This Week's Show •

The Coming Crisis in Opioid Nation

The opioid epidemic running rampant this summer has a 30-year back story and a grisly punch-line for 2017: drug deaths this year alone are heading toward the US death toll in Vietnam over ten years. ...

The opioid epidemic running rampant this summer has a 30-year back story and a grisly punch-line for 2017: drug deaths this year alone are heading toward the US death toll in Vietnam over ten years. The damage has proportions of a plague, or a war that will stamp a generation: let it grow at this rate and in ten years it will be taking more American lives than AIDS at its peak; than breast cancer, than World War Two, than the US Civil War.  There’s a palpable near-panic at what can look like collective mass suicide.  There’s torpor, too, a post-war feeling, after the drugs won.  There’s dismay about a marketized industry in man-made drugs that manages somehow to kill its customers and keep growing.

Here’s a short list of what’s strange and different about this opioid epidemic.  The poisons of choice and convenience are cheaper, laced with synthetics like fentanyl, much more powerful and more available than poppy heroin ever was.  The problem is everywhere – rustic New Hampshire a spike on the national map.  And the devastation is almost out of control: deaths on the order of 50-thousand a year, drug dependency for 2-million Americans, 10 percent of them getting treatment.  An aggressive, expanding marketplace is choking on a 30-year promotion of pain meds, like Percocet, addiction warnings long muffled and unheard.  For most new users of illegal opioids, the gateway is an array of prescription painkillers like Oxycontin.  The racial profile and the enforcement culture around drug abuse are markedly changed: opioids can be blamed for a shocking turn down in life-expectancy for white males in the US; but the stigma and the racialized rage around drugs are much reduced. We speak of drug addiction more realistically now, more humanely perhaps, as a disease, no longer a crime.

And so our crash course begins this week, to feel the size and shape and hear the sound of a full-blown public health nightmare in a circle of purgatory or possibly hell, known as the opioid epidemic.  

Dr. Jessie Gaeta is the medical doctor that addicts meet at the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless next to Boston Medical Center on Albany Street.  Her patients, she says, are the furthest “downstream” in the opioid crisis — literally collapsing from overdose — or in horrible fear of withdrawal.  They come back and back, needing a safe space or maybe emergency treatment, like oxygen and a drug called Nar-can, which revives people who are unconscious and at risk of death. Doctor Gaeta walked us around the block the main drag of the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. She calls it “Recovery Road”, but it’s better known as “Methadone Mile”.

Kathleen Frydl

Kathleen Frydl is a political historian at the University of California, Davis and author of the The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973. In conversation, she shares with us the genealogy of the opioid epidemic, chronicling how prescription painkillers became the gateway to what is now the gravest drug crisis in our history.

As Frydl has written for Dissent, our national politics may be the ideology that has hijacked our political system over the last 40 years.

Neoliberalism: government austerity, unrestrained free trade, and the deregulation of markets. All of these present dangers that have played a role in the opioid crisis, but none has been more pernicious than austerity, an obsession over government deficits and debt that favors the privatization of public assets and services—and one that has exacted steep costs from the institutional culture and operation of the nation’s drug safety watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The writer Michael Clune was born in Ireland, raised in Chicago, with a yen for books. He was studying at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for his Ph.D. in English when he met the high of heroin and then the black hole that he decided over and over was inescapable.  He got out 15 years ago with a qualified recognition of what heroin does.  He begins here from his book White Out.

Michael Patrick MacDonald has another narrative of addiction. He first told a version of it in his memoir, All Souls, which focused in on these crisis in South Boston in the 1980s: a proud old Irish-American community coming apart around poverty, crime, drugs, and then gentrification.  His line—developed as a witness over the last thirty years—is that addiction is almost always about one thing: trauma.

In my experience with the populations I’ve worked with, what I’ve seen over and over is that people who are struggling, especially people struggling with any kind of pain killing addiction, are coming from a life of trauma, basically post-traumatic stress … [South Boston] was sort of invisible for people wanting to work on those issues. 

Donna Murch

Finally, a primer on the opioid plague before it engulfs us.  How like, how unlike, the flood of crack cocaine that hit black America in the 1980s?  That epidemic accelerated the War on Drugs, the quasi-military transformation of policing, and 40 years of mass incarceration.  We asked Donna Murch — historian at Rutgers, a chronicler of Black Power and the Black Panther, as well as a critical observer of drugs, punishment, and the carceral state—to compare these two crises. She urges us to recognize that the drug war is still ongoing and we may need some version of a Truth & Reconciliation process to begin repairing the damage:

[By] using the racial contrast between the way these two different problems are being treated to really highlight the deep role of structural racism and to think about most urgently how to get people out of prison and make sure they’re not being put in prison. 

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.


June 15, 2017

Something’s Happening Here

In the first summer of Trump, 2017, there’s something happening and it feels bigger than the Comey hearings, even Russia-gate. Who knew that a British election with an inconclusive photo finish could re-channel the anger ...

In the first summer of Trump, 2017, there’s something happening and it feels bigger than the Comey hearings, even Russia-gate. Who knew that a British election with an inconclusive photo finish could re-channel the anger that drives the global mood?  The unheralded Jeremy Corbyn at the left end of the Labor Party is the mouse that roared, and turned the ‘age of anger’ in a different direction.

Corbyn didn’t play the bellowing populist, but he spoke the part.  How about a government “for the many, not the few,” Corbyn asked.  And millions of new UK voters said, “Yes!” In the face of terrorist outrages in Manchester, then London, just before the voting, Corbyn said: “we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working.”  It is now Corbyn’s moment to be the standard of unconventional talk that resonates far and wide.  

Our show begins with Naomi Klein.  Among book-writers on the left, from Michelle Alexander to Bill McKibben to Michael Moore, the line on Naomi Klein is that nobody faster is better, and nobody better is faster. No Is Not Enough is her quick handbook for the Trump era.  Her line since No Logo has been that corporate and consumer culture are both hazardous for people and the planet. And Donald Trump? He’s to be seen not as cause of the problem but as evidence of it:  

“I am not interested in looking at Trump as just like an aberrant personality and psychoanalyzing of him. He is a symptom. I see him as dystopian fiction come to life, you know, and you read dystopian fiction–whether it’s 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale or whether you go see a film like The Hunger Games or Elysium–and inevitably we see a story of a bubble of ultra-rich big winners and hordes of locked out losers. What this entire genre is doing and has always done is take the trends and the culture and follows them to their logical conclusion. They hold up a mirror and say: Do you like what you see? I mean, this is not supposed to be a system that’s telling us to go to this dangerous future. It’s telling us to get off that road. That’s the idea. It’s supposed to be holding up a mirror and telling society to swerve. So, you know, I want to look at the roads that lead to Trump much more than I want to look at Trump himself.”

David Graeber, a Yale-trained cultural anthropologist, emerged as something of a cult writer behind the Occupy movement of six years ago — meaning, in his case, a tracker of the invisible stitching around matters of debt and wealth from ancient times.  

He has prophesied at different times a standard 15-hour work week and the dissolution of the US empire.  In the matter of Tory rule in England,  David Graeber has been writing since before the Brexit vote about an “efflorescence of resistance” breaking through — he says — ‘a culture of despair.’

Finally, the Indian-born writer Pankaj Mishra, now London based and widely published in the most respected British and American press, is acutely aware that he embodies a contradiction.  His argument in his contentious new book, Age of Anger, is that the European Enlightenment from the 18th Century, modernity itself and globalization have been critical to his success and, at the same time, responsible for the shilling of so many false promises — prosperity, equality, and security — to the great masses of have-nots. (For more Mishra, listen to our 2012 interview with Pankaj on foreign policy)

Podcast • June 1, 2017

American Socrates: The Life and Mind of Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky for 50 years has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting … not the city-square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger. ...

Noam Chomsky for 50 years has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting … not the city-square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger.

The world in trouble today still beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door, if only because he’s been forthright for so long about a whirlwind coming.  Not that the world quite knows what do with Noam Chomsky’s warnings of disaster in the making. Remember the famous faltering of the patrician TV host William F. Buckley Jr., meeting Chomsky’s icy anger about the war in Vietnam, in 1969.

It’s a strange thing about Noam Chomsky: the New York Times calls him ‘arguably’ the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop media stars on network television almost never do. And yet the man is universally famous and revered in his 89th year: he’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam war and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations.  He remains a rock-star on college campuses, here and abroad; yet he’s still an alien in the places where policy gets made.  On his home ground at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is a notably accessible old professor who answers his email and receives visitors like us with a twinkle.  

Last week, we visited Chomsky with an open ended mission in mind: We were looking for a non-standard account of our recent history from a man known for telling the truth. We’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks, but how. He’d  written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, also, in his words, a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.”

In the opening moments of our conversation, recorded and captured in the video below, Chomsky lays out a succinct demonstration of his method that might be applied to our present-day political crisis:

 “I think the fate of the species depends on it because, remember, it’s not just inequality, stagnation. It’s terminal disaster. We have constructed a perfect storm. That should be the screaming headlines every day. Since the Second World War, we have created two means of destruction. Since the neoliberal era, we have dismantled the way of handling them. That’s our pincers. That’s what we face, and if that problem isn’t solved we’re done with.”

Over the years Noam Chomsky has defended his heavyweight debating title against all comers: YouTube has him in the ring with Michel Foucault on the nature of human nature; with Alan Dershowitz on Israel; with John Silber on Central America. But looking beyond his intellectual pugilism, Chomsky’s life might be defined as much by his allies as his enemies.

One of Chomsky’s longest running partnerships is with his assistant, Bev Stohl, who serves as the gatekeeper in and out of Chomsky world at MIT. She’s a sprightly writer and wit who’s learned over most of two decades that a lot of laughter helps in living with genius. We caught up with Bev and her office pup Roxy this week.

Another critical alliance comes from Robert Barksy, the author of two admiring, critical books—Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent and  The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory TowerAs an admirer and biographer of Chomsky, Barsky helps us fill in the story of how NC became the most widely cited author and innovator in the literature of contemporary science as well as a by-word for rational humanism.

Our hour only is only the beginning of the Noam story though. For more, read our friend George Scialabba‘s many excellent essays on Chomsky—a man he ranks among his triumvirate intellectual heroes (along with Christopher Lasch and Richard Rorty). Here’s a good place to start for beginners.

Also, be sure to check out the Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance‘s musical tribute “Noam Chomsky Is A Soft Revolution” which puts the linguist in a class of musical as well as political and literary dissidents—Dr. John, James Brown, and Willie Nelson as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Che Guevara.

Finally, watch these two bite-sized bits of Noam discussing two giant-sized philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Adam Smith.

Also, read a full transcript of the show on Medium.

Extra Credit Assignment from Prof. Barsky

“For brief introductions to the incredibly complex world that Chomsky describes, it might be worth watching a few videos. There is an incredibly important one that was done years ago on the BBC that offers a one hour summary of the basic philosophical tenants that underwrites his thought, and the interviewer is a very brilliant English philosopher. I have had occasion to talk about this interview with Noam and he agreed, and bemoaned that such programs are no longer easily found.
 The other incredibly important source to understand the generation preceding Noam, is the remarkable film by Joseph Dorman called Arguing the World. References made in this film to a tiny Jewish Zionist organization that existed from 1928 to 1943, started at Harvard, that set forth some crucial ideas that were to both reflect and guide the work of Chomsky’s teacher, Zellig Harris (I talk about this at length in my book about Harris). The group is called Avukah , and I have been working on a film and book about it for many years. Joseph’s film is a model for what I’m trying to do, and many of the people mentioned herein have direct or indirect influence on Noam’s thinking.”

Podcast • January 12, 2017

Silvio Berlusconi: The Godfather of Trumpismo

According to Henry Kissinger, “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen.” Don’t tell that to the Italians. The parallels between Donald Trump and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi are as striking as ...

According to Henry Kissinger, “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen.” Don’t tell that to the Italians. The parallels between Donald Trump and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi are as striking as they are frightening. Both men catapulted their way to power by running against the establishment as outsiders, billionaire “every men,” freed by money and power to be as lewd as anyone.

Mixing show business with politics, Trump and Berlusconi, both tireless salesmen, promoted their own personal brands as solutions to political gridlock and national malaise. Despite their notable conflicts-of-interest, these strongmen present themselves as a panacea for all their countries’ woes without offering any comprehensive political programs for relief. The cult-of-personality surrounding both men gives them both a sort of Teflon defense against personal scandals: attacks on the cruder aspects of their personalities—their raunchy rants and sex scandals—don’t stick and do little to derail their quests for political power. And what does it tell you that both men have also developed close relationships with another vainglorious world leader, Vladimir Putin? 

To get the Italian perspective on Trumpismo—what might be called the Berlusconi Doctrine, American-style—we turned first to our favorite public radio paisan, Sylvia Poggioli. Poggioli gives us a broad reportorial take on the havoc wrought by Italy’s own vulgar, business-minded, anti-professional TV mogul.

Alexander Stille—the Italian-American journalist who articulated his own connections between bunga bunga banter and Trumpian masculinity for The Intercept in March—adds a more theoretical interpretation. Stille helps contextualize Berlusconi as “the first post-modern politician”—a master of visual media and entertainment politics who can effortlessly spin truths to his advantage.

Also joining us is Sabina Guzzanti, the satirist and filmmaker who emerged as one of the prominent Italian gadflies in the Berlusconi era. Guzzanti mercilessly provoked the thin-skinned prime minister and his Mediaset broadcasting empire with ruthless critiques and satirical jabs on her late-night TV show Raiot. After the program was muted by censorship and lawsuits, Guzzanti crystallized her critique of Berluscanismo in the 2005 documentary Viva Zapatero!

Bill Emmott, former editor-in-chief of The Economist, rounds out our program with the imperial view from the editorial board of the magazine that went to war with “the man who screwed an entire country.”

The lessons learned from Berlusconi present a rather grim view of America’s future under Trump. But we also shouldn’t forget that one of the key appeals for both Silvio and the Donald lies in their consummate skills as entertainers. The old joke about Mussolini’s fascist leadership of Italy was that “at least he made the trains run on time.” For Berlusconi, the best that can be said, maybe, is that at least he could sing in tune:

What might the tenor of the Trump administration, with its even crasser model of carnival-barker showmanship, sound like?

#TheResistance under Berlusconi

The feeling, over a 20-year Berlusconi era, is that the left in Italy was fiddling while Rome was burning. Nobody had (or has) an answer to the charming strong guy. “The left really doesn’t know what to say,” the political science professor Daniele Albertazzi says. (And international media pressure from the likes of The Economist didn’t amount to much, either.) For example, Romano Prodi (Goldman Sachs advisor, two-time PM, and founder of Italy’s Democratic Party) and Matteo Renzi (union basher who took up the Democratic Party mantle as PM from 2014 to 2016) offered few answers. The center did not hold. Albertazzi is a professor at the University of Birmingham in UK who studies European populist movements. Hear a short interview below:

lead illustration by Susan Coyne, post by Frank Horton and Zach Goldhammer

September 21, 2016

Revenge of the 90s

If all elections are about the future, why does this one come with so much baggage from our political and cultural past? It was in the misfit decade of the ‘90s that both Donald Trump ...

If all elections are about the future, why does this one come with so much baggage from our political and cultural past?

It was in the misfit decade of the ‘90s that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton cemented their almost ubiquitous presence on the national stage. Trump, already a bold face name in New York real estate, left the Plaza Hotel behind for Hollywood. (Here he is on Letterman Show, here in Home Alone 2, and over here The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.) Hillary debuted as First Lady, but bet on her skills as a West Wing wonk for the prize assignment of reforming health care. Her penchant back then for secrecy, loyalty, and vast right wing conspiracies started the trail of scandal headlines—Travelgate, Whitewater, Filegate—that dog her today.

Our guest Maureen Dowd of the New York Times calls the 2016 election the “Seinfeld election.” ”It’s really about nothing,” she says. “Except the two most famous people on the planet that nobody really seems to know.”


So we’re looking back at the Seinfeld decade—that sunny time after the Cold War that ended abruptly with 9/11. The era of peace and prosperity. The heady days of business porn, corporate synergy, and the “personal brand.” The first digital decade, a drug decade in Pharmacy Nation (including Viagra, Prozac and Ritalin). The Third Wave Feminism decade, too.

The ‘90s live on, not only in our Truman Show-like obsession with Trump, or the persistence of Third Way politics, or normcore fashion trends, but also in wounds never healed from NAFTA, welfare reform, the 1994 crime bill, and finance deregulation. Maybe with these two candidates we’re trying to resolve the ‘90s: the racial violence, the feminist and gender identity questions, the inequality, the global war and domestic safety. Let’s party like it’s 1999 and get our heads around the origin story of Campaign 2016.


May 12, 2015

TPP On Trial

The Democrats’ revolt against President Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership has everything to do with the “giant sucking sound” of job loss echoing over Baltimore and St. Louis, Detroit and Gary… and still more to do ...

The Democrats’ revolt against President Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership has everything to do with the “giant sucking sound” of job loss echoing over Baltimore and St. Louis, Detroit and Gary… and still more to do with the inability of our own polarized and privatized society to repair the social contract at home. Only at the end of our untypically acrimonious hour did a moral come clear: the 30-year regime of expanding global trade could well founder for want of a firm public decision to share the pain and the profits in that transformation. The more we learn about TPP, the more it looks like a blunt instrument of the banking and corporate interests to protect their investments, and of Big Pharma, Hollywood and Info Tech to protect their “intellectual property” abroad.   Enforceable compensations for workers and communities, here and there, would be nice, too.

Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia struck the resounding note on our show of disenchantment heading toward despair. Our friend Jeff has been an inexhaustibly cheerful and pragmatic promoter of globalization strategies that have in fact lifted the starving and the desperately poor. But the TPP bandwagon looks now to be fueled by the fantasy that trade is money-making magic — and he’s off it.

[Obama] said, “Look, why is Elizabeth Warren pounding on me? We’re together on minimum wage, we’re together on job training, we’re together on clean energy.” The problem is he hasn’t gotten any of those things passed…Trade worked more or less as one would expect trade and investment to work. It has created an expanded world economy, it has helped a lot of poor countries to gain a foothold and to grow, and it has exacerbated income inequalities in our country and elsewhere. What hasn’t worked is normal politics. We don’t have what I assumed 30 years ago, as a child of the sixties, was a completely normal idea: that there would be adjustment assistance, that there would be worker training, that we’d care for the environment. What we really have is a system of corporate governance. We don’t have a democratic polity right now in the sense of representing the interest and needs of the American people. Enough is enough. We can’t keep exacerbating these inequalities unless we get our own politics right.

The Harvard economist in our huddle, Robert Z. Lawrence, is a TPP stalwart. The loss of manufacturing work in America is not as extreme, he noted, as the near-vanishing of farm labor in the 20th Century — and the driving force in both transformations was not trade, he argued, so much as the vaulting productivity of new tools — mechanical and now digital.

Automation, technological change and innovation have allowed us to produce the same quantity of goods with far fewer workers… Trade allows us to get higher living standards, but what we haven’t been good at is adjustment policies that help workers who are dislocated… While I agree that we have deficiencies in terms of the way we help workers or don’t help workers, the real question facing us today is: Are we better off being in the game and negotiating for the kind of agreements we like or are we going to let others do it instead of us?

Our journalist, meanwhile, Barry C. Lynn mourned the fact that we can’t just hit the TPP kill-switch. Why not? We don’t own the switch anymore:

The WTO system — the agreement that we signed back in 1994, put in place in 1995 — was a decision by the U.S. government or by people who had control over the US government to get the government out of the job of regulating trade — essentially to turn over the job of regulating trade to the people who run our corporations and the people who run our banks.

We heard a lot of crossfire in this conversation and, in the end, an awkward consensus: that our president is pretending not to know that the trade regime is out of order.

Field Recording: “Seaming Suits in New Bedford”

Max and I went to Joseph Abboud Manufacturing, a garment factory in New Bedford, Mass., to gather sounds and hear from workers about technology, free trade, labor, and what it’s like to be one of the last manufacturers in this famous old whaling port. See some photographs we took, below.

—Conor Gillies.