Rank #1: Billionaire Noir
The most honored movie of the year looks to be Parasite, from Korea, about the soul-crushing advance of mega-wealth and the heartbreak of poor people with a dream of catching up. From the Pacific Rim, that is, it’s a movie that mirrors us! At the same time, from Hollywood, the hot HBO series is Succession: all about cruelty, greed, and family power-games under a vulgar tycoon who won’t let go of his company. The family name might have been Murdoch, Corleone, Trump. Alongside our Impeachment drama, it’s pop-culture, screen culture, that’s telling an under-story of concentrated wealth; the lost confidence in middle-class life and a regular people’s democracy.
Parasite’s a faraway mirror of what you know instantly is our American condition, too—maybe a universal affliction of yawning gaps in class and wealth and entitlement—in a financial order owned by an almost speechless, maybe clueless one percent. This is, we know, impeachment time in Washington and the news business. We’re picking up instead on the understory told in screen culture: In the case of Parasite, the story’s more interesting for mixing movie genres: this is a social comedy of two families before it turns sour and then sharply into a horror show. The story is told more in sadness than anger, and it leaves viewers with innumerable angles to replay and reflect on for days.
Nov 15 2019
Rank #2: Lovecraft Country
H. P. Lovecraft’s frightful horror fiction—dated between Edgar Allan Poe’s and Stephen King’s—is the weirdest of the weird. Lovecraft found ravenous, man-eating rats in the walls and foundations of our houses, and in our hearts and dreams just as creepily. For Halloween readers, he gave us ocean monsters the size of mountains; also, slippery scaly fish-people, flipping, flopping, and talking their way down the streets of Lovecraft’s favorite coastal towns near witchy Salem and the north of New England. There’s an idea in these stories—about human ignorance in an evil sea of telepathic enemies. There’s an open landscape, too, where horror fiction is growing a new crop.
Joyce Carol Oates (Credit: Dustin Cohen).
Paul La Farge (Credit: Carol Shadford).
Matt Ruff (Credit: Lisa Gold).
Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Credit: Martin Dee).
If you’re sensing something ancient, cosmically vast, inescapable and frightening this Halloween season, you may be catching a Lovecraftian breeze. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a lonely, near-reclusive child of Providence, Rhode Island, who felt intimations of mind-melting infinity in New England of the twenties and thirties. The coast north of Boston inspired him with Gothic ideas, which he dished out in stories long and short for pulp magazines, thrilling readers who visited his mythical sites like Arkham, Miskatonic University, and Innsmouth—a fictional universe terrorized by creatures like Cthulhu, the ocean monster so complexly described that he cannot be pictured. Lovecraft specialized in such things: colors of no color, minerals not found on earth, languages that can’t be pronounced, and of course an unreadable and uncaring universe, “formed in fright,” as Melville put it speculatively. In Lovecraftian horror, the bleakness is doctrine.
Nov 01 2019
Rank #3: Toni Morrison
We’ve been reflecting on Toni Morrison and her legacy, and so we’re thinking of Chris’s interview with her back on The Connection. Here from our archives is that interview, which was occasioned by Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise. The talk ranged from religion to painting to American language; among many unforgettable moments, there’s Morrison’s description of radio’s influence on her early literary imagination. She describes
“being allowed to imagine, being a radio child, listening to stories in my family, where you have to work, you have to imagine the colors, the sets, the scenes—it was not delivered to you the way it is in movies and television. They insisted that we tell stories as children, so we got into the habit of trying to present and perform them.”
Sep 04 2019
Rank #4: Africa, Maine
Migrants from the Congo and Angola, by way of Texas, stepping off buses in Portland, Maine, by the hundreds, taking shelter and sleeping on cots on a hardwood floor built for professional basketball? You’ve seen or heard the news, and you’ve felt the reflexes that come with it. On Fox News, Africans coming to Maine can sound like an invasion; on public radio, people say, it can sound like a sob story. Is this immigration politics at play: somebody in Washington taking revenge on refugees and the shelter cities that would embrace them? For sure it’s a preview of the mobile twenty-first century: a global flow of humanity driven north to green trees and high ground by heat, drought, war, and poverty.
You don’t see what you hear, as the lady told us. We went to Portland, Maine, this week to meet newcomers from Central Africa, Angolans and Congolese asking for U.S. asylum. Fox News hit the panic button two weeks ago: their line was that Maine is being overrun, inundated by African migrants. On a long day in Portland, however, we found nobody sounding scared. Around the pro basketball arena where the asylum seekers are quartered, the air is one of quiet elation.
Jun 28 2019
Rank #5: Who Killed the American Century?
Richard Holbrooke makes a case study in American power. He had a diplomatic career, starting in Vietnam, of heroic ambition and hyperactive persistence. He had a peace-making triumph that ended the Balkan wars, then a humbling failure on an impossible mission to Afghanistan. This was a large life that reflected his large country abroad after World War 2: we were over-confident, over-reaching, idealistic maybe, self-serving for sure. A new heavyweight biography implicates all of us: George Packer calls Holbrooke “Our Man,” who marked the early end of the American Century. For man and nation the question may come down to this: how much wreckage and death can be forgiven for good intentions?
Richard Holbrooke was the US diplomat who nominated himself for a Nobel Peace Prize for settling the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and didn’t get it. Man and mindset, Holbrooke is still a cautionary figure, a sort of living argument in the annals of American power. He bestrode the world for almost 50 years as if he was the American century. A big new biography takes the other view, especially of the mindset: that the relentless projection of American power, the projection of Holbrooke himself, mark in hindsight the end of our glory days. In a conversation in my living room this episode, we’re getting a taste of the argument with George Packer, who’s written the history of Richard Holbrooke in the form almost of a novel. The title is Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. The decorated historian Fredrik Logevall is sitting in and speaking up on the making of war and peace and the writing of biography.
Jun 14 2019
Rank #6: Tech-Master Disaster: Part One
The late Jeffrey Epstein stands for at least three levels of mystery: the man himself, a boastful sex offender, convicted of preying on under-age women; second, there’s his money machine and its unsavory connections with celebrity science and the high ground of education; and third, just surfacing: the mindset, the Epstein mentality that fed on fantasies of re-fathering the human race, making himself immortal, defeating death—not so far from the wildest dreams of techno-futurism: extended lifetimes, edited genomes, cryonic resurrections, reincarnation. All of it draws on ancient dreams of humankind but it’s now top-of- the-agenda in the industrial-strength biological, genetic sciences.
There’s trouble in the magic Kingdom of Advanced Computation, and the late Jeffrey Epstein leads us to it. This hour is one man’s critical overview of the kingdom and its landscape. Silicon is its valley, its production center out west. The Media Lab at MIT has been high ground of ideas on the east coast. WIRED is the magazine of the realm; TED talks are its showcase. It’s a kingdom of masterful men—names like Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates, and Kurzweil. And it has its own code of intelligence, called AI, A for Artificial. It has its high priests like Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab in 1985 and of WIRED magazine in 1993. Linkages are tight and loyalty is firm to some central ideas, above all that technology is good for everybody. If it can’t fix a problem, it can transform it—even ultimate challenges of life and death. This kingdom of computation has had it rogue financiers, like the late Jeffrey Epstein. And it has its dissenters, too. Our guest this hour is eminent among those critical insiders: the writer-historian Evgeny Morozov.
Sep 13 2019
Rank #7: Impeach This
The impeachment treatment for Donald Trump looks already an ultimate fighting contest with a nasty guy who makes up his own rules. We’re thinking it through this hour. Do you credit Nancy Pelosi with a leap of faith that there’s a way to rescue dignity, clarity, and a win by taking a clown-circus presidency with a cage brawl? Is there a Colin Powell doctrine for this sort of politics? Doesn’t the impeachment team need a clear, attainable objective in this battle and an exit strategy before it starts? However it ends for the elite political class, what about the people’s worries that run older and deeper than Donald Trump: climate change; social breakdown; worsening inequality; and a lot of bad wars.
The impeachment season has opened, and as we were supposed to know all along, it was never designed as an orderly court battle at law. It’s about politics, survival, and media war, virtually without rules, that takes the slanging tone of Trump up a notch, from a bad circus to mixed martial arts. The Marquis of Queensbury is looking away. President Trump is raising the insult level at what he calls “low life” Democrats and “stone-cold crooked” Bidens, father and son. And he’s raising his bet that he can’t be blamed for digging political dirt on Joe Biden in Ukraine; he said out loud he’d do it all again, asking China for dirt to match.
Oct 04 2019
Rank #8: Tarantino’s 9th
Spoiler alert! (Really.) The big movie to reckon with this summer may be as much about the mood of 2019 as about the Helter-Skelter 1960s. It’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth big film, with a surprise streak of fantasy and mercy in it. He’s revising the course of events of 50 summers ago, when a revolutionary tension in the Los Angeles dream factory broke, or got broken into, by the murderous Manson family, when the beautiful and pregnant Sharon Tate and four more got slaughtered. Joan Didion in a famous essay at the time marked it the end of the Sixties, the crash of peace and love. Tarantino’s had time to re-imagine it as an actor’s story—many shades of manhood and morality in an air of everyday madness.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is many things, but let’s start with two. First, it’s a meticulous reconstruction of Los Angeles in the 1960s—sunlight angling through smog, the game faces of white guys, their lingo, their cars, and car radios, their hair, their self-pity—all at the moment of the Manson murders in Benedict Canyon: August 9, 1969. At the same time the movie’s a flight of fancy into an alternative ending for a horror story, yet another take on violence from the bloody-minded moralist Tarantino. Back in 1969, a “demented and seductive vortex of tension was building” in Hollywood, Didion wrote: “the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full.” And when the shocking news of midnight murder in the hills was confirmed, what she remembered—and wished she didn’t—was that “no one was surprised.” There’s the context of 1969 in which Quentin Tarantino has placed his own invention, a buddy flick with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt cast as a downwardly mobile actor and his stunt-man sidekick. There’s propulsive energy and fun in this movie, and a strange beauty, too.
Aug 09 2019
Rank #9: 23 and You
The Democratic debates are going to feel like a long weekend with the whole extended family: grandfather figures banging the table, no-nonsense women in the clan taking the old guys to task; up-start kids you never met before demanding respect for their issues, too. The crowded format matches the lightning strikes in the age of social media: each of 20 candidates will hope to get ten minutes of talk and face time in these 2-hour bouts. But it begins to look less like a demolition derby than a board meeting, spanning Vermont to Hawaii, in search of a new center of gravity for a party that’s got to get it right this time—on climate, for example, and inequality, and the forever war.
In the Democratic debates starting Tuesday, we’ll be looking at a wide-angle portrait of a political class in recovery. It’s an astonishingly big field of 20-plus candidates—23 and you, we’re calling them. 23 varieties of the how-I-got-here immigrant story, from 14 states of the union. Seven candidates have served in the U.S. Senate; one in the Vice President’s office; six are women. The 58-year-old mayor of New York City is trailing the 38-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Before these Democrats debate, our guests this hour are speaking to all of them.
Jun 21 2019
Rank #10: John Bolton’s War?
Three guys walk into a bar in the Middle East. A Saudi: bin Salman. An Israeli called Bibi. An American—call him Donald. They all know one thing deeper than deep: they hated that nuclear deal with Iran, and now they’ve trashed it. They didn’t like that Obama guy, either, who sold the deal. It’s Iran that clings to the no-nukes deal, maybe just for the standing that comes with it in Europe and China; maybe it’s Iran’s dignity in the deal that the three guys hate most. None want to own a real war with Iran. But think about it: what might they do in a winking alliance, together? Like: outsource the scary war talk to that fourth guy, with the mustache?
National Security Advisor John Bolton.
We’ve seen a lot of this movie before, have we not? The crackling threats to punish unproven charges: it was weapons of mass destruction the last time; now it’s some unverified damage to tanker traffic, maybe. Again, the case is being made for a war of choice, by a pick-up “coalition of the willing”—this time, it would be an alliance of Sunni Arabs with the US and Israel, against Iran. Out front beating the war drum is the man with the mustache, John Bolton, who’s always loved “regime change” for Iran, who still defends the Iraq War, and who now runs the national security desk for President Trump, dropping phrases like “unrelenting force” against Iran if Iran should threaten or damage us. Part of what’s familiar in the picture is that Congress is largely out of the loop and the sovereign people are not in on the argument. A lot of what you can hear on the news is circus stuff, like the President’s lawyer, the sometime Mayor of America, Rudolph Giuliani, chanting, “Regime change!”
May 17 2019
Rank #11: The CIA’s Covert Chemist
We’re at home with Stephen Kinzer, the longtime reporter of secret U.S. operations in books like Overthrow and All the Shah’s Men. In a new book, Poisoner in Chief, Kinzer looks at a scientist named Sidney Gottlieb and the notorious “mind control” CIA program he led, MK-ULTRA.
Kinzer’s portrait induces the feeling of a bad trip: We’ve been to a completely different zone we know is there, but we can’t believe. He’s introducing us to the man who brought LSD into this world. Gottlieb’s experiments may have been responsible in part for Billie Holiday’s death, and putting Whitey Bulger on a two-year LSD regimen. At the CIA, Gottlieb was involved with assassination attempts of Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. There are resonances of James Bond and Doctor Strangelove. Or maybe Josef Mengele.
“This is the first time I’ve been shocked by something I discovered in writing a book. I’m still getting over my shock from the process of learning who this Sidney Gottlieb was,” Kinzer told us. “I now conclude he was the most powerful unknown American of the twentieth century.”
And if you can, give us a tip over on Patreon—and thanks!
Photo illustration by Conor Gillies, photo courtesy of the author.
Oct 01 2019
Rank #12: Russiagate, Unredacted
A second chance for Mueller Report to pin a Russian tale on Donald Trump’s election has not changed the score. “Game over,” said Mr. Trump, still president and not about to be indicted for whatever help he got from Russia, or for trying to deep-six the official investigation – largely because the ‘yes’ men on his staff said ‘no’ to his orders to fire the special prosecutor. Call it Trump luck or Democratic fantasy that un-did the Russiagate trap. 2020 reelection politics starts here, and Donald Trump has a stronger narrative than before: he’ll be the guy now who was spied on back in Obama time, and set up for a deep-state coup after election by rogue FBI and CIA, not to mention the failing New York Times, and he beat them.
The hard news of the long-form Mueller Reports seems to be the abundant testimony that Donald Trump ardently and persistently wanted and tried to kill the Russiagate investigation and fire its special prosecutor, but that his henchmen refused to execute the orders that would have turned his wishes into crimes. There would be no “Saturday Night Massacre” this time, said his disobedient White House counsel Don McGahn, referencing the cover-up that killed Richard Nixon’s presidency. And there would be no act of obstruction in the Trump case, so no indictment for it. 448 pages seem to have changed nothing: we have a runaway regime under a triumphant rogue who has slipped the noose yet again. And we still don’t quite know how this “very stable genius,” in his phrase, gets away with it. Or anybody else who could do what he’s doing. The soldier / scholar Andrew Bacevich is here to argue as Pogo did: we have met the enemy and he is us. David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, is with us to parse language of combat and commentary. But we begin with the lawyer’s lawyer, Seth Berman, with the Boston firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish, sometime Federal prosecutor with the famous Robert Morgenthau in New York, and in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, too.
What went wrong in the Mueller crusade?
Apr 19 2019
Rank #13: Middlemarch at the Beach
Middlemarch, a novel by the woman who gave herself a man’s by-line, “George Eliot,” may be the most honored masterpiece you’ve been avoiding all your life. Here’s the point: read it this summer. You’re ready to love Middlemarch if you second-guess marriages, like your own; second-marriages, too. You’re ready to read Middlemarch if you want to feel epic striving in a heroine, yearning for nobility of spirit in a pretty ordinary province of England around 1830. You’re ready to read Middlemarch if you want to feel force and beauty in an artist’s process in fiction, step by step, as she writes it. You’re ready to read Middlemarch if you want to test Henry James’s famous premise that the art of the best fiction “makes life, makes interest, makes importance.”
For high beach-reading season, here’s the one-hour case for Middlemarch – some say the best of all English novels, the furthest from Twitter-speak: as invented a universe as Star Wars, inside a Jane Austen period piece. But Middlemarch becomes a pulsing, bickering, blooming world, and you’ll swear you’re inside it, in real time. It’s an animated tapestry of a smallish English city around 1830; a living web of human foibles, temperaments, longings, and lapses, two strikingly bad marriages before our eyes, and two great ones. Middlemarch is the rare instance of fiction that could improve your life and could frame your own lifetime as a novel.
Jul 19 2019
Rank #14: Tech-Master Disaster: Part Three
Take a walk through Kendall Square, Cambridge, this hour. It’s the Emerald City of biotechnology—as magical/mysterious as the Land of Oz, but it’s real, too. The new tech of genomic medicine, re-engineering life in wet labs, has brought a new frontier of work and wealth back from suburbia. Kendall Square is an urban ecosystem: pricey new real estate, rising higher every day on the edge of MIT and the Charles River, a mecca for the DNA generation of bio-scientists. It was born of both science and science fiction. Fun fact: novelist Michael Crichton dreamed up his Jurassic Park in Kendall Square in the mid ’80s. Scientists are enacting his fantasy of a re-creation, but they may have forgotten Crichton’s warnings about it.
Richard Attenborough as John Hammond in Jurassic Park.
Kendall Square can be taken as a model of the smart-city boomtown. The question this hour is: how did it sprout, and what keeps it sprouting? For whom? And how did the Jurassic Park novelist Michael Crichton seem to feel Kendall Square coming, 30 years ago? Wasn’t he warning his readers and moviegoers to beware? Kendall Square is, in effect, a bio-science park: hundreds of companies and labs focused on the future in genomic medicine, meaning healthcare through reading and tweaking your DNA. Just one subway stop from the world-famous Massachusetts General Hospital, Kendall Square models the “entrepreneurial” university with MIT, along with “medical science as business.”
Sep 27 2019
Rank #15: Amazing Aretha
Aretha Franklin made you believe you were hearing both heaven and earth. Her voice was not of this world: it was “a gift of God,” people have said. She was the reason women want to sing, said Mary J. Blige, who covered Aretha hits. James Baldwin said the way Aretha sings is “the way I want to write.” Our guest Ed Pavlić calls her voice a Hubble telescope, taking us back to the origin of time and truth.
She stands in an improvised church in Watts, Los Angeles in the troubled time of 1972, a shy woman with the blessed assurance that her people—which could mean all of us—needed a song, and a singer. Amazing Grace became the album of her lifetime (and the most popular gospel album ever)—reborn this year, on film, in a new documentary.
Aretha Franklin and the Southern California Community Choir. Courtesy of Neon.
Franklin was an institution through five decades, one of that handful of mega-stars we thought we knew. But we were wrong. We knew the rights-minded daughter of the radio preacher from Detroit who walked the fine line between church gospel and secular soul music and had a hundred danceable hits on both sides of the line. She sang opera, too, subbing for Pavarotti, no less, on a moment’s notice. And she sang “My country, ‘tis of thee” at Barack Obama’s inauguration.
But now, in the year after her death, the new movie feels like revelation: it’s Aretha at age 29, live with a church choir, coming home to the songs of her girlhood. But we’re hearing her differently because we can see her: a performing artist looking more like a prophet in her own right.
We’re joined by Reverend William Barber, Shana Redmond, and Wesley Morris.
May 03 2019
Rank #16: Beyond Stonewall: From Power to Pride
The Stonewall Uprising, fifty years ago, was chapter one in modern LGBTQ history. It was rough and ready in New York. It was sexy and often celebratory in the San Francisco version. In Boston, true to character, gay struggle was thoughtful, wordy, networked, and momentous (in writing the first gay marriage law in 2004). Everywhere, the LGBTQ cause was older, wider, and deeper than we knew, in working classes and elites. Nineteenth-century Boston, after all, had put a name on the Boston Marriage of single ladies. Cruising culture was stratified—not the same on Boston Common as on the Public Garden, by the swan-boats. Gay or thought-to-be-gay politicians got reelected in Massachusetts, before a word was spoken. On this episode, a fresh look back.
Stonewall, fifty years ago, is a marker in modern memory—more nearly a million markers in conflicting memories. The Rashomon Effect is the rule post-Stonewall: no two eye-witnesses had seen the same event. Did the pitched battle in a mob-run gay bar in Manhattan, between fed-up patrons and city cops, really happen? Were women, black, and Latino militants in the forefront? Have any two people experienced the same Sexual Revolution over the last half-century? And was the effect of it all inclusion: to normalize once-forbidden behavior in gay marriage, for example? Or was the effect disruption and liberation: to radicalize all thinking about sex, gender, and society? The arguments are still alive, and they’re not all in New York. We’re digging up the Stonewall years and beyond in New England for this episode, with people who lived them in range of Boston.
To continue your own adventure into this history, we recommend taking a look at Mark Krone’s excellent blog, “Boston Queer History,” which tells the Boston LGBTQ story across decades, drawing from a rich archive.
The Punch Bowl in Park Square. From The History Project Bar Collection. Courtesy of The History Project: Boston’s LGBTQ Archive. Historyproject.org
Here’s Mark Krone, describing Boston’s gay bar scene, on his blog:
And then there was Park Square. The Punch Bowl, Jacques, the Napoleon Club, and Mario’s were all within a few blocks of each other. Unlike the Scollay Square bars that were ostensibly straight but frequented by gay people, these bars were expressly for gay people. The Punch Bowl was not hidden or at all secret. You could not miss the bold, cursive letters on it’s front: “The Punch Bowl.” In an interview with the Lesbian Herstory Archives, activist, Barbara Hoffman spoke about going to the Punch Bowl in the 1950s, “I still remember walking into this packed bar. It was an hour before closing, and they were six deep at the bar. I asked (my friend) Rodney if everyone here was gay, and he said yes. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
May 31 2019
Rank #17: Tom Reney’s Discs for a Desert Island
The jazz DJ Tom Reney has been telling people for 40 years about the true American art form. This hour he’s telling people about himself for a change: the inner life of a taste-maker, in the fool-proof form of the BBC’s longest-running radio innovation, Desert Island Discs. The premise is simple enough: that the music you can’t live without is a sort of truth serum: talk about eight tracks of songs or symphonies you’d take to your desert island if you weren’t coming back, and you’ll have told us who you are. Tom Reney, it turns out, is an evangelist on the theme that the vast variety of black music, blues music, out of jazz joints and church is the bright spiritual, awe-inspired thread through his own American life.
Tom Reney, off to his desert island, with Chris.
Tom Reney was supposed to inherit the family civil engineering business, until he found his life in the basement joints of Worcester, Massachusetts, and in blues music at large. The sounds that unlock Tom Reney had hometown names like Boots Mussuli and Jacki Byard, then Muddy Waters and Aretha Franklin. When Duke Ellington, the great orchestrator of the blues, stepped in, playing at a hospital fundraiser near Worcester, there was no going back.
Here’s the full list of Tom Reney’s eight essential discs:
- Duke Ellington: Jeep’s Blues
2) Louis Armstrong: Stardust
3) Muddy Waters: Long Distance Call
4) Aretha Franklin: Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)
5) J.S. Bach: Italian Concerto (the link below is just to the third movement)
6) Charles Mingus: Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting
7) Dennis Brennan: Feel Like Going Home
8) John Coltrane: Impressions
Aug 23 2019
Rank #18: 2020 Hindsight on Iraq
We have a formal stand-down, meaning no war this week, between the US and Iran. On the long horizon of empires, rising and falling, it looks like an interval of restraint between hubris and nemesis—the ancient Greek names for defiant pride and its downfall, or undoing. The broken state of Iraq is what stares at us and the world, 17 hellish years after the US invasion and occupation. It’s the multi-trillion-dollar war that brought chaos and regime change that handed control of Iraq to Iran as if on a silver platter. It’s the war that discredited a generation of American party pols who voted for it. It’s the reason most Iraqis and their parliament want the last Americans out of their country. And still, the people that sold that Iraq war have another bigger one in mind if anybody will buy it.Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney in 2006.
We look ahead in the war-fogged Middle East this hour with some of the people who could have steered a much better path a generation ago. Our guests are a strong sample of an honor roll in commentary on such things. All told there were 33 specialists in strategy, diplomacy, and Middle East history who paid for op-ed space in the New York Times as President George W. Bush was ginning up war against Saddam Hussein. September, 2002, six months before the war began, the scholars’ warning ran under a headline: WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST. Each one of their six bullet points proved true in the real world: Saddam was in fact a bad old client of the US, and no part of the 9/11 attack. We could win a war in Iraq, these professionals stated, but we’d never get out of the mess we’d made.
Jan 10 2020
Rank #19: Origin Stories
Origin stories can be educated guesses, or leaps of collective imagination as to who we are, how we got to this point. The Big Bang is one kind, Adam and Eve make another. 1492 and 1776 are American starting points. The argument gets stickier around 1620, when Mayflower Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock; and 1619, when the first African slaves came ashore in Virginia. Just a year apart, they’re the opening chapters of two very different epics of a single nation: one born in the flight of pious Puritans to freedom, the other born in the theft of people and land to build an empire of cotton and capitalism.
It’s a funny thing about origin stories—who we are, how we got here. We know going in that the stories are made up, one way or another. And we come to find out that a lot of them are just plain wrong. Then what? The Sunday magazine of the New York Times took a bold run this past summer at the year 1620 as the start of the American story— the year, of course, when the Mayflower landed about one hundred dissenting English Puritans, our pilgrims, at Plymouth Rock. But no, the Times argued, our first chapter was dated 1619, a year earlier when a ship bearing some 20 African slaves landed in Point Comfort, Virginia, which was to say the drive to implant a slavocracy in the new world had a step on building a temple of freedom.
We’re talking with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Philip Deloria, and Peter Linebaugh about national origin stories. The thread here is storytelling that explains and often hides what happened.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is the writer and editor who led what the Times called a major initiative at the paper to reframe American history. And she strikes the keynote of this radio hour around slavery at the foundations of U.S. history and in our own origin stories in general.
Peter Linebaugh is a transnational historian of economics and culture. He’s been tracking the privatization of common land in England and the New World. 1792 is his magic start date of what is now the world system.
The historian Philip Deloria—the first tenured professor of Native American history at Harvard—considers the Native American encounters with those colonists in the 1600s.
Dec 06 2019
Rank #20: Ben Lerner’s Literary Charge
This week we have an Open Source literary treat. It’s our producer Adam Colman in conversation with Ben Lerner, the MacArthur Genius who speaks as a poet, theorist, and storyteller in everything he writes. Ben Lerner’s latest novel, The Topeka School, has been leading lots of 2019 book-of-the-year-lists. It’s the third in a trilogy that includes Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. Our man Adam Colman is also the author of New Uses for Failure, the only book about Ben Lerner’s fiction not written by Ben Lerner himself. The two of them sat down in Brooklyn to talk about the emotional charge of literature, about auto-fiction (which is not about cars) and about the power of language most particularly in the scenes with of high school debate in The Topeka School, where success goes to the contestants who deploy what’s called “the spread,” a kind of weaponized rapid fire of information.Adam and Ben.
A note from Adam: At the end of 2019, we’re looking back on a decade of disasters, but over the course of that same decade, Ben Lerner sensed glimmers of a better world. It’s this imaginative attention to our actual world that made me want to write a book about his fiction, which focuses on those glimmers of possibility found through language, through art. As he says in this conversation, he took to writing novels because they “seemed like a place where I could think through the question of the value of a lot of the arts I was engaged in, like poetry or visual art or whatever. And I’d like to dramatize . . . my anxiety about the value of artwork, but also my insistence on the value of artwork. And they could do it in a charged and funny and felt and hopefully entertaining way.” In this conversation, you’ll hear a case for why literary imagination matters—emotionally, politically, intellectually, and immediately.
(Banner photo credit: Catherine Barnett.)
Dec 26 2019