The American Condition, The Boston Review of Voices, + Some Advice from E.B. White

Radio Open Source
10 min readMar 26, 2017
Illustration by Susan Coyne

This week — Cornel West and Roberto Unger on the state we’re in or Melville vs. Emerson. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: This week’s show is the first in a series of big idea convos about — what else? It’s heavy and one of those shows that you’ll need to listen to more than once. We also have a transcript. Chris’ billboard was a classic (a billboard is the radio term for the one minute — 59 seconds to be exact — promo that runs before the NPR news break at the top of the hour and ends with “First this news.” In the podcast age, it’s more or less a dying art, but Chris can make these things swing.):

I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. Pick one: the American Experiment (A) has run its course, (B) is catching its breath after a half-century of agitation and much liberation, (C) it ran aground overseas as an empire of chaos in wars we weren’t supposed to win, and didn’t, or maybe (D) the long shot, that in 2017 the American Experiment has gone deeply, desperately improvisational to shake a losing streak, maybe to find a reinvented self. Nobody’s got a simple name for our disorder, this dysfunctional funk in the confident old crucible of “freedom, opportunity, power,” Emerson called it, “enamored of equality,” Tocqueville observed. Since when this so-called revolution of falling expectations. Broad brush-strokes on the American Condition, the first in a series, are next on Open Source. First, da nooz.

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Cornel West and Roberto Unger meet our test of big expansive, reflective minds with a handle on our situation and a notion of a way out, too. Here’s some shorthand for our conversation:

  1. Understand the Country

Unger: American vitality seethes with energy and hope; there’s greatness (unlimited depths) in the ordinary man and woman and denying him and her opportunity is our historical tragedy.

2. Recognize the Problem

West: The left is barren, empty, vacuous, imitative, derivative, week, feeble. You see it in the Democratic Party elites scrambling for first class seats on the Titanic.

Unger: The energy in politics now is on the right; progressives merely sugarcoat and humanize the project of the right; they have no ambitions of their own, except for things like progressive taxation which they well know won’t make a dent in the universe.

3. Expand Your Vision

West: To be prophetic is to unleash energy and utopian possibility in a vision of the “not yet.

Unger: we can ascend to a higher life by imagining and creating a “shared bigness.” He’s talking about something like a sequel to the New Deal — reimagining economic life with a massive mobilization so ordinary people can make a mark on the world and change their circumstance. The revolutionary project is to raise the ordinary up, and the first question has to be: Where are the others?

Producer Frank Horton also put together his own helpful graphic, charting Unger’s 4 point plan:

After the show we found ourselves asking why the basic idea of it — whether it’s possible to think our way out of the pickle we’re in — feels so out of the mainstream. Some of our commenters thought Unger’s ideas were ivory tower phooey, but it’s a decent thought experiment nonetheless. What’s a national project that would meet Unger’s test of shared bigness? And as, Unger says, “where are the others?” Who are the other big thinkers, writers, talkers and intellectual brawlers, the ones who can help us diagnose the changes in our American condition and set-up the next round of experiments? Send us your suggestions for the show:

Watch: George Saunders on the Afterlife

Zach Goldhammer: A bonus video this week—some short clips from our conversation with George Saunders at the Boston Public Library. Here’s Saunders on Lincoln, Emerson, Tibetan sky burial, 19th century conceptions of the afterlife, and more! And watch out for the cameos from Leonard Cohen and Susan Coyne’s hands, plus my customized remix of Fauré’s ‘Requiem—In Paradisum” at the very end.

R.I.P. Bob Silvers

Zach Goldhammer: It’s a bit of a cliché to say that the work of a great editor is invisible and under-appreciated. In the case of Robert Silvers, who died this week at the age of 87, it might not even be true: the New York Review of Books editor was, after all the primary subject of a major, Scorsese-directed HBO documentary and the recipient of many awards and accolades, including a National Humanities medal from Obama and a chevalier title from the French Légion d’honneur.

Silvers himself deflected credit to his writers: “The editor is a middleman. The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”

But the work that is still often hidden from the public eye is what’s done by neither editor nor writer; but by the many other un-bylined literary workers who come into a publication’s orbit. In the case of the NYRB, I find myself most interested in these memories of Silvers from the hyper-educated, hyper-literary assistants who went to work in his world.

Some of these perspectives were gathered up in N+1’s collective obit for Silvers. For my roommate Tim Barker—who had a short stint at the NYRB and contributed a paragraph to the piece—the work was not always so intellectual. It was also emotional labor:

The job involved trying to anticipate everything he would do or think. This was both easier and harder than it sounds, since he was somehow more habitual and more mercurial than anyone else I’ve met. Some tasks (collecting thrown pencils and empty bottles of Diet Coke) I did every day; some (finding a bookbinder to repair a Sherlock Holmes volume, held together with rubber bands, that Bob treasured as a child) only once.

But it was a reflection from A.O Scott — now a household name but still included in the same collection of former assistants — that stood out for me. Scott describes his work with Silvers, early in his career, as a sort of safe haven from both the desiccated academic world of grad school as well as from the careerist strivings of the working world:

The paper (as Bob often called it) had started in 1963 as a sort of pop-up, when a hunch and a hope about the prospects for a first-rate American literary review collided with the opportunity offered by the New York newspaper strike. By 1997, the Review was very much an institution, but it hadn’t lost that initial seat-of-the-pants feeling, the sense that Bob and Barbara were making it up as they went along, running on the ragged pulse of serendipity rather than by the tidy clockwork of design. There were no meetings, no brainstorming sessions, no market research, no mission statements, no branding. There was Bob at his desk and Barbara around the corner at hers, pencils scratching in the margins of “faxable 14s”

Later on in the piece, Scott writes:

The standards for assigning and publishing were deceptively simple: Who is the best person to write the most interesting piece about this? Is this piece as informative, as accessible, as scintillating (a favorite Bob word) as it can be? Meeting those standards was endless work. And also pure delight.

These last two descriptions resonated, in my mind, because they are so close to the way I’d describe our work here at Open Source. Like “Bob and Barbara,” Chris and Mary have created a sort of pop-up media institution that remains, by design, consistently anti-institutional and anti-establishment, with a constant drive for reinvention and improvisation. Similarly, Chris and Mary’s one “deceptively simple” requirement for every show is that we find the best people, the best voice, for a given topic. Like at the NYRB, these voices are not necessarily the experts in a given field (to quote Cornel West in this week’s show: “Fields are for cows! We have ideas.”); they are the people who we feel are passionate, curious, interesting, and yes, scintillating. The only difference for the me is that our talent pool isn’t limited to writers, and our center of gravity lies outside New York. If a portion of the title weren’t already taken, maybe we’d change our name to the Boston Review of Voices.

Thankfully, Chris and Mary have never made me pick up soda cans (to be honest, I don’t think either of them has had a Diet Coke in their lives). As always, I’m grateful to be here, still doing this deceptively simple work.

& Jimmy Breslin

Chris went down to New York in 2011 and talked with Jimmy about sports, media, politics and more. Breslin, as Chris writes, “was the newspaper columnist whose gruff prose has extended the whole human comedy of New York to the world, first in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, and later the Daily News and Newsday.”

Breslin back then had some sage wisdom for the Republicans:

Why do they waste their freaking time with those views in a country like this? What are you worried about saving money for so much? Spend the money! Spend more. Help people, be known for it and you’ll find there’s more money there than they believe is.

For more New York Wisdom, check out Newsday’s collection of his columns on Trump.

We Interrupt this Newsletter With an Important Announcement:

MM: The public media world is pretty worked up over Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We don’t get money from CPB or any part of the administrative state that Steve Bannon is busy dismantling, but we’re still feeling the pressure, and we depend on listeners and readers like you.

In 1966 the New Yorker essayist E.B. White wrote to the Carnegie Commission with a description of what he hoped public television would become. On New Yorker stationary he addressed Stephen White, assistant to the Carnegie Commission chair, James R. Killian Jr.

Non-commercial TV should address itself to the ideal of excellence, not the idea of acceptability — which is what keeps commercial TV from climbing the staircase. I think TV should be providing the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle. Once in a while it does, and you get a quick glimpse of its potential.

White’s aspiration is ours too here at Open Source. We’re hard at work on the social dilemma and political pickle beat. Send help, please.

And speaking of democracy and E.B. White, here’s White’s definition of democracy, written in 1943 when he was part of the Writers’ War Board during World War II

It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

Doggerel (that’s an E.B. White phrase too)

Good stuff on the webs this week: our friend Ben Walker has contributed to Josh Glenn’s terrific Significant Objects project (“extraordinary writers on extraordinary objects”). The newest version, launched at inauguration time is Political Objects, and Ben has written about his coveted “Wheres’ the Beef” record collection. Too hard to explain (almost everything Ben does is). Listen to his podcast. The New Yorker in print and online was full of goodies this week: Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece on the hedge funder behind Donald Trump, Robert Mercer, the great series of posts about Walt Whitman (Jia Tolentino on an unusual use of Whitman’s poetry at a drug court in Alabama; Dan Piepenbring on Whitman’s rediscovered men’s-health columns; Joshua Rothman on reading Whitman’s lost novel, “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” and Jeffrey Yang on Whitman and the sea), andillustrator Kristin Radtke’s entry in her ongoing series on urban loneliness: The Loneliness of the Solitary Job.

We have no such thing. We’re not lonely or solitary. Check in on us anytime!


Mary, Zach and the OS crew



Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.