laurenshippen

Audio Drama Sunday: The Bright Sessions, A Conversation with Lauren Shippen

A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto an extraordinary audio drama called The Bright Sessions and listened to every episode with a speed and an enthusiasm rivaling a ravenous rabbit discovering a carrot field. The podcast is ostensibly a psychotherapist secretly recording her therapy sessions with young people, with each tape labeled with a mysterious taxonomic nomenclature. We come to learn that not only do these young people have special powers (the ability to jump through time, the capacity to read other people’s thoughts, et al.). But what makes The Bright Sessions so compelling is its more intimate approach. You won’t hear New York City destroyed in grandiloquent fashion after a superhero battle. But you will delve deep into the hearts and souls of the show’s characters.

I contacted the show’s creator Lauren Shippen (she also voices one of the patients, Sam) to express my appreciation and soon found myself in a fun and lengthy email volley about how Shippen came to create The Bright Sessions, thoughts on what radio drama can do for genre that other forms can’t, and some discussion of the 1985 film Clue. In tribute to the hashtag #audiodramasunday, which has recently taken Twitter by storm, I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of Audio Drama Sunday interviews with radio drama creators and their programs to help listeners and producers alike get a sense of the marvelous offerings out there.

If you want to listen to The Bright Sessions, go the website. You can also chip into The Bright Sessions‘s Patreon fund, which greatly helps this show stay afloat.

EDWARD CHAMPION: In audio drama, we have quite a number of wonderful podcasts being made that deal with investigations — what I call the “missing tapes” genre (The Black Tapes, Tanis, Limetown, et al.). These shows have responded, perhaps knowingly or unknowingly, to Serial‘s great success. It’s almost as if audio drama needed its own spin on the “fake documentary” style pioneered by such television shows as The Office, Parks & Recreation, and the like. But somehow your hook, which involves a psychologist taping the sessions of her clients, manages to transcend the tropes. I’m very curious to know how much you researched the audio drama climate before you started creating this show and if you learned any lessons on how to build an audience from your potential investigation. Also, I’m not sure how steeped you are in Dr. Jacob L. Moreno‘s notion of drama therapy, but where did your interest in psychotherapy come from? Why did you feel psychotherapy would be a great format for radio? (I’m also wondering if you’ve ever listened to the podcast, The Psychology of Eating, an often inexplicably fascinating show that deals with patients talking about their eating habits.)

LAUREN SHIPPEN: I actually wrote the first episode of The Bright Sessions in June of 2014 — before even Serial had been released. While I love the faux-documentary format of those podcasts (and of course, adore Serial), that trope didn’t yet exist when I first came up with the concept of The Bright Sessions. Instead, it was somewhat inspired by two very different radio shows: Welcome to Night Vale and BBC’s Cabin Pressure.

I was listening to these shows while stuck in the famed LA traffic and fell in love with the idea of audio drama. These shows showed two very distinct, very different paths to take: Welcome to Night Vale is mostly one man speaking into a microphone and Cabin Pressure is a whole cast with a large production budget performing in front of a live audience. As much as I enjoy Cabin Pressure, I don’t have the same resources as the BBC; the WTNV route seemed more manageable — I had a nice microphone and a vague idea of editing. But I ultimately realized I couldn’t pull off what WTNV does. I think WTNV works as a largely one person show because of three things: Cecil Baldwin’s performance, the beautifully surreal but funny writing, and the music by Disparition. Without a similarly magical combination of things, one person talking can get boring fast.

latrafficI wish I could say the therapy concept came out of some deep, clever thought process but – if memory serves – I was sitting in the aforementioned traffic, talking out loud to myself as the character of Sam (this is a weird but important part of my writing process) when I realized I needed to give her someone to talk to. The first thing that popped into my head was “therapist” and from there, the floodgates opened and everything started to fall into place.

I wrote that pilot episode in essentially one sitting. Then I got swept up in other things and didn’t touch it for a year. By the time I came back to it, I had become more familiar with the audio drama landscape as a whole. I had binged Serial, Limetown, and The Message. But my format was already determined. That being said, I did look to these and other shows to see how and where they existed online and how they promoted themselves.

I’m tangentially familiar with Moreno’s work, but The Bright Sessions was not particularly influenced by any one psychological theory. I used my sister — an actual psychologist — as a resource for how a therapist would talk or what methods they might use and did online research when necessary. I think my interest in psychotherapy actually comes from my background as an actor. The conversations you hear in the podcast are very similar to internal conversations I will have when developing a character – you have to figure out all their baggage, what makes them tick. Bizarrely, a lot of acting techniques are pretty similar to therapeutic ones, so it was easy to connect the dots.

therapycouchI think the therapy format works especially well on radio for two reasons. One: it’s straightforward and easy to follow. It can be hard to pull off convincing action in an audio format, but it’s very easy to put together two people having a conversation. Two: there’s a voyeuristic element to it that I think is intriguing to people. Even though our patients are extraordinary, they are still dealing with very real, human problems. I think there’s a lot of entertainment to be mined out of that and a lot to relate to. And because it’s an audio recording and not a video, I think it gives the listener the feeling that they are really there, listening in.

And no, I have not listened to The Psychology of Eating, though it sounds like something I need to put in my feed!

CHAMPION: On the subject of psychotherapists, I think one of the reasons your audio drama works so well is because Julia Morizawa is tremendously believable as Dr. Bright. We often hear an annoyed edge in her voice, a vague artificiality often vacillating with something real, with the slight pause just before she has to enter into that professional therapeutic mode. I’m so glad that your audio drama is paying attention to these minute cadences, whether deliberately or organically. It’s one of the aspects of therapy that can be irksome when you’re on the couch! And it leads me to wonder what work you did with Julia to hit these very precise notes and what prep you’ve done with your actors in general. Of course, what I’m detecting here may very well be the natural intimacy of radio! After all, if you listen to any of Anna Sale’s interviews on Death, Sex & Money, it often sounds like a therapy session. Why do you think the radio format lends itself more to a therapeutic vibe? Should audio drama be hitting this sweet spot if it expects to win over larger audiences? Also, how did these conversations with yourself in traffic contribute to the writing process you worked out?

SHIPPEN: Julia is a magical superhuman and The Bright Sessions would not be a tenth of what it is without her. That sounds like hyperbole; it isn’t. I’ve known Julia for about two years – we met in acting class at the BGB Studio in North Hollywood. That same studio is where I met Briggon Snow (Caleb) and Charlie Ian (Damien) — it’s a studio full of crazy talented people and I take as much advantage of that as possible. The moment I realized I didn’t want to play Dr. Bright myself (and yes, that was something I briefly flirted with), my mind immediately went to Julia.

juliabrightI wish I could take credit for all the nuances that Julia brings to the role but all the layers and subtle shifts you hear are a testament to Julia’s talent as an actor. We certainly discuss the character and the story; I give my impressions and Julia always comes prepared with insightful questions and ideas. The first time we recorded, she lugged this enormous binder with her — it had the scripts, her own personal character biography, and pages of notes. Her dedication and attention to detail has made Dr. Bright an incredibly interesting and complex character and really changed the way I approached the writing her. No one, including myself, knows Dr. Bright better than Julia and I think that shines through.

On the whole, I don’t do much prep with my actors. I honestly don’t even give them that much direction when we record. They are all very talented people that I have worked with before and I trust their instincts. I’m still amazed I was able to convince these brilliant people into doing this little project — I really feel like I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our cast.

samplaylistOur especially dedicated listeners (of which we have more than I could have dreamed — another embarrassment of riches) will be familiar with the music playlists I made for each character. While these have been very fun to share with our audience as bonus features, I made them for myself as a writing tool and for my actors as a way to round out the characters for them. While we were recording the first season, I shared these playlists as well as Pinterest boards. While not directly related to the plot, these were used to express some of the less tangible aspects of the characters.

I think the phrase you used, “the natural intimacy of radio”, is exactly why it lends itself to the therapeutic feeling. With radio, the listener can imagine whatever they want about how the person looks, what the setting is like, etc. This engagement of the imagination engages us emotionally as well and creates this atmosphere of intimacy. I think this is furthered by the fact that most people listen to podcasts alone, with headphones on. It feels personal in a way that TV or film doesn’t. As for an audio drama sweet spot, I’m still trying to find that myself.

The traffic conversations have been a big part of my life in LA and I’m sure have gotten me a few strange looks at stoplights. When I’m working on a character — whether it’s one I’m auditioning for or one I’m creating from the bottom up — I have to determine some things about how they talk. Where in my voice does their dialogue sit? What’s their cadence? What filler words do they use? This can all be worked out on paper or in a script, but I find it’s much easier to work through this process out loud.

So, when I’m doing a task that is taking up most of my focus — driving, cooking, doing dishes — I’ll pass the time by having imaginary conversations with these characters. Some of these conversations simply help me get into the mindset, but some end up in the final product. I think I was able to write that first episode in one sitting because I had worked out most of it in the car when driving back from Santa Monica during rush hour (never do this).

glengarryCHAMPION: I’m tremendously fascinated with the work you’re doing with the actors to establish these characters and very curious how, in this case, Julia’s notes altered the writing. How much of this story do you have planned out? And how much of the story has been dictated by the notes from the actors? What did these music playlists reveal about these characters that, say, unpacking a history and a backstory didn’t? Your filler description reminds me very much of how David Mamet layers his scripts with underlined emphasis and includes all these filler words or how someone like Kevin Smith is especially demanding of inflection points. My own feeling is that there’s a certain futility in this process. Because there isn’t a single writer, no matter how talented, who can completely transcribe human speech without the final artistic output sounding deliberately stylized. This can often take us away from the reality of what we’re experiencing — unless, of course, one is deliberately striving for a heightened reality. But it does raise some questions. Because no matter what the art, one does have to find a balance between reality and fiction. If we’re reading transcribed speech from Mark Twain or Emma Bovary’s inflections, our minds can fill in the details. But radio is more explicit about speech, even if we’re still using our minds to imagine what’s happening before us. How do your conversations in the car help you to find a compromise between some “authentic” blueprint and the organic nature of conversation that you end up recording?

SHIPPEN: I had written the first nine episodes (which make up the first season) before we all sat down for the first table read. I had a clear idea of who these characters were and where I wanted the story to go. And then I heard it out loud, as interpreted by smart, talented people, and things shifted. I don’t want to go too much into what the initial overarching plot of The Bright Sessions was for fear of changing people’s perceptions of what it is now, but hearing Julia interpret the character of Joan Bright changed the way I thought of the character. She became more real, more human, and her motivations changed somewhat as a result. This shift changed a lot of other characters as well.

theamSimilarly, our production meeting before season two provided a lot of inspiration. I shared the first few scripts and told the actors what I had in store. And then they shared their ideas about the characters and how they wanted them to grow. A lot of the plot for season two grew out of that. The finale episode of this season is a direct result of that production meeting and a few ideas that Charlie Ian floated around. A lot of The AM has been influenced by ideas that Julia has had. So, while I do all the actual writing, my actors absolutely deserve a lot of story credit for the second season.

I don’t know what the music playlists revealed to the actors — that’s probably something I should ask them. For me, the mixes provide the general mood of the character; an energy. I listen to the mixes before writing the characters to get me in that mindset. It can also help me zero in on an overall theme within the character. For example, I built Sam’s whole playlist pretty quickly (she’s the character I voice so I know her very well) and afterwards I realized how much of the content had to do with the idea of “home.” That discovery told me a lot about the character and what was important to her.

I think you’re absolutely right — no writer can ever perfectly mimic natural speech. My use of filler speech, aborted starts to sentences, stutters, etc. function more as goal posts for the general speech pattern of the characters. Caleb says “like” a lot — he’s a teenager, he doesn’t always know how to express himself so he uses this filler word and doesn’t finish sentences sometimes. Sam has a lot of ellipses in her speech. She’s a nervous person so she stops to think of the right…word. I’ll write these kinds of things into the script and then the actors will adopt them and put them in the natural places, even when they aren’t written in. Then it becomes a volley between me and the actor — I write something, they improv and ad lib, I adopt those natural inclinations into writing the next time, so on and so forth.

The car conversations are vital in the early stages of developing a character. I can try and write out their speech patterns but it won’t solidify until I start saying it out loud. There are things that will look good on paper but sound stilted or unnatural when spoken aloud. And then there are questions that need to be answered. Does the speech go up at the end — if so, how would that affect the way they structure their sentences? Where do they pause? Why do they pause? Do they have to fill the pause with speech or can they sit in silence? All of these questions need to be answered and are easiest when worked through out loud. I don’t often return to these car conversations after I’ve gotten used to writing a character. Thought they can be helpful for figuring out how two characters who have never met talk to each other because each character relates to every other character in a unique way and that is going to change their speech.

CHAMPION: Aha! So as I suspected, your actors almost serve as “editors” for your scripts! This leads me to ask how you manage all the very helpful input you get from your talent. This may be tangentially related to the issue of natural vs. stylized speech, but have you ever faced a situation where your vision for the storyline gets disrupted by all the ideas from others? If so, how do you manage all the notes? How locked is the script when you eventually record it? Also, how and where are you recording it? Given that the patients are teenagers, I’m wondering if you ever considered using actual teenagers for the part. Aside from the car conversations and your work with the actors, do you talk to a lot of high schoolers to get a sense of their angst? (I’m thinking especially of Caleb and the adept way you handle his sexuality.) Given that you seem to be responding to what you have previously established with each episode, what steps have you taken to ensure that you never get caught up in tropes or predictable storylines? Do you have a natural end point in mind for The Bright Sessions?

SHIPPEN: The input from actors never feels too overwhelming or disruptive because it comes in bits and pieces. I’ll send out a script and get some questions and comments back and then I’ll make small adjustments to the script. A lot of the larger ideas come from “wouldn’t it be cool if” conversations about the overarching plot or character development. An actor will make a suggestion or float an idea about what could potentially happen in a season or in an episode and, if it works, I’ll take that suggestion and work it into the existing structure. As the sole writer of the podcast, all the details and specifics are up to me.

When we record, the script is 98% locked in, I’d say. It’s a final draft (that never seems to stop it from having typos) but occasionally an actor will ad lib or ask to say a line a slightly different way. But, beyond from a few minor line changes or improvs, the scripts tend to be consistent from page to episode. Editing also sometimes happens in post-production – I’ve cut out lines in the past that worked on the page but didn’t in the editing bay.

With a few exceptions, we record the episodes with both actors sitting across from each other, with individual mics on them. We go through the episode in it’s entirety a few times as I give notes. It’s a lot like acting in a class — we’re not crammed into a sound booth recording each line one-by-one — instead we’re recording the episode pretty much as it would happen in real life: two people sitting in a room together (my bedroom in this case — we’re very high tech).

Technically, only one of the patients is a teenager: Caleb. Adam is also in his teens, though not a patient, and Chloe is 20 when the series begins, so only just over that period in her life. But no, I never considered using actual teenagers. Firstly, there would be a lot of logistical and practical issues recording with someone under 18 and secondly, I never considered anyone other than Briggon for the role of Caleb. And he has nailed the high school voice, as I knew he would.

jandynelsonI honestly can’t remember the last time I talked to a teenager — I wish I could say I’ve done in-person research, but most of Caleb’s plot line is directly inspired by all the YA novels I read. Yes, I do still read Young Adult fiction. I’ve met my fair share of adults who don’t consider that a good use of time, but I politely disagree. YA fiction is consistently growing and changing and there are some real gems to be found. I read a lot, and in a lot of different genres, and one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It is a book that I couldn’t put down and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I think it has had a lot of influence on the writing of both Caleb and Chloe and I can’t recommend it enough.

I also spend a lot of time on Tumblr, a website that definitely skews towards a younger audience. There’s actually quite a bit of linguistic discussion that happens on the site and I think I’ve absorbed a lot about how teenagers speak and interact. On top of that, I read fan fiction — not of The Bright Sessions, but of other things. Fan fiction is written about and by many different people, but a good portion of it either explores the lives of teenagers or is written by teenagers. Reading teenage dialogue written by a teenager will give you a pretty good idea of what teenagers sound like. So I think my ability to write compelling high school dialogue is a combination of reading YA fiction, reading fan fiction, and observing teenagers on social media.

This actually transitions well into your question about tropes. A lot of fandom conversation and fan fiction is centered around the idea of tropes — either leaning into them or breaking them. In order to avoid tropes, you have to know what they are. And yes, you can watch a lot of film and television, listen to a lot of audio drama, and read a lot of books to get an idea of what the cliches are but it is helpful to have tropes distilled for you. That’s what happens in fandom discussion.

All that said, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about making things unpredictable. I focus on what stories I want to tell and sometimes that means taking a hard left and sometimes that means jumping directly into a trope – after all, cliches are cliches for a reason. But, to keep things engaging, it’s important to make a slight tweak when engaging with tropes. The Bright Sessions is built on this idea. A mysterious time traveler shows up! But…she can’t control her ability. A high school football player is having trouble expressing his emotions! But…not for the usual reasons. I think it’s really fun to lean into story beats that are familiar but give them a different flavor.

As for keeping the plot from getting predictable, I think it’s a delicate balancing act. A certain amount of predictability is a good thing, in my opinion. When I see a listener comment with a prediction about the plot, I’m pleased if that prediction is very close to correct. That tells me that I’m on the right path, that I’m not going to jump the shark. However, you don’t want your audience to be able to predict everything. And that’s where the red herring comes in (Clue is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ve had to delete an entire paragraph explanation of why because this isn’t my chance to write a dissertation of Clue). Currently, I’m seeing a lot of predictions about the end of season two that could be correct. The predictions make sense in the context of what has happened so far but they are largely in response to something that is a bit of a red herring. As a result, I think the end of the season is going to be unexpected at the time and make complete sense looking back (that’s my hope anyway).

As for a natural end point for The Bright Sessions…no, I don’t have one. I’ve heard a lot of other audio drama creators say “I know exactly what the last episode/last line/last season of my podcast is” – I am not that person. I had no idea how this season was going to end when I started it. I know where I would like characters to end up emotionally but I’m really just letting this thing organically develop on its own terms. We’ll see where that takes us.

CHAMPION: Your method of scouring for youthful banter reminds me of how the great novelist Megan Abbott conducts research. She also writes about young people very well and scours many online forums to get the tone right for her last few books. But I’ve detected a bit of Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon in The Bright Sessions. I’m curious to know more about The Bright Sessions‘s literary influences (including YA, of which, being a wide reader myself, I’m certainly not going to pull a Ruth Graham here!). Also, we’re living in a time in which we are saturated by endless superhero movies, Hugo Awards ballot stuffing by frightened white middle-aged libertarians, Comic-Con as a publicity machine, fan entitlement, and numerous other intrusions into genre storytelling. But the many genre audio drama podcasts I listen to — such as yours, Ars Paradoxica, Atheist Apocalypse, Tanis, Lily Beacon, Wolf 359, Eos 10, The Cleansed, far too many wonderful shows to list here — seem relatively insulated from these developments. It’s almost as if audio drama is operating in its own hermetic corner, relatively safe from any General Zod neck-snapping controversies. Do you think audio drama runs the risk of getting co-opted? Or capitulating to the audience too much? What do you feel you owe the audience? Do you think audio drama is enough of its own animal to beat the odds? And why (or why not) do you think that is?

SHIPPEN: I think it’s hard to say what’s not a literary influence on The Bright Sessions — everything I’ve written could probably be traced back to something I read once. I am an avid reader and I feel like every book I read becomes a part of my brain. YA has definitely had a big influence, David Mitchell is always in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about world-building (especially on top of existing reality — he’s a master at that), and Philip Pullman (an all-time favorite of mine) has definitely had a roundabout influence on the last few episodes of this season (and on my brain in general).

I think audio drama is excelling in genre storytelling for a few reasons. Firstly, genre film and TV can often fall into the trap of focusing too much on the “smashy-smashy” (as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it). While people, myself included, go to these films for action, it is sometimes given attention to the detriment of character or plot. Unless the action is innovative and exciting enough to hold up a film (as it is in Mad Max: Fury Road, though that movie has pretty much everything going for it, in my opinion), you can’t just blow up buildings (or have Superman snapping necks) and hope people will be satisfied.

Audio drama is truly incapable of making that specific mistake. Action can happen in audio form – the audio montage in Wolf 359‘s “Mayday” is a stellar example of this — but action isn’t the go-to. Instead, the focus goes to the characters and the worlds. When you can’t distract the audience with shiny effects or crazy stunts, you have to work twice as hard to give them something to chew on. I think that motivates audio drama to innovate a lot more than other mediums.

Secondly, I think audio drama benefits from being independently produced. It costs money to make a podcast, but not Mad Max $150 million kind of money. There’s no studio to appease, no execs to give notes, no 20 person marketing team ready to merchandise your idea. Having audio drama be entirely in the hands of its creators provides the kind of freedom you can’t find in big genre movies. As a result, you see a lot more risk-taking and a lot more diversity in audio drama. Half of the podcasts you mentioned have female protagonists; Marvel has yet to make a female-led movie. There have been numerous news stories recently about how female characters in genre films were changed to male for fear that a female character wouldn’t sell toys. Even when genre creators try their best to widen the pool of main characters — and I really do believe that they are trying — there is a larger machine at work that can stall progress. To my knowledge, that machine has yet to exist in audio drama.

I couldn’t presume to predict where the audio drama world is headed — I’m still a newcomer but I feel like things have shifted in the year I’ve been working on The Bright Sessions. There’s more content than ever and the quality of said content seems to be getting better and better. I think there will certainly be attempts to co-opt audio drama — after all, it is a rapidly growing entertainment sector with low overheads and excellent advertising potential — but I don’t know what form that will take or how successful those attempts will be. But, whatever happens, I think audio drama will continue to find new and exciting ways to tell stories, whether independently or under a larger umbrella. Bigger is sometimes better.

As for what I feel I owe our audience: I want to continue to entertain and surprise them. I want to keep things unpredictable without making them ever feel like they’ve been misled or cheated. I don’t think I owe rainbows and sunshine — the audience doesn’t have to like every plot point or character — but I owe thoughtful writing, even when it’s painful. I owe them continued and respectful character development, enthusiasm to rival their own, and a satisfying conclusion to a story they’ve invested in.

As to when that conclusion will come is anybody’s guess.

robertmoses

The Power Broker (Modern Library Nonfiction #92)

(This is the ninth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The American Political Tradition.)

mlnf92Sunset Park is a cozy part of Brooklyn trilling with children making midday escapes from big brick schools, with a few old factories that wail great threnodies whenever the moon winks a ditty about displaced residents on a cloudy night. There are robust workers and tight-knit families and bahn mi bistros and bustling bakeries from which one can savor the tantalizing nectar of glorious Spanish gossip squeezing into the streets. If you are tipsy after too many pints at the Irish pubs lining the southwestern fringe, there are 24 hour donut shops serving as makeshift diners, with loquacious jacks cooking up chorizo hash for any hungry ghost in a fix.

This is the region, along with East New York and Flatlands and Bensonhurst, where Brooklyn’s true soul still shines. It remains insulated from the Williamsburg hipsters oblivious to the high rise monstrosities now being hoisted near the East River or the yuppies who cleave to Park Slope’s gluten-free stroller war zone like children keeping to the shallow end of the pool. But the motley banter rivals the bright babble bubbling five miles east in Ditmas Park and even the chatty ripples that percolate just two miles south in Bay Ridge. In Sunset Park, you can pluck the city’s most enormous plantains from bold bodega bins bulging with promise, talk to the last honest bartender at Brooklyn’s best bowling alley, or walk beneath a Buddhist temple for some of the finest vegetarian Chinese grub in the region. It is a place of repose. It is a place of fun. It is a place to live.

Yet as great and as welcoming and as improbably enduring as this part of Brooklyn is, it could have been bigger. And for a long time, it was. Until Robert Moses came along.

There are many grim tales contained within Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker — an alarmingly large and exquisitely gripping and undeniably great and insanely obsessive masterpiece of journalism documenting the most ruthless urban planner that New York, and possibly America, has ever known. If you love New York City even one tenth as much as I do, you will find many reasons to shout obscenities out your window after reading about what Robert Moses did to this mighty metropolis. It was Moses who killed off the free aquarium, open to all, that once stood in Battery Park. It was Moses who pitted reliable mass transit lines serving regular Janes and Joes against highways designed solely for those who had the shekels to buy and upkeep a car. It was Moses who believed African-Americans to be “dirty” and who, in building Riverside Park, stiffed the Harlem section of playgrounds (seventeen in the West Side; one in Harlem) and football fields (five to one). Moses was so casually racist that most of the parks he built, the parks that secured his popularity, served white middle-class New Yorkers. But working-class families needed these parks more and were often reduced to opening a fire hydrant in the streets and playing in the gutter during a hot summer.

Not a single person in power will ever change the Manhattan skyline in the irreversible way that Moses did. Robert Moses had massive ambition, savvy savagery, limitless arrogance and energy, improbably large coffers that he willed together through a bridge bond ploy, a panache for grabbing and holding onto power, and a sick talent for persuading some of the most powerful figures of the 20th century to sign crooked agreements and/or get steamrolled into deals that screwed them over in quite profound ways.

thirdavenue

For me, one of the acts that sums Moses up is the way in which he ripped out a major part of Sunset Park’s soul by erecting the Gowanus Expressway above Third Avenue. This is a toxic concrete barrier that still remains as cold and as gray and as unwelcoming as the bleakest rainstorm in December. To this very day, you can still hear the Belt Parkway’s thundering traffic as far away as Sixth Avenue. During a recent walk along Third Avenue on a somewhat chilly afternoon, I surveyed Moses’s handiwork and was nearly mowed down by a minivan barreling out of Costco, its back bulging with wasteful mass-produced goods, as a mad staccato honk pierced my ears with a motive that felt vaguely murderous.

Robert Moses wanted to make New York a city for automobiles, even though he never learned how to drive. And in some of the neighborhoods where his blots against natural urban life remain, his dogged legacy against regular people still persists.

gowanusparkway

(Source: The Gowanus Improvement: November 1, 1941 / The Triborough Bridge Authority)

Sunset Park’s residents had begged Moses to build the expressway over Second Avenue. This was closer to the water and the industrial din and might have preserved the many small businesses and happy homes that once punctuated Third Avenue’s happy line. But Moses, citing the recently opened subway that now serves the D, N, and R underneath Fourth Avenue and the available support beams from the soon-to-be-demolished El, was determined to raise a freeway on Third Avenue that he claimed was much cheaper, even though the engineers who weren’t on Moses’s payroll had observed that one mere mile of freeway looping back to the shore wouldn’t substantially reduce the cost. But Moses had fought barons before and had made a few curving compromises while constructing the Northern State Parkway. Armed with the power of eminent domain and a formidable administrative power in which bulldozers and blockades could be summoned against opponents almost as fast as a modern day Seamless delivery, Moses was not about to see his vision vitiated. And if that meant calling the good parts of Sunset Park a “slum,” which it wasn’t, or spouting off any number of lies or threats to destroy perfectly respectable working class neighborhoods, then he’d do it.

As documented by Caro, the Gowanus stretched a raised subway line’s harmless Venetian-blind shadow into a dirty expanse that was nearly two and a half times as wide, wider than a football field and twice as onyx. The traffic lights were so swiftly timed that one had to be a running back to sprint beneath the smog-choking blackness to the other side of the street. The condensation from the steel pillars created such a relentless dripping that it transformed this once sunny thoroughfare into a dirt-clogged river Styx for cars. The cost was seven movie theaters, dozens of restaurants, endless mom and pop stores, butcher shops that raffled Christmas turkeys, and tidy affordable apartments — all shuttered. Moses did not plan for the increased industrial traffic that sprinkled into Sunset Park’s streets, just as he hadn’t for his many other freeways and bridges. Garbage and rats accumulated in the surrounding lots. There was violence and drugs and gang wars. The traffic tightened and slowed to a crawl, demanding more roads, more buildings to gut, more more neighborhoods to disrupt for the worse.

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Who was this man? And why was he so determined to assert his will? He fancied himself New York’s answer to Georges-Eugène Haussmann (even reusing a doughnut-shaped building for the 1964 World’s Fair that the Parisian planner himself had put together in 1867), yet didn’t begin to earn a dime for his tyranny until his forties. (He lived off his family’s money and secured early planning jobs by declining a salary.) He thought himself a poet (not an especially good one), but if he had any potential prose style, it turned sour and hard and technocratic by the time he hit Oxford and received his doctorate at Columbia. He worked seemingly every hour of the day and took endless walks, memorizing the precise points where he would later build big parks and tennis courts. And he loved to swim, taking broad strokes well beyond the shores in his sixties and seventies with an endurance and strength that crushed men who were two decades younger. Small wonder that Moses gave the city so many public pools.

After I finished reading The Power Broker, I wanted to know more. I found myself plunging into the collected works of Jane Jacobs (Jacobs’s successful battle to save Washington Square Park was left out by Caro due to the enormity of The Power Broker‘s original manuscript), as well as Anthony Flint’s excellent volume Wrestling with Moses (documenting the battles between Moses and Jacobs), an extremely useful volume edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson called Robert Moses and the Modern City that may be the best overview of every Moses project (and attempts, not entirely successfully, to refute some of Caro’s claims), as well as a wonderful graphic novel from Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez (Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City) which I recommend for anyone who doesn’t have enough time to read Caro’s 1,200 page biography written in very small print (although you really should read it).

I wanted to know how a man like Moses could operate so long without too many challenging him. His behavior often resembled a spoiled infant braying for his binky. When faced by an authority figure, Moses would often threaten to resign from a position until he got his way. Moses used this tactic so frequently that Mayor La Guardia once sent him a note reading, “Enclosed are your last five or six resignations; I’m starting a new file,” followed by city corporation counsel Paul Windels creating a pad of forms reading “I, Robert Moses, do hereby resign as _______ effective __________,” which further infuriated Moses.

The answer, of course, was through money and influence that Moses had raised through a bridge bond scheme floated through the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, with Moses as Chairman:

Moses wanted banks to be so anxious to purchase Triborough bonds that they would use all of their immense power to force elected officials to give his public works proposals the approval that would result in their issuance. So although the safety of the banks’ money was already amply assured by Triborough’s current earnings (so great that each year the Authority collected far more money than it spent), by the irrevocable covenants guaranteeing that tolls could never be removed without the bondholders’ consent, and by Triborough’s monopoly, also irrevocable, that guaranteed them that if any future intracity water crossing were built, they would share in its tolls, too, Moses provided them with additional assurances. He maintained huge cash reserves — “Fantastic,” says Jackson Phillips, director of municipal research for Dun and Bradstreet; “the last time I looked they had ten years’ interest on reserve” — and when he floated the Verrazano bonds he agreed to lay aside — in addition to the existing reserves! — 15 percent ($45,000,000) of the cash he received for the new bond issue, and not touch it until the bridge was open and operating five years later. Purchasers of the Verrazano bonds could be all but certain that they could collect their interest every year even if the bridge never collected a single toll. Small wonder that Phillips says, “Triborough’s are just about the best bonds there are.” Wall Streeters may believe that “any investment is a bet,” but Robert Moses was certainly running the safest game in town.

In other words, Moses pulled off one of the most sinister financial games in New York history. The Triborough Authority could not only collect tolls on its bridges and capitalize on these receipts by issuing revenue bonds, which would in turn generate considerable income for Moses to fund his many public works projects, but it was capable of spending more money than the City of New York. Which meant that the city often had to come crawling back to Moses. And if the city or the state wanted to audit the Triborough Authority, this operation was so incredibly complicated that it would require at least fifty accountants working full-time for a year in order to comprehend it. Government did not have this kind of money to place safeguards against Moses. Moreover, it needed Moses’s financial assistance in order to provide for the commonweal.

It wasn’t until 1968, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay put an end to these remarkable shenanigans by siphoning tolls into the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The bondholders might have sued over this. It was, after all, unconstitutional to uproot existing contractual obligations. But Rockefeller’s brother David happened to be the head of Chase Manhattan Bank. And Chase was the largest TBTA bondholder. In a glaring case of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” the Triborough Authority as puppet organization for Moses was finished. Moses was forced to abandon his role. And the man’s political hold on New York was effectively finished after four decades of relentless building and endless resignation threats.

It seemed a fitting end for a man who had maintained such a stranglehold over such a large area. Six years later, Robert Caro’s biography appeared. Moses wrote a 23 page response shortly after the book’s publication. Caro’s rebuttal was five paragraphs, concluding with this one:

It is slightly absurd (but typical of Robert Moses) to label as without documentation a book that has 83 solid pages of single-spaced, small-type notes and that is based on seven years of research, including 522 separate interviews.

Next Up: Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act!

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If You Were a Good Mother

If you were a good mother, you would have gone shopping every week in the way that even the most cash-strapped parents somehow manage when they have children to take care of. But you let the food run out and you kept it that way for weeks. You always told us that we could “fend for ourselves.” If you were a good mother, you never would have stopped at Burger King on your way home from work before handing my sister and me a dollar a piece to walk down to the AM/PM. This was your idea of dinner: have two small and hungry kids amble by themselves along an avenue with a sketchy sidewalk to purchase mildewy hamburgers from a gas station: thin tasteless patties on processed buns, without even the solace of lettuce and tomato, that had been sitting under a heat lamp the entire day — this as you guzzled wine and watched Love Connection on the couch, hoping to live vicariously.

If you were a good mother, you never would have allowed my father to poison me with his homebrew formula when I was an infant. I was sent to the hospital in coughs and sputters and came very close to dying. Those who witnessed this unfathomable incident recall him cackling with a cruel congratulatory glee just before he fired up a fresh Pall Mall. He never owned up to his neglect, much as you didn’t. I would learn the wrong lessons from both of you.

If you were a good mother, you never would have allowed him to bury my small sensitive head into the couch. He pressed the palm of his hand against my flailing golden curls, which were always in need of an overdue snip, and pushed my trembling nose into the couch. I couldn’t breathe. But that wasn’t enough for him. He gripped his firm and cowardly paws to my throat and, if you were a good mother, you certainly never would have let him try to murder me again — especially with my horrified sister watching this entire spectacle and bravely intervening. If you were a good mother, you would have understood that this man was dangerous, even before the accident that came about because he was too stubborn to wear a seatbelt, the accident that threw him through the windshield of a VW bus onto some part of Mowry Road as he shirked many responsibilities that I take very seriously as an adult, the accident that scrambled an already scrambled brain, an accident that has led me to rightly question and rectify the recklessness I appear to have inherited.

If you were a good mother, you never would have snorted lines of cocaine through your greedy beak (I never witnessed this and, because I am committed to truth and fairness, I am obliged to observe that this is an inference divined through what I learned later through life experience, but did you really think we didn’t notice the powdery mirror you kept on your bedroom floor?). If you were a good mother, you never would have imbibed several boxes of cheap wine each week or brought strange men over or left us with shady babysitters who committed unspeakable acts. If you were a good mother, you might have stopped the one babysitter who forced me to suck him off and another babysitter, just a few blocks away, who told me that if I didn’t touch her, she would report what a horrible child I was and what a bad mother you were — not that there weren’t kernels of truth to her threats. If you were a good mother, you might have understood that one of the reasons I was diffident for so many years was because of all this and that I needed therapy, not your chastisement or your phony encouragement because I couldn’t work up the nerve for a very long time to ask girls out, much less make a move if I somehow managed to land a first date. But I can do that now. And I’ve never done so much as a bump in my life.

If you were a good mother, I never would have destroyed so many friendships and relationships. But, to be fair, that fatal flaw is entirely on me. And to be clear, every mistake I have ever made is on me. I don’t know if you’ll ever understand that this is the way life works. I’ve seen echoes of your self-destructive tendencies in my own life, which I now watch and curb like the most formidable hawk. But I know how to act and to apologize and to do right. I’m so sorry that you still don’t.

If you were a good mother, you might have understood that my flagrant nips into the liquor cabinet all throughout high school were a method of smothering the pain.

If you were a good mother, you never would have locked me in my bedroom during the entirety of seventh grade. If you were a good mother, you never would have stood there, doing nothing as the second man you married locked me out of the house as I stood outside, shivering in little more than underwear and a blue blanket that had been nipped at by the dog and spending part of the night sleeping with shame and fright in a parking garage.

If you were a good mother, it wouldn’t be so painful to answer questions about my family from people who like me and want to know me and let me into their lives. Why the fuck do you think I was an interviewer for so many years? Aside from being legitimately interested in other people’s stories, it was a great method to avoid talking about myself.

If you were a good mother, you never would have traveled one hundred miles and broken into my apartment and made me call the police, who patiently explained to you why what you had done was not okay. You never would have sent me an anonymous package (try taking better heed with the postmarks) containing a copy of Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, the same copy that is now perched on the shelves of the woman I loved for nine years who threw me into the streets after she had, with ample justification, had enough of me.

If you were a good mother, I never would have longed for you to die, a terrible thought that I believed for far too long would release me. But I now know that I am the only one who can live with myself. I don’t want you to die, but I don’t want to know you and I don’t know if I can ever forgive you. When a social worker told me at my lowest point that you couldn’t be that bad, it took every ounce of personal strength to resist reaching across the table and beating him to a senseless pulp for his flip and uncomprehending remark about something that has caused me unbearable pain for so many years. But I know that, while we share parts, I am not you and that I am not my father and I know that there are other ways to react.

If you were a good mother, you would have known that leaving 120 comments on my website in less than 24 hours was highly disturbing. If you were a good mother, you’d know that sending me a relentless spate of packages (all marked RETURN TO SENDER by me and placed dutifully back in the mailbox) are the actions of a stalker, and that bothering me and somehow tracking down a phone number that only a handful of people knew when I was at my worst point disrupted my healing process. I was quite capable of healing and becoming a better person without you.

If you were a good mother, you would have understood that my incessant joke-cracking was a form of survival. You might have known that learning to laugh at yourself is a way of discovering humility. If you were a good mother, you’d understand that subsisting in a marvelous universe and living a happy life involves not assuming that you are at its center, but being grateful for every small moment and giving to others even after you’ve had a rough day or you’ve been terribly hurt. I remember the way in which you were ridiculed by the Sacramento Union when you were photographed in a ratty dress at a charity event and how you took this so personally that you badmouthed the newspaper. What the photographer did was cruel, but, if you were a good mother, you would have known that there were other good people who worked at that newspaper and that most people are kind and that these kindnesses outweigh the casual wanton acts that every human has to deal with. On the night of your 47th birthday, when we went to a comedy club in Old Sacramento, the host made a few cracks at you between acts and you took this so much to heart that I stood up midway through his verbal fusillade and diverted him with a comical aside, suggesting that I would fuck him if he kept up his advances. The audience laughed. After the show, when we were all consoling you, I went up to the host and personally apologized for your conduct. He asked if you were okay and offered to apologize to you, but you were already out of the building. You could not understand that he was putting on a performance. If you were a good mother, you would have faced him and discovered that he wasn’t a bad guy. You might have possessed courage. You might have brushed this off.

The crisp new outfit that you purchased every week over groceries, when your kids were skinny and starving. The new car you bought because, in your own words, it made you feel young. If you were a good mother, you would have understood that growing old is not something to be feared, that youth is a false ideal, and that life deepens as you push past your fortieth birthday.

If you were a good mother, you would have known that Mother’s Day and your birthday were the most horrific days of the year. You demanded that the world stop what it was doing and dump all its attentions upon you. You’d drink yourself into a sad stupor of self-loathing that made us very worried and very frightened. But we would always tell you that we loved you and that everything was going to be okay, when you were supposed to tell us that.

If you were a good mother, you would have known how to say “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” I had to learn this on my own. You remain incapable of saying these vital words to this very day. How many joyful moments have you missed because of your puffed up pride and your resolute narcissism?

If you were a good mother, you might have understood that taking me to a church on a weekly basis, where one member of the congregation said of me, “There’s something of the devil in that boy,” was not healthy for a budding atheist. I knew there wasn’t a god when my father burned me with his cigarettes and spoke to me in a calm voice just before beating the shit out of me. I know that no amount of faith in a fictitious entity would help me reckon with the deep burns.

If you were a good mother, you might have known that I reacted so hostilely to you selling your fur coat to buy me a guitar on my birthday because the gesture was not about celebrating my life, but about your sacrifice — something that never should have been an issue in the first place if you were a responsible person. But I have to hand it to you. My guilt did get me to learn the guitar.

If you were even remotely aware of why you aren’t a good mother, you would have taken precautions on the night I was conceived. While no one is ever fully prepared to be a parent when those two pink lines materialize, you refused to understand that, the minute you knew you were due, you had responsibilities to a new life and a duty to be a good mother.

If you were a good mother, you might understand that I am terrified of becoming you, that I am scared of having children even though I very much like kids and nearly every kid seems to adore me, that one of the reasons I allowed self-destructive behavior to subsume me for so long is because I share some of your terrible qualities. If you were a good mother, I never would have had to wait until the age of forty to tell myself with fewer doubts that I am a kind, marvelous, and happy person who has every reason to live and that, despite your behavior, I still deserved to be born. But I also know, even if you had decided to be a good mother, I probably still would have ended up a mess of a human being. But I am now far less of a mess. And even though I know that you have prayed for reconciliation after more than twenty years of silence from me, having you in my life remains an impossibility. Because you refuse to accept that you are anything less than a good mother.

janejacobs

The Great Urban Legacy of Jane Jacobs

BECOMING JANE JACOBS
by Peter L. Laurence
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 376 pages)

Washington Square, which was David Bowie’s favorite place in New York, remains one of the most peaceful congregation points in the city, open to all souls and hospitable to all classes. Its great marble arch spills a lambent glow on the many students, lovers, and artists who talk and love and perform beneath the leafy shadows. Skateboarders ollie around the magnificent fountain. Kids stage epic pillow fights and participate in vivacious lightsaber battles. Stanley Kubrick once played chess here. You will find a slightly grumpy musician hauling out his massive piano on the weekends, dutifully educating any and all receptive ears on classical music. Protesters have gathered here to redress this nation’s many ills. Beatniks (including future mayor Ed Koch) have played their guitars here, fighting valiantly through the ages against ignoble police crackdowns. The park is so naturally welcoming of outliers and oddballs that I have read aloud some of my strangest prose here many times, only to have smiling strangers accost me. “That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever heard,” said one man who gave me a five dollar bill last autumn. “Keep it up.”

Had it not been for Jane Jacobs, this magnificent monument to motley promise might have become just another concrete eyesore.

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In 1952, the tyrannical urban planner Robert Moses hoped to bifurcate the park with a loud road carrying the bestial name of Lomex (short for the “Lower Manhattan Expressway”), operating under the theory that automobile traffic should not be impeded by anything so fanciful as regular people chilling out on a Saturday afternoon. Moses, as documented with extraordinary detail in Robert A. Caro’s excellent biography The Power Broker, believed that New York City should belong to the cars. He was one of the most feared and inflexible city administrators that New York has ever known. But Moses met his match on the Washington Square fight.1

A brave woman by the name of Shirley Hayes, whose great efforts have often been overlooked by some historians, created the Committee to Save Washington Square Park. Jacobs, who was busy raising a family and writing articles for Architectural Forum, received one of Hayes’s flyers and, immediately recognizing the threat to city life, joined Hayes’s committee, wrote to Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri and Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner, and vowed to do anything necessary to fight Moses. The two women bonded over their love of Greenwich Village. Jacobs was greatly impressed by Hayes’s refusal to compromise for a less obstructive roadway. Jacobs began talking with local shopkeepers and started to attend city meetings. And it soon became apparent that the only surefire way to save the park was to make the fight a full-time job.

Moses countered with a submerged four-lane roadway alternative, but the neighborhood had caught on quick to Moses’s wily ways. Hayes, Jacobs, and an activist named Edith Lyons were, by this time, bombarding City Hall with thousands of letters opposing this wanton destruction of a major public center. Using her connections, Jacobs persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Lewis Mumford, Charles Abrams, and William Whyte to join the cause. And because Jacobs was as masterful in administrative acumen as Moses, she broke down the efforts of saving Washington Square into manageable tasks, reminding all in the neighborhood that they must not give into Moses’s efforts to buy them out or compromise. She was also shrewd in humanizing the battle. She often brought her three children with her when persuading the locals to sign the petition.

desapioBy 1958, Moses’s narrower road proposal was being seriously considered by the City Planning Commission. The committee appealed to Carmine De Sapio, a slick Tammany Hall man who never seemed to leave home without his sunglasses. De Sapio was then serving as New York Secretary of State. He believed himself to be a soigné sophisticate, but he was on the downslide due to his mob connections, the city’s growing exhaustion with corruption, and his inveterate tendency to sell out judicial nominations. Nevertheless, this somewhat crooked politico was a man of the Village and was one of the rare people who could smoothly resist Moses’s manipulation. (As documented by Caro, De Sapio once turned down an offer from Moses to place all of the Triborough Authority’s insurance money with one of the firms that Mr. Sunglasses was associated with.) And De Sapio, for all of his faults, did feel very passionately about the park. He couldn’t say no to the activists standing outside City Hall with their twirling pink parasols reading PARKS ARE FOR PEOPLE.

Jacobs and the Committee celebrated their triumph. Moses, never a man to accept defeat without imperious implosion and aggressive paperwork, made a last-ditch effort to widen the streets around Washington Square Park. But by this time, the city had tired of the squabble and hoped to move forward. Moses resigned as parks commissioner, effectively scampering away after Jacobs and Hayes won what had seemed to be an unwinnable fight.

Jacobs’s work in preserving the park gave her the confidence she needed. In 1961, she published her tremendously influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Many of the conversations she had with Village residents, along with the information she soaked up while organizing the battle, led to invaluable observations about sidewalks, public life, city grids, the need for neighborhood diversity, and faith in everyday people to forge and evolve great cities. But Moses’s Lomex scheming was from over. In the 1960s, his plans to raze neighborhoods for massive expressways resurfaced. Jacobs would fight these efforts too, this time operating with a working treatise on how to keep cities fun and vivacious. She even wrote a protest song with Bob Dylan and got arrested in 1968 during a meeting.

* * *

One hundred years ago, Jane Butzner was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Very little is known about her early life. Despite becoming a highly visible figure who went out of her way to speak with the people who created a neighborhood, she was fiercely protective of her private life and was often baffled by anyone who was interested in it. What we do know is that her parents believed that cities were the center of human life. This likely set off Jacobs’s lifetime preoccupation with the effect that cities had on human life, which extended even to the ways in which cities imported and exported products (The Economy of Cities) and even their impact upon nearly all economic activity (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, a smart and often needlessly ignored rebuttal to Adam Smith).

Jacobs wanted to be a writer from a very young age and had pieces published in the Girl Scouts magazine, American Girl, in 1927. She read poetry when she was eleven and continued to write verse well into the mid-1950s, a creative approach that would later be seen in the fictitious city considered in The Economy of Cities, the dialogue drive of The Nature of Economies, and even a children’s book published in 1990 called The Girl in the Hat.

Jacobs long presented herself as a humble woman who just happened to get involved in a major metropolitan scuffle. But a new biography by Peter Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs, has cogently argued that Jacobs spent many of her early years honing her knowledge about cities. As a reporter at Amerika, she was nimble in her supervising and editing and quickly worked her way up to publications editor, free to write articles on any subject she learned. At Architectural Forum, she studied urban blight quite closely and proved to be as divergent in her views as her editor Douglas Haskell. Jacobs and Haskell forged a working relationship that was predicated on exploring the social consequences of building. Both were determined to fix problems fast rather than wait around for some shining idealistic model to shimmer into being. Laurence points to the remarkable environment of architectural criticism at the time. Architects regularly threatened any critic with libel. And this resulted in many writers pulling their punches. But Haskell, a quiet firebrand who coined the term “Googie architecture” and who had just received the okay to be more bold and outspoken from the lawyers, told Jacobs that it was okay to throw a few stones.

Jacobs began to critique schools, hospitals, and housing projects in 1952. Laurence, who scoured through the Haskell Papers at Columbia, reveals that Jacobs was not only exceptionally enthusiastic about her work, but determined to publish project reviews before anyone else:

I have a plot to try to get him to change his mind, which I hope works, and it would probably help if he got a note expressing interest in these other things — especially Trenton which we ought to get our hooks into soon if we want it.

pruitigoeLaurence also points to early conceptual kernels that later grow into promising husks for Death and Life‘s wide-ranging fields, such as Jacobs suggesting that a college library build a transparent ramp to create “eyes on the street” (echoing her call for street watchers and good lighting on sidewalks). Yet Jacobs also had to live with Forum‘s misguided legacy, such as an egregious 1951 article (“Slum Surgery in St. Louis,” written by another author) that praised the troubled Pruit-Igoe project. Jacobs never named the source of the article even as she railed against Le Corbusier’s tower-centric excess in her most celebrated book. Yet in these early days, Jacobs was not immune from casting aspersions about urban blight. Her March 1953 essay “New Thinking on Shopping Centers,” which Jacobs later regretted, dispensed platitudes about creating “blightproof neighborhoods” and “higher land values.” In 1955, Jacobs also viewed a Philadelphia redevelopment project steered by Louis Kahn as a ripe opportunity for unslumming.

Laurence’s invaluable excavation into Jacobs’s early thinking not only allows us to see a prototype for the clear urban models she was to develop through her activism and her writing, but, as we see Jacobs shed some of her less inclusive views about communities, the early thinking serves as a rebuttal to the kind of wildly misinterpreted absolutism spouted by hacky gasbags at Slate. It is certainly true that the New Urbanists who have followed Jacobs have often been white and affluent. Even as a young man walking around the Marina District of San Francisco, which was in the early noughties nowhere nearly as affluent as it is now, I felt deeply annoyed at how gentrification had aligned itself so neatly with many of Jacobs’s enticing ideas. But anyone who has actually studied Jacobs closely knows that she clearly wanted to plan a city for everyone:

In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity, intricately mingled in mutual support. We need this so city life can work decently and constructively, and so the people of cities can sustain (and further develop) their society and civilization. Public and quasi-public bodies are responsible for some of the enterprises that make up city diversity — for instance, parks, museums, schools, most auditoriums, hospitals, some offices, some dwellings. However, most city diversity is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the formal framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop — insofar as public policy and action can do — cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish, along with the flourishing of the public enterprises. City districts will be economically and socially congenial places for diversity to generate itself and reach its best potential if the districts possess good mixtures of primary uses, frequent streets, a close-grained mingling of different ages in their buildings, and a high concentration of people.

And because Jacobs was more of a pragmatist than an idealist, Jacobs immediately followed up this passage from The Death and Life of Great American Cities with astute warnings on how diversity is prone to self-destruction (for any dimwitted skimmers banging out malarkey for Slate, that would mean gentrification), prescient caution about how the pursuit of profit for hot nightclubs and tourists “[undermined] the base of its own attraction, as disproportionate duplication and exaggeration of some single use always does in certain cities,” and a deep concern with the way building deprived localities of their diversity. Jacobs was well aware that sustaining a city required constant attention to these details, which was precisely the whole purpose of her final book Dark Age Ahead.

Jacobs’s Washington Square victory was a fight for one component of a neighborhood, not its entirety. And as we celebrate the one hundredth year of her great urban legacy — in an age when Uber and AirBnB have worked very hard to erode the very diversity that Jacobs was championing — her work is a vital reminder to be a part of our community in all its many forms. Our singular perspective is far from the only one.

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A Conversation with Thomas Frank

No matter what kind of liberal or centrist you are, there’s a good chance you’re likely to look to recalcitrant Republicans blocking Obama’s appointment of a Supreme Court Justice or a redfaced fount of colossal stupidity and cartoonish arrogance who is currently running for President as prominent harbingers of our national ills. But in his new book, Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank, co-founder of The Baffler and author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, has boldly pinpointed the blame for our growing woes at a Democratic Party that has increasingly turned its back on the working class, cleaves to austere notions of meritocracy, is more likely to serve Wall Street than Main Street (despite campaign rhetoric from years back), and continues to adopt policies popularized under the Clinton Administration that have drastically altered the way seemingly liberal politicians serve the people.

I caught up with Frank as he was racing around the country on a book tour. He was gracious enough to respond to my whirlwind of questions — for his book is very much an argument that begets argument — while adroitly pushing his way through the publicity cyclone. Our lengthy conversation touched on the professional class, progressive Democrats who don’t fit within Frank’s theory, the degree to which one should hold a grudge against a politician, and the kind of bold experimentation that may be necessary to reverse income inequality.

kennedybestEDWARD CHAMPION: Your book opens with an epigraph from David Halberstam’s excellent book, The Best and the Brightest, suggesting that Obama’s capitulation to corporate interests can be likened to some natural trajectory originating from Roosevelt’s Brain Trust to the many technocrats populating John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet who couldn’t handle Vietnam to the current “best and the brightest” Cabinet enforcing a “meritocratic” economy that has left many working-class people in the cold.

You point to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter calling Russia “unprofessional” when Putin launched airstrikes against Syria in the fall of 2015, as if bombing the bejesus out of another nation was akin to some middle manager throwing a tantrum over the room temperature during a pivotal board meeting.

I’m fascinated by this idea of any remotely dissenting comment being considered “unprofessional.” It seems a close cousin to the outrage culture that has popped up on social media, whereby any group outraged over an “inappropriate” remark proceeds to demand the immediate firing of those who uttered the sentiment. Both developments stifle necessary discourse that is needed to argue out a difficult subject. But I’m wondering how this relates to income inequality. Perhaps many Americans, from Obama on down, have become indoctrinated in a kind of voluntary censure of any remotely disagreeable opinion. And it cuts both ways. Obama did suggest in September that students were too “coddled” for complaining about offensive viewpoints. In all fairness, is this something that we can entirely level at corporate America? I doubt very highly that any brightly painted break room with pinball machines and Guitar Hero in the corner is going to transform workers into Babbitt-like conformists. So where are Americans learning these cues? What accounts for young voters rejecting the Faustian bargain with their support for Bernie Sanders (curiously unmentioned in your book) or, for that matter, mainstream Democrats who often vote against their own interests by endorsing an endless wave of centrist candidates?

THOMAS FRANK: What makes professionals interesting to me is that they are a privileged social class. They are not the billionaire Koch Brothers, but their top ranks include some of the richest people in the nation. Depending on how you define them, certain kinds of investment banking personnel are professionals, as are Silicon Valley CEOs, and most corporate managers, and so on. My goal in Listen, Liberal is to understand what happens when our left party is dominated by this cohort and dedicated to advancing their interests. The answer is: Income inequality grows and grows.

professionalsBasically, professionals are inequality on the hoof. They are inequality walking and breathing and singing little songs to itself about how noble and right it is that the tasteful and deserving people are on top and the boorish stupid ones are on the bottom. And then taking a break to smack their lips over a particularly piquant IPA or a delicately iced artisanal cupcake.

That professionals do these things —- that they sing their own triumph -— in a very nice and polite language really shouldn’t surprise you. The Victorians were the same way. The only thing that’s new is that this slice of our upper class has persuaded itself that their politeness is some kind of left-wing political virtue, that it somehow excuses or inoculates their class privilege, and that the bad manners of the lower orders disqualifies any grievances they might have against the system.

Bernie Sanders isn’t mentioned in Listen, Liberal because it’s a book about Democrats and he didn’t identify as a Democrat until very recently, which (by the way) seems to cause no end of annoyance for Democratic party leaders. I was fully aware of his existence, however, and in 2014 I conducted a long interview with him for Salon —- asking his opinion about Democrats, even.

The young voting for Sanders makes perfect sense to me. They are the new proletariat, saddled with crazy student debt and facing a world where the old middle-class dream is suddenly impossible. They did exactly what they were told to do —- go to college! study hard! —- and look at what happened. Look at what a shitty trick the adult world pulled on them. As soon as they were old enough to sign those student loan papers, we put them in debt.

CHAMPION: Your book spends a great deal of time quibbling with the way in which “the best people” are selected for prominent positions and for more lucrative jobs. But I don’t know if professionals can be entirely blamed for the vagaries that you ascribe to them. They may not be suffering like those who were victimized by lenders during the subprime crisis, but they too are motivated by the need to keep food on the table and must play the game if they hope to survive. If the professionals are being nice and polite, tweaking their LinkedIn profiles and marketing themselves at networking functions as “the best,” aren’t they merely succumbing to the rules and folkways of a ruthless capitalist system that no longer welcomes outliers or innovators? To what extent are professionals responsible for this apparent synthesis (to use a “professional” buzz word) between playing it safe and growing income inequality? When did this impulse start? Would you go out on a limb and call these professionals “willing executioners” (a la Goldhagen) in an altogether different nightmare?

FRANK: This is the biggest question of all, isn’t it, and it needs to be asked because I have sketched out a picture of a country in which invisible and even unmentionable forces like class interest seem to pull people this way and that. It is particularly noticeable because the people I’m describing are the ones we always think of not as being part of a “class” but merely as being “the best”: The highly educated people at the top of our system of status and respect.

I think they do have free will and agency, or else I wouldn’t write books like this one —- which is addressed to the very class I’m criticizing, with a big old index finger pointing at them from the cover of the book.

tedtalksSo I think they are culpable to some degree. They should know better. These are highly educated people we’re talking about and they should understand that much of their worldview is based not on fact but on superstition and prejudice —- their unquestioning attitude toward trade deals, for instance, or their knee-jerk contempt for working-class people. You mention their fixation on creativity and innovation, and it has always intrigued me that the literature of creativity and innovation is complete rubbish and yet they eat it up anyway, tuning in to the TED talks and going about their utterly un-innovative business.

The story has some complications, too. We have a powerful political party given wholeheartedly to the interests of professionals, but it seems not to notice that certain professions are crumbling (journalism, the humanities) and others are in danger of being corrupted altogether (accountancy, medicine, real-estate appraising). The professionals who have seen their livelihoods thus ruined are angry and even sometimes come to identify with blue-collar workers who have seen their cities destroyed by the Democrats’ great god “globalization.” But the party of the professionals doesn’t listen to these unfortunate members of its own precious cohort.

The ones out front keep playing the game, as you put it, weirdly unconcerned while the devil takes the hindmost. The devil will get to them too, eventually, but in the meantime the winners do not show any sign of awareness. That blindness fascinates me.

elizabethwarrenCHAMPION: But the Democratic Party is also the party of Elizabeth Warren, Barbara Lee, John Conyers, Robert Reich, and Donna Edwards, among other progressives. For all the justifiable criticisms leveled against Democrats for hewing too closely to mainstream neoliberalism — or, for that matter, the recent viral videos of Hillary Clinton refusing to address Black Lives Matter’s Ashley Wlliams on mass incarceration or angrily responding to Greenpeace’s Eva Resnick-Day — we are nevertheless dealing with a political climate in which “socialism” is no longer a dirty word. You criticize Reich’s The Work of Nations for endorsing the “symbolic analysts” even as he criticized income inequality and even as you point to his ongoing work against economic injustice. But is this really on the level of Deval Patrick joining the board of leading subprime lender Ameriquest in 2004 after fighting on behalf of the marginalized and the impoverished? Effective political reform is often about compromise. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson have argued that standing doggedly for one’s principles and refusing to compromise is an endorsement for the status quo. Is there an acceptable level of compromise that can reconcile this disparity between an indignant working class that feels left out of the process and what you identify as a lack of awareness from the “party of professionals”?

FRANK: I acknowledge of course that there are exceptions to my theory, and that there are lots of good Democrats out there. There may even be good Republicans out there. Robert Reich is one of the good guys today —- one of the best guys, actually -— but The Work of Nations, which he published way back in 1991, really got the problem of inequality wrong. It heaped praise on what he called “symbolic analysts” (one of many terms of endearment Democrats have made up for white-collar professionals) and announced that, in the future, we would all either have to join their ranks or serve them.

devalpatrickYou ask if that’s as bad as one of the missteps of Deval Patrick. I truly have no idea how I would make such a judgment. One is an influential book of economic theory, the other is a promising Democratic politician signing up with a notorious subprime lender. They are analogous deeds, in a way, but also in different categories.

Nor do I really know what the acceptable level of compromise is in some abstract way. I will say this, however: The entire history I trace is one of ordinary people’s interests being systematically ignored and overruled by a clique of upper-class liberals who are in love with their own virtue. They have no trouble with compromise in one direction. Leading Democrats are forever trying to strike a deal with the Republicans in Congress on Social Security and the budget —- think of Obama and his pursuit of the “grand bargain,” a phrase which was my working title for the book. But when it comes to people on the left, Democrats usually invite them simply to shut up. These are people they can’t stand. On this, see: The works and achievements of Rahm Emanuel.

CHAMPION: How does splitting hairs over a neoliberal position taken twenty-five years ago by someone who you now acknowledge to be a bona-fide progressive help us to understand how the Democratic Party has changed or what we need to do to combat it? Let’s contend with bigger fish. You heavily criticize Bill Clinton in your book. And I would tend to agree with you. Bill Clinton’s alliance with Dick Morris, his signing of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, his deregulation of telecom and interstate banking, and his willful repeal of Glass-Steagall all feel very much like the actions of a “bad Democrat” and the kind of narrative that gets swept under the rug in these discussions on how many Democrats aren’t terribly dissimilar from Republicans. I’m sure you’re familiar with the infamous story behind Bill and Hillary Clinton’s first date, which involved the pair crossing a picket line and offering themselves as scabs so they could see a Rothko exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery. This aligns neatly with the problems you’re identifying. But it also suggests that the more pernicious qualities of compromise lie dormant inside any politician who aspires to great power. You also observe that Obama’s three great achievements — the 2009 stimulus package, Dodd-Frank, and the Affordable Care Act — are undermined by Democrats who follow up with a professional-minded consensus. If we’re going to call out the “party of professionals,” don’t we need to consider the full narrative of how the more prominent figureheads have stood against the working class instead of singling out comparatively minor indiscretions from those who are now fighting against income inequality?

robertreichFRANK: You’re talking about Robert Reich and The Work of Nations again. My understanding of history is that we are supposed to seek the truth about how the past unfolded regardless of whether historical actors later change their minds or express regret for what they did. Bill Clinton has apologized several times for the 1994 crime bill as well as for many other things; that might make us think more highly of him as a person but it doesn’t undo the crime bill or erase its consequences from history. Similarly, The Work of Nations was an essential document of its time. It was very influential in the early years of the Clinton Administration. Its author was made Secretary of Labor. That Reich has changed his views since then is commendable —- and I think very highly of what he’s doing now -— but his conversion to a different point of view in recent years doesn’t change the political culture of the 1990s.

I most definitely think we need to underscore how prominent Democratic figureheads have stood against the working class, and in particular we need to look at their ideas and their legislative deeds. This is why I go into such detail on the legislative history of the Clinton years, focusing especially on the five items his admirers actually celebrated him for: NAFTA, the crime bill, welfare reform, deregulation of banks and telecoms, and the balanced budget. All of these were disasters for working people, either directly or indirectly.

The issue of compromise and consensus is a fascinating one. Democrats have been far more earnest seekers of consensus than Republicans, and I wanted to know why. This is one of the biggest differences between the two parties, and the “party of the professionals” hypothesis explains it perfectly. The politics of professionalism is technocracy, an ideology in which the solution to every problem is known to educated people and the correct experts. When they look at Washington, technocrats know that politics is just a form of entertainment that gets in the way of the right-minded; it blocks the educated people from doing what everyone knows is the right thing; and therefore technocrats always gravitate to the same answer: try to reach a grand bargain with the smart folks on the other side. Thus Obama on the budget, and thus Clinton on Social Security.

CHAMPION: History is certainly about understanding how powerful figures alter their viewpoints and adjust their positions. But if Reich was willing to change, why then is a putatively liberal government so unwilling to adjust its course? You point to how FDR employed experts — such as Harry Hopkins, Marriner Eccles, Henry Wallace, and Harry Truman — who were all outliers in some way, many with a lack of academic credentials that led to bold ideas and off-kilter policies. But Roosevelt’s response to financial paralysis was also famously guided by the mantra “Above all, try something.”

braintrustIt was certainly “bold, persistent experimentation” that Roosevelt called for in 1932, but some historians have argued that it was both the law of averages and Roosevelt’s centralized authority that allowed for his much needed reform to happen. If we want to repair income inequality, is our only remedy some autocratic figure operating in the FDR/Hamilton mode who is granted supreme authority and willing to employ any tactic to do so? Or are there other remedies that aren’t teetering perilously towards such absolutism? To cite one example of the Beltway dynamics in play here, it remains to be seen whether Republican senators will change their mind on potential Supreme Court Justice Merrick Garland, but the legislative opposition suggests that “bold, persistent experimentation” isn’t going to be allowed anytime soon and that any future Democratic President is fated to be hamstrung by the very technocratic compromise that you’re understandably condemning. On the other hand, “bold, persistent experimentation” — as recently documented by journalist Gabriel Sherman — is precisely what has allowed Trump to sink his talons into the 2016 election as much as he has. Trump is a perfect example of politics as “a form of entertainment that gets in the way of the right-minded” and this didn’t even come from technocratic Democrats. So is there any real hope for repair? Do you feel that there’s any truth to Susan Sarandon’s recent suggestion to Chris Hayes, mired in controversy, that a potential Trump Presidency might inspire more people to take a gamble on a progressive revolution (if that is indeed what is needed here)?

FRANK: As it happens, there was a golden moment for boldness and experimentation in recent years, and it came and went in 2009 after the collapse of Wall Street and its rescue by the Federal government. Many things were possible in that moment that weren’t possible at other times. But that particular crisis went to waste. Obama deliberately steered us back toward the status quo ante, and worked hard to get everything back like it was before. “The Center Held,” to slightly modify the title of Jonathan Alter’s second Obama book.

Regarding Trump: I am a big fan of Franklin Roosevelt, and I don’t think that Trump is comparable in any way. Being willing to go before the cameras and say anything, like Trump, does not really put a politician in the same category as FDR, any more than does being a jazz musician who is a great soloist or a comedian who’s really good at improv.

Your concern about the present situation possibly requiring an autocrat or an absolutist is very intriguing, however, and it’s a common fear. But flip the question around a little bit. The way I see it, autocracy is already here —- economic autocracy, I mean -— and democracy is the solution. It is true what you say about Roosevelt wielding power like few other presidents, but the things that really turned this country around involved economic democracy more than they did the heavy hand of the state. I am thinking in particular here of two things that we identify with FDR, antitrust and organized labor. Both of them involved challenging oligarchy by empowering countervailing forces, either competitors or workers.

Let’s talk about unions for a moment. They are profoundly democratic institutions even when they aren’t full democracies themselves (a common problem) because they extend the idea of democratic rights and voice into the workplace. For decades Americans thought of unions as a normal part of civil society, and yet today they are dying, thanks to the one-sided power of corporate management -— and the indifference of their friends in the Democratic Party. What’s awesome about unions is that they would help enormously to reduce inequality, and they would do it without the heavy hand of the state. No need for massive redistribution by Washington: just allow workers to have a voice, let them negotiate a contract with their employer, and they will take care of it automatically. More democracy will solve the problem.

fightfor15CHAMPION: But is democracy enough to combat economic autocracy? We’re dealing with a strong plutocratic base of mainstream Democratic voters and whatever fallout we’re going to have in this post-Citizens United political landscape. The “fight for $15” battle, arguably labor’s greatest recent development, is part of the conversation only because workers made this happen at the local level. There are also pragmatics to consider. Bernie Sanders gave a recent interview to the New York Daily News Editorial Board that has made the rounds. Aside from the stunning revelation that Sanders is unfamiliar with subway MetroCards (which is understandable), the larger concern was that Sanders appeared unable to pinpoint a precise method for breaking up the banks. At the beginning of the book, you describe a Seattle firefighter asking you if there was any economic savior that would prevent the middle class from sinking into poverty. You write, “I had no good answer for him. Nobody does.” If you’re asking the so-called “symbolic analysts” to jump on board the bus passing through Decatur, they’re going to need an answer. They’re going to need more than a loose theoretical idea of what the Fed can do to rein in JP Morgan Chase and corporate greed. What can you possibly tell them to shake them out of their status quo stupor? Is this a struggle where working and middle class liberals are fated to fight in their respective corners? How might technocrats be persuaded to become more inclusive beyond revisiting the historical record?

FRANK: There are all sorts of practical things that can be done to address inequality and halt the deterioration of the middle class; I mentioned two of the biggest in my last answer. Doing something about runaway financialization is also a good idea, even if Bernie Sanders couldn’t name the exact legal method by which he would do it in that one interview. Inequality is not an insoluble problem. What that firefighter was asking, however, was what kind of band-aid will be tossed to working people under our present course and our existing system. Clearly the answer to that is . . . nothing.

Well, maybe something. Maybe, under President Hillary Clinton, there’ll be microloans for all. Good times.

However, to make something real happen will require a major political reversal, a reversal in which politics once again reflects the interests of the country’s working-class majority. This will only happen if such people themselves demand it, and it heartens me to see that we are moving decisively closer to that this election year.

The main thing required of the comfortable liberal class in such a situation is to take a good long look at themselves and their happy world and understand that they aren’t the bearers of virtue and righteousness that the media constantly assures them they are. They need to understand that a good chunk of their political worldview is based on attitudes that are little more than prejudice toward people who didn’t follow the same university-based career path as them.

What they need is a moment of introspection. What they need is to understand that those people in Decatur are their neighbors, their relatives, their fellow Americans, and that’s why I wrote this book.

sarandonmsnbc

In Defense of Susan Sarandon: How the Pro-Hillary Media Distorted a Vital Dialogue

If you learned about Susan Sarandon’s remarks on Monday night’s installment of All In from a sensationalist Slate article written by Michelle Goldberg, you might have believed that the famed actress and lifelong progressive had called for balaclava-wearing Bernie Sanders supporters to throw Molotovs and overturn burning cars on live television. You might have believed that Sarandon had willfully aligned herself with the #NeverHillary campaign recently launched by Karl Rove’s super-PAC, basking in the prospective anarchy from a clueless tableau of Hollywood privilege. But after seeing Chris Hayes’s interview with Sarandon, I was stunned not so much by Sarandon’s remarks, which were observational and pragmatic and hardly evocative of Yippies levitating the Pentagon, but by the way in which Sarandon’s thoughtfulness had been so deliberately mangled by a “journalist” who had announced, only one month before, that she would be voting for Hillary Clinton.

Goldberg painted Sarandon as “a rich white celebrity with nothing on the line” and insinuated that she was part of a group of “posturing radicals on social media who pretend Clinton would be no better than Trump.” But Goldberg’s superficial remarks failed to fairly and accurately represent the far more important dialogue about what electing a compromise candidate to the White House really means. Can’t one have doubts about Hillary Clinton as President even as one simultaneously recognizes the threat of Trump? Why should such a position be shocking?

It was Chris Hayes who transformed the Sanders/Sarandon notion of revolution into “Leninist” with his leading question, not Sarandon. And it was Goldberg, cavalierly cleaving to Hayes’s framing, who trotted out the wholly inapplicable Ernst Thälmann parallel used so frequently to illustrate how German progressives failed to unite to stop Hitler’s election as Chancellor. Never mind that the German election of 1933 did not involve a two party election and that, should Hillary clinch the nomination, it is doubtful at this point that any Bull Moose-style third party will emerge to reproduce these conditions.

As Orwell once wrote, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” And the truth Sarandon was telling involved how income inequality, the erosion of the middle class, and the failure of career politicians lacking the spine to sign on for the Fight for $15, have caused a not inconsiderable number of Americans to place their stock in outsiders like Trump and Sanders. As I argued in December, one doesn’t have to be a Jacobin subscriber to comprehend that this is a perfectly natural response to an establishment that has failed to rectify serious injustices in any substantial way. We are living in circumstances that call for far more drastic progressive action than the Democratic status quo. This isn’t even that “revolutionary” of an idea, but it is revolutionary by weak-kneed American political standards. And if this quieter form of American “revolution,” which has been seen quite prominently with young voters flocking in droves to Bernie Sanders, is delayed this election cycle, then perhaps there is a stronger likelihood of a revolutionary front emerging after the atavistic horrors of a potential Trump presidency. That’s how revolutions work, you see. They revolt against an establishment. They don’t even have to be that extreme. But Chris Hayes and Michelle Goldberg refused to entertain these fine distinctions. For all their pro-Hillary pragmatism, they couldn’t seem to understand that you could play a comparable long game as a revolutionary.

Here is the pertinent transcript from the interview:

HAYES: Right, but isn’t the question always in an election about choices, right. I mean, I think a lot of people think to themselves well if it’s Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and I think Bernie Sanders probably would think this…

SARANDON: I think Bernie probably would encourage people because he doesn’t have any ego in this thing. But I think a lot of people are, “Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do that.”

HAYES: How about you personally?

SARANDON: I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens.

HAYES: Really?

SARANDON: Really.

HAYES: I…I cannot believe that as you’re watching the, that Donald Trump…

SARANDON: Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately. If he gets in, then things will really, you know, explode.

HAYES: Oh, you’re saying the Leninist model of “heighten the contradictions.”

SARANDON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Some people feel that.

HAYES: Don’t you think that’s dangerous?

SARANDON: I think that what’s going on now — if you think it’s pragmatic to shore up the status quo right now, then you’re not in touch with the status quo. The statue quo is not working, and I think it’s dangerous to think that we can continue the way we are with the militarized police force, with privatized prisons, with the death penalty, with the low minimum wage, with threats to women’s rights, and think that you can’t do something huge to turn that around. Because the country is not in good shape. If you’re in the middle class, it’s disappearing.

And you look, if you want to go see Michael Moore’s documentary, you’ll see it’s pretty funny the way they describe it. But you’ll see that health care and education in all these other countries, we’ve been told for so long that it’s impossible.

HAYES: Canada.

SARANDON: It’s like we’ve been in this bad relationship and now we have to break up with the guy ’cause we realize we’re worth it. We should have these things. We have to stop prioritizing war. And I don’t like the fact she talks about Henry Kissinger as being her goto guy, for the stuff that’s happened in Libya and other things I don’t think is good.

“I don’t know.” Not #neverhillary. “I’m going to see what happens.” A reasonable statement given that the final election is still a little less than eight months away and that there is still plenty of time to deliberate. “Dangerous.” The idea of even remotely considering how our present system isn’t good enough to help out the working and the middle classes, even under a Hillary Clinton administration, and using the probability of a Trump presidency to consider future momentum.

This really shouldn’t be that shocking. Thomas Frank’s recent book, Listen, Liberal, of which I will have more to say about in a forthcoming dispatch, doesn’t mention Bernie Sanders at all, but points to several examples of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama failing to honor the needs of the working class and willfully distancing themselves from the New Deal. It is no great secret that the last three decades of mainstream Democratic politics have been less about providing a safety net for hard-working Americans and more about enforcing conditions in which they will have to go into debt and willfully acquiesce to an unchecked plutocracy. And it is shameful that any criticism or uncertainty expressed about this Faustian bargain, which uproots lives and diminishes American potential, is now considered by apparatchiks like Goldberg to be akin to pissing in the pool.

I get it. The 2016 presidential election has become so preposterously cartoonish that it almost seems as if Donald Trump will soon act out grotesque scenes from Pasolini’s Salò before an appreciative crowd. Trump is a highly frightening individual who believes the Geneva Convention to be a problem and who seriously suggested that women should be punished for abortion, statements that were so unthinkingly extreme that two pro-life groups issued statements denouncing Trump’s comments. It is enough for any sane and rational individual to clamber inside her own shell, pointing to the problematic Kissinger pal going out of her way to tone down hard truths as the lover you’ll settle for.

Let’s talk about the “gormless unreality” of Senator Elizabeth Warren hitting the Senate floor denouncing oligarchy, corruption, and Citizens United. Or how Los Angeles has led the charge to raise minimum wage, causing California Governor Jerry Brown to propose similar reform at the state level. Or the nonpartisan efforts of Rootstrikers calling for Wall Street reform. Or how the Sanders campaign learned important lessons from Occupy Wall Street on how to build a movement.

These are developments that allow any progressive to maintain some lingering faith in a feral political system and that demand higher dialogue, not clickbait snipers distorting and demeaning radical ideas for a paycheck.

spivack

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Magical Realism

UNSPEAKABLE THINGS
by Kathleen Spivack
Knopf, 304 pages

For many years, magical realism felt to me like literature’s answer to a prop comic. It was the cheapest screwdriver in the author’s toolbox, an indulgent and nigh unpardonable offense on the level of the dreaded Third Act Misunderstanding whereby a character’s real motivations are revealed in an aloof and seemingly careless manner that could have been avoided had the protagonist only asked a few vital questions near the beginning. Magical realism was the entitled ruffian who hit you up for spare change yet never had any intention of working. Sure, you gave the fellow your last dollar anyway with the somewhat naive faith that he would either get his act together or, failing that, live interestingly, but you somehow got the sense that your offering was probably going to tallboys and meth.

In trying to understand why magical realism has irked me, I began to realize, conversely, that I’ve always sustained a love for fantasy and its many offshoots. There’s a great delight in reading any novel offering a smart and goofy juxtaposition of historical icons or mythical tropes. I think of Tom Carson tinkering with both Joyce and Sherwood Schwartz in his deeply underappreciated novel, Gilligan’s Wake (almost a couch potato counterpart to Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld novels) or the satirical thrust that fuels Angela Carter’s remarkable Nights at the Circus, in which a woman sprouts wings not long after she is hatched from an egg and joins the big top. I also enjoyed the wave of Bizarro fiction that sprung up a few years ago, which blew the lid off magical realism’s conceit by pushing it into punkish terrain that felt authentically absurdist. I certainly couldn’t resist the thrill of a panoramic phantasmagoria, such as the crumbling world contained within Mervyn Peake’s excellent Gormenghast trilogy. Writers like Fritz Leiber won me over into their imaginative worlds by imbuing such unforgettable characters like Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser with comic depth (or, in a more urban fantasy mode, the Jungian and historical references that Lieber weaved within Our Lady of Darkness). Octavia E. Butler and China Miéville have often made me forget that I was reading a fantasy altogether because they grounded their universes in vital social and moral questions. Clearly, I always needed a bit of what UCB improvisers call “base reality.” 1

So my reluctance has never been about what the artist is willing to conjure up, but the manner in which the story is told. I have held Pinocchio’s story dear to my heart ever since I first read Carlo Collodi thirty-five years ago. I’m happy to accept a piece of wood whose nose grows when he fibs because Pinocchio is imbued with the very human motivation of wanting to be a boy. By contrast, the Tim Burton film Big Fish infuriated me because the great myths that the protagonist invents to bury his pain felt tedious and mawkish: these were very human needs that, in execution, transmuted into quite obvious and soulless mechanisms to advance the narrative and called attention to themselves. But I never felt this way about Terry Gilliam’s ballsy and underrated Tideland, which also contends with how fantasy is a method to cope with the real. That was because Gilliam had the courage to depict, with incomparable poetry, how escaping reality was a double-edged sword. And his fierce vision, which even the cogent Jonathan Rosenbaum called a “diseased Lewis Carroll universe,” was a sharp and welcome contrast to the insufferably bourgeois and risk-averse Burton, whose contributions to magical realism and fantasy continue to resemble more of a desiccated bean counter than a genuine artist.2

Magical realism’s worst moments, such as the many cardinal sins committed by the wildly overrated Salman Rushdie, involve a tremendous contempt for the reader’s suspension of disbelief, almost a crippling anxiety to go the distance with something that is emotionally true rather than an “anything goes” choice. The bad magical realist always opts for the shoddy shortcut. For example, we are expected to buy into The Satanic Verses after two actors descend from the heavens from an exploding plane and hit earth without so much as a scratch. (Even when First Blood had Rambo plunge off a cliff face with barely a bruise, an altogether different sort of magical realism, at least the filmmakers were willing to show us that Rambo suffered from memories of being tortured in Vietnam. When a film helmed by the director of Weekend at Bernie’s respects the audience more than a Booker Prize-winning author, it is enough to cause pause.) To add insult to injury, this duo becomes an angel and a devil. Rushdie’s approach is especially egregious because it comes saddled with grandstanding claptrap in which this creative transgression is aligned with illusory import, such as this needless and quite awful sentence:

Up there in air-space, in that soft, imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic, — because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible — wayupthere, at any rate, changes took place in delirious actors that would have gladdened the heart of old Mr. Lamarck: under extreme environmental pressure, characteristics were acquired.

The searing chutzpah of this flagrant aside, which not only claims some tenuous association with Lamarck (the beginnings of a half-baked 550-page riff on immigrants vastly outshadowed by the work of Junot Diaz, Arundhati Roy, Alfredo Vea, and many more), but has the temerity to justify its lack of inventive prowess with the “anything becomes possible” line, was probably responsible for me feeling terribly queasy about reading anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende for a long goddam while. But maybe I detected, quite rightly as it turns out, that Rushdie was a man who was less committed to the art and more concerned with having a doting shoulder to cry on each year when the fine folks in Stockholm wisely denied him the Nobel.

Some years ago, Other Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Michael Crummey’s Galore. I very much enjoyed the novel and, when I talked with Crummey as he rolled through New York, I was relieved to hear that he was a bit discomfited by Marquez as well. I learned that Crummey was more concerned with reckoning with 19th century Newfoundland, in which much of its population lived hardscrabble lives that often ended around fifty-five. Galore, with its discovery of on albino inside a beached whale, felt to me like magical realism done right.

But now that I’ve read Kathleen Spivack’s Unspeakable Things, a book so jampacked with story strands that the only way one can really describe it is to point out that it involves émigrés who have fled from World War II’s turmoil and who are contending with unanticipated memories (apologies for the pat summation), I believe I’m now ready to stop avoiding magical realism. For long stretches of this wonderfully vivacious and often daring novel, it never occurred to me that the book was magical realism, even as the fingers of prominent violinists (the Tolstoi String Quartet, which appears to be based on the infamous Kolisch Quartet) express Nazi sympathies or one of its major characters (Anna, aka the Rat, called so for spending so much of her life sedentary) is physically transformed (complete with burnt-in handprints) after repeat sexual assaults by Rasputin. Spivack’s invention is rooted in a keen interest in prewar Vienna that has been reflected in many of her poems and a great love for music that, as Spivack revealed in a recent Rumpus interview, was carefully compartmentalized through playlists she selected for each character that Spivack would play while writing. Unspeakable Things is willing to impart an atmosphere through many moods. Aside from the aforementioned magical realism, there is a lyrical drive — such as an Esperanto-hawking idealist named Herbert in denial about his personal accomplishments, the ghost of Herbert’s gay son that seems to curl around any stray pipe, and the “keen animal sharpness” of New York’s harsh winds. There is an attention to telling gesture with the Rat’s constant smoothing of her hands against her clothes and a witty portrayal of the traveling musician’s life with an appreciative audience who leaves far too many casseroles at the violinist’s door.

One never feels betrayed by Spivack because her particular spin on magical realism is never used gratuitously. The Rat’s compulsion to dance, her exhaustion from an “an orgasm of endless talking,” not only serves the story, but is a subtle callback to Freud badgering his female patients during the Vienna Secession. Spivack is more inclined to explore the inner minds and hearts of her characters and the Holocaust’s lingering shadow through behavior that emerges from her characters. One never has to worry about some portentous “soft, imperceptible field…made possible by the century” that the reader MUST pay attention to. But just as Spivack’s novel strikes varying levels of invention to propel its narrative, it also manages to tap into a surprising well of hilarity, sadness, outrageousness, and foreboding within its engaging pages.

Interestingly enough, Spivack herself is seventy-seven and Unspeakable Things is her debut novel. And I very much wish this book had been around twenty years ago instead of the infuriating Rushdie. Because if this novel had been one of my main introductions to magical realism, I never would have soured on the form. And I certainly wouldn’t have taken six weeks to tell you why this book is worth reading.

Better late than never.

(Photo: Dominick Reuter)

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Why Nick Denton’s Carelessness with Hulk Hogan Threatens the Future of Journalism

On Friday, six ordinary people in Florida, none terribly acquainted with the tabloid sausage factory when they were selected to serve as jurors for an invasion of privacy trial, deliberated for six hours on a case involving a former wrestler. They decided that Gawker, in posting a two minute excerpt of a Hulk Hogan sex tape, had crossed the line. The stunning $115 million verdict leveled against Gawker, with punitive damages set to be determined next week, is likely to deracinate what remains of the Gawker Empire. As of Saturday morning, Gawker had not published any new posts.

This verdict’s implications are significant for anyone interested in the First Amendment. It could mean that journalists will begin to pull their punches on stories that are far more important than a famous figure’s pelvic thrusting. And in an age in which unconventional reporting has emerged with squirming innovation from the rocky shadow of traditional media’s crumbling calcite hold, this may very well hinder the often necessary work needed to expose divisive yet pivotal duplicities. In a post-Hogan media landscape, would Mitt Romney’s infamous 2012 video about the “47 percent” constitute “invasion of privacy”? Will Donald Trump’s literal war on the press, barring and attacking and intimidating reporters he “disagrees” with, be reinforced by a wave of perceived invasion buttressed by court decisions in the near future?

More lawsuits are sure to follow in Hulk Hogan’s wake. (Indeed, Gawker is set to battle another $10 million lawsuit from Ashley Terrill, who alleges that Gawker published “a false and highly defamatory hit-piece” that harmed her reputation. This additional suit was filed by Hulk Hogan’s attorney.) But if more juries conclude that journalists who indiscriminately post private information about public figures are committing serious breaches of their public duties, breaches that cannot be justified as “journalism,” then this will seriously impair the Fourth Estate’s vital role in our culture, which is to serve as a legitimate watchdog against corruption, hypocrisy, and wrongdoing through a commitment to fairness and airtight facts.

If press freedom erodes in the next few years, Gawker founder Nick Denton must be blamed for this. He operated with a level of irresponsibility and carelessness, willfully hiring a spate of reckless editors who ran his website as if they were grand tyrants of limitless hubris — whether it be former editor John Cook defiantly refusing to remove the Hulk Hogan post, former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio stating vulgarly and foolishly in a deposition that a sex tape would not be newsworthy if it included a child under the age of four, or the Jordan Belfort-like shenanigans of former Gawker editors Tommy Craggs and Max Read running up a $546 bill at a fancy restaurant before resigning in protest over a story that went out of its way to ruin a man’s life over sexual allegations that were never substantiated.

Denton, in perpetuating an office culture that was willfully adolescent and that opted for tawdriness in lieu of truth and decency, has not only set back his admirable ambitions to make Internet publishing something fresh and original, as smartly observed by USA Today‘s Michael Wolff, but he has destroyed the integrity of journalism: the impression promulgated not so long ago by the rightly celebrated film Spotlight that engrossing detail and rigorous pursuit of a scandal leads to essential conversations. Six regular people, representing a not insignificant perspective that many New York media mavens ignore at their peril, could not be persuaded that what Denton and Gawker was doing was right. And it is now up to journalists to win back the trust of America, to undo Denton’s considerable damage to an essential American freedom by refusing to skate on thin ice without grace, even as they perform jumps and spirals that we’ve never seen before.

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The American Political Tradition (Modern Library Nonfiction #93)

(This is the eighth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Contours of American History.)

mlnf93Before he became famous for delineating “the paranoid style in American politics” and honing every principled bone against the feverish anti-intellectualism one now sees embodied in everything from long-standing philistine Dan Kois decrying “eating his cultural vegetables” to lunatic presidential candidate Ted Cruz declaring gluten-free meals as a politically correct “social experiment,” historian Richard Hofstadter spent four years on a fiercely independent book that would go on to sell close to a million copies. The American Political Tradition was a Plutarchian overview of illustrious American figures ranging from vivacious abolitionist Wendell Phillips to Woodrow Wilson as closeted conservative. It was aimed at winning over a high-minded American public. Like William Appleman Williams, Hofstadter was very much following in Charles Beard’s footsteps, although this historian hoped to march to his own interpretive drum. Reacting to the toxic McCarthyism at the time, Hofstadter’s cautious defense of old school American liberalism, with the reluctant bulwark hoisted as he poked holes into the foibles of celebrated icons, saddled him with the label of “consensus historian.” With each subsequent volume (most notably The Age of Reform), Hofstadter drifted further away from anything close to a scorching critique of our Founders as hardliners enforcing their economic interests to a more vociferous denouncement of agrarian Populists and numbnuts standing in the way of erudite democratic promise. Yet even as he turned more conservative in later years, Hofstadter insisted that his “assertion of consensus history in 1948 had its sources in the Marxism of the 1930s.”

Such adamantine labels really aren’t fair to Hofstadter’s achievements in The American Political Tradition. The book is by no means perfect, but its Leatherman Wave-like dissection of American history unfolds with some sharp and handy blades. While Hofstadter is strangely reluctant to out Andrew Jackson as a demagogue (“He became a favorite of the people, and might easily come to believe that the people chose well.”) and far too pardonable towards John C. Calhoun, a rigid bloviator with a harsh voice who was one of slavery’s biggest cheerleaders and whose absolutist stance against tariffs under the guise of moderatism would later inspire the South to consider secession as a legitimate nuclear option1, Hofstadter at his best slices with a necessary critical force into many hallowed patriarchs. For it is the sum of their variegated and contradictory parts that has caused some to view the American trajectory in Manichean terms.

One of the book’s standout chapters is Hofstadter’s shrewd analysis of Lincoln as an exceptionally formidable man who dialed down his egalitarian ardor to zero the meter for his shrewd and very rapid political rise. In just four years, Lincoln advanced from an obscure attorney in Illinois to a prominent party leader in that same state’s House of Representatives. But Hofstadter cogently argues that Lincoln was far from the outspoken abolitionist who would later lay down some very strong words against those who would deny other people freedom. Lincoln not only kept his enemies closer than his friends, but he was exceptionally careful with his rhetoric, even though one eye-popping 1836 declaration proposed extending suffrage to women.2 Much as Franklin D. Roosevelt was very savvy about letting his political opponents make the first move before he acted, Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence’s very text as ammunition and inspiration for his justification for abolition, which come much later — Lincoln’s first public condemnation of slavery arrived when Lincoln was forty-five — than Lincoln’s many admirers are often willing to admit.

Hofstadter points out that Lincoln’s seeming contradiction between revolutionary politics and pragmatic interpretation of the law was not especially peculiar, but part of a nuts-and-bolts perpetuation of an ongoing political tradition, one that can be seen with Lincoln’s hard maneuvering with the 1851 conditional loan he issued to his stepbrother John D. Johnson. Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech was masterful rhetoric urging national reconciliation of the slavery issue, but he didn’t exactly go out of his way to out himself as an abolitionist. Hofstadter points out that in 1858, seemingly Honest Abe spoke in two entirely different manners about racial equality in Chicago and in Charleston (see the second paragraph of his first speech). Yet these observations not only illustrate Lincoln’s political genius, but invite parallels to Lyndon Johnson’s brilliant and equally contradictory engineering in passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act (perhaps best chronicled in a gripping 100 page section of Robert A. Caro’s excellent Master of the Senate). The American political tradition, which Hofstadter identifies as a continuity with capitalist democratic principles, is seen today with Hillary Clinton struggling against a young population hungry for progressive change unlikely to happen overnight, despite Bernie Sanders’s valiant plans and the immediate need to rectify corporate America’s viselike hold on the very democratic principles that have sustained this nation for more than two hundred years.

Yet this is the same tradition that has given us long years without a stabilizing central bank, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the Credit Mobilier scandal, robber barons, and Hoover’s unshakable faith that “prosperity was just around the corner,” among many other disgraces. Hofstadter is thankfully not above condemning lasseiz-faire absolutism, such as Grover Cleveland’s unrealistic assumption that “things must work out smoothly without government action, or the whole system, coherent enough in theory, would fall from the weakness of its premises” or the free silver campaign that buttressed the bombastic William Jennings Bryan into an improbable presidential candidate. On Bryan, Hofstadter describes his intellectual acumen as “a boy who never left home” and one can see some of Bryan’s regrettable legacy in the red-faced fulminations of a certain overgrown boy who currently pledges to make America great again. A careless and clumsy figure like Bryan was the very antithesis of Lincoln. Bryan failed to see difficult political tasks through to their necessary end. He would adopt principles that he once decried. His well-meaning efforts amounted to practically nothing. Think of Bryan as Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard to Lincoln’s Joe Girard. Hofstadter suggests that “steadfast and self-confident intelligence,” perhaps more important than courage and sincerity, was the very quality that Bryan and this nation so desperately needed. Yet in writing about Teddy Roosevelt and pointing to the frequency of “manly” and “masterful” in his prose, Hofstadter imputes that these “more perfect” personal qualities for the political tradition “easily became transformed into the imperial impulse.”

This is, at times, a very grumpy book. One almost bemoans the missed opportunity to enlist the late Andy Rooney to read aloud the audio version. But it is not without its optimism. Hofstadter places most of his faith in abolitionist agitator Wendell Phillips. But even after defending Phillips from numerous historical condemnations and pointing to Phillips’s “higher level of intellectual self-awareness,” Hofstadter sees the agitator as merely “the counterweight to sloth and indifference.” But Hofstadter, at this young stage of his career, isn’t quite willing to write off agitators. He does point to why Phillips was a necessary and influential force providing equilibrium:

But when a social crisis or revolutionary period at last matures, the sharp distinctions that govern the logical and doctrinaire mind of the agitator become at one with the realities, and he appears overnight to the people as a plausible and forceful thinker. The man who has maintained that all history is the history of class struggles and has appeared so wide of the mark in times of class collaboration may become a powerful leader when society is seething with unresolved class conflict; the man who has been valiantly demanding the abolition of slavery for thirty years may become a vital figure when emancipation makes its appearance as a burning issue of practical politics. Such was the experience of Wendell Phillips: although he never held office, he became one of the most influential Americans during the few years after the fall of Fort Sumter.

thealternativefactorThe question of whether you believe Hofstadter to be a consensus historian or not may depend on how much you believe that he viewed the American political tradition much like two Lazaruses forever duking it out for existence in the old Star Trek episode “The Alternative Factor.” He certainly sees a nation of political pragmatists and obdurate agitators caught in an eternal dead lock, which is not too far from the progressive historians who styled their interpretations on class conflict. But his fine eye for ferreting out the Burkean undertow within Woodrow Wilson’s putative liberalism or exposing how Hoover’s faith in unregulated business had him quivering with disbelief after Black Thursday suggests a historian who is interested in countering ideological bromides. Perhaps if Hofstadter had stretched some of his chapters across a massive book, his reputation as a consensus historian wouldn’t have been the subject of so many heated arguments among political wonks.

Fortunately, the next Modern Library essay in this series will investigate how one man fluctuated his politics to serve his own ends and reshaped a major metropolis through the iron will of his personality. That very long and very great book may be the key that turns the consensus lock. It will certainly tell us a lot more about political power.

Next Up: Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker!

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The Contours of American History (Modern Library Nonfiction #94)

(This is the seventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Promise of American Life.)

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History is never the thrilling Zapcat powerboat ride it can and should be when we remain committed to oaring through the same exhausted legends about American exceptionalism and bogus democratic promise. Much as we may find new insights into human existence by tilting our canoes to the ripples contained within a storyteller’s cadences, so too may we discover more complete ways of contending with our historical contradictions through the viewpoint of a responsible revisionist armed with the facts and rejecting the hard establishment line.

The revisionist historian, that charming and sometimes infuriating rabble-rouser never to be confused with some creepy Holocaust denier flailing in a sea of empty Cheetos bags and crackpot pamphlets, often gets needlessly maligned in America. Before Annette Gordon-Reed offered conclusive evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (upheld by a 1998 DNA test), Fawn Brodie was attacked by vanilla-minded legacy holders two decades before for pushing beyond James Callender’s tawdry trolling, daring to suggest that there was good reason to believe that our much heralded champion of the rights of man had skeletons in his closet that were vital to understanding his philosophy. Brodie’s book, despite its psychobiographical failings, led to a reckoning with our myths and assumptions about the Sage of Monticello, one that continues to this very day with college students demanding the removal of Jefferson statues on campuses.

Provided that their efforts do not involve going out of their way to Bowlderize troubling if incontrovertible parts of the story and the results are as expansive and as rigorous as their more timorous mainstream counterparts, revisionists are often vital reconcilers of the public record. It is the facile propagandist who ignores Rosa Parks’s radicalism to paint a roseate image of a meek and tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus (“small,” “delicate,” and “little,” as belittled by Bill Clinton in 2005) or who upholds the lie that Abner Doubleday created baseball.

In recent decades, many young students have ardently clutched their copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States with the taut adamantine grip of a Fallout 4 junkie reluctant to capitulate her controller. Zinn’s thoughtful volume has been vehemently denounced by some establishment historians who have questioned the perceived polemical emphasis of class conflict at the expense of other issues. But before Zinn, there was William Appleman Williams, a brash energetic troublemaker who was arguably a more rigorous scholar than Zinn and who was among the best and the boldest of the firebrand 20th century historians who emerged from a Charles Beard afterglow with ass to kick once the bubble gum supply ran out.

William Appleman Williams unpacked the economic motivations of American expansion and foreign policy in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and broadened this scholarship further with The Contours of American History, a punchy volume examining how imperialism and liberalism became a sordid double stitch intertwined in the American quilt well before the Sons of Liberty spilled massive chests of desperately offloaded tea into Boston Habor. Yet Williams’s often nimble analysis, riddled as it sometimes is with conceptual overreach, robustly articulates the ever-changing and contradictory American Weltanschauung that has motivated nearly every governmental decision since. He documents a worldview that started off with the relatively benign goal of creating and sustaining an economic nation that provided for everyone, but devolved under the autocratic yoke of Jacksonian democracy and Gilded Age greed to the corporate capitalist nightmare we are all trying to awake from today. And because Williams’s challenge to the so-called “American experiment” was so unprecedented in the mid-20th century, this historian was tarnished, besmirched, and condemned by other putative progressives who might have enlarged their rigid notions of national identity if they had been more willing to dive into the subtle words and actions directing the unshakable financial impetus.

Williams was harassed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, that despicably despotic body that ruined the lives of so many, with a demand to produce the unfinished Contours manuscript. The HUAC would order Williams to testify in Washington and then cancel the appearance by telegram once he’d hopped on a train to the Beltway. Even after he testified for ten minutes and the HUAC abandoned its witch hunt, the IRS harassed him in various forms for nearly twenty years. Williams was hounded by the neoliberalism critic Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., who dutifully condemned Williams as “pro-communist” to the American Historical Association’s president. Even as late as 2009, an academic called Williams an “idiot” before a Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations panel, decrying Williams’s approach to history as a crude retooling of Charles Beard’s infamous assault upon our Founding Fathers’s pecuniary predispositions.1

But Williams was far from a typical progressive. He was a registered Republican when he first came to Wisconsin. He voted for Nixon as the lesser evil in 1960. And even in Contours, he defended Herbert Hoover’s hands-off Depression era policies, seeing this as a necessary tactic to forestall property holders from creating a business-friendly fascism that could have had a more diabolical effect on our clime than the many Hoovervilles that had mushroomed across the nation. Williams argued that Hoover’s perceived failure to do anything represented a more active resistance against special interests than the Progressive Movement was willing to acknowledge or act upon at the time. And that’s the way this jazz-loving Midwestern historian rolled. As Williams was to write in a 1973 essay, the revisionist’s duty was to “see basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships. He is a sister and a brother to those who use old steel to make a zipper, as contrasted with those who add new elements to make a better steel.”

In my previous Modern Library essay, I castigated Herbert Croly for the historical developments that he could not see ahead of him, for erring too much in his perfervid belief in a central government and for diminishing the justifiable grievances of protesters. William Appleman Williams may very well represent the opposite problem: a historian who could see the implications of any action all too well, one who was willing to articulate any interpretation of the facts even if it meant being alienated by the jingoistic minds who needed to reconsider the other fateful historical trajectories upholding the status quo.

Williams’s highly specific examples very much allow him to sell us on his interpretation. In Tragedy, for example, Williams’s deductive prowess is in high gear when he examines how Woodrow Wilson’s March 1913 decision to refuse a government loan to China, one long coveted by American industrialists at the time (and later attempted privately), actually fell within the framework of the Open Door Policy. Many historians have interpreted Wilson’s pushback as a betrayal of American expansionism at the time, but Williams points to the lack of private capital available to fulfill the job as well as the possibility that any governmental loan, even one secured with the help of other financiers, may have been perceived as a very clear threat to neighboring Japan. The Open Door Policy, for all of its flaws and its needless sullying of China, was intended to provide a peacefully imperialist framework for a burgeoning American empire: a GATT or IMF before its time, though regrettably without much in the way of homegrown protest. (Rebellion would come later in Beijing with the May Fourth movement.) The ostensible goal was to strengthen China with fresh influxes of low-risk private capital so that it could withstand troublesome neighbors looking for a fight, even as the new obligations to American entrepreneurs forged hot rivulets of cash rolling back to the imperialist homeland. Wilson’s decision was, as discerned by Williams, a canny chesslike stratagem to avoid war and conflict, one that would keep China a servant to America’s riches. From the vantage point of the 21st century, this useful historical interpretation reveals Wilson to be a pioneer in the kind of venal and now all too commonplace globalization that morally bankrupt neoliberals like Thomas Friedman have no problem opening their old steel zippers for. Their free trade fantasies possess all the out-of-sight, out-of-mind justification of a revenge porn junkie ignoring another person’s real world humiliation for fleeting sociopathic pleasure.

It was with Contours that Williams blew the lid off the great American lie, exposing the American liberal’s failure to confront his own implication in much of the lasseiz nous faire madness. Williams traced the origins of our mercantilist approach to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the 17th century, Shaftesbury was a political figure who opposed harsh penalties and absolutist government. He stood up for the nonconformists and called for regular parliaments, and would go on to found and lead the early Whig party in the wake of the British Exclusion Crisis. While traveling to Oxford to remove an abscess from his liver, he hit it off with a young doctor by the name of John Locke. (There weren’t as many cafes back then as there are today. In the 1600s, you had to take whatever mingling opportunities you could get.) Locke, of course, would later have many ideas about the social contract, a scheme about inalienable natural rights that would eventually find its way into a number one ditty penned by Jefferson that would become known as the Declaration of Independence.

But there was a twist to this tale. As Williams points out, Locke’s ideas were a corruption of Shaftesbury’s more inclusive and democratic efforts. Where Shaftesbury was willing to rebel against the King to ensure that courts and alternative political parties were in place to prevent the government from becoming an absolute tyranny, even going to the trouble of building a coalition that extended across all classes to fight for these safeguards when not putting together the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, it was Locke who limited Shaftesbury’s remarkably liberal contributions by undercutting individual rights. Locke believed that those who owned property were perfectly justified in protesting their government, for they were the ones who had entered into a social contract. But the rabble who didn’t own property could more or less buzz off.2 As Williams put it, “[I]ndividualism was a right and a liberty reserved to those who accepted a status quo defined by a certain set of natural truths agreed upon a majority. Within such a framework, and it is a far narrower set of limits than it appears at first glance, the natural laws of property and labor were deemed sufficient to guide men’s pursuit of happiness.”

Yet those who subscribed to these early mercantilist standards believed that this classically liberal idea of “corporate structure” involved a basic responsibility to provide for everyone. And the way of sustaining such a benevolent national juggernaut was through the establishment of an empire: a Pax Americana predicated upon the promise of a democracy promulgated by patriarchs who not so quietly believed that the people were incapable of it.3 Williams observes how the Quakers in Philadelphia, who opposed expansion and much of the onslaughts against Native Americans, were very much committed to noblesse oblige, setting up hospitals, education, and philanthropic endeavors to take care of everyone. But this generous spirit was no match for the free trade nabobs or the hard-hearted Calvinists who increasingly shifted such solicitude to the propertied class (one can easily imagine Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glenn Ross “Always be closing” speech spouted by a Calvinist), leading the great theologian Jonathan Edwards to offer righteous pushback against “fraud and trickishness in trade.”

Against this backdrop, post-Revolutionary expansion and the Monroe Doctrine allowed mercantilism to transmute into an idea that was more about the grab than the munificent results, with visions of empire dancing in many heads. By the time Frederick Jackson Turner tendered his Frontier Thesis in 1893, mercantilism was no longer about providing for the commonweal, but about any “self-made man” looking out after his interests. Williams points to Chief Justice John Marshall’s efforts to enforce safeguards, such as his Gibbons vs. Ogden decision regulating interstate commerce, against the monopolies that would come to dominate America near the turn of the century. Marshall’s immediate successor, Chief Justice Taney, expanded the flexibility of the Constitution’s Contract Clause with his 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge decision, permitting states to alter any contract as it saw fit. While Taney’s decision seemed to strike the death knell against monopolies, it was no match against the consolidated trusts that were to come with the railroads and the robber barons. Rather curiously, for all of his sharp observations about free trade and expansionist dangers during this time, Williams devotes little more than a paragraph to the 1836 closing of the Second Bank of the United States:

[Nicholas Biddle] did a better job than the directors of the Bank of England. Under his leadership the bank not only established a national system of credit balancing which assisted the west as much as the east, and probably more, but sought with considerable success to save smaller banks from their own inexperience and greed. It was ultimately his undoing, for what the militant advocates of lasseiz nous faire came to demand was help without responsibilities. In their minds, at any rate, that was the working definition of democratic freedom.

Talk about sweeping one of the greatest financial calamities in American history under the rug! I don’t want to get too much into Andrew Jackson, who I believe to be nothing less than an abhorrent, reckless, and self-destructive maniac who claimed “liberalism” using the iron fist of tyranny, in this installment. I shall preserve my apparently unquenchable ire for Old Hickory when I tackle Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson in a few years (Modern Library Nonfiction #36). But Jackson’s imperious and irresponsible battle with Biddle, complete with his Specie Circular, undoubtedly led to the Panic of 1837, in which interest rates spiked, the rich got richer, a fixable financial mess spiraled out of control and became needlessly dangerous, and buyers could not come up with the hard cash to invest in land. Considering Williams’s defense of Hoover in both Contours and Tragedy, it is extremely curious that he would shy away from analyzing why some form of central bank might be necessary to mitigate against volatility, even though he adopted some fascinating counterpoints to the “too big to fail” theory decades before Bernanke and Krugman.

This oversight points to the biggest issue I have with Williams. His solution to the great imperialist predicament was democratic socialism, which he called “the only real frontier available to Americans in the second half of the 20th century.” While this is a clever way of inverting Turner’s thesis, to uphold this, Williams cites a few examples such as the courage of Wendell Phillips, a few throwaway references to social property, and a late 19th century return with Edward Bellamy and Henry Demarest Lloyd to the Quaker-like notion of “a commonwealth in which men were brothers first and economic men second.” But while Williams is often a master of synthesis, he falls somewhat short in delineating how his many historical examples can aid us to correct our ongoing ills. If the American Weltanschauung is so steeped in our culture, how then can democratic socialism uproot it? This vital question remains at the root of any progressive-minded conversation. But now that we have a presidential race in which socialism is no longer a dirty word and the two leading Democratic candidates bicker over who is the greater progressive, perhaps the answer might arrive as naturally as Williams anticipated.

Next Up: Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition!