This Week's Show •

Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words ...

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words have become the rallying cries for a new rising generation—in film, in music, and in the press.

Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, sees Baldwin as a mirror on American life:

He went really deep into what the society is, you know, and he was the only one who was able to formulate it in a way that a scholar of course would understand it but also the man in the streets would understand it in a way where he could be very critical to the white liberal but without pushing them away. But he found a way to put every one of us, whether black or white, in front of the reality. He put a mirror in front of us in a way that you can’t look away.

Teju Cole views the Baldwin of today as a master aphorist: a pithy prophet well-suited to the twitter age and “the go-to quote factory of those who are woke”. On a deeper level, Cole finds kinship in Baldwin’s transnational sense of self.  Cole guides us through his own pilgrimage to Leukerbad, Switzerland—the remote town where Baldwin composed his seminal essay “Stranger in the Village”:

The essay I ended up writing about this journey to Leukerbad became also a kind of exercise in Baldwinian form … I deeply love the essay that he wrote about being there, and in my essay, which I call “Black Body,” I wanted to think about what it meant to inhabit somebody else’s space. I was inhabiting his space and, in a sense in the essay, I was inhabiting his prose style. … it was conscious to allow that to happen, to allow the visceral effect of being there as he was there, walking the streets as he walked the streets, to let all of that come through and still have it be analytical.

Cornel West reminds us of Baldwin’s unpopularity, and his nagging truth-telling habit that alienated him, in later years, from the white liberal media professional who first popularized his work, as well as from the radical black nationalists. But for Brother West, this outsider truth-teller “was really a kind of Democratic saint, if you define a saint as a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart.”

“He was heartbroken.” Cornel says, “America broke his heart, day in and day out.”

And Ed Pavlic, author of Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, hears in Baldwin’s words echoes of the black musicians Baldwin dearly loved – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson et al. Above all else though, Pavlic reminds us of Baldwin’s deep love for Ray Charles, highlighting the concert Baldwin and Charles organized together at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1973 Newport Folk Festival.

 

Illustrations by Susan Coyne. This program was originally broadcast February 2017.

 

 

June 2, 2016

Sex and Safety on Campus

For decades now, we’ve worried about an epidemic of sexual assault and un-safety at American colleges and universities. But there’s a question of whether, amid the familiar panic and new paperwork, we’ve made real progress toward solving ...

For decades now, we’ve worried about an epidemic of sexual assault and un-safety at American colleges and universities.

But there’s a question of whether, amid the familiar panic and new paperwork, we’ve made real progress toward solving the problem.

Consider the numbers at Harvard as they appeared in a report last year:

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Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk begins the show with a provocative statement. In an article co-written with her colleague and husband Jacob Gersen, Suk faults universities for overcompensating, after years of neglect, on matters of sexual safety by built a paranoid atmosphere and a self-defensive “sex bureaucracy.”

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On the phone, Alexandra Brodsky is one of the activists who saw to it that victims of sexual assault used the Title IX provision to involve the government in what used to be purely academic proceedings (which often produced no results).

This week she graduated from Yale Law School, but she’s still looking for ways to fine-tune the public resolution of sex claims on campus. Most recently, Brodsky proposed turning toward the “restorative justice” model put to work in South Africa, Germany, and Rwanda—an honest and possibly healing confrontation of victim and accused.

Beneath this and all sexual matters, of course there are hidden questions of selves, of gender, of privilege and bias—of what young people want and need. The writer-historian Moira Weigel discusses the socialization of women and the rise of dating (she just wrote a book about it), and the journalist Caitlin Flanagan, who nailed fraternities last year in The Atlantic, arrives to provide some wisdom.

And finally, it’s worth noting that the latest wave of the sexual-violence campaign arrives in a broader conversation about student safety, comfort and inclusion at schools. The New Yorker‘s Nathan Heller just captured the Oberlin version, but David Bromwich joins us to consider the ramifications of safety beyond the realm of sexuality.

What kind of safety are campus activists asking for? What kind can enormous, expensive universities provide? And what does the reworking of rules, patterns, and expectations on campus foretell for the world at large?

October 14, 2015

Women After Prison

Two weeks ago, we spoke to incarcerated men reentering society about lives full of panic and the hard road ahead. But women are the news of mass incarceration right now — so we’re following up. ...

Two weeks ago, we spoke to incarcerated men reentering society about lives full of panic and the hard road ahead. But women are the news of mass incarceration right now — so we’re following up.

Compared to 1980, seven or eight times as many mothers, sisters and daughters are serving time in American prisons — they’re the fastest-growing sector of that enormous population. More than a million American women are under the control of our penal system now: mostly on probation but including more than a hundred thousand behind bars right now. 

Netflix’s series, Orange Is The New Black, has turned the incarceration of women into a headline by representing it as half-tragic and half-comic world, a M*A*S*H for the present moment, in which the women are menaced by male guards and plagued by addiction and mental illness, but keep on cracking jokes — saved by sisterhood and occasional sex.

Some of that may be true, though our guest, the formerly incarcerated activist Andrea James, wants to remind us that this particular problem isn’t especially funny. The others, Denise Lewis and Wanda Luna, speak of a heaviness in women’s prison: the pain of separation from children and partners. And women carry a battery of preexisting problems with them into lockup: a history of bad mental and physical health (often untreated), records of domestic violence, and near-universal substance abuse.

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On top of that, only about 1 in 3 women is locked up because of a violent crime, compared to more than half of incarcerated men, leading James to argue that women, for the most part, are locked up for “hurting themselves.”

With the former newscaster and minister Liz Walker, we’re listening to three local women tell personal stories of trauma, abuse and separation, and to consider the gender gap in incarceration.

 

 

October 8, 2015

Demonic Males

What if Barack Obama — once a troubled young man, by his own admission — came to see the violence problems vexing the end of his administration, as male problems? One week after Christopher Harper Mercer killed ...

What if Barack Obama — once a troubled young man, by his own admission — came to see the violence problems vexing the end of his administration, as male problems?

One week after Christopher Harper Mercer killed nine people and himself at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, we’re working toward a different viewpoint on the crisis.

And it is a crisis: a recent CRS report found that between 1999 and 2013 in America, there have been 314 mass shootings that have claimed more than 1,500 lives. As for the killer, there’s a type: 98% of them were committed by men — the average age is 28. And as violent crime drops, this kind of killing is on the rise according to research done at Harvard:

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When we think about mass killings, we think of Dylann Roof’s massacre in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic killing spree in Santa Barbara. James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater, and Adam Lanza killed 26 in an elementary school. We call them ‘loners’ living on the internet, amateur extremists. Sometimes they’re mentally ill, sometimes they’re enabled by a promiscuous gun culture akin to idolatry. (Meanwhile, there are Chicago neighborhoods with homicide rates higher than those in Honduras, the murder capital of the world.)

But what if we claimed them as sons, of our families, our country, our sex (for 49% of us), and of our species? That’s where our guest Andrew Solomon, the writer and psychologist, begins in his book, Far From The Tree. He has embedded with several of the families of mass shooters — first with Tom and Sue Klebold, then with Peter Lanza, father to the Newtown killer:

Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia, points out that many young men are asocial and unhappy, spend too much time online, become video-game addicts—but cause no harm. The few dangerous ones are impossible to identify. “Even if we knew who they were or were likely to be, whether they’d actually accept treatment is an open question. Among the hardest people to engage in treatment are young males who may be angry, suspicious, and socially isolated. Coming to a therapist’s office for an hour a week just to pour their heart out doesn’t seem like a particularly attractive opportunity, in general.”

Solomon writes up the element of mystery in the personal decision to commit violence, and still acknowledges the trends. You can hear a longer version of our conversation with him here:

The mass shooting is a distinctly American phenomenon, so much so that The Onion has made a dark, running joke of it. But the male pattern applies elsewhere: Åsne Seierstad once told us the story of Norway’s resident mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, a 33-year-old Warcraft obsessive who became the deadliest of them all one day in 2011.

Meanwhile, the average of the 9/11 hijackers was 26, Latin America is overrun by young men in gangs, and ISIS has welcomed 30,000 new recruits — mostly angry young men drawn down from Europe, Asia, and the countries of the Persian Gulf.

The primatologist Richard Wrangham will take us back to our origins, to the moment in evolutionary history when what he calls “demonic males” emerged in our hominid ancestors. We still see troops of male chimps launch bloody territorial ambushes. What should we see in that other world?

So with Solomon, Wrangham, doctor-anthropologist Melvin Konner and sociologist Michael Kimmel, we’ll ask whether the roots of our violence lie in our genes, our guns, or our guys — and what we can do to pacify the unfair sex.

Podcast • October 19, 2011

Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes: a Porniad

How quaint, just months ago, talking with Nicholson Baker about his inside-poetry novel, The Anthologist, to suppose his idle moments were consumed with Swinburne’s rhymes and the march time of Kipling’s four-beat lines. In truth ...

How quaint, just months ago, talking with Nicholson Baker about his inside-poetry novel, The Anthologist, to suppose his idle moments were consumed with Swinburne’s rhymes and the march time of Kipling’s four-beat lines. In truth the happy horndog inside this sportive, omnidirectional, irresistible prose guy was fantasizing a sex theme park, a House of Holes, and compiling a new book of Bakerisms to name the moving parts in the park: “his united parcel,” “her snatch patch,” “his Pollock,” “her shimmering chickenshack,” “his pulsing hellhound” and her ecstatic scream: “Ice my cake, dickboys. I want to feel like a breakfast pastry.” And then, when the tipping point arrives, “his Malcolm Gladwell.”

But then how clever of Nicholson Baker to have sensed the opening, or found the island, in the tsunami of Internet porn for no-fault sex as sunny and funny as he is — “good porn,” so to speak, which to Baker’s taste is kinky but consensual; it’s all hetero, but “almost hermaphroditic” in its relentless fairness to the female POV. It says something about the culture or about Baker’s gift that he has finessed the feminist objection. The Marquis de Sade let his imagination run and found immortality in that nasty word “sadism.”

John Updike, no matter the lyricism of his explorations, was tagged a “phallocrat” and worse. But when Nicholson Baker blows the wad of his imagination in House of Holes, Katie Roiphe volunteers over lunch to “protect” him; she’d never imagined sitting in a restaurant “with someone as decent and thoughtful and gentlemanly as Nicholson Baker.” Elaine Blair in the New York Review of Books says House of Holes lives in “a magic circle of wholesomeness.” She concluded it would be salutary for her kids, and yours, to read it: “House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur. You can be sure that no matter what scene your children are masturbating to, they are not objectifying women. But you will have to make sure that they accidentally stumble on it soon, before they find the Internet, if they are to have a fighting chance at being wholesome and delightful fuckers instead of hopelessly depraved ones like yourself.” Janet Maslin likes it, too.

Our conversation may be your only chance to hear Nick Baker read from House of Holes, a book of raunch, which wasn’t written for the radio circuit. Listen carefully and you can hear him blushing. And laughing. And defending “my sacred Faulknerian duty,” as he said “to put it on the page. And I did.”

We’ve all got these layers of self, and a period where you think, well, I’m just going to give myself over to whatever it is — to learning how to drive, or drawing a tree, or the history of war. But there are just times of your life where you think well, I’m just really going to think really hard about, I’m really going to fill my mind with the most graphic, interesting sexual imagery I can possibly find, I’m going to really go overboard with that. At least that’s what happens to me. Isn’t the job of a novelist to be true to all of these different rooms in the house of fiction? All these different places? All those things happen, so isn’t the job of the novelist to include them all, and to kind of confront everyone with the fact that life that is confusingly kaleidoscopic?

Nicholson Baker with Chris Lydon at Upstairs on the Square, Cambridge, MA. October 2011.