? Because if not, we’re simply doing a rerun of where we were before we had the referendum. And if that’s the case, then there’s going to be a breakdown. We’ve had a situation where the European Central Bank has been squeezing the Greek banks to make sure that by Friday, everyone’s sufficiently freaked out to have them sign whatever they want. But that’s exactly the type of tactics that backfired and brought 61% of people out to vote no. So I’m far from convinced that we’re at the end of the road…
It’s very similar to the Scottish independence referendum. Let me tell you why. If you break this down, the really dramatic thing is the way the different age groups voted. So I saw a poll for Greece, 12 hours before they actually took the vote. 71% of people under 35 were going to vote no. So all the older people are gonna vote yes. The exact same thing happened when they took the Scottish referendum — why? If you’re old, and you’ve got a lot of assets, you don’t want uncertainty over those assets. You don’t want your nice Euro-denominated house to suddenly be new drachmas. If, however, you’ve been through hell and back over the past five years — you’re asset-negative, you’re up to your eyes in debt, and you’re unemployed — asset uncertainty is somebody else’s problem. I’m going to vote no. You have this generational split on top of lots of different asset splits, and that’s the way this worked out.
We do know that those young Greeks are the ones want out of an economic dive as long and painful as our Great Depression. Watch the six-year change in unemployment: in America, 1929 to 1934, versus Greece, 2009 – 2015.
In March 1933, four years into the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt signed the first unemployment relief legislation through “useful public work.” No such luck in Greece: in the poorest Athenian neighborhoods, joblessness has topped 60% this year, and last year at least 1 in 10 Greek children was suffering food insecurity. Hundreds of thousands of well-educated Greeks have left the country, and the future seems to hold only more misery.
Our guest Mark Blyth declared in January that we’re watching the all-but-Homeric battle of austerity and democracy on the southern edge of the Eurozone, where deep budget cuts have become the only possible solution to economic shock. Blyth and our guest, the translator and Europe-watcher Arthur Goldhammer, are concerned about the blowback of EU overreach — not on the left but on the right:
For those who fear Syriza and its left-wing counterparts, it is worth looking at the alternatives on the radical right. From Britain to Hungary, political parties—whose ideology spans the spectrum from the explicitly Nazi (the Golden Dawn in Greece) to the nationalist–populist (the United Kingdom Independence Party and the French National Front)—are busy working to channel public anger in a different direction. Harkening back to Europe’s darkest days, they translate negotiable conflicts over economic policy into non-negotiable conflicts over ethnic identity. They attack European integration even more than the left-wing parties, question the democratic rights of existing citizens, and fan the flames of xenophobia toward ethnic minorities and immigrants. If Europe’s ruling elites want to save the European project, and the Euro at the heart of it, they need to start actively engaging with democratic left-wing parties such as Syriza and Podemos rather than shunning them. If they don’t, they will drive some of these parties into volatile left–right alliances, or, if they fail in their mandates, leave the stage open to political forces whose goals will be far more radical than mere debt restructuring and opposition to austerity.
And Richard Parker— a sage of politics at home and abroad, who once advised George Papandreou and his PASOK party — offers a diagnosis of global democracy: big, bruising institutions, public and private, have created an international “neglectorate” that’s mad as hell and in resistance. Parker hears that voice in on the left and the right, in the Greek no! and the Irish yes! to same-sex marriage, and in the rise of political outsiders sounding the alarm here in America — from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
The last piece of tape we have to Ingrid Rowland, an American art historian based in Rome and a prolific contributor to The New York Review of Books. She told us of a striking performance of Aeschylus’ early drama, The Suppliants, in the ancient Greek theater at Syracuse in Sicily. It seemed to speak to every corner of the European questions at issue: migration, debt, welcome and power. Here’s a trailer for that play:
Tell us: what do you make of the Greek decision to vote “no”? Were you surprised at the decision to sign on to the austerity package after all? what’s up ahead for embattled Europe? Do you feel neglected, and what referendum would you have us all vote yes/no on: bank bailouts, fossil fuels, drones, etc.?
The People’s Republic has arrived and is applying for co-trusteeship of the globe. We got a good look at the co-trustee, China’s enigmatic president Xi Jinping, through the deep sourcing of The New Yorker’s Evan ...
The People’s Republic has arrived and is applying for co-trusteeship of the globe. We got a good look at the co-trustee, China’s enigmatic president Xi Jinping, through the deep sourcing of The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos and from Professor William Kirby, who says that China’s prosperity (and Mr. Xi’s headaches) are a hundred years in the making. We are looking at a “conquest regime,” in Kirby’s phrase, a government ruled by “princelings” of the Communist Party that won the civil war in 1950. Through thick and thin the party line and party practice have been chameleonic marvels of adaptation, but the clock is running on the old elite from which Xi Jinping springs. The Kirby picture is of a mighty state now strangely insecure; he gives no simple answer to the question posed by his new book: Can China Lead? He raises a new thought here: Maybe China cannot be ruled from horseback.
[Xi’s] political toolbox–that of the Chinese Communist Party, it’s ideological toolbox–is so old and so weak… He lives in world in which the people, what they know to be true and what they are told to be true, the distance between these two things, gets larger every day. And so it is a heroic, but in my view ultimately hopeless, effort to think of how one convinces people to study again dialectical materialism again, to study Marxism and Leninism… and the glorious history of the Chinese Communist Party.
The challenge for Xi Jinping, Kirby told us, goes back to the under-credited founder of China’s revolutionary century, Sun Yat-Sen, who set in motion the deep and continuous drives to rebuild the country’s enterprise, infrastructure, and mass education. “Sun Yat-sen once said, ‘The mandate of heaven does not last forever.’ The question that must worry Mr. Xi is when and how there is a political transition in China, how and what his position will be when that challenge comes?”
The premise this week was simple. If the 19th century belonged to the Europeans and the 20th century was America’s, then the 21st century belongs to China. The question is: what will China — and the rest of us — do with this moment?
Professor William Kirby, the Harvard Sino-guru who just tossed a big online China course over the Great Firewall, is fond of ticking off the titles of nervous Western books: The Dragon Awakes, The Ascent of China, and (his favorite) The Rise of China: An Unwelcome If Inevitable Occurrence. Then he reveals that those titles, which seem at home in any airport bookshop, were all published at the turn of the twentieth century.
That’s the key perspective, says Kirby: this China moment was in the works decades before Deng, and it belongs just as much to the people and the culture as it does to the Party. So, we’ll take a hundred-year view in the hope of understanding 1.5 billion people building, working, and learning toward what President Xi Jinping has called “the Chinese Dream.”
On the Ground in China
By Max Larkin
Chris went to China last year, and we played three of our favorite clips on the show last night. You can hear much-extended versions of Chris’s conversations with Ai Weiwei and the internet hero and rockstar Kaiser Kuo below:
But there was a lot more to the tour than that — Chris spoke to authors, students, scholars, and street-vendors. So we’ve put them together in one big playlist and put in on iTunes, too. We hope you’ll tell us when your ears perk up, and take it as a whirlwind tour through a complex nation.
The news from the big-money midterm is: meh! Democrats are out, the Republicans are in, and the country’s feeling bluer than ever. Six years after the rise of Obama, we are coming together as a country: not around the ‘hopey, ...
Democrats are out, the Republicans are in, and the country’s feeling bluer than ever.Six years after the rise of Obama, we are coming together as a country: not around the ‘hopey, changey stuff’, but around the same grim view of the future. Coming out of the polls the pessimists outnumbered the optimists two to one — and pessimists voted Republican.
There’s good reason for the crisis of confidence in the political leadership of the country: a report by Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern published earlier this year found that American democracy may not be worthy of the name. Since 1980, at least, we’ve watched our government respond right quickly to the wishes of wealthy elites, at the expense of the rest of us. So what do you say when government of the people stops working for the people?
Are we ready to be small-d democrats? According to the ballot questions the citizenry wants higher wages for all, even in Republican strongholds, and to free up the criminal culture around marijuana. Do we wish we did more legislating by popular vote? A recent article by Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk in The Nation poses the hypothetical. If the Congress were sent home tomorrow, and all 315 million of us were given the power to pass the laws, enact the taxes, build the bridges and start (or stop) the wars, by simple majority, over our smartphones or using our clickers — how long would it take before we were begging John Boehner or Harry Reid to go back to work?
We put it to you: after midterm Tuesday, has anything changed? Do you see anything exciting out there in the post-midterm haze?
Martin Gilens on “Affluence and Influence”
We’re so thankful for the years of academic work from Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton. For years he has analyzed how popular and elite will has translated into policy. That work bore fruit in his book, Affluence and Influence, a blockbuster academic paper, and a star turn with his co-author, Benjamin Page, on The Daily Show.
When asked what we should call our lumbering democracy, he said not “plutocratic” — there are too many riches and distinct wills: Tom Steyer and George Soros versus the Koch Brothers and Paul Singer. He says it’s simple: we were dysfunctional, we’re still dysfunctional, and we have to work to purify our politics.
Do we dare look under the hood of American democracy? Or do we have the suspicion that Supreme Court decisions and political battles conceal a drift into corruption? This week we're asking our panel of estimable guests where the problems lie with our government, and how to go about fixing it.
Do we dare look under the hood of American democracy? Or do we have the suspicion that Supreme Court decisions and political battles conceal a drift into disfunction, decay and corruption, too? This week we’re asking our panel of estimable guests where the problems lie with our government, and how to go about fixing it.