Podcast • June 7, 2012

David Bromwich on The Emperor’s New Language

David Bromwich is locating our 2012 distress in our language — or lack of it. It is reunion season at Yale, 50 years after President Kennedy addressed my graduating class of 1962 with his tax ...

David Bromwich is locating our 2012 distress in our language — or lack of it. It is reunion season at Yale, 50 years after President Kennedy addressed my graduating class of 1962 with his tax cut speech and the famous crack about having “the best of both worlds — a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” Four months later, human civilization hung by a thread in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am trying to count the watersheds crossed in American life.

Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale and for me by now an indispensable public commentator, confirms my sense that the country is starving for want of words. On the brink of post-imperial panic, we don’t know what to call this worse-than-recession, this Euro-charged breakdown of politics and finance. What we do know is that “we are the 99 percent” is the left’s most effective line since the 2008 meltdown, but that the right and the Tea Party have commandeered the public conversation with street language of salt and savor, with vehemence and conviction that the liberal-left seems to scorn.

Professor Bromwich faults President Obama for ducking a direct confrontation with the Tea Party’s nihilism about government — for trying even to coopt the Tea Party with the thought that anti-taxism is in our DNA, as if we had a common stake in crushing the public sector. Do we call this an excess of prudence? a failure of imagination? moral timidity? Political correctness, in the Bromwich diagnosis, has a lot to do with scrubbing the Democrats’ script and emasculating their language — as incorrect as it would be to say such a thing. The strongest language that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton can summon is to dismiss attacks as “not helpful.” They speak in a “schoolmarm” voice (another “incorrect” formulation) against rough-and-ready reactionaries who fling words like “corrupt,” “depraved” and “poisonous” with abandon. Democratic rhetoric in our day is “academically trained, scrupulous, conscientious,” Bromwich observes, and free of the popular touch.

We can do better than that, Bromwich says, or at least we once did. From a vast acquaintance with the best in political speech, he is reciting Vachel Lindsay’s poem “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” refiring the frenzy in the heart of a 16-year-old boy on the day in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan, running against William McKinley, roared into Springfield, Illinois and the young bucks of the town “joined the wild parade against the power of gold.” And then Bromwich is reading back Martin Luther King Jr.‘s response in 1967 to a reporter who wondered why the civil rights leader had strayed into the protest against war in Vietnam. “Justice is indivisible,” Dr. King answered, “and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere; and whenever I see injustice I am going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.”

You can hear just what a clear and simple statement of conscience is there; and it draws the world toward it. It draws whole worlds toward it when people see that sense of a man planting himself on his convictions… I think that belief that war is wrong, that war was is a leading evil, could also rally people. But we don’t see war being talked down… This is new in my experience. I’m 60 years old now, and I’ve never heard so many Americans talk so acceptingly about wars, in the plural. You feel that we are Rome or something, and that people have resigned themselves to it. It’s a very strange situation we’re in — that under Obama, after Bush, the number of wars has increased. And his chief innovation in language is to speak of war more generally, more allusively, more vaguely and in a softer tone; and now to publicize his own actions as a decider on the killing of individuals, including Americans if need be. It’s a terrible sinking back into the lethargy of… It’s just where we are.

David Bromwich with Chris Lydon at Yale, June 1, 2012

Podcast • December 23, 2010

David Bromwich on the “Disappointment in Obama”

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, reads Barack Obama like a book — as if he were a book, that is. With the novelist Zadie Smith, he often seems to me the ...

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, reads Barack Obama like a book — as if he were a book, that is. With the novelist Zadie Smith, he often seems to me the only commentator worth reading on Obama, precisely because they bring literary tools and imagination to a man who’s himself an almost literary invention. Professor Bromwich takes the study of our president, in effect, out of the White House press room, out of “political science,” whatever that is, into English class. The first premise is that language — scripted and impromtu — reveals the man. “Close reading” suggests further that something about his language is at the core of the low-lying invasive fog of “disappointment in Obama.” In the Bromwich reading, President Obama is “an unusually forceful politician, especially from a distance,” who underestimated the difficulty of his task and “characteristically overrates the potency of words, his words,” to get the job done.

“What he did in the first few months of his presidency, Professor Bromwich is observing in conversation, “was lay down any number of pledges — what the British call ‘earnests’ — of his good intentions about Guantanamo, about Israel and Palestine, about nuclear proliferation, about the environment… It was a wonderful list, and he made pretty good but very general speeches on all of them. I believe he supposed — semi-magically — that from the inspiring force of his speeches, a groundswell of support would arise from the bottom that made him do it. There something fantastic, something delusive, and something unreal about that idea of his role.”

DB: In an improvised moment in this latest campaign, October 2010, Obama talked about taxes and tried to be very understanding toward the Tea Partiers and other anti-tax fanatics and said something like, “That’s in our DNA, right? I mean, we came in because folks on the other side of the Atlantic had been oppressing folks without giving them representation…” Folks? … What was he trying to say? He was trying talk about George III, the tyranny of Britain in the colonial days and Taxation Without Representation. Those are specific names and references every literate American would have recognized, but Obama doesn’t descend into them, or rather doesn’t ascend to them, even though it’s ascending to an ordinary middle level. It was as if he were talking to rather primitive and silly and uninformed people. He has another register which is rather technocratic.

On the Health Care Bill he could talk about the need to “prioritize” and “incentivize” and “watch the trend lines” and so on. So these are two very different idioms. I think the technocratic one is Obama’s natural speaking manner most of the time, most of the day in his presidency, because those are the people he’s around. He learned to talk in the surroundings of the legal academy, corporate life and around bankers and technocrats, and on an honest day he’s one of them.

CL: You caught my attention in the London Review of Books many months ago just with the observation that he can sound like the president of the Ford Foundation, or something. It’s the sound of a vaguely anonymous board room voice, an intelligent mind among a lot of intelligent minds, representing some kind of anonymous consensus of the good people.

DB: Yeah. That’s sort of the good and competent elite who are meant to run things. I call him a Fabian non-socialist for that reason. The Fabians – H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw among them – believed in the reform of society by a group of technocrats, from above, in the direction of equality, but not with much consultation of the populace. And there’s nothing at all low about Obama, nothing the least bit vulgar or ill-bred. In fact, if he had just a dash of vulgarity it might increase the democratic quality of his charm.

He has said the Health Care Bill was a piece of “signature legislation.” That phrase caught my ear. It’s the sort of phrase that would be put into a write-up on the recipient of an honorary degree in a law school or university. And in fact, of course the Health Care Bill was anything but a signature piece of legislation; it worked through many committees, got delayed by Max Baucus and that search for bipartisan consensus, for months delayed by Obama’s personal wait for Olympia Snowe who never came across, and so on. If he had a signature, we don’t know what it looked like… And yet I think for him it was just one more exertion of this neutral, rather impersonal vocabulary that he’s very used to and that you read on the blurbs of semi-thoughtful best sellers.

What can any of us tell about a man’s character, talents, intentions from his words?

David Bromwich is finding the president more detached, perhaps dissociated, than the man he voted for and roots for; a man who’s elegant but not warm; who’s theoretically humble but practically haughty; a gifted writer and speaker who has a hard time naming the thing he’s talking about by its name; a man still hungering for approval and even legitimacy; a politician who does not enjoy the basic friction of politics. John F. Kennedy’s famous news conferences, Bromwich observes on listening again, were “full of human moods and quirks.” JFK spoke rapidly, “as we all do when we’re concerned to say what we really think.” President Obama, by contrast, very rarely ad-libs and speaks “very slowly, deliberately, often even brokenly — not for lack of linguistic skill but for lack of contact between him and what he really wants people to be able to hear of him.”

How strange, if Professor Bromwich is right, that a president who saw himself early, and successfully, as an author, who is still celebrated for his eloquence, is stumbling now on his own use of words.

Podcast • November 10, 2009

David Bromwich on Obama: Looking at Words Closely

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Bromwich (41 minutes, 19 mb mp3). It’s a measure of the change in the discourse that David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English who used to write ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Bromwich (41 minutes, 19 mb mp3).

It’s a measure of the change in the discourse that David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English who used to write op-ed in the New York Times, now keeps a sort of Times Watch in the Huffington Post, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. “I don’t have a particular grievance, or have it in for the Times,” Professor Bromwich says to me in conversation, “but they are an important mainstream paper, and the way they bent towards the war in Iraq, I think, was all-important in legitimating that war. So they bear watching, and when no one else is minding that watch, I do it.” He was the only writer I saw who broke through the “de mortuis” sentimentalism around the Times’ late language meister William Safire to nail the propagandist and congenital war-monger: “the true Safire touch — clever, punchy, alliterative, demagogic.” In a more consequential “close reading” of the Times through five days of late October, Bromwich wrote: “the conclusion draws itself. The New York Times wants a large escalation in Afghanistan.”

David Bromwich seems to me better yet at Obama-watching than at press criticism. He can write with penetration of Barack Obama as an American almost-literary invention, and he can make you feel you’re reading Nabokov on Don Quixote or Harold Bloom on Hamlet. In our gab, Bromwich’s essentially sympathetic but distressed view is that Obama “is a capitive of the inertia of the use of American power that he inherits.” To my taste, Bromwich does what the magisterial columnists of old like James Reston and Walter Lippman (the people I wanted to be when I grew up) used to do: pull the threads of news and impression and gossip and deep reading into a “mood of Washington” and some sense of where we’re going. Sitting in New Haven, Bromwich comes at it with the training primarily of the literary man, a biographer of the critic William Hazlitt and prolific interpreter of Rousseau, Burke, Lincoln and Mill. He adopted the old liberal prejudices when they were uncontested — in favor of peace, against torture; for civil liberties without cavil; for the republican virtues and constitutional standards. Bromwich’s finished work has an often chilling clarity and eloquence I find nowhere else these days:

Afghanistan is the largest and the most difficult crisis Obama confronts away from home. And here the trap was fashioned largely by himself. He said, all through the presidential campaign, that Iraq was the wrong war but Afghanistan was the right one. It was ‘a war of necessity’, he said this summer. And he has implied that he would accept his generals’ definition of the proper scale of such a war. Now it appears that Afghanistan is being lost, indeed that it cannot be controlled with fewer than half a million troops on the ground for a decade or more. The generals are for adding troops, as in Vietnam, in increments of tens of thousands. Their current request was leaked to Bob Woodward, who published it in the Washington Post on 21 September, after Obama asked that it be kept from the public for a longer interval while he deliberated. The leak was an act of military politics if not insubordination; its aim was to show the president the cost of resisting the generals.

The political establishment has lined up on their side: the addition of troops is said to be the most telling way Obama can show resoluteness abroad. This verdict of the Wall Street Journal, the Post and (with more circumspection) the New York Times was taken up by John McCain and Condoleezza Rice. If Obama declined at last to oppose Netanyahu on the settlement freeze, he will be far more wary of opposing General Petraeus, the commander of Centcom. Obama is sufficiently humane and sufficiently undeceived to take no pleasure in sending soldiers to their deaths for a futile cause. He will have to convince himself that, in some way still to be defined, the mission is urgent after all. Afghanistan will become a necessary war even if we do not know what marks the necessity. Robert Dole, an elder of the Republican Party, has said he would like to see Petraeus as the Republican candidate in 2012. Better to keep him in the field (this must be at least one of Obama’s thoughts) than to have him to run against.

For Obama to do the courageous thing and withdraw would mean having deployed against him the unlimited wrath of the mainstream media, the oil interest, the Israel lobby, the weapons and security industries, all those who have reasons both avowed and unavowed for the perpetuation of American force projection in the Middle East. If he fails to satisfy the request from General McChrystal – the specialist in ‘black ops’ who now controls American forces in Afghanistan – the war brokers will fall on Obama with as finely co-ordinated a barrage as if they had met and concerted their response. Beside that prospect, the calls of betrayal from the antiwar base that gave Obama his first victories in 2008 must seem a small price to pay. The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.

David Bromwich, “Obama’s Delusion,” in the London Review of Books, 22 October 2009. Read it all here.

Podcast • October 13, 2009

Donald Pease: Obama’s "Transnational" Presidency

Re-read Moby-Dick and be cured of these absurd Nobel blues. The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama underlines the world’s idea of our “transnational” President, our transnational country and our transnational moment. So does Moby-Dick, ...
Re-read Moby-Dick and be cured of these absurd Nobel blues.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama underlines the world’s idea of our “transnational” President, our transnational country and our transnational moment. So does Moby-Dick, the mother of all literary imaginings of America in crisis. My teacher in conversation here is the Dartmouth analyst of novels and dreams, Donald Pease. His teacher in turn is the Caribbean prophet of post-colonialism and Melville commentator, the late great C. L. R. James (1901 – 1989). Joseph O’Neill, the post-9/11 novelist of cricket-in-New-York, Netherland gets invoked for his confirmation that the deepest dreams of humanity play themselves out in games, too.

Herman Melville, C. L. R. James & Donald Pease: deep dreams of America as the utopian world-nation.

A modern key into Melville turns on seeing that the hero of his masterwork is not the narrator and only survivor Ishmael — that was “the Cold War reading.” Neither do the feckless New England mates Starbuck, Stubb and Flask come close to checking the mad totalitarian Ahab or saving the ship or the day. Rather it’s the motley, polyglot sailors and whale hunters, Melville’s “mariners, renegades and castaways,” who sense what’s going on and stand for an alternative. It’s the crew from every nation and corner of the world who are victims of the tale and the only heroes in it. They’re not just the most skillful seamen but “the most generous and magnificent human beings on board,” in C. L. R. James words. Above all it’s the South Sea pagan Queequeg who embodies the universal ideals of skill, brotherhood, courage, heart.

Melville drew on that first and deepest dream of America, as a global utopia of transnationals — America as a trans-nation before it was a nation. Kansan-Kenyan-Hawaiian Barack Obama mined the same dream as a candidate. I was struck in the moment by how boldly, beamingly he put forth the basic premise in his campaign digression to Berlin in July ’08, where a vast crowd cheered his self-introduction “as a citizen,” he said, “a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.” He was drawing on the dream of his father, whose father had been a cook and house servant to the British, until America “answered his prayer for a better life.” Obama was holding up a renewed dream of America not as world’s policeman, much less world ruler, but as the world’s story.

Obama’s opposition picks up on the transnational theme, too, and turns it upside down. The rabid right feeds fantasies that Obama wasn’t even born here, that he’s a closet Muslim, an immigrant without papers, and/or a “soft terrorist,” a European implant or maybe a space alien. But the taunts surely say less about Obama than about the failed, fear-stricken voices that are reduced to nutbag versions of nativism and neo-imperialism.

Donald Pease leads me to believe that’s what the Nobel Committee was saying, and celebrating from the world’s perspective: that America has found its voice of glory just in time to face the transnational catastrophes: war, hunger, environmental ruin.

DP: Barack Obama is a man of dreams, a figure who solicits fantasy work. He knows how transpose waking dream work into a recognizable representation of a goal. So when Obama took the deepest American dream: that everyone can achieve prosperity–and said that I embody that, and then linked it to the deferred dream–the raisin in the sun, and then associated that with one of the most memorable of Sam Cooke’s songs–an anthem from the sixties, “A Change is Gonna Come,” he condensed all of those dream objects into a persona whereby he did not have to do anything except address the audience as you. “You.” However you project me, I will be that projection, that fantasy projection, for you. When he had done that, he was not defeatable. The Republicans ran a very savvy campaign: McCain constructed himself as a P.O.W from Viet Nam. He tried to erase Abu Ghraib from the American public consciousness by saying that he was the figure they did it to… He was working at the level of the dream figure. When they chose Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin became the equivalent of the pioneer mother. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regressed the nation to colonial settlers in relation to the Indians. Sarah Palin was the ur-colonial mother who said she would willingly sacrifice not only the son who was already fighting in Iraq; she would sacrifice any child she bore in the name of the security of the homeland…”

CL: Donald Pease, I thought you were a literary critic. It turns out you’re a psychoanalyst.

DP: Literary critics are bed partners of psychoanalysts. You can’t be a decent literary critic without believing in the psyche…

CL: You’re known as a champion of the “trend” in “American Studies” on campus toward the “transnational.”

DP: The transnational is a fact of life. The disappearance of the Cold War enabled everybody to see that America was the node in a network of transnational relays, of economic circulation across the planet. Transnational is not a trend; it is an accurate description of the way this planet is in 2009. Barack Obama needs a global event—that is, an event that solicits the interest of everyone who is, as he puts it, a citizen of this planet—in order to connect his person with his vision. The problem with what happened with the Olympics, the reason that event was taken as such a terrible loss, was that he was supposed to be the transnational leader who would immediately solicit everyone’s agreement for whatever he asked. But he knew, or he should have known, that there were places in the Americas that needed the Olympics, both culturally and socially, much more than Chicago. What he needs now is an event that requires Obama as the figure who can respond to it responsibly.

CL: Like what?

DP: Part of it is linked now to the so-called green revolution. If and when he goes to China you will see, or I hope we will see, an event, an encounter take place, that will spell out the significance of every country across this globe living for the sake of the green revolution. The Chinese are right now embracing this as primarily a commercial venture but they are also embracing it as a planetary ideal. Obama shares that ideal, not just with the Chinese, but with everyone. That, I believe, can become the other face, the locus, of Obama.

Podcast • March 26, 2009

The President of Flow… and the end of Hip Hop?

What if “My President is black” is a reset button, marking the end of a cultural era? Just talking here again about the hip hop pulse of Obama Nation. Tricia Rose says the President of ...

What if “My President is black” is a reset button, marking the end of a cultural era? Just talking here again about the hip hop pulse of Obama Nation. Tricia Rose says the President of Flow will be (surely ought to be) the death of commercial hip hop… of the last decade’s giant stars like Jay-Z, and of the iconic trinity of gangstas, pimps and ho’s in the lyrics of violence and carnal excess. Professor Rose, the Brown University author of Hip Hop Wars, loves the form of rap, quotes Nas as prophecy, reveres the art of Lupe Fiasco and Immortal Technique among many cult practitioners. But times have changed, she says, and the Obama – Hip Hop linkage (Adam Bradley’s theme) is mostly fantasy — a link of opposites, actually, not influences.

 The civil rights movement made Obama possible… Now there’s no question that hip hop encouraged the cultural comfort that Obama represents, but he really represents the fruition of a civil rights legacy. That’s what I think people see in him predominantly. We’re reading through a hip hop lens that has four generations of black culture behind it. Almost all of his gestures, his language, his connection to the church, everything he does is both “civil rights” and occasionally “hip hop generation.” Young people see the connection to hip hop. They see the “brush your shoulder,” the fist-bump and all these moments, and there’s a great deal of excitement about those symbolic points of continuity. I see that. But if he’s hip hop, how do we account for this sense of systemic belonging that he represents? …There’s really no rhetorical continuity between Obama’s political vision as an elected official in the system, in the highest office, and the cultural politics of marginality, outsider status, and a kind of perpetual speaking-truth-to-power type of politics. There’s no parallel.

Patricia Rose in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 24, 2009 at the Watson Institute.

Braunze, the embodiment of call-in radio wisdom, on the line from Birmingham, goes a step further.

I think that hip hop is the antithesis of Obama. What it has turned into is the antithesis of all the values and progressive understandings that black culture has had since we landed here 4 or 5 hundred years ago… It’s a “faux African-American” culture. This correlation, this conflation of hip hop culture with Barack Obama is all wrong. Barack Obama is just a brotha! I think all of us hope that the Obama Effect eclipses hip hop… The corporate conception of hip hop, when adopted by African-American youth, is an opportunity death sentence. These are my relatives and friends I’m speaking about. The aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, of hip hop is such that the opportunity they’d like to have is fated to be impossible.

Technologist and singer “Braunze” in conversation with Chris Lydon and Tricia Rose, March 24, 2009.

Podcast • March 18, 2009

Obama & Hip Hop: The Transracial Drumbeat

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age ...

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age of Obama. Add this to the open-source mix of Obama ingredients, along with the “black prophetic tradition” of church and civil-rights history:

Part of it is that sense of swagger… the confidence with which Barack Obama carries himself and the fluency he brings, across racial lines… You listen to Barack Obama’s speeches from 2004, and you hear consistently the drumbeat of the common good, a broader understanding of race.

So that dogged trans-racialism — I am not going to say that he is post-racial, because he is very much someone who takes us deeper into race, rather than away from it — defies some of the binary ideas of Black and White that a lot of black political figures over the last several generations have used to consolidate power. That is his “threat,” and maybe also a place we can see him picking up on hip-hop, a movement that has on it a clear association with black identity, but from its birth, was multi-racial, was about community across racial lines: Latinos, White hipsters of lower Manhattan coming together with hip-hoppers to create this new form.

There is a new American reality out there. We’re only starting to catch up with hip-hop in that regard. We are just catching up to where hip-hop has already been. Barack Obama manifests that.

Jay-Z has a line on that song, “My President is Black,” in which he says, “My president is black/ in fact he’s half white/ So even in a racist’s mind he’s half right/ So even if you got a racist mind its alright/ My president is black but his house is all white.” There is so much joy in that, and so much behind the correction that Jay-Z is giving to Young Jeezy’s line of “my president is black.” Adding that half-white element is so fundamental to understanding how Obama works.

A lot of people, Shelby Steele in particular, have thought about Obama as a kind of bargainer — a Bill Cosby, or better yet, a Heathcliff Huxtable for American politics in the twenty-first century: someone who is identifiably black and yet curries favor with whites, or at least makes them comfortable and unburdens them of some of their sense of guilt… I think that this misses some of what Obama does and what Obama can do in part because of his biraciality. There is a way that he has the capacity to bridge the divide, not in an artificial way of placation, but as a genuine embodiment of himself. Because he has already had to do that in his own life, his own personality.

Ralph Ellison has that phrase, “the completion of personality.” What we have seen, and we are able to witness it in [Obama’s] memoir, Dreams From My Father, in particular, is a child of mixed racial origins and a lot of mixed connections with the Black and African sides of his origin, nonetheless finding his way, stumbling his way, toward a sense of wholeness. And maybe, just maybe, he can help this country do the same thing.

Adam Bradley in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 11, 2009

Adam Bradley makes a polished case for the rough diamonds of rap and hip hop. It’s “new-school music but old-school poetry,” he says, solidly founded not only on African oral tradition, black “signifying” and word-play artists like Muhammad Ali (“the first heavyweight champion of rap”) but also on the ancient sounds of strong-stress English poetry back to Beowulf.

Bradley was raised both classical and hip: home-schooled in Salt Lake City by a grandmother who fed him Shelley and the Romantic poets; and night-schooled by a big brother who led him through town. In his Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, you can feel Bradley’s valiant drive to justify the sound of rap to two exacting influences: the queen mother of “close reading” who taught him at Harvard, Helen Vendler; and the fussiest of all authorities on jazz, Ralph Ellison, whose posthumous novel Three Days Before the Shooting Adam Bradley had a large hand in re-editing. Bradley wants to show the rest of us how to hear hip hop as, love it or not, the poetry that speaks for and about the real universal civilization of the 21st Century…

My big question is still: what’s the chance that hip hop will return to us someday as art of genius, with the majesty of Count Basie in Sweden in 1962? Or this recent rearrangement by a string quartet in Paris of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” from 1959?