Podcast • January 8, 2014

Mary Gordon on Pope Francis: Hope for Grown-Ups

Mary Gordon – a steady light among American writers labeled ‘Catholic’ – has strong, mixed emotions about the Pope who loves the same steamy Anna Magnani movies that the Catholic church used to ban. She ...

Mary Gordon – a steady light among American writers labeled ‘Catholic’ – has strong, mixed emotions about the Pope who loves the same steamy Anna Magnani movies that the Catholic church used to ban. She “burst into tears,” Gordon remembers, when she first read Pope Francis’ open-hearted interview in the Jesuit magazine America — his identification of himself as, first, “a sinner;” his picture of his church as “a field hospital after battle,” his sharp turn from “obsessive” fixations on sex. She got “hysterically giddy,” she’s telling me, then “scared.” Her tears signaled “how sad I’d been, for so long” about her church. Hope seems possible again, and disappointment, too. She makes writerly distinctions here – that “tone” matters and the Pope’s is a radical turn; but that his “diction” is different when he speaks of women in the priesthood. “His phrase was ‘the door is closed.’ What’s the one thing he won’t talk about? Giving full power to women.”

Mary Gordon is prized as independent-minded, feminist, faithful, and nuanced in novels and searching reflections from Final Payments (1978) to Reading Jesus (2009).

Mary Gordon gave us a roster of female theologians we all might get to know better: Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham,  Sandra Schneiders of Santa Clara, Lisa Cahill of Boston College, Margaret Farley at Yale and Mary Boys of the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Podcast • March 4, 2008

The Post-Imperial Historian: Eric Hobsbawm

An historian of ever widening scope, Eric Hobsbawm has been taking the long view for a very long time. His definition of the historian’s trade is: “how and why Homo sapiens got from the paleolithic ...

An historian of ever widening scope, Eric Hobsbawm has been taking the long view for a very long time. His definition of the historian’s trade is: “how and why Homo sapiens got from the paleolithic to the nuclear age.” Born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm is 90 now, but in his pungent writing and talk, the species is young, and the future is everything.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eric Hobsbawm here (34 minutes, 16 mb mp3)


Eric Hobsbawm: on the Age After Empire

We left Africa 100,000 years ago. The whole of what is usually described as ‘history’ since the invention of agriculture and cities consists of hardly more than 400 human generations or 10,000 years, a blink of the eye in geological time. Given the dramatic acceleration of the pace of humanity’s control over nature in this brief period, especially in the last ten or twenty generations, the whole of history so far can be seen to be something like an explosion of our species, a sort of bio-social supernova, into an unknown future. Let us hope it is not a catastrophic one. In the meanwhile, and for the first time, we have an adequate framework for a genuinely global history, and one restored to its proper central place, neither within the humanities nor the natural and mathematical sciences, nor separated from them, but essential to both. I wish I were young enough to take part in writing it.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his autobiography, Interesting Times, Pantheon, 2002.

In an hour’s conversation in Hobsbawm’s house in Hampstead Heath, we didn’t have time to revisit the famously exotic dimensions of his life: his quasi-religious attachment to Communism and his fascination with jazz, or the polar views of the man and his work. Link here to the loving, the venomous and the measured. Hobsbawm’s bookshelves groan with a lot of my favorite jazz tomes, like Stanley Dance’s The World of Count Basie, and Robert Gottlieb’s collection, Reading Jazz. I am sending him Arthur Taylor’s marvelous interviews with the post-Parker jazz stars through the Civil Rights revolution, Notes and Tones. But in the time we had, it seemed best to hear the crunchy numbers and sweeping authority that are acknowledged from all points of the history profession — not least from his young opposite number, the neo-imperialist Niall Ferguson .

I asked him to speak of the themes in his pithy new book: On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy. I said it’s still mysterious to me that Tony Blair and long post-imperial Britain followed President Bush and the United States into Iraq.

CL: What does that war mean for the UK, the US, for the future of hegemony?

EH: The interesting thing about the Iraq war is that unlike the first gulf war, unlike even the first American intervention after 911 in Afghanistan, it has no common support, at all. Overwhelmingly most countries were against it, and the others were skeptical. With the single exception of Great Britain. Great Britain I think has been tied to the United States ever since, I think, its own status as a nuclear power became dependent effectively on the American supplies, and ever since its status as an international power became dependent effectively on access to American technical intelligence. And I think that’s one major reason why they felt they couldn’t possibly break. That doesn’t explain why we had to rush into it, devote an enormous amount of our energies and military force, and reputation. After all … when L. B. Johnson asked our Prime Minister Wilson to send the Black Watch to Vietnam, he refused to do it. Very quietly. He kept on repeating how totally in favor he was of the Americans, but he didn’t do anything. Unlke Blair. Blair rushed in, because I think he loved the idea of being as it were a deputy imperial power. And let’s make no mistake about it: he also thought somehow or other, there needed to be Western force which somehow controlled the disorder in the world — which is no longer controllable by anybody in the old 19th Century imperial way. That’s the thing to remember.

CL: And why not?

EH: The Iraq war has shown it but not only the Iraq war. Things like Darfur — where nowadays you say you need at least 26,000 troops simply to watch over the whole thing. The basic fact is that the populations of the world are no longer prepared to accept power as something that is authentic and authoritative. Imperialism in the old days was based on the assumption that quite small groups of people armed with high tech could establish themselves and be accepted, like it or not by millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. Partly because power is there, and poor people have lived under power all the time. One or two exceptions — places like Afghanistan or Kurdistan, where nobody liked power, states or any kind of thing, never did and don’t now. But there was that, and at the same time also there was the possiblity of making alliances with locals who wanted modernization, which in those days meant Westernization. It doesn’t mean Westernization any more, and the power has gone and the willingness to accept the power has gone.

CL: We’re reminded that the British ran India with a civil service smaller than the welfare department of New York City.

EH: Once the Indians stopped accepting the fact that British Raj, the British domination, was as legitimate as any other conquerer that had ever been there and established their power, that was the end of the British Empire.

CL: Has the Iraq war moved the center in the world and has it changed the agenda of the new century?

EH: Well, it has in the sense that it makes the enormous military force and the enormous military technological superiority of the United States (unprecedented and really unlikely to be equalled by anybody within the reasonable future) it makes it irrelevent, because it doesn’t really help. What could you do? You could easily capture lots of Baghdads. What would happen then? We know what happened when we captured Baghdad. We know what happened after we captured Kabul. Several years after that, thirty percent of Afghanistan is under the vague control of somebody who came in then, by us. And the rest is not under control. So what’s the use of having this particular superiority? You cannot do it without a political base.

CL: Does the rise of China and does the rising wealth and numbers of an expanding Europe fill the gap?

EH: Europe doesn’t fill the gap. Europe in the broad sense belongs to the part of the world which no longer actually reproduces itself demographically, and therefore relies very largely on immigration. But basically speaking Europe is no longer — I mean, it has enormous assets and it is an economy which is as big as the United States; actually at this very moment the average British income, share of the GDP per person, is higher than the United States, which was last the case, I think, in 1890 — but the fact is: Europe is itself, apart from being a large cultural and above all economic unit, is not a major international political and military unit. The United States relies, I think, on the one thing which is unique for the United States, namely its military power. But that’s the one which is limited and there’s not very much you can do with it, short of bombing the world to bits. And there’s no sense in that. And in fact once a sensible American government comes back, they will get back to the position of, say, J. F. Kennedy who knew right from the beginning that bombing the world to bits was no solution for anything.

Eric Hobsbawm, in conversation with Chris Lydon, at his home in London, February 28, 2008.

When my recorder and I suddenly needed a pair of double-A batteries, Eric Hobsbawm jumped up and found them in his hardware drawer. And when he spoke briefly about the Internet’s penetration of culture and consciousness in little more than a decade, I realized the man is as modern as tomorrow. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.

Podcast • November 30, 2007

"This was the worst war ever" Ken Burns

William James: the mind of Pragmatism …modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors ...
wm james

William James: the mind of Pragmatism

…modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make 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 us. [Emphasis added]

History is a bath of blood. The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen.

William James, The Moral Equivalent of War, a speech at Stanford University, 1906,

There’s something wrong with you if you’re not transfixed by Ken Burns’ version of World War II — the gallantry of the “melting pot” in combat, the industrial genius and shared sacrifice at home. But there’s something wrong with you if you’re not troubled by this telling, too. Why — as I ask Ken Burns in this conversation — after 60 years and the movie Saving Private Ryan, plus Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and Studs Terkel’s The Good War among the best-selling books… why do we still hunger to hear again how good we are, or were? Why the mind-numbing stress on the American effort and American victory when our casualties were less than four percent of the allied losses? Why is the ratio of Russian to American dead in the war against Hitler such an obscure statistic? (Cold War historian John Gaddis of Yale put the imbalance at 90 to 1.) Furthermore, if our nostalgia watching Burns’ World War II is not just rose-colored swing-jazz sentiment but real longing for republican virtue, why aren’t we forced to ask ourselves: where did we lose it, and how might we get it back? Rest assured that the hugely gifted and mindful Ken Burns is equal to all my questions. In his anti-ironic earnestness, the exemplary filmmaker felt many of my misgivings long before I did. And he was ready, before we finished, to answer William James’ point straightforwardly.

Ken Burns

Ken Burns: the mind of PBS’s The War

We do acknowledge this paradox of war. It is, you know, absolutely frustrating in that [war] is compelling as well as horrific, but we can arm ourselves with the danger. Would you give up and not paint Guernica? Would you not show what it is like because it wouldn’t work? …So let us not stop bearing witness to what takes place. Let us not stop organizing that material into some coherent narrative that suggests the possibility that we might mitigate or check that seemingly natural inclination toward the bellicose, toward the pugnacious. And that’s — I’m sorry to say, in some ways — the best we can hope for.

Ken Burns, documentarian of The War, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the First Parish Church, Cambridge. October 23,2007,