Podcast • June 25, 2013

Jeff Sachs on JFK’s last year: Between Doom and Miracle

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal. ...

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

President Kennedy’s “peace” speech., Ted Sorensen’s favorite, at American University, June 10, 1963

Jeff Sachs
will remind you, first, of the loopy vertigo of the JFK years, through the “annus mirabilis” that ended in assassination. From the prophet’s vision of the Inaugural speech (“For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life…”) it was 100 days to the blundered mugging of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Then it was 600 days to the brink of annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But at 1000 days, as if by a miracle, the president had made a resolve to “move the world” onto a plausible path to peace.

Jeffrey Sachs, the global economist of hunger, health and the human emergency, makes a striking personal turn in his fervid rediscovery of John F. Kennedy 50 years later: To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. Ours is a public conversation at the JFK Library in Boston, opening the semi-centennial reflections on the 35th President. It’s not exactly history or biography that Sachs is giving us, but really one hyper-kinetic and troubled public man’s ardent close-reading of another. JFK’s “peace” speech at American University 50 years ago this month is the critical Sorensen-Kennedy text. Senate ratification of Kennedy’s Test Ban Treaty with Nikita Khrushchev is the under-appreciated monument to the era. And still I’m pressing a what-if question prompted by James Douglass’s under-noticed inquiry, JFK and the Unspeakable: what if it was precisely President Kennedy’s turn to peace — to ending the Cold War, to leaving Vietnam and learning to live with Castro and Cuba — that got our 35th president killed?

jfk amuJames Douglass’s view is a version of Oliver Stone‘s in the movie JFK: that President Kennedy was targeted for death by the security establishment of his own government. What Douglass adds to Stone is the Christian mysticism of Thomas Merton, who wrote at the time that John Kennedy, like peace-makers before and since, had been marked for assassination; but also that he was summoning a miracle to stave off Armageddon.

Jeff Sachs finesses the question of a conspiracy to kill JFK, but he agrees that Thomas Merton gave us the “moral narrative” that runs under the story of Kennedy’s last year, no matter who it was that ordered his death.

We came — it’s trite to say, and impossible to fathom — we came within one shot of ending the world on several occasions. It’s unbelievable. It is a miracle that we got through this; there was no right to expect it… It’s not that JFK woke up exactly, because he was awake. But he stopped stumbling. And he absolutely said, in October: ‘I’ve got to lead.’ He took the decision of leadership. And that is part of what I’m arguing for because I don’t find that our politicians lead very much these days. You know, I voted twice for President Obama but I don’t believe he leads. So I believe this is relevant now. You have to take risks. I was very unhappy with a line in President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem two months ago — another fine address, because our president can give a wonderful address. But it’s the difference between making a wonderful address and making peace that bothers me. In that address President Obama actually said to the young people in Jerusalem: don’t expect politicians to lead; you have to demand for us to lead! John Kennedy did not say to the people on June 10, 1963: ‘I’m just going to sit there till you start demanding peace.’ He said: ‘We have to find the courage to move to peace.’ He didn’t say, ‘you have to make me do it,’ or ‘I’m going to follow what you say,’ which is what President Obama literally said in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to pick on him, but we’re not going to get peace in the Middle East until he leads. That’s the difference here. It was the decision to lead, but it was also of course this incredible deep realization that there were two people who had stared into the darkness like no one else in human history. JFK and Nikita Khrushchev felt that bond as deeply as you can with another human being. They knew that each was threatened by dark forces around them. They were beseiged by their hard-liners. In this sense that [Douglass] book is right — that Kennedy had to overcome a profound sense of pessimism and recklessness in order to get this done. If you had just gone with the military, they’d have destroyed the planet ten times over, no question about it.

Jeffrey Sachs in conversation with Chris Lydon at the JFK Library, June 2013.

Podcast • January 7, 2013

Barbara Massaad in Beirut: Make Food, not War. Seriously!

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (19 min, 21 meg) BEIRUT — Barbara Massaad, writer and chef, in her kitchen, is telling us a terrific story about the all-conquering cult of food ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (19 min, 21 meg)

BEIRUT — Barbara Massaad, writer and chef, in her kitchen, is telling us a terrific story about the all-conquering cult of food in Lebanon. And I am asking her: no kidding, what if we demanded that cooks and musicians run this ugly world, starting here in Beirut and, by all means, next door in Syria.

When you talk about food to a Lebanese, you bring them back to their childhood with a big smile. Once I was in Nabatiyeh, deep in the south of Lebanon, and I was taking pictures of a sign that said “Garlic” or something. And this guy from Hezbollah comes up to me and starts screaming! Like, ‘Yaaaah! You’re not allowed to photograph that! What do you think you’re doing?’ And I said: Look, food! This is what I am doing. And I started showing him my book on Man’oushé — about local varieties of ‘thyme pie’ in Lebanon. And suddenly this ferocious guy became like a little boy. ‘Aaah,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to come and visit my mom. She makes the best food in the world.’ And then it was like: ‘I promise I will come back and visit your mom.’ And he said: ‘take as many pictures as you want. I’m really sorry.’ This is the effect that food has on Lebanese people. It’s a maternal thing. It’s childhood. It’s the root of everything.

Barbara Abdeni Massaad in conversation with Chris Lydon and Mark Rendeiro in Beirut, December 2012.

At the ragged edge of the Arab upheaval, Beirut is enjoying yet another constuction boom. Gracious old Ottoman-era houses are disappearing fast near the ever-bustling Hamra Street. New luxury apartments are sprouting up next to shot-up shells of 1960s hotels, described as too big to tear down, too damaged to repair…

Talking about food is, of course, a way of not talking about everything else on Lebanon’s mind. Thousands of refugees are turning up from Syria. There’s a palpable dread that Syria’s civil war could run as long as Lebanon’s (1975 to 1990). And there’s a real danger that Lebanon’s politics — aligned for and against the Assad regime in Damascus — could go haywire again. Then again, food talk reflects and connects with everything else — village cheeses match local and tribal loyalties in this dense mosaic of minorities.

Barbara Massaad has published two handsome books of slow-food lore, both rich with social implications. Mouneh is the old Lebanese folk science of preserving food — drying and pickling, for example — to survive war and other disasters. Man’oushé used to be every Lebanese person’s daily bread, in infinite local varieties, dressed with onions, olives, tomatos, spiced with zaatar, or not. Man’oushé is her dream remedy for almost everything that ails the Arab world. “It’s a poor man’s food, but you see the richest people eating it,” she is telling us. Man’oushé is the work of magnetic, gossipy local bakeries where, as in England’s “local” pubs, “you find out who’s going out with whom, what the president said, and what Hassan Nasrallah spoke about last night.” If she could summon the energy, Barbara Massad says, she’d open a place with food for everyone. “It wouldn’t be that expensive — food for all walks of life. Something with lentils — but this divine lentil soup!”

So, what if man’oushé, lentil soup and good music are the basic program?

Podcast • July 1, 2011

The Montebello Project: a Marker Down for Peace

The “art of peace” in a time of war — a play on Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War — was the bait and theme of three days of conversation at the end of ...

The “art of peace” in a time of war — a play on Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War — was the bait and theme of three days of conversation at the end of June in the biggest log cabin you ever imagined, the Chateau Montebello in the ageless wilds of Quebec. This was my introduction to the final wrap-up session with James Der Derian of the Watson Instutute at Brown, co-host of the conference with Watson visiting fellow Nisha Shah; the extraordinary school teacher John Hunter of the World Peace Game from Charlottesville, Virginia; novelist Sandra Cisneros of The House on Mango Street; and Stephen Del Rosso of the Carnegie Corporation.

War is Us. We bring with us, even to Montebello, William James’ pair of paradoxes. First, that war, the bane of the species, also chose us. “The survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring,” as James put it. “Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us.” And second, more pointedly for us who choose to reflect ruefully on war, “Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect,” James wrote in his great speech at Stanford in 1906, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” “The horror makes the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show.”

Or is it so? A century after William James, his lineal descendant in “brain science” and Harvard celebrity Steven Pinker shocks himself with the conclusion: “today we are living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.” No matter that World Wars I and II, and Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, are part of that American century since James, Pinker writes: “Something in modernity and its cultural institutions have made us nobler.”

In a farewell conversation we will be attempting a tight fit of the conference’s contradictions, touching again on art and science in the service of peace and war, testing our broadest guesses about where history, too, is driving us. “History is a bucket of blood,” William James said. But if, as Pinker demurs, modern history is leading us out of the pit, it would be valuable, as he says, to have some better ideas: why? and how?

And this was James Der Derian’s summing up and takeaway message when the conference was almost over:

Violence and war are the means by which a very ruthless minority impose their will on a passive majority. What’s changed is the passivity no longer exists. The sleeping giant’s been poked one too many times. The fact that non-violence was the means by which the passive many chose to resist and overthrow that ruthless few [in the Arab Revolt that began in Tunisia and Egypt] is part of the reason why we held this event. I don’t know if it’s the Zeitgeist, if it’s some Mayan prophecy, or if it is simply the end of the Long War that was the term used for post 9-11 conflict, but I think we are at a moment where if you get a language, if you get a passion, and if you get the means to spread the message, the natural will of the people to overthrow that type of domination will be served. As facilitators of that, we do — by our ability to mobilize a lot of heavy-duty intellectual firepower with some image-making capacity — have some small impact. Scholars are often lagging behind the latest idea or the latest movement’s purpose and goals. But I like to believe, to the extent that Civil Society and the State coexist and need to recalibrate, that there is a new networked capacity that did not exist at the time when Hegel and others first posed the idea of Civil Society being prior to the unified democratic state…

I’ve studied War for twenty years and I think one of the reasons we chose “The Art of Peace” as opposed to “The Art of War” is because we’re witnessing something, and it’s no longer as ridiculous as it might have sounded. It’s easy for people who didn’t live through the Sixties to misinterpret that history. But this was a time when people did come together. They might not have levitated the Pentagon, as they tried to, but they did a pretty good job stopping the war.

I’m a Utopian Realist. I think that you have to have these aspirations, but you have to be totally realistic about cost and benefits. What I’m really saddened by is that the visions we’ve had in the past, visions in the past for the future, have been bankrupted. The Soviet Union bankrupted a vision of peace. We’ve seen a vision of peace coming out of the Enlightenment tradition bankrupted, hijacked, by humanitarian hawks, by the people who thought you had to bomb for peace. So I think it is the right moment to subject ourselves, or be willing to be subject to ridicule; not take ourselves too seriously, but at the same time not allow a little laughter at us or a little laughter among us to stop us from pursuing this goal.

Podcast • May 12, 2011

Steven Heydemann on the “Family Business” in Syria

Steven Heydemann is picking apart my metaphor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as Michael Corleone – the Godfather’s gentler son from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mob film, who took a sudden turn towards violence and thuggery ...

Steven Heydemann at the “Engaging Afghanistan” conference at Brown

Steven Heydemann is picking apart my metaphor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as Michael Corleone – the Godfather’s gentler son from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mob film, who took a sudden turn towards violence and thuggery when confronted with the pressures of a kingdom under siege. In Michael’s line from the movie: “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.” Bashar al-Assad is an eye doctor by training – in London, no less – who came home to pick up the reins when his father passed away in 2000. Ten years later, his security forces are cracking down Gotti-style on a small but spirited group of pro-democracy protestors, and no one on our side seems to want to do much about it. I’m asking: will the democratic wave that seems to be sweeping the region finally run aground in Syria?

Now a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Steven Heydemann is the original Syria expert. He started studying the country in the eighties, he says, when all his colleagues were preoccupied with Egypt and Lebanon. His book, Authoritarianism in Syria, Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946 – 1960, is a classic guide to the ways of non-democratic governments, not just the family rule but the state- and service-building too, the ways in which despots build constituencies. In Syria it’s a story, in short of how the Assad family built a ruthless state, and made a lot of people like it.

The last few weeks in Syria has been a story of how conditions endemic to the Arab world – youth unemployment, corruption, distrust – mingle with the freedom aspirations blowing in from Egypt and a whole lot of malaise about what comes after Assad if the regime should fall. We should hope for the best, Steven Heydemann says – democracy, secularism, maybe even peace with Israel – but not rule out the worst.

Let’s also be aware that what happens when we think about politics in Syria through the lens of this Mafia metaphor is that we imagine that what we’re dealing with is not an authoritarian system of rule, with institutions and processes and procedures, and a ruling party, and an infrastructure that extends across the entire country, and the capacity to manage problems of governance in ways that are bureaucratic, not simply patronage-based; it’s not simply as if he sits in his office and gives orders to his Consigliere and they get carried out. There’s an enormously simplifying effect that happens when we think about Syria in terms of the Corleones that I think does a disservice. Why? Because it suggests on one hand that if we got rid of this family we could solve Syria’s problems. We ran into that in Iraq. Getting rid of the guy at the top did not solve Iraq’s problems. When we dismantled one of the critical institutions in Iraq, the Baath party and the military, we found ourselves facing a power vacuum and had to reconstruct a system of governance that was, as it turns out, both sectarian and extraordinarily violent in its own right.

Steven Heydemann with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, May 7, 2011.