Rank #1: Bullsh*t Jobs in Boomtime America
The jobs are back. It’s the work that feels fishy: so much of it paid but pointless; safe and even secure, but often un-satisfying if you were looking for hands-on and heart-felt work that could leave a mark on the world or your soul. Credit where it’s due for job growth. The lowest unemployment rate since the dot.com boom 20 years ago has to say something for the man who wanted to be the greatest jobs president of all time. But listen long term to workers, not the numbers-crunchers. What workers want to tell you is they have BS jobs: they don’t live to work, or work just to live, exactly. Lots of us work so as to keep consuming, and we feel pretty miserable for missing what work used to give us; a work product, some demonstration of skill, a bit of respect for doing stuff.
Summer of 2018 is boom time in America, but of course it’s a different America. The robots are here. One in 12 American workers is in manufacturing, making stuff, compared to one in 3 in the 1950s. One in 50 of us works in agriculture. The miracle, the mystery really, is that more of us than ever are still on a job, working harder than ever. The question, buried in the numbers, is how we’re feeling about the new work, and what it’s doing to us. David Graeber has the argument that we’re putting to our own street-corner test this hour. He is the rogue anthropologist (meaning people-watcher with a Ph. D), the exiled American at the London School of Economics. His funny and disquieting new book is titled Bullshit Jobs. He has titles and categories for them: like Flunkies, Box Tickers, and Taskmasters over work that won’t be done but needs to be supervised. His argument is roughly that the boom in BS jobs – creativity coordinators, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, assistants to people who don’t need assistants, the lubrication of late capitalism – is driving us crazy.
Rank #2: A Less Perfect Union
“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare’s phrase from “The Tempest,” is carved in stone in front of the National Archive in Washington. Ronald Reagan liked to say that what it means about America is “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” For the historian, in the circus years of Donald Trump, it’s a question, looking back: how much of the end-time strangeness of the Trump era comes out of the old American time machine? Vulgar, vital populism in Andrew Jackson time. A Gilded Age of gross inequality like ours a century ago. Contradictions from Pilgrim time around equality, rights and race. The mean mouth of Joe McCarthy, terrorizing Washington from the Senate in the 1950s.
Jill Lepore speaks of the research and writing of history as a “fishing license” to tell a story and make an argument about the past. She is famous by now for turning over settled pieties, finding new voices in old diaries, shifting the cast of characters and the story itself because rediscovering old selves is part of growing up. These Truths is her retelling of American history, and it has the heft of a masterpiece, 800 pages on five centuries since Columbus found the New World. Harvard professor and prolific essayist in The New Yorker magazine, Jill Lepore finished this book in a fever of composition, in the daze of Trump time when the United States could seem, not for the first time, to be coming apart. “The American experiment had not ended,” she writes. “A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.”
Rank #3: A New Labor Movement
It’s Labor Day week 2018, and “The American Worker” doesn’t fit any single poster shot. Is it the Uber driver – working flex time in the ‘gig’ economy, for a magic dispatcher of taxis around the world? Is it the brainiac Google engineers insisting to their CEO that “we need to know what we’re building?” In a gilded, globalized, unequal economy of work today, the old industrial unions are almost gone. But suddenly non-union professionals feeling dealt out of pay and power are shouting, we’re workers, too, and forming unions: graduate students at great universities, magazine writers at the ritzy New Yorker. Prisoners, too, and sex workers, coming out of the shadows to claim rights, and respect, as workers, with skills, thank you. Plus hospital nurses and public school teachers coast to coast.
The midterm measure of the American mood in Trump-time may well turn out to be not – or not just – the off-year House and Senate election scorecard, but the work-place turbulence all over the map this year. Workers who never organized before – in grad schools, in media, in sex work, in prisons – are talking solidarity. And notice the word “strike” is back in circulation, inspired maybe by the furious telemarketers in the seriously funny fantasy film, Sorry to Bother You. In the movie they shout “Phones down!” In real Boston, this week, housekeepers in three Marriott-owned hotels downtown could soon be shouting “Mops down!” in their fight for a new contract.
We’re in the work-place, not the political arena, this hour, though of course they’re connected as soon as workers say it’s all about the power of the corporate class, a fight about places at the table and restoring an idea of people-power democracy.
Rank #4: The Soviet Symphonist
The Shostakovich story — man and music in the apocalypse of world war and Cold War — seems to get more frightfully irresistible with every remembrance, every new CD in the Boston Symphony’s Grammy winning series. With Stravinsky and Prokofiev in the trio of Russia’s 20th century immortals, Shostakovich was the one who stayed on the home ground of his music, and paid the price. This is a story of where music comes from, what it means, and who owns it. In the Soviet Union, it is a personal duel between composer and tyrant; of Stalin himself bullying Shostakovich on the telephone, and of the shy, twitchy-nervous but indomitable composer writing unmistakably in musical notation when Stalin was gone: “you’re dead, and I am alive.”
The fourth of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies marks a low point in a tortured life. Just as clearly it marks a rallying point of courage, start of a recovery in artistic fortunes, still rising this summer of 2018 — four decades into a composer’s immortality. It is this fourth symphony from 1936 that Joseph Stalin ordered not to be performed. Pravda delivered the death threat, mocking Shostakovich’s sound as grunts and hoots — “muddle not music,” said the editorial headline.
So Shostakovich 4 was never played in Russia till 1960, after Stalin had died, after Shostakovich had been browbeaten into joining the Communist Party. It’s on the BSO’s Tanglewood program next Friday night, August 17. And like every turn in the long Shostakovich surge, Andris Nelsons’ take on the Fourth Symphony has the air of an event around it, of revelation. We’ve been listening in on rehearsals, and engaging the Maestro on Shostakovich since March.
We’re joined by the Shostakovich biographer Elizabeth Wilson, the writer Tobin Anderson, and the BSO violinist Valeria Kuchment.
Rank #5: The New Normal
A conversation with Stephen Walt and Fintan O’Toole on the state of the world at the beginning of 2019.
At the start of a new year, count the new normals in a changed world: new normals marking the points where the unheard-of, the unimaginable, comes to be the standard, and the pendulum won’t swing back. The trillion-dollar corporation sounds like a new normal, after Apple and Amazon broke the barrier last year. California’s record wildfires are a new normal, the governor said: eight thousand fires last year on almost two million acres. International migration, meantime, reached a quarter-billion people now, and it’s rising. In politics worldwide, the new normal is angry nationalism, facing a new-normal breakdown among the ‘grown-up’ class of rich nations: Brexit Britain, Trump’s America, France, Italy and now Brazil, losing their dignity, and their grip. Find the pattern here: extreme weather, extreme wealth, extreme politics.
We take stock at the new year: it’s 2019, but where’s our country, what’s our mood? Who would you trust to tell you about the real world out there when all we talk about is Donald Trump? We trust Steve Walt, because he holds himself to an independent “realist” standard in foreign affairs: what’s urgent, what’s possible, what’s ours to do, and he keeps score, as a lot of pundits don’t, by results, not intentions. We start small, just on the wreckage known as Syria. It was a classic instance of Trump-being-Trump at the end of the year, the I-alone president declared: we’re outa there, and Afghanistan, too, one of these days. The Beltway and legacy media rose up in shock and fury. General Mattis resigned. Trump bent to the storm. But Steve Walt wrote that getting out was the right idea all along, and so said others we read and respect, like Jeff Sachs and Steve Kinzer, and then Elizabeth Warren, running for president. What should this teach people?
Rank #6: On Becoming Who You Are
A conversation with John Kaag and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen on Nietzsche, philosophy, and life.
The news about Nietzsche, as you may have heard, is that the nastiest old name in German philosophy doesn’t scare us anymore. His most famous shout, that “God is dead,” reads now like showmanship from a minister’s kid. God, in any event, had the last word at Nietzsche’s madhouse death in the year 1900. Nietzsche had lived in Bismarck’s Germany, when Hitler was unimaginable. Even then he’d been an anti-nationalist, an enemy of anti-Semitism. Nietzsche had the aphoristic wit of Oscar Wilde, but said his soul-mate among thinkers was the self-reliant American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson.
We are back to college this hour with the late lunatic, ever the scariest iconoclast on campus, the now detoxified German philosopher with the bird’s-nest mustache, Friedrich Nietzsche. Among thinkers he was an incomparable phrase-maker, who declared the death of God, the eternal return and the Will to Power. The job in life, he thought, was to add style to one’s character, and he did it: the trick was “to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book,” and he mastered it. We feel several impulses here: One, to hear what draws college students to philosophy in the anxious atmosphere of 2019; Two, we wanted to hike through the Alps with Nietzsche alongside John Kaag, the American philosopher who took us through our own Emerson and Thoreau trails not so long ago. And Three, we were drawn by the fresh attention to Friedrich Nietzsche, who used to seem too cool for school, too funny, reckless, outrageous for polite company.
Rank #7: Original Sin
The Roman Catholic Church is staring transfixed at a cascading scandal of crime and non-punishment. Sex crimes by priests against children are turning up now in far corners of the world, and a pattern of strategic cover-up comes clear after decades of silence, evasion, and institutional self-protection. The notably gentle reformist Pope Francis is under siege in the sixth year of his rule, ambushed by history, it seems, and said to be ‘aghast’ at the record unfolding.
It’s the kind of crisis that’s not supposed to befall an ancient institution that a billion followers world-wide have seen as the spiritual link between humankind and heaven. The sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is the affliction gone suddenly global: it was a Boston scandal over decades, a disease that devastated Ireland, and now breaks out in Germany, Chile, Australia.
“Atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons,” Pope Francis called them. Over seven decades in Pennsylvania, three hundred priests molested a thousand children, a grand jury reported last month, and “the men of God who were responsible for them hid it all. For decades,” the grand jury said. It’s the complicity in covering up that runs even deeper than the crimes.
Mike Rezendes at Open Source, and Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes in “Spotlight”
Our guests are the historian and author James Carroll, theology professor Lisa Cahill, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, novelist Emer Martin, and investigative journalist Mike Rezendes.
Rank #8: Behind the “Leonine Gaze” of Frederick Douglass
Historian David Blight on his new biography of Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass, scarred and tormented seeing men made slaves, set the course of his life to show how a slave became a man. In the cadences of the Bible and Shakespeare, a radical abolitionist with the gaze of a lion, Douglass bestrides the peaks and dark valleys of American history like a colossus, and a modern. More photographed than Lincoln; more traveled than any orator save possibly Mark Twain. He was face-to-face with the whole cast of the 19th Century — the only black man at the birthing of the women’s movement in Seneca Falls in 1848. He pushed back with Lincoln in the White House, and with the rebel John Brown before Harpers Ferry. He moved Emerson to say: “Here is the Anti-Slave.”
Douglass has been paired in statesmanship with Abraham Lincoln. David Blight’s stunning big new biography sets Douglass just as surely in parallel with the literary giant Herman Melville and his novel in quest of a whale, Moby-Dick. Douglass and Melville turn out to be almost exact contemporaries, consumed in their twenties and thirties with the moral crisis of slavery. The Quaker town of New Bedford, Massachusetts is where their paths crossed, whether they saw one another or not. It’s where young Frederick dropped his slave name Bailey and took “Douglass” instead. It’s where Ishmael meets the South Sea harpooner Queequeg in Moby-Dick. The whale-ship they sail, the Pequod and its crew, is Melville’s idea of this nation of nations, very like Douglass’s ideal of the “composite nation.” In David Blight’s account of Douglass, he’s a word man, like Melville, a storyteller who keeps re-writing his autobiography, re-composing his epic of American identity, of tragedy and of evil.
Rank #9: Under Surveillance: Capitalism in the Digital Age
Yes, Virginia, the world did change direction in the late summer of 2001, and it’s been changing us ever since. 9/11 had everything to do it, but it was also the panicky season of the dot.com bust, when little Google, in fear of death, morphed from search service to data mining from its users. Our government, post 9/11, was ready to compromise privacy and underwrite a new science of surveillance—the object was to know everything about everybody. And here we are, not two decades later: Google is a trillion-dollar company, in an industry that knows more than we know about ourselves, and sells it. Omni-analyst Shoshana Zuboff argues we are being re-purposed for a new age of mankind.
Shoshana Zuboff is a business school professor and scholar with a Theory of Pretty Much Everything about our American condition in 2019. Unlike most theories of everything, this one is simple enough to remember. It’s also complex and researched enough to feel critically intelligent, not to say: plausible. The theory, in two words, is Surveillance Capitalism, the big business of social-network companies (think: Google, Facebook, Apple) who sift the signals from your phones and laptops to know, moment to moment, your heart’s desire and then sell it to you. Add a fashionable ideology of markets, a culture of consumer comfort, and the force of wealth—and the rest is details. Our disquieting modern condition is not in your mind. It’s in our lopsided landscape, as our guest Shoshana Zuboff maps it in stunning big book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Rank #10: Trouble in the House of Saud
A conversation with Stephen Kinzer, Sarah Leah Whitson, Steve Simon, Chas Freeman, and Shireen Al-Adeimi.
Speaking of Saudi Arabia, in the ghastly light of Jamal Kashoggi’s dismemberment: what more do we care to know, about what Saudis do? Their war to starve the poor neighbor nation of Yemen, US bombs out of US planes doing most of the damage, since Obama time in our White House.
Did you know that the Kingdom of Oil and the House of Saud bankrolled Iraq’s invasion and a decade’s war with Iran in the 1980s, when the US smiled on Saddam Hussein? Saudis paid for the war to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, when Osama bin Laden was their agent, and ours. Saudi business, meantime, is investing in the US Congress, Silicon Valley and the gig economy of Uber, in think tanks and American opinion to foment ‘confrontation’ (meaning war) with Iran.
You could think of the sadistic Khashoggi killing and its unresolved aftermath as a sort of experiment: it’s about what the House of Saud can get away with in rubbing out dissent, and what the House of Trump will allow from its dear friend. What they are trying out together looks like a version of non-transparent family rule in the Middle East and maybe elsewhere. Lurking in the near background is the intention in the extended family of Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu to spring a military attack on Iran, on a convenient provocation. Yet the picture of Iran as the meddlesome ‘rogue state’ in the region is getting overshadowed by the spotlight on Saudi history and the reckless Crown Prince. Context and consequences of the Khashoggi case are what we’re after this hour – perhaps a realignment of populists vs. princes in the Middle East, even a ‘reset’ of American thinking.
Rank #11: 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.
Rank #12: A Splice of Life
“The genie is out of the bottle,” says George Church, and he should know. Dr. Church at Harvard Medical School has been a respected keeper of the keys to the miracle, or monster, that is gene editing. It is bio-medicine’s new-found power not just to read the human blueprint, but to rebuild, cell by cell, the evolved model of mankind. And now a rogue Chinese scientist, Dr. He, has shown the world how not to go about it – he worked in secret, without the consent of his patients, then unborn, who weren’t even sick, and haven’t yet been seen. Dr. He has shocked the medical chieftains, East and West. Yet they dream the same dream: better living through bio-chemistry, inside the chain of human reproduction.
The big question about bio-genetic medicine came in the same package as the breakthrough technology: what if the amazing tricks of hacking, tweaking, repairing, editing, improving the source code of human life got out of control somehow – got overwhelmed by “off-target mutations,” side-effects, or money motives, or just cosmetic vanity? From China this week comes news that the so-called CRISPR method of custom-tailoring DNA – this century’s biggest biotech innovation – is out of control already. Dr. He Jiankui sounds as much salesman as scientist in a slick video he made, explaining that he had knocked a multi-purpose gene out of the germ line of twins, in embryo, so as to lessen the chance of their being infected someday by the AIDS virus, HIV. Nobody’s seen the evidence yet, but shock and outrage was the respectable response; Chinese doctors called Dr. He’s project “crazy,” and the Chinese government has shut him down. But maybe the real news was that not quite anybody, but all manner of DIY dreamers out there can do their garage-band gene science without anybody’s permission, and who-knows-what effects.
It’s wake-up time in the age of bio-genetics, and the stakes are clearer, the issues more urgent, as some of the scientists knew all along. In the forefront of the race for a CRISPR Nobel prize, the Berkeley biologist Jennifer Doudna trembles at the new power scientists have awarded themselves. “We’re into a soul-shaking revolution in gene-editing,” she wrote in a book about her own work. “We” have control now, she said. We have the ability “to direct the evolution of our species” — shaped till now by random mutation and natural selection…But who are the We that do the editing, or have the editing done to them? Or not done? Who are the We who decide what can and cannot be tweaked – for reasons of health or some other ‘enhancement’?