Tag Archives: Barbara Ehrenreich


21 Jan





Illustration courtesy of Anthony Russo



“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”*

Paying attention to the shit stream of information, polls, false news, Facebook hysteria and hand wringing and thankfully, eloquent opining on the forthcoming Bedlamite Reign (which is now at hand) it would seem that a great many of my fellow citizens are dismayed.

Include me in.

HL Mencken’s apparently prescient observation not withstanding, that such a nightmare should come to pass is a shock to the system. As it happens I have
spent some time (when not diverting myself from the impending darkness with literature (textual and filmic) watching the confirmation hearings ( being extremely thankful for Senators Warren, Franken and Saunders) and attending to the small circle of observers who I count on for spirited (and yes, humorous )commentary. That group includes Charles Pierce,, Chris Lehmann, Keith Olbermann, Andy Borowitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, George Scialabba, Rebecca Solnit, Henry Giroux and on occasion, Gail Collins. One wonders what Molly Ivins and Christopher Hitchens would have made of the evolution of neoliberalism.


Theme song for Dark Times

There is also Howard Zinn’s half century of dissidence  which offers many clues as to how he would view current events. One of the principles he held dear is expressed in this articulation of  Edmund Burke’s remark on activism.

History is instructive. And what it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper. Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.


Keith Olbermann has been cvertainly been around the media block. Currently, he is affiliated with GQ ( yes, the slick Conde Nast glossy) and his outpost in cyberspace is entitled The Resistance (which is a good a rubric as any, I suppose). Forgoing his penchant for bombast, Keith recently offered this bulletin to Trump supporters


William Greider, in the Nation in a piece called “Donald Trump’s Presidency Will Be a Fiasco for Donald Trump” mordantly suggests a note of hope;

… If Americans wanted a performer to run the country, why not pick George Clooney? Instead, we got a slightly demented carnival barker with gilded hair and a bloated ego. The fright and gloom are understandable, but I have a hunch Donald Trump has already peaked. He won’t go away, of course—he will be Mr. President—but the air is already seeping out of Trump’s balloon. The president-elect has amassed a huge inventory of dubious promises, and I expect this powerhouse of American politics to get smaller and less influential as the broken promises pile up…

…his governing vision, it was usually limited to 140 characters. His longer speeches, if you listen closely, are always about the same subject—the greater glory of Donald Trump. We still don’t know how much Trump knows about governing. Or how much he cares…





The Fortiefifth President of the United States


…President-elect Trump doesn’t seem to understand that governing is a team sport. It requires complicated cooperation and fluid policy arguments. Small details produce awesome differences. In other words, for Trump, it’s boring. Trump is a big-picture guy who treats the politics of governing like it’s high-stakes mud wrestling. And it’s all about him. He shows little interest in or knowledge of policy specifics and spews gratuitous scorn and ridicule on his opponents…

…Now he is to be our president, and Trump’s “magical realism” is about to collide with the hard earth of mortal politics. The president-elect and his staffers are already busy trying to distance themselves from some of his more explosive promises, hoping they get forgotten in the excitement of a new party’s taking power….


Rebecca Solnit in the London Review of books (From ‘Lying to Leering”:

Trump was the candidate so weak that his victory needed the disenfranchisement of millions of voters of colour, the end of the Voting Rights Act, a long-running right-wing campaign to make Clinton’s use of a private email server, surely the dullest and most uneventful scandal in history, an epic crime and the late intervention, with apparent intent to sabotage, of the FBI director James Comey. We found out via Comey’s outrageous gambit that it is more damaging to be a woman who has an aide who has an estranged husband who is a creep than actually to be a predator who has been charged by more than a dozen women with groping and sexual assault.

The pride of Providence Rhode Island Henry Giroux warns (warning Henry uses big words explicating a dense theory of pedagogy —he is nonetheless worth reading)

The United States stands at the endpoint of a long series of attacks on democracy, and the choices faced by the American public today point to the divide between those who are committed to democracy and those who are not. Debates over whether Donald Trump was a fascist or Hillary Clinton was a right-wing warmonger and tool of Wall Street were a tactical diversion. The real questions that should have been debated include: What measures could have been taken to prevent the United States from sliding further into a distinctive form of authoritarianism? And what could have been done to imagine a mode of civic courage and militant hope needed to enable the promise of a radical democracy? Such questions take on a significant urgency in light of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Under such circumstances, not only is the public in peril, it is on the brink of collapse as the economic, political, and cultural institutions necessary for democracy to survive are being aggressively undermined. As Robert Kuttner observes:

“It is hard to contemplate the new administration without experiencing alarm bordering on despair: Alarm about the risks of war, the fate of constitutional democracy, the devastation of a century of social progress. Trump’s populism was a total fraud. Every single Trump appointment has come from the pool of far-right conservatives, crackpots, and billionaire kleptocrats. More alarming still is the man himself – his vanity, impulsivity, and willful ignorance, combined with an intuitive genius as a demagogue. A petulant fifth-grader with nuclear weapons will now control the awesome power of the U.S. government. One has to nourish the hope that Trump can yet be contained. Above all, that will take passionate and strategic engagement, not just to resist but to win, to discredit him and get him out of office while this is still a democracy. We can feel sick at heart – we would be fools not to – but despair is not an option.”[1]

Trump’s willingness to rely upon openly fascist elements prefigures the emergence of an American style mode of authoritarianism that threatens to further foreclose venues for social justice and civil rights. The need for resistance has become urgent. The struggle is not simply over specific institutions such as higher education or so-called democratic procedures such as the validity of elections but over what it means to get to the root of the problems facing the United States. At the heart of such a movement is the need to draw more people into subversive actions modeled after the militancy of the labour strikes of the 1930s, the civil rights movements of the 1950s and the struggle for participatory democracy by the New Left in the 1960s while building upon the strategies and successes of the more recent movements for economic, social and environmental justice such as Black Lives Matter and Our Revolution. At the same time, there is a need to reclaim the radical imagination and to infuse it with a spirited battle for an independent politics that regards a radical democracy as part of a never-ending struggle.


Women’s March 22 January 2017

I could, of course, go on. Hopefully  you have overcome your despair (to which more than a few of my acquaintances have succumbed )and availed your self of useful social media and serious activist organizations to contribute to  coalescing resistance, Otherwise, to quote Edmund Burke:

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

Power to the Peaceful

  • HL Mencken

AutoBiography/Memoir in 365 Parts (#14)

10 May
Red  Birnbaum[photo, Cheryl Clegg ]

Red Birnbaum[photo, Cheryl Clegg ]

Literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, who grew up on the mean streets of Chicago’s Golden Ghetto,West Rogers Park, is also a veteran member of the Newton (MA) Little League umpiring corps (where he is known as Red) and a (bumbling, but) active father of a teen-age athlete. He contributes to a number of smart journals and maintains a relentless web presence at Our Man In Boston.He counts among his influences Nelson Algren, Ernie Banks, Golda Meir, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mike Royko, Leon Dupres, Hannah Arendt, Howard Zinn, Eduardo Galeanos and Barbara Ehrenreich. He lives in the working class section of West Newton with his pooch Beny.

Beny [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Beny [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

He claims to be working on his long awaited memoir Just Talking: Doing Things With Words.

Notes on Henry Giroux: # 2

3 Jan
The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

Radical critic Henry Giroux and scholar has been on my radar for a number of years. With Barbara Ehrenreich, the late Joe Bageant, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky he has formed a part of a useful palliative for my fears that advocates for social justice were sinking into predictable and useless sloganeering.Giroux’s new book,The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City lights)should with any winds blowing in a favorable direction, garner him some new readers. Bill Moyers, no raving radical,opines, “Giroux refuses to give in or give up. The Violence of Organized Forgetting is a clarion call to imagine a different America–just, fair, and caring–and then to struggle for it.” Here is a citation from the last chapter, “Hope in Time of Permanent War”, of Giroux’s new opus, which after the events of the past few months resonates loudly…

Democratic hope is a subversive, defiant practice that makes power visible and interrogates and resists those events, social relations, and ideas that threaten democracy and the public spheres necessary to practice it. Hope at its best pro- vides a link, however transient, provisional, and contextual, between passion, vision, and critique, on the one hand, and engagement and transformation on the other. But for such a notion of hope to be consequential it has to be grounded in a pedagogical project that has some hold on the present. Hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it identifies agencies and processes, offers alternatives to an age of profound pes- simism, reclaims an ethic of compassion and justice, and struggles for those institutions in which equality, freedom, and justice flourish as part of the ongoing networks, strug- gles, and solidarities for democracy everywhere.

Yet such hopes do not materialize out of thin air. They have to be nourished, developed, debated, examined, and acted upon to become meaningful. And this takes time and demands what might be called an “impatient patience.” When outrage and conscience are rendered silent, crippling the mind, imagination, spirit, and collective will, it becomes almost impossible to fight the galloping forces
of authoritarianism that beset the United States and many other countries. But one cannot dismiss as impossible what is simply difficult, even if such difficulty defies hope itself. Bauman is right, once again, in arguing that “as to our hopes: hope is one human quality we are bound never to lose without losing our humanity. But we may be similarly certain that a safe haven in which to drop its anchor will take a very long time to be found.”26 The future of American society lies in opposition to the surveillance state at home and its seamless connection to waging constant war and acts of aggression abroad.

Here’s a illuminating conversation between Giroux and Bill Moyers:

Notes on Henry Giroux: # 1

12 Aug
The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

Radical critic Henry Giroux and scholar has been on my radar for a number of years. With Barbara Ehrenreich the late Joe Bageant, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky he formed a part of a useful palliative for my fears that advocates for social justice were sinking into predictable and useless sloganeering.Giroux has a new book,The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City lights) which should with any winds blowing in the right direction garner him some new enthusiasts. Bill Moyers, no raving radical,opines, “Giroux refuses to give in or give up. The Violence of Organized Forgetting is a clarion call to imagine a different America–just, fair, and caring–and then to struggle for it.” Setting aside his quoting* James Baldwin in 2014 (James who?), here’s the opening to Chapter One

America—a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced, but celebrated—has become amnesiac. The United States has degenerated into a social order that views critical thought
as both a liability and a threat. Not only is this obvious in
the proliferation of a vapid culture of celebrity, but it is
also present in the prevailing discourses and policies of a
range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who believe
that the legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be reversed. Politicians such as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich along with talking heads such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Anne Coulter are not the problem. They are merely symptomatic of a much more disturb-ing assault on critical thought, if not rational thinking itself. The notion that education is central to producing a critically literate citizenry, which is indispensable to a democracy, is viewed in some conservative quarters as dangerous, if not treasonous. Under a neoliberal regime, the language of authority, power, and command is divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis, and social costs.

My kind of talk. More to come.

 JAMES BALDWIN  circa 1958 (photo Mottke Weisman)

JAMES BALDWIN circa 1958 (photo Mottke Weisman)

*People who remember court madness through pain, the pain
of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people
who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of
the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence.

Currently reading The People in the Trees
by Hanya Yanagihara (Anchor)

Gabbing with Lewis Lapham circa 1999

29 Jun
Lewis Lapham (photo: TK]

Lewis Lapham (photo: TK]

Lapham Quarterly’s editor Lewis Lapham was born in San Francisco in 1935 and was educated at Yale and Cambridge Universities. After graduating college he worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and later for The New York Herald Tribune. His second stint as Harper’s editor began in 1983 where in 1995 his monthly essays won a National Magazine Award for their “exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity”. He was the host and executive editor of Bookmark, a weekly PBS literary program broadcast between 1989 and 1991 (which he still complains shouldn’t have been taken off the air). His books of essays include, The Wish for Kings, Money and Class in America, Fortune’s Child, Imperial Masquerade, Hotel America, The Agony of Mammon: The Imperial Global Economy Explains Itself To The Membership in Davos, Switzerland and Waiting for the Barbarians.

I sat down and chatted with Latham in 1999 on the occasion of the publication of Lapham’s Rules of Influence: A Careerist’s Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation. I, then as now, find Lapham’s citation from T. H. White’s Once and Future King,as Merlin offers young Prince Arthur a cure for melancholy a resonant truth:

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then-to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never dream of regretting.

In what follows Lapham and I chat about celebrity, the state of journalism, the teaching of history, Yale University, Michael Thomas and illiterate CEOs and more.

RB: Is this book a change in strategy for you?

LL: Yes, but it’s not a deliberate change. It’s an accidental change in strategy. I had signed a contract five years ago, with Random House, to write a large book on Yale University. On what happened to Yale in the second half of the twentieth century—Henry Luce’s American Century— and use Yale as a stage in which to talk about the change in American order of values. And that was planned as a…

RB: Tome?

LL…tome. I actually went up and taught a class at Yale for a year in the English Department. I took a train every week. I’ d go up there and use it for my own purposes, to get to know the students but also to use the library and begin to do the research. And then it got so unwieldy, that I couldn’t do it and do the magazine at the same time. So I wanted to work off the contract. I wrote a column in the magazine, three or four years ago, that had some of these notions [rules of influence] in it. It had an invented professor in it as a device. Suddenly I got called up by 6o Minutes asking if they could put the professor on the show. I had to explain there wasn’t any professor. They were shocked. Three publishers also called wanting the name of the professor. So I thought what the hell, I’ll write a short book on it. I owe Random House two books to make up for the advance for the Yale [book]. They took this one and another yet to be named. So I’m going to be working off my debt for the next(laughs)…two years. So, that’s how it came up. It came up because of the response to the column and also because of my debt to the publisher.

RB: And what happens to your ‘Yale as metaphor’ book?

LL: Probably nothing. The only thing that could happen to that is…I’ll never write that tome because the scholarship is beyond me. I began to talk to people and the more I talked the more difficult and complicated it became. And I would have to stay two years in New Haven, talk to a lot more people. I’d asked to see the correspondence between [Yale] Presidents Griswald and Brewster in the sixties. And they brought me boxes. They would fill this floor. You’re up against that kind of thing. I conceivably could write a short essay, thirty thousand words. Maybe. Random House is not interested in that.

RB: They’re not interested?

LL: No, they were interested in…well I don’t know..

RB: The big book..

LL: They wanted a big book. Now, that was Harry Evans. He’s left. So, if this thing has any success. Maybe they will entertain the possibility of a thirty thousand word essay which I might be able to pull off. As long as it doesn’t pretend to too much. The tome was going to have to be large and ambitious and therefore you open yourself up to every conceivable kind of attack.

Lapham's Quarterly Collector's Set Vol. I

Lapham’s Quarterly Collector’s Set Vol. I

RB: I’m going to make some assumptions here but why would Random House think that a book on Yale would be commercially viable? That all Yale graduates would buy it? Is it possible there is a pure motive here and that a publisher simply wants to provide useful information to the world?

LL: I made the deal with Harry Evans when he was running it[Random House]. Evans is a very split character and his attitudes about the American Establishment…he comes from a mining family in Wales. He has all of the class suspicions of the Protestant elite in New York. On the other hand, he loves this country and he loves money and he loves glitz. There are contradictions in Harry. Which is one of the things that makes him a charming guy. When I first started to think about it, Beno Schmidt was then the president of Yale, and the place was in uproar. Light planes were flying over the campus towing signs saying, “Schmidt Happens.” The graduate students were on strike. The junior faculty was complaining that Schmidt was no scholar. Schmidt was trying to reduce the budget. It was a mess.

RB: He went from there to work on the Edison Project with Chris Whittle?

LL: Yeah. And he resigned. He told The New York Times before he told the trustees. Looking at it from the outside, the simple line of the story was “a once glorious bastion of Protestant morality and wealth descends into the pit of corruption and multi-culturalism…courses in pornography”. And Harry loved that plot line. He thought it would sell. Of course, the more I found out the harder it was to maintain the clarity of that line. I mean, yeah some of that is true but there are a lot of other things that are also true. When was the University any better? The more I got involved in the history of Yale…you could have said a lot of the things that are now being said , you could have said in mid nineteenth century. And there’s always the saving remnant. And the saving remnant is the students. And a few faculty guys. But that’s always the way it is. So it got more interesting but it got less polemical. Meanwhile, Harry had moved on…

RB: To his new position.

LL: (laughs)… to his new position. So, that’s in limbo. I don’t know if they would be interested in an essay on it. I could conceivably could write a book on the social history of golf. Which might satisfy them[Random House] because there is clearly a market. That’s a commercial possibility.

RB: No one’s done it?

LL: No, no one’s done it. There’s a book on golf every year. That’s probably gonna be my next book.

RB: Why have the book and magazine industries become large subject matters of their own? Why is there so much interest in the ‘inside baseball’ stuff on book and magazine publishing?

LL: I don’t know. I don’t understand it. I don’t know who the audience is, for example, for [now defunct]Brill’s Content. It would never occur to me to read that magazine. I don’t want to know. I’m willing to read The New York Observer and that’s about it. That’s like the shiny sheet, like the Gossip Gazette. It is the world of the Court. In other words, it becomes the Hall of Mirrors and they become preoccupied with themselves. And a form of self promotion. They are all like the court people, they’re insecure. Trying to make themselves more than, I think, should be made of them. It’s self absorption. And I honestly don’t know who the hell is interested in it beyond those of us that are in the racket or in the same maze. I don’t think it sells. I can understand Hollywood people selling. I mean Vanity Fair works because Graydon[Carter, editor of VF] makes sure Nicole Kidman or someone like her is in every issue or on every cover. That gives you lovely photographs…I can understand that about movie stars. But I can’t really care about Peter Jennings. Or William Safire’s love life is not one that I’m following closely. Its the emphasis on the self. It’s self absorption.

RB: Is it possible that once someone’s name appears in type and they some how move up into celebrityhood than it no longer matters what the original instance of their celebrity was? This is a farfetched example, Peter Jennings might be a celebrity to some people who don’t know who he is?

Lapham's Quarterly, Collector's Set Vol. II

Lapham’s Quarterly, Collector’s Set Vol. II

LL: Yea, its possible. He might become part of the repertory company. One of the minor divinities sitting around on Mt. Olympus with…that’s of course the premise of George magazine. (Laughs)

RB:(also laughs) Politics without the policy?

LL: Yea, politics with nothing but the celebrity part of it, nothing but the gossip part. No politics in it at all. But you may be right. You reach a certain magnitude of celebrity and it doesn’t matter any more. You are ‘Peter Jennings’. It seems to me that the media people are the seediest of the lot. I can understand it with sports figures. I can understand it with uh…Business guys keep trying to do this too. Become the great lord of creation…poor Mortimer Zuckerman is constantly hoping be anointed. He never quite makes it. I don’t understand why. He’s in print all the time and he’ll show up at any television camera….

RB: Charley Rose will have him on his show as a commentator…

LL: Charley Rose…yea, so. There was a period there when corporate CEOs were actually appearing the ads. Thy were trying to sell their tire or their house, airline…

Lapham's Quarterly, Collector's Set Vol. IV

Lapham’s Quarterly, Collector’s Set Vol. IV

RB: Remember Rula Lenska? She was the most obvious TV commercial person —I had no I idea who she was…

LL: I agree with you. I mean, “Hi, I’m whoever…” McCluhan makes the point in Understanding Media, that with the electronic medium, television, the actor takes precedence over the act. It becomes personality, it becomes celebrity. Then there is the illusion of immortality. Because you can be in four places at once. You can be in New York, but on cable in Mexico City. And some movie you’ve done your in Africa…

RB: Celebrity doesn’t take place in rea time.

LL: No. I can remember walking into a party at [George]Plimpton’s. One of Plimpton’s sixties’ parties. And it was the super model of the day, someone like Verushka. Here was Verushka in the room. And it was set up with tv cameras that were in several rooms. So I could be in the room with Verushka and I could see her on the closed circuit tv. And there was also an ad that was running had appeared. Then she had some small part in a movie and that was playing too. It isn’t real time and therefore it becomes like Mt. Olympus, the Immortals. Omnipresent. Traveling effortlessly. Because you never get a sense of how they got to Mexico City or got to the summit conference. They’re just there. Godlike. It has that kind of an element to it. So people who crave that seek that kind of limelight and the public apparently…its like the ancient Greeks, when the wood nymph or the stream or the tree was supposed to have a trace element of divinity in it. You can think of People magazine as our little woodland shrine. A small temple. Or GQ. Look at all the magazines that are now doing this. The New Yorker. GQ. Esquire. And so on. People believe that to be next to celebrity or to be next to someone of great wealth is to be, for the moment, anointed. I can remember when I worked for the Saturday Evening Post in the sixties. I was assigned to the White House press corps for about four months. With Johnson. In those days the press corps was still allowed to travel on Air Force One. There were several veteran reporters who were afraid of flying. But when they were on Air Force One they were happy because they thought that in an orderly universe that god wouldn’t strike down the president’s plane, “I am here with Zeus and therefore for the time being I am safe”. It’s the only time these guys had an anxiety free plane ride. And I’ve met people who feel the same way if they’re with a CEO whose net worth is over two hundred billion dollars.[laughs] There is some number at which god no longer dares to erase you from the sky. There is something like that about celebrity. They walk into a room and suddenly you feel like instead of being nowhere, suddenly you are somewhere because Tom Cruise is also here. Therefore this has to be real.

RB: And there is the corollary phenomenon of six degrees of separation.

LL: Yea. I can remember I went to a cocktail party when Kennedy was president. You take a girl to dinner and then maybe you end up at the girl’s apartment after dinner. She would have a box of White House matches on the bedside table. This is to improve her own…somehow you make love to the girl and you go through the golden door and you get connecetd to Kennedy. It was the same kind of…

RB: One slept with someone who might have slept with Kennedy. In one of your essays you bemoan the lack of interest in American history and the failure of schools to be able to present this American narrative. Is there a way in which current publications despite their celebrity worship are still engaged in telling the American story? That they are journalizing what is happening.

LL: I see what you mean. You mean, it’s contemporary, it’s current history. Yea, they’re telling the story. Some of them tell it better than others. Most of them don’t tell it very well. If you write a…. the celebrity profile is an extremely dull form. Because it’s so repetitious. Because you know that the celebrity is lying to the journalist and the journalist is lying…it’s a terrible..

RB: And the intercession of the publicist who has introduced any number of lies and preconditions…

LL: So you’re dealing with some totally false form that everybody in the room knows is a false form. On the other hand if you can have…if you can tell a story in the hands of a good writer who has been three months in Kosovo or is Barbara Ehrenreich…we do that , the Atlantic does that, the New Yorker does that, Rolling Stone does that and they come at you from all angles…but in the hands of a good writer on almost any subject…that does give you…it certainly gives you a current narrative. How it fits in the larger narrative—not many people do that and that’s hard to do on a deadline. But there’s good writing there, you take all the magazines together.

RB: What’s the challenge in publishing Harper’s, which has a quarter of the circulation of The New Yorker which has a eighth of the circulation of People?

LL: Your challenge is to—our circulation is 216,000—The New Yorker’s is around 700,000…

RB: 813,000…

LL: Vanity Fair is a million three, a million four. I do it for the readers. I don’t expect it to make or break elections or bring down Archer-Daniel-Midland. I started out in life wanting to be a history professor so I’m doing what you said. I’m trying to give an account of the world in which we all find ourselves. And I’m trying to do it in a way that will make…I’m doing for people who take pleasure in reading, who don’t read for data but who appreciate the uses of language. And you can do things in writing that you simply can not do in film. You can’t do it, it won’t work. I think of it as an audience, I don’t think of it as a market. There’s no product. It’s not like Road & Track. Or The American Beagle or Vogue. It presumes a literate curious and a knowledgeable reader. And that’s the person I think I’m writing for. Walker Percy wrote a piece for Harper’s magazine many year’s ago about the art of writing fiction. And he says the whole point is to tell it like it is between men and women, how it is within themselves, how it is with their relations between people, where we are now. And he thought of writing as a diagnostic—he was talking about Chekhov—so he was thinking of it in terms of [being] a doctor. It’s not therapeutic necessarily. It’s not necessarily going to cure you but it might help you find out where you are. A navigational device. I just enjoy it. I like finding good writing.

RB: Aren’t you frustrated that your observations and critiques don’t redirect or affect policy?

LL: No. If you get into that you’re lost. I come into…I’m 64. That was never in my mind when I got into writing. I had the notion that a writer or a journalist was not a policy maker. It was in order to see it and say what you saw and maybe what you think but not to direct politicians. That’s a wholly different…nobody that went into the newspaper business in the fifties—I won’t say nobody, there was Walter Lippmann, of course, pouring wisdom into the ears of kings—but for the most part when I started out at the San Franscisco Examiner in 1957, I was the only Ivy League guy in the whole building. I’d been to Yale, I’d been to Cambridge in England. We were all about telling stories. In the sixties, you began to get people from Harvard and Yale…

RB: And the era of Me journalism…

LL: Yea, that starts too. And money goes up. All of a sudden the communications industry begin to…when I first came to New York in 1960, if you wanted to think you were in the inner circle, where it was happening, you’d want to go to dinner with the chairman of U.S. Steel. Or General Motors, or Banker’s Trust Co. Five years later you’d want to go to dinner with Kate Graham or Arthur Sulzburger. So that reporters who were making $50 a week in 1955 were by 1965 were making $250.00 a week and the television guys are making three or four times that. So not only is the money moving them into the possessing class— in the fifties the point of view was the point of view of Will Rogers, the man in the bleachers. His suspicion of the ‘swells’ and the boxes[boxseats]. And nobody in the city room of the San Francisco Examiner ever thought that he or she would become a ‘swell’. Ten years later reporters are beginning to become ‘swells’. And they are showing up from Harvard and Princeton and they are bringing with them the bound volumes of the truth that they’ve been given. And they’re also having their suits tailor made and these guys start thinking about giving advice, “We know how to conduct the Viet Nam War and we know what the American people really think” and so on. I missed that, I was ten years earlier. I went into the newspaper business because I wanted to become a novelist. Because it was romantic…I was thinking of John O’Hara, the young Ernest Hemingway or even the young James Thurber…of all of the novelists who had started as reporters. I also was in it to learn. I had had a protected education… I didn’t really know how a city worked or where the water came from or how the lights went on or how you got bill through the city council or what a dead body looked like. It was a graduate school for me, also. But was there to learn and I’m still there to learn. When I write a column every month I know where I start it…I never know how it’s going to end. I’m educating myself in public and I learn from the writers. In a little way it’s like children because…the young ones, the old one’s— if they keep up their curiosity—the best way to cure your depression is to learn something. So the writers if they’re god are teaching you something—they’re themselves something, they’re teaching you something as your children will do. You learn more from them than they do from you. I promise you. Another cliche, but a golden one. It’s a little like that when you’re editing a magazine.

RB: You regularly make reference to Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Menken. And you are associated with that style of iconoclasm. Are there writers today who have that kind of attitude and social critique?

LL: There’s [Christopher] Hitchens. I’m an admirer of his. Others may not be , but I am. I admire him because he is fearless. And he writes well. I forgive anybody who writes well. Kurt Anderson writes some good things for The New Yorker. There not many…Hitchens comes right to mind.

RB: Michael Thomas [The New York Observer]?

LL: Michael Thomas. If only Michael Thomas would listen to me. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to get Michael to write a piece for Harper’s magazine. Michael was my brother’s roommate at college. I think he is an enormously talented guy. I think Ron Rosenbaum is an enormously talented guy too. When he is talking about things he knows about…Shakespeare, Nabokov,theater…I didn’t read his book on Hitler so I don’t know. But Thomas…

RB: Am I confused, is there a Roger and a Ron?

LL: Oh no you’re thinking of Roger Rosenblatt who’s a horror. He’s the PBS guy. No, Ron’s at the Observer. If you want to really understand how to do a cliche read aloud the essays of Roger Rosenblatt. He’s the essayist on Lehrer or one of them…

RB: Let’s get back to Michael Thomas.

LL: Alright, Michael Thomas has great wit and is very fluent but he won’t get off attacking the same four rich Jews in East Hampton. He get’s started on a column and somehow he has to stab…

RB: Ron Perleman, Mort Zuckerman….

LL: And Kravits. Cramer. There’s a whole row of these guys.

RB:L When he not trashing Charley Rose and Barbara Walters, which he does really well….

LL: …he does really well. I’ve tried to commission him two or three times. There was an art show in Soho, the Hugo Boss show. Hugo Boss now thinks he’s an art collector. Right. And it was the worst possible modern art. And Michael really knows about painting. He was a young curator at the Met and he taught art history right after he graduated from Yale, at Yale. I said, ”Michael you’re always complaining about modern art. Go see the Hugo Boss show. Start there.” He had interesting idea about the infantilization of the culture. He had a large idea that everything has been made baby-soft and risk-adverse, the writing as well. He started the piece with three pages of driving to NY past the houses of Cramer, Kravits, all of the them. He stabbed all of them before he got into town. I said, Michael can we please cut the drive?” He wouldn’t do it…. Yes, he does have that edge.

RB: Anyone else?

LL: David Foster Wallace. Nick Von Hoffman? I don’t think Tom Wolfe has it. Somehow he never quite draws blood. Everybody gets off the hook at the end. He always on stage. You see this edge show up in the novels of Charles Portis. The dialogue of Elmore Leonard. [Carl]Hiassen can do it too. You start thinking about and you can come up with ten or twenty names. They’ re all working in different venues…

RB: Harper’s has corporate sponsors. Do you think that anyone at your corporate sponsors—from the marketing department to the CEO— reads your essays?

LL: No. I doubt it.

RB: So why do they support Harper’s magazine?

LL: We have a good salesman. Peter Kendall. There’s a way of selling it as a thought leader magazine… I wouldn’t expect the CEO types to read it. I know a number of CEO types, I see them…

RB: You’ve been to Davos..

LL: I don’t go to dinner with them. But I play golf. And nobody has ever mentioned anything about what I’ve written. Ever. They think it’s kind of curious and quaint that I’m the editor of Harper’s. No idea what’s in it. If I write a book on golf maybe they’ll talk to me. It is[Harper’s] addressed to people who read and a lot of those people don’t read. I can remember being impressed by that in the 70’s, as a member of the Council on Foreign relations. And I listened to Henry Kissinger one night. Talk about the Fashoda affair, Bismarck, and Metternich. He gave one of these seminars to a group of fifty very important corporate executives. And they listened to him with their mouths open. What Kissinger was doing was a kind of high table conversation you would have at Cambridge or Harvard. Perfectly routine bullshit. None of it held water. But it sounded great. And he has the accent. But it went down like chocolate ice cream. Because these people—at least in that group—didn’t know anything. They weren’t readers of history, they were so preoccupied with running their [business] affairs.

RB: In Waiting For the Barbarians, one of your essays makes mention of Governor Morris in revolutionary Paris saving himself from a frenzied crowd by waving his wooden leg as proof of his fighting for liberty. He, of course, hadn’t. But it’s a very amusing story that makes that era more real or human…The stories in history are every bit as vivid and funny and entertaining as prime time t.v. or trashy novel. Why hasn’t that message gotten across?

LL: We don’t teach it properly.[Benjamin] Franklin would fuck anything that moved. You could not leave a chambermaid in a room with that guy. Washington took a shine to a girl at a dance at Newport. The war was on. He was working his way slowly from Massachusetts back toward Long Island and eventually New Jersey and Valley Forge. The woman happened to be to married General Nathaniel Greene. At nine o’clock at night, by candle light Washington suddenly assigned Greene to an urgent message. The general was suddenly called away. These people drank…but we don’t teach it that way.

RB: Why the imperative to sterilize our history? Those who taught the teachers of history didn’t think it dull. The teachers don’t think it dull. How does it end up being dull and uninteresting.

LL: I don’t know. Part of it is because of the standardization of the texts. As recently as fifteen years ago if you wanted to teach 6th grade history in California you would have had a choice of possibly 16 texts. Today it’s down to four. The text books are geared to California and Texas, because they buy for the whole state …intellectually we want to present history as a science rather than an art…as a series of facts rather than as an always changing story. It’s the scientific approach to the humanities. With history, in the earlier grades, if you told stories you might offend someone. What do you mean George Washington drank too much? What do you mean 20% of the population of New York in 1773 were slaves? These people were being followed around by little black guys. That doesn’t show up. They don’t have time. They have to get through it in 13 weeks. I can remember my history teacher explaining the Battle of Cannae, where Hannibal triumphed over the Romans. He drew it on the blackboard and he took a week to explain. Today, they don’t have time…and what difference does it make anyway. So the story drains out of it…

Currently reading The Dog Killer of Utica by Frank Lentricchia (Melville House)

Norman Mailer’s Summer Reading List

27 May
Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

I have no doubt come late to the party—the beach/ summer reading lists having been proffered by the usual experts on beach/summer reading. I am not versed in this genre (though I can recall reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Foster Wallace’s magnum opus at a beach in Rincon Puerto Rico).Late, but not empty handed. Here’s a list (scroll to the bottom of this article if the name of the list confuses you):

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t SeeAnthony Doerr (Scribner)

Excellent narrative, riveting characters and the use of WWII Europe and Nazi depredations are not cliched.

Everything I Never Told You by  Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never told You -Celeste Ng(Penguin Press)

Ng’s debut novel about a teenager’s death and its reverberations in the family and community is nimbly told (no small feat with such a weighty subject.

The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs-Leonardo Padura(FSG)

Trotsky, his assassin, The Spanish Civil War, Stalin and the Moscow show trials, an aging Cuban writer, two wolfhounds— its a far flung story (times and places) written with Carribbean alacrity.Don’t believe me? Here’s Ann Louise Bardach take:

A global epic set mostly in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow and Mexico City, Padura’s novel is grounded in a trifecta of storylines: We have the grim saga of Trotsky’s 11-year flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland.

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return-Elizabeth De Waal (Picador)

Adam Kirsch’s paean to Ms De Waal should move you. Or not:

…appearing now, as a historical document, it gains an additional interest, as Elisabeth de Waal’s imaginative response to her own exile…This is not, perhaps, a new story, but in The Exiles Return it is told with sharpness and authenticity.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek– Smith Henderson (Ecco)

I am partial to American novels set outside urban cultures and with a minimum of consumer activities. Like this one, set in the Fly over zone.

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair- Olen Steinhauer (St Martin’s

As sure-handed as Le Carre reporting on the activities of spooks and various secret police. A world normally Byzantine in its alliances and
fluidity of loyalties, this plot set in Cairo seems especially volatile

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons-  edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons- edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (Voice of Witness)by Ayelet Waldman , Robin Levi (Editor)

In case you were charmed into seeing incarceration as a vacation by the Netflix series Orange is the New Black here’s a corrective. Or Christina Rathbone’s A World Apart Women,Prison and the World Behind Bars

They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full    by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon)

Fishermen on Sea of Galilee

A citizen said, Every action
born out of pure spontaneity
is correct. It’s possible
he said corrupt but I was
eavesdropping. Correction:
minding my business: he was
performing, saying, also,
to his fellow citizens, I know
you agree with me on this.
Look, it’s autumn in our
hairlines and some smear
on the pavement’s been run
over so many times we can’t
tell whether or not it started
out as an animal.
My heaven is populated
with conures, llamas,
and adolescent bears
but is otherwise
fairly quiet. I’m done
looking for approbation
from people for whom I have
no respect and would respect
less if I met them.
Was this the sea they parted.
Understatement, so rarely
biblical: there is no quill pen
half as sinister as the lone
piece of penne in a dish
of farfalle. Today we rock
anonymity and tomorrow find
further evidence of same
dying in the comment fields.
Wake me when you can
tell me whether every taxi
must engage in a dialogue
with all previous taxis,
when you do something
impossible, when you leave
the party, when you take
my worst advice. This is,
friends, this was the sea.

Midnight  in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Random House)

Since I discovered Furst I have continued to read his regularly published and dependably entertaining and instructive war time “thrillers” I confess that was a brief period when I wasn’t entertained or instructed but the probability is high that was a shift in my attention or something even more subjective. But his latest opus, I can report is up to (my) snuff. Paris,1938 and the Spanish Civil War goings-on make for a great setting. And that infamous place where the Bulgarian waiter is shot is per Furst’s practice, cleverly insinuated into the plot.

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning– Greg Iiles (William Morrow)

A densely plotted post racial novel set in Natchez—that’s in Mississippi for all you Yankees that is thick on Civil Rights Movement era history as well lots of things you didn’t know about Natchez. Frankly I thought it was about 200 pages too long (800 pages). Reportedly, this is the first volume of a trilogy

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl– Robert Stone (houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Robert Stone is the gold standard of American fiction. That’s it.

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik (Pushkin Press)

Writer Stefan Zweig has garnered lots of attention recently not the least because of Wes Anderson’s film Grand Hotel which in turn reportedly owes something to The Impossible Exile by George Prochnick (Other Press). I like this novel about Zweig’s last few months of life very much

A Permanent Member of The  Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member of The Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member go there Family by Russell Banks (Ecco)

Russell Banks is also the gold standard of American Fiction.

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves– Nick Turse (Picador)

Sorry to saddle this book under the rubric of Important book but if you are in doubt about whether the perpetrators of the Indochinese Debacle were/are war criminals a few chapters of Turse’s exhaustively researched
account should shake up your belief in American moral superiority.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams  by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR (Little Brown)

See my chat with Ben Bradlee

Euphoria   by  Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic)

Author Alice Greenway expiates

Euphoria is a love story set against the scramble by anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea to record or map the traditions and beliefs of societies coming apart under the brutal onslaught of miners, traders, missionaries and colonialists. Lily King writes with astonishing insight and authority about a number of New Guinea tribes and particularly about their distinct gender relations. At the same time, she delves into the intellectual flights and passions of three anthropologists – as complex, rivalrous and brutal as any of the cultures they study. Euphoria is a brilliantly written book and entirely fascinating from start to finish. The character of Nell Stone, slight, wracked with fever and insect bites, with a slight limp from a fall in the jungle and large cuscus-like eyes, capable of joy and huge intellect, is extraordinary.

 American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Ward Just is a dependable novelist who chronicles both remote and familiar pockets of American Life, in this case the life of an American foreign service officer who’s brief tryst with a German nurse in Vietnam seems to haunt him through his years of world wide diplomatic postings to his pleasant but solitary retirement in France

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything  by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With A Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)

Who doesn’t love Barbara Ehrenreich‘s smart and compassionate views on the world? This,Living with a Wild God, would be her most personal book and reaches into an area that many people who spend time thinking, think many hours about. To quote one review

The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.”

“When I am asked what’s on my summer reading list… I read the all year long” Norman Mailer

Nickel and Dimed Redux

11 Aug

Ten years ago at the behest of then Harper‘s editor Lewis Lapham, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nickel and Dimed:On Not Getting by in America, a most unlikely best seller. On its 10th anniversary Henry Holt has published a new edition with an afterword by Ms Ehrenreich a version of which, entitled Nickel and Dimed (2011 Version) On Turning Poverty into an American Crime, is to be found at TomDispatch.com

Ehrenreich concludes:

So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list — a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.

Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.

Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many Americans seem to believe today, we can’t afford the kinds of public programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty — though I would argue otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they’re down.

Makes sense to me.