This Week's Show •

Our Borderline Disorder

The shock of migrant kids-in-cages on our border with Mexico is surfacing tough questions if you’re willing to look back at our history and ahead to an emerging world disorder. The issues run deep: why ...

The shock of migrant kids-in-cages on our border with Mexico is surfacing tough questions if you’re willing to look back at our history and ahead to an emerging world disorder. The issues run deep: why borders in the first place?  Borders that our investment money and military power fly over anyway, often to extract the resources of poor countries and make sure the poor people stay put? Why is citizenship in country X an inherited privilege that can’t be distributed, in the country a burden that can’t be escaped?  When finance and Facebook, food, trade, disease and the weather are all global systems, who’s ready to say: I’m a citizen, first and last, of the world? Who manufactured the immigration crisis.

East Boston, on the rim of Boston Harbor, is where we take the temperature, check the flavor, of the melting pot: the point where the first Kennedy’s came ashore from Ireland, then Italians from Abruzzo who made Eastie their own, then Central Americans from Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras in the present day. In Trump time, the scare words in East Boston are ‘gentrification’ – meaning displacement by wealth, and ‘immigration,’ meaning: how did you get here, let’s see your papers. 

Patricia Montes – herself from Honduras a decade ago – welcomes the vulnerable at the Centro Presente office on Central Square.  First thing you’d notice: The poster villain on the wall of her office is not Donald Trump. It’s Barack Obama, in a mocking retake of his vintage HOPE image.  The new caption says: 1 million, 600 thousand deportations. Then, all caps: Obama, stop tearing our families apart. What bothers Patricia Montes as much as anything is fact-free sort of fake-innocent ignorance among many of us Americans.

Matthew Cameron, an immigration lawyer who practices on the dock in East Boston, helps us understand the larger political picture. We first learned about his work and his perspective in an essay he wrote for The Baffler last March:

The immigration system I keep hearing about from pundits and politicians (all of whom should know better) is almost entirely unmoored from actual fact. It seems to be a chimerical pastiche of the one we had before Ellis Island closed, the one we had just before the moon landing, and some sort of rosy Tomorrowland fantasy in which visas would be awarded to the undocumented if only they would do it the right way. This is not the system I work with every day.

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Our other guests—Atossa Araxia Abrahamian and Rana Dasgupta—both have books in progress on the strange ways the world works to serve capital that goes everywhere and people who are supposed to stay home.

Abrahamian is a model of modern mobility: Russian and Armenian family roots, she had addresses growing up in Canada, Iran, Switzerland and now New York.  Her first book, The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, examined the twin themes of cosmopolitanism and inequality in our global system.

Rana Dasgupta is another widely traveled writer, admired for his novels, like Solo, and his non-fiction anatomy of India’s modern capital, New Delhi. His latest take on our global system–as laid out in his Guardian essay on the “the demise of the nation state”—counters conventional wisdom. Dasgupta believes the nation state’s real power, its tax base and responsiveness have been undone over recent decades by the supremacy of international money which makes its own rules and turns its back on the results, including the migration “crisis” at our Texas border with Mexico.

 

 

November 22, 2016

Swingin’ with Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is the writer who likes to say she learns more from dancers – Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson, Baryshnikov, Beyoncé – than from writers and a young lifetime of reading. Author of the ...

Zadie Smith is the writer who likes to say she learns more from dancers – Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson, Baryshnikov, Beyoncé – than from writers and a young lifetime of reading. Author of the world-sensational White Teeth at the age of 24, she is tap-tapping again in Swing Time, as in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie from 1936, which syncopates the novel’s soundtrack.

Zadie Smith is more than ever the free, unshaken voice of fluid, hybrid identities in a place she has called “Dream City.” It’s a real-enough address, could be London, New York, any big town where lots of people grow up with parents of two complexions, two accents, from two countries, where the appropriate pronoun, starting with oneself, is “we” – not the singular “I.” Dream City is where the Kansan-Kenyan mind of Barack Obama was formed. Zadie herself was born in Dream City, to a Jamaican mother married to a working-class English man on the North side of London. She meets the high anxiety of cosmopolitans today with a fine taste for changes in the music, changes in the dance, but with humanity and laughter, closer to joy than panic.

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Top Hat (1935)

Before her book event at the First Church in Cambridge, we’re “trading fours” and a few eights on any handy theme, starting on links and breaks between Elena Ferrante’s four-book saga of Fifties-girls in the darkest corners of Naples, and Zadie’s own story of brown and bi-racial daughters of Jamaican and English parents in London of the Nineties. Ferrante’s zone is the fire of intimacy, Zadie seems to say; her own is the mystery of power: how children are led to navigate the critical currents of class more than color. She reminds you she’s always rebelled against classifications of identity: your self is not something you start with, it’s something you come to know patiently in search and struggle.

We keep touching back on her remarkable hindsight on England’s Brexit vote, prelude to our Trump astonishment: the people’s choice had both rampant stupidity and touches of genius about it, but it was driven over 30 years by a merciless economic regime, ‘neo-liberalism,’ which degraded our language as much as our communities, and made people feel ‘you can do nothing to change it,’ until they did. She dreads the vacant, childish Trump, as she worries about the Brexit mood everywhere, but she sees lots of silver-linings especially in the organizational talents of her New York University. Spoiled liberals in London are still sobbing in their pillows; Americans seem to be roused for an overdue battle.

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Illustrations by Susan Coyne

First and last, Zadie Smith riffs about black and white swing music — the cultural legacy of two great migrations, African-Americans from the Jim Crow South and Jews from Eastern Europe, that fused in a treasury of genius that still inspires. Nobody tells the story with more zest than Zadie Smith.

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Zadie’s List of Happy-Making Musical Numbers: Top Hat, Begin the Beguine, Stormy Weather