listenliberal

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!

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The Promise of American Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #95)

(This is the sixth 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: In Cold Blood.)

mlnf95Before The New Republic devolved under Chris Hughes into a half-worthy husk of knee-jerk platitudes just a few histrionic clickbait headlines shy of wily Slate reductionism, it was a formidable liberal magazine for many decades, courageous enough to take real stands while sustaining vital dialogue about how and when government should intercede in important affairs. The source of this philosophical thrust, as duly documented by Franklin Foer, was the greatly diffident son of a prominent newspaperman, an unlikely progenitor who entered and exited Harvard many times without ever finishing, someone who suffered from severe depression and who, for a time, didn’t know what to do with his life other than play bridge and tennis and write about obscure architecture. But Croly found it in him to spill his views about democracy’s potential, what he called the “New Nationalism,” into a 1909 book called The Promise of American Life, which served as something of a manifesto for the early 20th century Progressives and became a cult hit among political wonks at the time. It partially inspired Theodore Roosevelt, who was proudly name-checked by Croly as “a Hamiltonian with a difference,” to initiate his ill-fated 1912 Bull Moose campaign as an outsider presidential candidate. (Historians have argued over the palpable influence of Croly’s book on Roosevelt, but it’s possible that, had not Croly confirmed what Roosevelt had already been thinking about, Roosevelt may not have entered the 1912 race as ardently as he did. With a more united Republican coalition against Wilson, America may very well have carried on with a second Taft term, with an altogether different involvement in World War I. Taft’s notable rulings as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which included extending executive power and broadening the scope of police evidence, may not been carried out in the 1920s. A book is often more of a Molotov shattering upon history’s turf than we are willing to accept.)

Croly’s book touched a nerve among a small passionate group. One couple ended up reading Croly’s book aloud to each other during their honeymoon (leaving this 21st century reader, comparing Croly’s thick “irremediable”-heavy prose style against now all too common sybaritic options, to imagine other important activities that this nubile pair may have missed out on). The newly married couple was Willard Straight and Dorothy Whitney. They had money. They invited Croly to lunch. The New Republic was formed.

So we are contending with a book that not only created an enduring magazine and possibly altered the course of American history, but one that had a profound impact on the right elite at the right time. So it was a tremendous surprise to discover a book that greatly infuriated me during the two times I read it, at one time causing me to hurl it with high indignant velocity against a wall, for reasons that have more to do with this gushing early 20th century idealist failing to foresee the rise of Nazism, the despicable marriage of racism and police brutality, growing income inequality, corporate oligarchy, draconian Common Core educational standards, and dangerous demagogues like George Wallace and Donald Trump.

But it is also important to remember that Croly wrote this book before radio, television, the Internet, women’s suffrage, two world wars, the Great Depression, smartphones, outrage culture, and 9/11. And it is never a good idea to read an older book, especially one of a political nature, without considering the time that it was written. I did my best to curb my instincts to loathe Croly for what he could not anticipate, for his larger questions of how power aligns itself with the democratic will of the people are still very much worth considering. Croly is quite right to identify the strange Frankenstein monster of Alexander Hamilton’s pragmatic central government and Thomas Jefferson’s rights of man — the uniquely American philosophical conflict that has been the basis of nearly every national conflict and problem that has followed — as a “double perversion” of our nation’s potential, even if Croly seems unwilling to consider that some “perversions” are necessary for an evolving democratic republic and he is often too trusting of executive authority and the general public’s obeisance to it. That these inquiries still remain irreconcilable (and are perverted blunter still by crass politicians who bellow about how to “make America great again” as they eject those who challenge them from the room) some 107 years after the book’s publication speaks to both the necessity and the difficulty of the question.

I’ve juxtaposed Croly’s meek-looking law clerk mien against George Bellows’s famous boxing painting (unveiled two years before Croly’s book) because there really is no better way to visualize the American individual’s relationship to its lumbering, venal, and often futile government. Croly’s solution is to call for all Americans to be actively engaged in a collaborative and faithful relationship with the nation: “to accept a conception of democracy which provides for the substantial integrity of his country, not only as a nation with an exclusively democratic mission, but as a democracy with an essentially national career.” On its face, this seems like a reasonable proposition. We all wish to belong in a democracy, to maintain fidelity to our country, and to believe that the Lockean social contract in which the state provides for the commonweal is a workable and reasonable quid pro quo. But it is also the kind of orgiastic meat and potatoes mantra that led both Kennedy and Reagan to evoke mythical American exceptionalism with the infamous “shining city upon a hill” metaphor. Dulcet words may make us feel better about ourselves and our nation, but we have seen again and again how government inaction on guns and a minimum wage that does not reflect contemporary living standards demands a Black Lives Matter movement and a “fight for $15.” And when one begins to unpack just what Croly wants us to give up for this roseate and wholly unrealistic Faustian bargain, we begin to see someone who may be more of a thoughtful and naive grandstander than a vital conceptual pragmatist.

Croly is right to demand that America operate with a larger administrative organ in place, some highly efficient Hamiltonian body that mitigates against “the evil effects of a loose union.” He smartly points out that such evils as slavery resulted from the American contradictions originating in the strange alliance between our poetic Jeffersonian call for Constitutional democracy and individualistic will and the many strains of populism and nationalism that followed. In his insistence on “the transformation of Hamiltonianism into a thoroughly democratic political principle,” Croly is suspicious of reformers, many of which he singles out in a manner strikingly similar to Norman Mailer’s “Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room.” He calls William Jennings Bryan an “ill conceived” reformer, claims the now nearly forgotten William Travers Jerome to be “lulled into repose” by traditional Jeffersonian democracy (never mind Jerome’s successful crusades against Tammany Hall corruption, regrettably overshadowed by his prosecution of Harry K. Thaw during the Stanford White murder trial), interestingly pegs William Randolph Hearst as someone motivated by endless “proclaimation[s] of a rigorous interpretation of the principle of equal rights,” and holds up Teddy Roosevelt as “more novel and more radical” in his calls for a Square Deal than “he himself has probably proclaimed.”

But Croly’s position on reform is quite problematic, deeply unsettling, and often contradictory. He believes that citizens “should be permitted every opportunity to protest in the most vigorous and persistent manner,” yet he states that such protests “must conform to certain conditions” enforced by the state. While we are certainly far removed from the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building that galvanized the labor movement, as we saw with the appalling free speech cages during the 2004 Republican Convention, muzzling protesters not only attenuated their message but allowed the NYPD to set up traps for the activists, which ensured their arrest and detention — a prototype for the exorbitant enforcement used to diminish and belittle the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years later. Croly believes that the job of sustaining democratic promise should, oddly enough, be left to legislators and executives granted all the power required and sees state and municipal governments as largely unsuccessful:

The interest of individual liberty in relation to the organization of democracy demands simply that the individual officeholder should possess an amount of power and independence adequate to the efficient performance of his work. The work of a justice of the Supreme Court demands a power that is absolute for its own special work, and it demands technically complete independence. An executive should, as a rule, serve for a longer term, and hold a position of greater independence than a legislator, because his work of enforcing the laws and attending to the business details of government demands continuity, complete responsibility within its own sphere, and the necessity occasionally of braving adverse currents of public opinion. The term of service and the technical independence of a legislator might well be more restricted than that of an executive; but even a legislator should be granted as much power and independence as he may need for the official performance of his public duty. The American democracy has shown its enmity to individual political liberty, not because it has required its political favorites constantly to seek reëlection, but because it has since 1800 tended to refuse to its favorites during their official term as much power and independence as is needed for administrative, legislative, and judicial efficiency. It has been jealous of the power it delegated, and has tried to take away with one hand what it gave with the other.

There is no room for “Act locally, think globally” in Croly’s vision. This is especially ungenerous given the many successful progressive movements that flourished decades after Croly’s death, such as the civil rights movement beginning with local sit-ins and developing into a more cogent and less ragged strain of the destructive Jacksonian populism that Croly rightly calls out, especially in relation to the cavalier obliteration of the Second Bank of the United States and the Nullification Crisis of 1832, which required Henry Clay to clean up Jackson’s despotic absolutism with a compromise. On the Nullification point, Croly identifies Daniel Webster, a man who became treacherously committed to holding the Union together, as “the most eloquent and effective expositor of American nationalism,” who “taught American public opinion to consider the Union as the core and crown of the American political system,” even as he offers a beautifully stinging barb on Webster’s abolitionist betrayal with the 1850 speech endorsing the Fugitive Slave Act: “He was as much terrorized by the possible consequences of any candid and courageous dealing with the question as were the prosperous business men of the North; and his luminous intelligence shed no light upon a question, which evaded his Constitutional theories, terrified his will, and clouded the radiance of his patriotic visions.”

But Croly also promulgates a number of loopy schemes, including making representative legislatures at any level beholden to an executive who is armed with a near tyrannical ability to scuttle laws, even as he claims that voters removing representatives through referendum “will obtain and keep a much more complete and direct control over the making of their laws than that which they have exerted hitherto; and the possible desirability of the direct exercise of this function cannot be disputed by any loyal democrat.” Well, this loyal democrat, immediately summoning Lord Acton’s famous quote, calls bullshit on giving any two-bit boss that kind of absolute power. Because Croly’s baffling notion of “democracy” conjures up the terrifying image of a sea of hands raised in a Bellamy salute. On one hand, Croly believes that a democracy must secure and exercise individual rights, even as he rightly recognizes that, when people exercise these rights, they cultivate the “tendency to divide the community into divergent classes.” On the other hand, he believes that individuals should be kept on a restrictive leash:

[T]hey should not, so far as possible, be allowed to outlast their own utility. They must continue to be earned. It is power and opportunity enjoyed without being earned which help to damage the individual — both the individuals who benefit and the individuals who consent — and which tend to loosen the ultimate social bond. A democracy, no less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognize political, economic, and social discriminations, but it must also manage to withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance. The essential wholeness of the community depends absolutely on the ceaseless creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy and their equally incessant replacement.

There’s certainly something to be said about how many Americans fail to appreciate the rights that they have. Reminding all citizens of their duties to flex their individual rights may be a very sound idea. (Perhaps one solution to American indifference and political disillusion is the implementation of a compulsory voting policy with penalties, similar to what goes on in Australia.) But with such a middling door prize like this handed out at the democratic dance party, why on earth would any individual want to subscribe to the American promise? Aristocrats, by their very nature, wish to hold onto their power and privilege and not let go. Croly’s pact is thus equally unappealing for the struggling individual living paycheck to paycheck, the career politician, or the business tycoon.

Moreover, in addition to opposing the Sherman Antitrust Act, Croly nearly succumbs to total Taylorism in his dismissal of labor unions: “They seek by the passage of eight-hour and prevailing rate-of-wages laws to give an official sanction to the claims of the unions, and they do so without making any attempt to promote the parallel public interest in an increasing efficiency of labor. But these eight-hour and other similar laws are frequently being declared unconstitutional by the state courts, and for the supposed benefit of individual liberty.” Granted, Croly’s words came ten years before the passage of the Adamson Act, the first federal law enforcing a mandatory eight-hour day. But Croly’s failure to see the social benefits of well-rested workers better positioned to exercise their individual liberty for a democratic promise is one of his more outrageous and myopic pronouncements, even as he also avers how the conditions that create unrestricted economic opportunities also spawn individual bondage. But if Croly wants Americans to “[keep] his flag flying at any personal cost or sacrifice,” then he really needs to have more sympathy for the travails of the working stiff.

Despite all my complaints, I still believe some 21st century thinker should pick up from Croly’s many points and make an equally ambitious attempt to harmonize Hamilton and Jefferson with more recent developments. American politics has transformed into a cartoonish nightmare from which we cannot seem to escape, one that causes tax absolutist lunatics like Grover Norquist to appear remotely sane. That we are seeing a strange replay of the 1912 election with the 2016 presidential race, with Trump stepping in as an unlikely Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders possibly filling in for Eugene Debs, and that so many Americans covet an “outsider” candidate who will fix a government that they perceive as a broken system speaks to a great need for some ambitious mind to reassess our history and the manner in which we belong to our nation, while also observing the many ways in which Americans come together well outside of the political bear trap. For the American individual is no longer boxing George Bellows-style with her government. She is now engaged in a vicious MMA match unfurling inside a steel cage. Whether this ugly pugilism can be tempered with peace and tolerance is anyone’s guess, but, if we really believe in democracy, the least we can do is try to find some workaround in which people feel once again that they’re part of the process.

Next Up: William Appleman Williams’s The Contours of American History!

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The Mark Twain Special (The Bat Segundo Show #552)

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This special program devoted to Mark Twain features an interview with editor Benjamin Griffin, who is part of the Mark Twain Project and discusses Twain’s legacy and his work on the three volume Autobiography published by UC Press, a conversation with historian Ben Tarnoff (The Bohemians), and a discussion with filmmaker Adam Nee and actor Kyle Gallner about Band of Robbers, the Nee Brothers’s very loose adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other Twain writings.

* * *

Music used in this program is licensed through Creative Commons and includes the following:

Lost Radio, “Mnemonic Presence”
The Raymon Lazer Trio, “Lola”
Kevin MacLeod, “Dances and Dames”
Sakee Sed, “Mrs. Tennessee”
Adrianna Krikl, “Say Goodbye”

The Bat Segundo Show #552: The Mark Twain Special (Download MP3)

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davidbwoie

David Bowie, Rock and Roll Chameleon Genius

He had crisp blue eyes, both of a slightly different hue after a childhood friend pierced one pupil with a fingernail during a fight, that could seduce any camera or crowd. He strutted all stages with a fierce lean mien under several forms and identities. His deep, cigarette-honed, intoxicating voice crooned during a tune before cracking unexpectedly into an otherworldly wail suggesting pain and playfulness that he kept from the public. He was a rock and roll legend and, like all good icons, he lived a sybaritic existence at times. Yet his musical accomplishments are worthy of our reverence and our accolades. For he worked more genres (glam rock, funk, folk, electronic, ambient, noise pop) in one lifetime than most artists can summon in a few years. And because his hold upon music and culture was so indomitable and without coeval, it seemed like he would live forever.

But David Bowie was mortal like the rest of us. Bowie, born David Robert Jones, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album Blackstar. And the cultural landscape as we now know it, a cesspool of risk-averse careerism and lassitude and the foppish pursuit of social media likes and followers, now has a hole that is about the size of the 181 mile crater near the lunar south pole: one that will take more creative energy and several distinct unparalleled visions to fill.

One listens to Bowie’s early pre-Ziggy Stardust albums — the cautionary “Quicksand” and the playful “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory, the many explorations of insanity in The Man Who Sold the World — seeing Bowie’s formidable cognizance of the world’s many traps and contradictions (he made several attempts to adapt Orwell’s 1984) and a sui generis talent who quickly surveyed the land and decided very fast to play the game entirely on his own terms. And then there are the later tracks — the gender-bending pre-grunge “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger, “Rebel Rebel”‘s incredible guitar lick on Diamond Dogs (his most covered track), the groovy “Stay” from Station to Station (to say nothing of the delightful “TVC15” from that same album) — that showed Bowie’s incredible ability to stay ahead of even his savviest audiences. Career reinvention was very much Bowie’s career. And he understood this well before MTV latched its image-conscious talons into the music world. But this often came close to engulfing him.

Bowie’s post-glam performance as Labyrinth‘s Jared the Goblin King had a tremendous impact on YA authors and will undoubtedly be cited as a shining exemplar of his influence, but this admirable pillar seems woefully insufficient considered against the edgier and more iconoclastic personae that Bowie donned during the 1970s. He took on identities like a man who could never have a large enough wardrobe. Like Miles Davis, Bowie’s commitment to his alter egos was austerely physical and often took a very personal toll, as can been in the above 1974 interview with Dick Cavett, with a sullen, sniffing (all the coke) Bowie poking the carpet with an outsize cane. During the mid-1970s, Bowie lived on a diet of red peppers, cocaine, and milk to sustain his Thin White Duke persona, who was a gelid and joyless man who wasn’t terribly pleasant to be around. The character was starkly Nietschean and often supported fascism, which matched Bowie’s return to Europe during the Station to Station years.

The albums stayed groundbreaking up to 1980’s Scary Monsters, which arrived with an innovative music video for “Ashes to Ashes” (seen above) that caused J.G. Ballard to remark how it was “like an extract from a surrealist movie.” But three years later, Bowie decided to cash in with a $17.5 million contract with EMI. He turned to Nile Rodgers instead of longtime producer Tony Visconti for a new album that signaled a more mainstream direction. Let’s Dance offered a respectable title single, one now relentlessly overplayed and one that cannot possibly sum up David Bowie at all, that gave the radio stations something relatively inoffensive to play (all of the lively work coming before that wasn’t “Changes” or “The Golden Years” seemed to be ignored by most DJs), but Bowie’s move towards lucre caused a severe damage to his long-standing relationship with Visconti (although the two would work together again on 2002’s Heathen).

Yet even Bowie’s shift to the mainstream couldn’t hinder the ever fertile Bowie from trying out experiments like 1997’s wonderful album Earthling (which came after Bowie toured with Trent Reznor) or Tin Machine, an underrated two album period in which Bowie took a more low-key frontman approach and shifted to a noisier sound.

But Bowie was at his best when he was driven by words and noise. Perhaps Bowie needed to sink in the quicksand of his thoughts in order to return as valiantly and as resiliently as he did. Bowie made changing your image look as easy as putting on a new pair of socks. If his life’s work can be likened to taking the complex and personally devastating and making it appear so simple, then David Bowie was an undeniable musical genius whose legacy we are only just starting to understand.

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79 Great and Essential Podcasts I Listen To Regularly (And That You Should Be Listening to Too), Part Three

This is the third of a massive three part article celebrating the many podcasts I listen to. To read the first part, go here. To read the second part, go here.

podcast45Pitch: Much like Imaginary Worlds, Pitch works the music realm with just the right rigorous touch, never too wonky about its subjects while shining the investigative light in some unexpected corners, such as how to run an independent record label in an age of declining revenue and an audio association that I thought I was the only person in the world to hold: namely, the iPhone notification sound’s close propinquity to the Beach Boys’s “Sloop John B.” But Pitch works very well when it gets into such outlier subjects as a consideration of the “bow chicka wow wow” porn music sound and how a porn composer goes about creating a sonic texture, which is a far more arduous and accomplished task than one might think. (Link)

podcast46PMACast- A Pretty Much Amazing Podcast: I have no idea if this tremendously useful musical podcast, which has prominently featured rocking indie staples, is permanently defunct or merely resting, but I am including it here in the hope that the producers resuscitate this show on a regular basis, for the clear passion and the fine assiduity that the producers (and guest contributors) put into finding new tracks was a very worthwhile part of my rotation. (Link)

podcast47Psychology of Eating: I am not really a fan of confessional call-in shows, largely because the people who produce these types of affairs tend to be predatory carnival barkers in the way that they respond to a person’s long-standing grief with pat reductionist answers that don’t even begin to chip away at pain’s lifelong hold upon a troubled person. Yet there is something both revealing and bizarre in Marc David’s approach that keeps me coming back. David spends an hour listening to someone — and it always seems to be a woman — coming to terms with her relationship to food and eating and how this has drastically unsettled her life, often her self-esteem, and her image of herself. These subjects are often living very good lives that they cannot seem to see and, through these conversations, we come to understand the insidious role that body image plays on many women, that the way in which these women seem to believe that they must walk the earth without a single ounce of fat on them is a remarkable and needless burden that deserves great consideration until we can inhabit a world that is more equitable in accepting people. (Link)

podcast48Radio Diaries: It’s hard to believe that this always fresh offering of notable historical figures has been around in various forms for twenty years. For this is often a tremendously moving portal into some of the important people who have slipped through the cracks — whether it involves tracking down Claudette Colvin, a teenager who refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks but who has been needlessly overlooked by historians, or listening to the perspectives of prison guards who hold watch over juvenile offenders in North Carolina and see and intuit more than you might think. (Link)

podcast49Radio Drama Revival: If you are in any way concerned with the present and future of radio drama, Fred Greenhalgh is your man. This is probably the best curated show around for contemporary radio drama, profiling the ambitious 3D efforts of the ZBS Foundation, the raw improvisational roots of Pleasure Town, and, upon the great Stan Frebeg’s passing, a loving retrospective. In addition to featuring lengthy shows in their entirety, Greenhalgh generously includes interviews with the producers involved with the shows that illuminate many behind-the-scenes elements. And the podcast serves as a tremendously reliable counterpart to the fine Scotsmen who run the aforementioned Audio Drama Production Podcast. (Link)

podcast50Radiolab: Much like This American Life, Radiolab established much of the lingua franca behind narrative radio. And with its rapid-fire editing, its commitment to layered sound texture, its thoughtful consideration of largely science-oriented topics, and the strange chemistry between hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, Radiolab remains an always reliable and always thoughtful staple in investigating such topics as the touch-and-go evolution of Candid Camera, the Cuban punk rock scene, and the creepy manipulation of human behavior by Facebook engineers. (Link)

podcast51Relic Radio Sci-Fi (Link), Relic Radio Thrillers (Link), and Strange Tales (Old Time Radio): (Link): If you want to get up to speed on old time radio (or are interested in exploring the Robert Johnson-like roots of OTR), these three podcasts are the ones you need to listen to. In addition to featuring old stalwarts like Suspense, X Minus One, Quiet Please in active rotation, there are also slightly more obscure shows like The Creaking Door, Inner Sanctum, and The Zero Hour included in the bunch. Old time radio has a rich history extending many decades, one inexplicably overlooked as we enter a putative “golden age of podcasting.” And once you begin to pick up on the theatrical cadences and dramatic energy that these old shows had to offer, which is hardly confined to the piqued cliches that some attempting to follow in radio drama’s footsteps are regrettably mimicking, you’ll start to get a sense of what podcasting may be capable of as it continues to blossom.

podcast53Reply All: Okay, I have to confess that there’s something ineluctably techbro and tendentious about Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt that can be very off-putting, even though this duo has started to actively pursue viewpoints well outside of their “Wassup?” default setting. The pair isn’t always fair to their subjects, often jumping on listeners to condemn a particular point of view before having a chance to take it in, and can be needlessly self-congratulatory at times (the obnoxious “Yes Yes No” segments, in particular, have got to stop). So why am I recommending it? Because Reply All is still a worthwhile contribution to tech-related podcasts, especially when the stories pursue some seemingly pedantic but surprisingly rich subject such as how the man who invented pop-up ads lives with his ethical legacy or the remorseless and obdurate vigilante behind Ripoff Report. When Reply All allows its subjects to speak and tell their stories, it offers interesting insights into how technology summons human obsession, for better or worse. So I’m not ready to give up on Reply All anytime soon, even if I wish that its two hosts would stop gazing at their navels and look more outside of themselves. (Link)

podcast54Ronna & Beverly: This podcast is so good that it is often hard to believe that this show, ostensibly helmed by two fiftysomething Jewish women from Boston, is actually the work of two extremely brilliant improvisers named Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo. The two stay resolutely and hilariously in character as they interview comedy and TV celebrities for more than an hour, probing noisily into a guest’s love life, bringing up Israel, dishing up celebrity gossips, contemplating the size of Jon Hamm’s penis, offering many politically incorrect observations, and torturing their sound engineer Sam about what he does during his outside time. When guests go along for the ride, such as this terrific conversation with Stephen Toblowsky, Ronna and Beverly excels at levels matched only by The Colbert Report. (Link)

podcast55Serendipity: If the future of radio drama is ripe with possibility, then Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson are determined to burst through its natural limits with Serendipity, a recently introduced podcast that counts five episodes so far of varying experimental range. The debut episode, “Every Heart Has a Limited Amount of Heartbeats,” established an uncannily vivacious standard of field recording, intense incantations, and aggressive collage that immediately seized my ears and refused to let go. And while subsequent episodes have offered slightly more traditional fare, there remains great poetic promise in this program to back up Heppermann’s bold call to push storytelling boundaries. (A good introduction to Serendipity‘s ethos can be found through this Radio Drama Revival episode, which includes an interviewer with Ann Heppermann.) (Link)

podcast56Serial: There’s been some debate over whether Serial‘s second season can match the first (with many gossipy ADD types abandoning Serial for the true crime Netflix sensation, Making a Murderer), or whether the current story of Bowe Bergdahl isn’t so much the work of Sarah Koenig, as it is Mark Boal putting together a movie with crass opportunism. But Koenig’s reporting is not to be gainsaid so easy. She has spoken directly with the Taliban and, while Bergdahl may not be as sympathetic a subject as Adnan Syed, Serial is still pursuing very important questions on how someone condemned for treason and cowardice should be understood through his own constantly shifting motivations, which has caused me to listen to each episode at least twice. (Link)

podcast57Seriously…: This is a recently retooled version of several BBC radio documentary feeds, which appears to be the Beeb’s effort to attract younger listeners. There’s less of the hardcore reporting behind Assignment and more documentaries about video games and the Whole Earth Catalog. But if you listen to both this feed and the Documentaries BBC World Service feed, you should be able to listen to a well-rounded series of offerings from across the pond. And you’ll need to. Because the BBC only allows you to download these programs for a month before closing the gates for good. (Link)

podcast58Song Exploder: The setup is simple: find a greatly revered song or piece of music, tear it apart, get the composer or the musicians to talk about it (often producing demos and, in one recent case, a crude voice memo recorded into a phone), and discover the often serendipitous creative process behind some of the more rocking tunes circulating the present cultural clime. The show has recently ventured into the stories behind soundtracks as well, with Harry Gregson-Williams relaying how he got signed on to score The Martian. One does wonder how long this formula will last or whether Song Exploder may now be angling itself to be less about breaking down music and more of a territory manipulated by savvy publicists. But for now, Song Exploder remains a solid sui generis podcast. (Link)

podcast59Spark: Nora Young is a highly energetic Canadian whose voice sounds unnervingly similar to someone I once dated and no longer want to have anything to do with. But these are my hangups, not Young’s. And I’d be foolish and pusillanimous to condemn an extremely worthwhile offering of Canadian culture simply because of an alarming euphony. Young’s smart and vivacious meditations on technology often tackle heavy-hitting issues such as the casual way that couples invade each other’s privacy, surge pricing, and the ever present problem of time management. And in a crowded field of tech podcasts, Young’s weekly dispatches prove to be winning thoughtful epistles. (Link)

podcast60The Sporkful: This recommendation comes with a caveat: host Dan Pashman has a a rather relentless laugh. Pashman laughs at everything: his jokes, a serious situation, an awkward situation. You get the sense that he sometimes laughs for the sake of laughing, that he would laugh unknowingly at a funeral or when doing taxes. It’s an alarming laugh. We all know some guy like Dan Pashman who laughs at all times, who makes us wonder if the laugh is sincere or some troubling automatic impulse that may require therapy. The good news is that, after ten episodes of being suspicious of Pashman’s laugh, I did finally come around to digging his show and accepting his laugh. Pashman mitigates against his tittering by not being pretentious (even though his laugh, as we have established, is highly suspect). He is a lover of all food, even if he is often very wrong about it (such as believing the hot dog to be a sandwich), and is curious and mindful enough to perform such sui generis investigations such as sandwich gender imbalance and what it is like to dine out in a wheelchair. The strange and perhaps truly laudable quality here is that, for all of these progressive considerations, Pashman is never sanctimonious about it. But he does have the laugh, which is now too deeply ingrained within Pashman to be remedied. But maybe that laugh is the way for all of us to better appreciate food. (Link)

podcast62Strangers: I first learned of Lea Thau after I stumbled upon her remarkable, must-listen, soul-baring “Love Hurts” series (1 2 3 4), in which Thau documented her efforts to find romance in stunningly honest detail: interviewing the men who rejected her, confessing her loneliness and her weaknesses, fiercely analyzing why she has stayed single and even subjecting herself to a questionable relationship expert. It was stunning and terribly brave radio that anyone in a place of loneliness and hurt might want to listen to. And this is, of course, what makes Strangers such an incredible program. The subjects, whether they be Thau or somebody else, are free to confess their most naked and humiliating feelings (such as a teacher who went years without learning how to read) and Thau’s intimacy forces us to empathize with them. Listening to Strangers, one finds great strength in confronting human frailties. And it is this quality, among many others, that makes several episodes of Strangers among some of the finest personal narratives to be found online. (Link)

podcast63Sword and Scale: On first listen, Sword and Scale might seem like a fairly sensationalist true crime show. But it’s far more than that. In exploring such intense topics as the 1978 Guyana mass suicide and the primitive human identity that we can’t shake, Sword and Scale willfully includes some of the most shocking and horrifying audio to buttress its viewpoint. But at its best, such as this investigation into media and gun violence, Sword and Scale succeeds in being an off-kilter, thoughtful podcast into our darkest qualities. The show does not shy away from anything (not even in discussing the human body’s deterioration) and, in so doing, shakes the listener out of a blinkered view to engage with difficult truths. Mike Boudet often narrates with an intensity somewhere between John Walsh and Arch Oboler, but it somehow strikes the perfect tone between theatrical drive and something oddly meaningful in the understanding. (Link)

podcast64Ten Minute Podcast: Will Sasso, Bryan Callan, and Chris D’Elia are reliably silly men for this goofy podcast, which features such dependable regular characters as washed up standup comedian David Greco, the warmly puglistic Everybody’s Dad, and Skype sessions with people who may or may not be bona-fide listeners. And it’s only ten minutes long, which means that even a flailing installment of this show doesn’t overstay its welcome too long. While the trio doesn’t show up together as frequently as they used to due to industrious show business careers, and the show is now on some kind of odd hiatus, I have a feeling that the show is merely regrouping for some newfound silly stage where it will surprise itself and its audience. (Link)

podcast65There’s Something Out There: Only five episodes of this fascinating podcast have been produced so far and one hopes that this isn’t the end. Because this is one of the best podcasts out there that attempts to wrestle with the wholly inexplicable: the incidents in life that one can’t quite explain, that often entail coming to spiritual or religious conclusions, but that all of us must contend with as human beings. With top-notch production value and something oddly journalistic in the way that the narratives are told, There’s Something Out There negotiates a smart balance between the factitious and the factual for which more podcasts, striving for authenticity, should take heed. (Link)

podcast66Thinking Allowed: When I first started listening to Thinking Allowed a few years ago, I was initially skeptical due to the apparent Anglophonic pomp and circumstance behind Laurie Taylor’s voice. But I’m glad I stuck it out with this extremely sharp and worthwhile program, which profiles sociology and ethnography in a breezy manner. (Link)

podcast67Third Coast International Audio Festival: Think of this as the nonfiction counterpart to Radio Drama Revival, whereby host Gwen Macsai and her team of dependable curators scour radio and podcasts to find the most moving and probing documentaries for these thematic programs. The show is quite happy to single out specific producers, such as formidable music documentary producer Alan Hall, whose moving portraits of Jeff Buckley and Elly Stone recently led me down rabbit holes that resulted in a rambunctious email thread with two friends over whether Stone was quite possibly the world’s most sensitive singer of all time. The regular podcast, Re: Sound, is probably responsible for me discovering more than a handful of the podcasts that are on this list. And there is no better showcase that I know of for some of the exciting voices flexing their talents in podcasting. (Link)

podcast68This American Life: Can Ira Glass be uptight, somewhat foolish, a little stiff, too reliant on the same music cues we’ve been hearing for more than a decade, and more than a bit condescending after twenty years? Absolutely. But he’s not to be discounted. Every narrative podcast in existence owes something to the way in which This American Life established many of the ground rules. And the show’s thematic approach still shows great resilience in chronicling the human, such as a recent collection of stories about people combating their fears, a wonderful investigation into what people are willing to do for love, and a rather marvelous Zoe Chase investigation into how fast food is named. Sometimes, Glass can be remarkably stilted in the execution of a thrilling story (such as this take on the Rabin assassination). But This American Life, for the most part, still delivers. (Link)

podcast69This is Actually Happening: The conceptual thrust behind Whit Missildine’s long-running program involves taking a seemingly unlikely human experience (living as a fake priest marrying people in Japan, a deadly shooting from a crazed shirtless man as a woman is driving in the middle of nowhere) and exploring every conceivable angle of what it was like to experience it without intruding upon the person’s story. Missildine layers the stories with moody music, but what I suspect he has truly set out to do is make the strangest stories more palpable so that we can broaden our notion of what existence is truly about. We have all experienced improbable adventures, but This is Actually Happening demands that we take these seriously. You leave an episode of Missildine’s program often in a strange and profound fog. That’s how good this show is at allowing another person’s intimate details to sneak up on you. It’s almost as if the listener is a kind of vicarious therapist unable to steer the details, but then that’s part of the point. (Link)

podcast70To the Best of Our Knowledge: Upon the first few listens, To the Best of Our Knowledge may seem like your typical topical compendium show: a casual rundown of notable names and fine minds offering the greatest cerebral hits for a public audience. But there is something quite subtly daring about Anne Strainchamps and Steve Paulson’s approach that has transformed me into a big fan. A recent hour devoted to the human voice featured several compelling segments, ranging from an African-American actor contending with casting agents telling him that he needed to be “more urban” to the way in which subtle patriarchal forces were singling out vocal fry to police the way that women are “supposed” to speak. To the Best of Our Knowledge also aired a particularly gutsy and thoughtful series on death over for several weeks, something that you really don’t hear much at all on a syndicated public radio show, that demanded its listeners to come to terms with mortality and its impact upon our lives. So Anne Strainchamps may seem to be a polite, urbane, and crowd-pleasing radio host. But as you come to listen to her, you begin to realize that she has a comforting dark streak and a wry sense of humor. Also, any show that allows punk historian Legs McNeil to get really pissed off on-air is good in my book. (Link)

podcast71The Truth: Spearheaded by the redoubtable Jonathan Mitchell, with considerable assists from such unsung improvisational wunderkinds as Louis Kornfeld and other dependable contributors from the Magnet Theater, The Truth is putting out some of the finest radio drama today. These are strange stories for our contemporary age, tapping into such moral quandaries as parental displacement, a delightfully satirical investigation into leisure, and an especially creepy story about damnation in the underworld. The Truth works as well as it does because it is committed to meaningful, somewhat soul-searching performances embedded within a calm and exacting atmosphere that is equally committed well-timed silences and faint rustlings. This gives The Truth a peculiar tension between something faintly comic and faintly fierce, feeling, at times, like a soundscape inspired from a David Lynch film. <(Link)

podcast72Unfictional: Whether it’s a woman who suffers from Cotard’s delusion or a man who unknowingly lived across the street from Whitey Bulger, Bob Carlson’s long-running forum for personal storytelling continues to deliver some truly touching tales, when it isn’t devoting one of its solid half hours to legendary radio artist Joe Frank or its annual 24 Hour Radio Race challenge, whereby producers are enlisted to write, record, and edit a story in less than a day. (Link)

podcast73The Urbanist: There is nearly nothing on the airwaves that I can find that explores city-related issues with such rigor and international reach. Think of The Urbanist as a radio counterpart to CityLab, where issues ranging from neglected delivery drivers to urbanistas are explored in rapid-fire bursts in so many locations that one wonders if The Urbanist has somehow enlisted a massive army of regular contributors ready to be activated into action upon one sinister call from host Andrew Tuck. (Link)

podcast74The Virtual Memories Show: When people ask me where they can go to find thoughtful discussions on literature after they learn that my own podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, is no longer in production, I send them to Gil Roth’s loquacious conversations with top-notch artists and thinkers. Roth has this strange ability to get someone to talk thoughtfully for a good six minutes based on one question. And when I met Roth for the first time at a Brooklyn coffeehouse, I realized that this was something he seems to be born with. For he managed to get me to ramble at length for six minutes in a way that I certainly never intended to and that I usually don’t. There’s always a moment near the end of Roth’s show where there is a sudden beat, followed by the question “So what are you reading?” phrased in an intense interrogative manner that recalls the Senate investigating the Watergate scandal, illustrating his real purpose: to keep curiosity and thoughtful wonder about books that fewer people read alive. It’s a game I’ve abandoned in radio, for life is too short to pamper the petulant infants of the literary world when there are real readers you can invite to your extravagant dinner parties, but one that I’m glad Roth is still keeping alive. (Link)

podcast75We’re Alive: This stirring zombie apocalypse drama packs as many characters into its unfolding story as The Walking Dead and has built up a massive narrative of more than 100 episodes that it is quite easy to get pleasantly gripped by. We listen to the characters as they face resource shortages and lose loved ones, but We’re Alive, through a settlement erected at an apartment complex, appears equally more committed to exploring parallels between our present world and the dystopian path not taken. (Link)

podcast76The White Whale: Anyone fond of baroque, somewhat experimental radio drama should be listening to the crazed efforts of CyNar Pictures, which features a strange tension between the making of art and the discussion of art erupts with every installment of this gargantuan potpourri of spoken word, the rambling conversations of The Yokai Trilogy (almost a DVD commentary without end), and whatever other whims erupt from these mysterious producers. who have been at work on this possibly aimless, possibly highly purposeful project for a good year. There is a ghost story of some sort beneath all this meta banter, but it’s up to the listener to determine whether the specter is something chased through the act of telling stories or talking about storytelling. (Link)

podcast77WideShut Webcast: I first learned of WideShut through an episode of Sword and Scale, when the two podcasts collaborated on a gripping story about the Hampstead Satanic cult, a truly alarming and far from resolved case of sex abuse and false allegations that should cause pause for anyone in our age of outrage. Political conspiracy is Keelan Balderson’s stock in trade and there are fascinating questions here on how media shapes our notion of evil and how we judge other people. (Link)

podcast78The World in Words: This pithy show, unrolled in twenty minute installments, investigates language, but is, like any good topical podcast, very much invested in the larger world. A recent two part investigation into fake accents in pop music, ushered in by this worthwhile effort to contend with the pop punk sneer, proved especially perspicacious, as did these insights into how ASL is tinged with a Philly dialect. For anyone obsessed with such pedantics (and I’m afraid I shall be to my last dying day), The World in Words is a casually probing and invaluable entry into the way we communicate and its impact upon all around us. (Link)

podcast79WTF with Marc Maron: Marc Maron has many gifts as an interviewer and as a comedian, but what he does so well with his highly entertaining show is the way that he gets at the root of fears and anxieties in himself and in his guests. It’s reflected in his longtime obsession with a Saturday Night Live audition with Lorne Michaels, one that he finally got closure on in November, and in the burgeoning empathy that has crept evermore into his lengthy introductions this year. Maron can be troubled and often angry, but what makes WTF such a wonderful listening experience isn’t just the way it documents the history of comedy and increasingly music (although this is often very interesting), but observing a man finally having the courage to mature late in life. Maron is deepening in ways he may not even know. And in its post-Lorne Michaels incarnation, WTF hasn’t finished growing by a long shot. (Link)

podcast80Zoe Nightingale: Zoe Nightingale is one of the funniest, most courageous, and gloriously iconoclastic interviewers around, who secured my unshakable loyalty when she somehow stumbled onto a story that drew many strikingly original connections between animal rights, homelessness, and rigid ideology and in taking her family to Burning Man, where she made valiant efforts to expose them unapologetically to pansexual possibilities. There really aren’t too many podcasters willing to go there like this. There’s something charmingly liberating about Zoe Nightingale. She’s just dangerous enough to push us out of our comfort zones, yet still committed to the celebration of life, almost an Iris Murdoch on steroids. (Link)