This week: an impeachment inquiry — with Timothy Snyder, Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, Matt Taibbi, and former MA Governor William Weld. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
This is the beginning of the beginning folks. Here we go again. Without a clear lede this week, we came up with three questions as we brace for a giant impeachment fight: 1) Does a principled argument for impeachment conflict with any practical political considerations? 2) To apply the Colin Powell Doctrine: is there a clear, attainable objective and an exit strategy? 3) How will we feel when the beltway battle is over? Will we be better off than we might have been without impeachment, or will the country’s urgent business suffer?
Our guests — a historian, a journalist, and two politicians who were involved in the Watergate impeachment (one was on the House Judiciary Committee and another was a young lawyer on the staff who’s now running his own Republican campaign against Donald Trump) — all came to the questions with different perspectives.
Elizabeth Holtzman brought us back to 1974 and reminded us that the president was impeached over a burglery in the end, so it doesn’t take a national security crisis or even a national emergency (though Donald Trump could be just that) to remove a president from office. What it does take, she says, is an honest process, and the Dems have to understand they’re not talking to the media or to each other; they’re talking to the American public who will see right through the snarkbites. Peter Rodino, head of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, is the model here, Chris tells us. A Democrat from Newark, he played it straight. Peggy Noonan writes in the WSJ this weekend that after the vote, he called his wife and wept: “You know, he was our president.”
AOC gave a shout out to Elizabeth Holtzman a few months ago:
Read: Ill Fares the Land
If there’s an essential OS book, it might be this one. You’ve heard Chris quote from it many times. Tim Snyder, who knew Tony Judt well and helped the historian of Eastern Europe write his autobiography when he was dying from ALS, calls this book a poem — about the problems of the modern state. It begins:
“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest. . . . The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.”
Social Democracy, or the welfare state, is Judt’s remedy for what ails us now, Tim Snyder’s too. Tim ended our show this week talking about Tony Judt. This part struck us especially:
One of the deadliest developments — and this is something that Tony was also preoccupied by and wrote about very articulately — one of the deadliest developments after 1989 was complacency about our own ideas. So you know we think capitalism brings democracy or we think technology brings enlightenment….And that is what’s happened to us: our own ideas became an ideology and it’s trapped us. We should be very skeptical of people who say there are no alternatives because there are lots of alternatives and that’s what democracies are made for is to imagine them and then to realize a few of those alternatives…in order for us to have conversations, Chris, about the life that’s around us we need to have people who are reporting on that life. And for me this may actually be the single most important problem in the U.S. is that we have lost in the last quarter century our local news and without local news reporting, without people generating the facts that actually matter to people about their schools or their water supply or whatever it might be they don’t actually have things to talk about so they end up talking about things that are distant — Washington or the world you know rather than the things that actually matter to them. And that gives politics this hollow phantom character that it’s taken on in the last 10 years or so, where we’re not ever really talking about real things. We’re talking about echoes of echoes of echoes. So if America is going to be revived and we’re going to have skepticism that skepticism is gonna have to be based upon things that we actually know and knowing things is going to depend upon reporting coming back.
Here’s a long conversation Chris had with Tim Snyder in 2012 on the publication of his book with Tony, Thinking the 20th Century.
Listen: The Allusionist
Maybe when you think of reviving America (or of reviving in general), you think about bringing back a more joyous, thoughtful kind of language. If so, consider listening to The Allusionist podcast, in which host Helen Zaltzman explores some of the infinite quirks, stories, and resonances of words. The latest episode is about Titivillus, the typo demon. To capture souls for Hell, Titivillus (it was thought) would cause monastic scribes to commit errors. He’d collect the errors in a sack, which he’d deliver to Hell.
Helen Zaltzman asks her guest, Ian Chillag: what was the point of Titivillus?
IC: I think: communicating that there was not flexibility in the scripture . . . If you are ministering and you read a line wrong, that goes in the sack. I think it enforces that there’s not interpretation or flexibility here.
HZ: And yet, it’s one of the most interpreted texts of all time —
HZ: — that also lends itself to interpretation because parts of it are not compatible with other parts of it.
And like that, the podcast opens the door to a universe of mystery and paradoxicality.
Also! The Allusionist will be live in Boston (Wednesday, October 9, at 7:30 PM), for the Sound Education conference. Information is here.
Watch or Don’t Watch: Joker
A ruminative, repugnantly violent, abrasive but slickly produced movie that’s evidently about so much, Joker was already debated and mulled over and expounded upon exhaustively, way before most people could have seen it. While it’s not clear that anyone successfully reduced Joker to one major idea or even a single set of ideas, it is clear that the film makes laser-focused, thematic points toward the dreaded zeitgeist. Points toward things like: the connection between comedy and cruelty; Reagan-era-and-beyond defunding of social services (crucial for the film’s plot); widening inequality; loneliness; the perils of easy access to guns; and the familiar mass tendency toward fascist icons in times characterized by the just-mentioned points—fascist icons such as superheroes or supervillains, those now-dominant figures of pop culture, those characters including the DC universe’s Joker himself (thus, finally, the film instantiates what its plot evokes).
Joker includes a number of (probably strategically deployed) “jokes” that aren’t funny, that are vicious and demonstrate meanness within the film’s world. But if you see this in theaters, you might hear real-world audience-members laughing or even cheering at those moments. In other words, whatever this film is, or is about, it’s clearly doing something with which we probably have to reckon.
So Joker might not be really good, then, and it might not be good for us, but it’s obvious that something is happening with this movie’s release. Seeing it in a theatre at this moment feels like . . . look, it obviously feels like something is happening, and all over the Internet you’ll read people trying to figure out what that is. This is a testament to the bewildering might (again, not necessarily the goodness) of cinema. And it would be hard to find a sturdier vehicle for that might than Joker’s Joaquin Phoenix, surely one of today’s most hauntingly expressive actors in film.
Read: The Topeka School
While recovering from the confusion wrought by the Joker, you can read a novel that courageously stares down our perplexing reality and figures out a few things while doing so. This is The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s new novel. It takes you to a Midwestern city where a psychological institute brings together a community of adrift families, people for whom past blurs into present, into the future, much as trauma resonates through the present. A related blurriness, felt as confusion, conveys power in the novel’s tour-de-force high school debate scenes, where champions thrive depending on their tonnage of verbiage that just flummoxes opponents and judges with so much data.
In debate, language becomes a medium for artfully wielding a confusing sort of power, and this at least holds promise for the world-changing potential of salutary, artistic invention. That idea gets worked through in Lerner’s last two novels, too. There, Lerner-like characters (who’ve gone to similar schools, written similar work, lived in similar places as Lerner) figure out the capacity of their own imaginations while stumbling through their literary careers. But The Topeka School leads a few steps from the writerly mind: now, the Lerner-analogue’s (here, as in Leaving the Atocha Station, he’s named Adam Gordon) isn’t the only perspective we get.
Central characters of The Topeka School include Adam’s parents and a student named Darren who’s hurled into the violent political mood of the millennial era. But just as past, present, and future buzz together in this novel, the characters also mix together—they have shared or at least related fears, schools, workplaces. There’s a scene early on where Adam finds himself in the wrong house, then reflects on how all houses nearby appear the same:
Along with the sheer terror of finding himself in the wrong house, with his recognition of its difference, was a sense, because of the houses’ sameness, that he was in all the houses around the lake at once; the sublime of identical layouts.
NB: The resonances and samenesses continue into our own world. Our producer who’s also named Adam wrote his own book in which Ben Lerner is a character. Adam’s book is New Uses for Failure:
It’s a meditation on how Lerner’s fiction merges fiction with essays to create a super-exploratory kind of writing, much like fiction by Lynne Tillman, Sheila Heti, and Teju Cole. And—spoiler alert?—it starts out as a parody of a literary self-help book, but it turns into something else by the end.
Episode Three of this pod starts to dig into the source of Epstein’s money. And file this under will wonders never cease? Jeffrey Epstein had a ‘Frankenstein’-like plan to analyze human DNA in the US Virgin Islands. The Times says he’d raised $200 million dollars for this scheme in 2012, but the paper doesn’t say from whom.
Listen: Poisoner In Chief
We’ve posted Chris’ convo with Stephen Kinzer about his book about the CIA’s MK-Ultra program. Listen here.
RIP Jessye Norman
Alex Ross in the New Yorker:
Norman, who died on Monday, at the age of seventy-four, is herself an object of disbelieving awe — a phenomenon over which singers of the future can wonder and weep. In her prime, she let loose sounds of shimmering magnificence. Her timbre carried with it a sonic chiaroscuro: pure tones gleamed out of depth and shadow. I remember the dazed bliss I felt on first hearing her recording of “Im Abendrot” (“At Dusk”), from Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” There was something superhuman or even extra-human about the lustre of the voice. It painted of its own accord the image that the song conjures: a sky glowing red against the encroaching dark.
This Week’s Ephemeral Library:
Amy Brady on her hometown, Topeka. Our friend Ryan Meehan’s review of The Topeka School. Looking for extraterrestrial life. More on The Joker. The great Patricia Lockwood on Updike’s novels (talk about literary clickbait!)
I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.
Lotsa impeachment links: The Times published the full text of the text messages between US and Ukraine officials. Jane Mayer traces what she calls “a repeatedly discredited conspiracy theory involving Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s work in Ukraine” to Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer and Peter Schweitzer, an editor-at-large at Breitbart and author of “Clinton Cash.” WaPo on holding Ukraine hostage: how the president and his allies, chasing 2020 ammunition, fanned a political storm. Megan Amram’s food puns:
Have a great week everyone!