This Week: American Vertigo

This week — a battle of ideas in the age of Trump. In the right corner: Julius Krein, founding editor of American Affairs magazine. In the left corner, Nathan Robinson, founding editor of Current Affairs. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: The battle of the media titan-ettes may not have lived up to it’s billing after all. It wasn’t quite the WWF spectacle or the smackdown that Vegas was hoping for, but then again what battle over political discourse and big ideas this side of the white hot cable channels is nowadays? Maybe it was closer to the old Firing Line face-offs or maybe just good old fashioned radio fun. No one got hurt, as we like to say.

You gotta give our radio combatants their due, though — two young deep-thinking media guns: conservative Julius Krein and his brand new American Affairs magazine and progressive Nathan Robinson of the year old Current Affairs— trying to revive serious big idea journalism and a seriously deprived and depraved public conversation. Julius has the harder job, of course, trying to find or surface a coherent philosophy behind Trumpism — though he says his job is to express it and hope Trump reads it. Fair enough. We’re going to read it, too, as we do every issue of Current Affairs.

29-year-old Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson (left) and 31-year old American Affairs editor Julius Krein (right)

Zach Goldhammer: We got a lot of comments on this week’s show from people questioning the frequent use of the term “neoliberalism.” “If you’re going to spend an hour damning neo-liberalism,” commenter A. David Wunsch writes on our site, “you owe it to your listeners to give a clear definition of what it is.”

It’s a fair point. We’ve tried to tackle the question a few times before. In past newsletters, we’ve shared George Monbiot’s short history of the “ideology at the root of all our problems,” which includes a nice capsule definition:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

We’ve collected other short definitions from our friends on twitter, including a memorable entry from filmmaker and Occupy all-star Astra Taylor (“it saturates social life not just w/ market values but logic of speculation, i.e. students become investors via debt”) as well as our fearless leader, Chris Lydon. Producer emeritus Max Larkin anthologized the best of them in a neat little .GIF:

We also hashed out the topic for an hour on the radio with BBC journalist and Postcapitalism author Paul Mason. Tom Frank even gave us an alternative name, Clintonism, to help explain the ideology during the primary:

Despite all these resources, you might say neoliberalism as a concept that still seems too diffuse, too vague to define in short-form. You might also say the same thing about, well, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and so on, but no one seems to complain when those words are used.

In general, I don’t think it’s a problem that these terms are vague. But what did strike me in last week’s conversation was how easily Julius Krein was able to take up the language of the left-wing anti-neoliberal critique for his own conservative agenda.

It might be pretty obvious by now that I’m on the Nathan Robinson side of this debate and that I disagree strongly with most of Krein’s positions. What I find troubling is that Krein seems to get extra credit for using the word “neoliberalism” without really explaining what he, or Trump, are doing to challenge it. Krein often said he agreed with Chris Hedges’s critiques of establishment politics and media, but I don’t think you can just “yes, and” your way into some sort of horseshoe, left-right union against neoliberalism. Like Mary, I’ll keep reading American Affairs and keep listening to arguments from the right, but I disagree that Krein had the harder job here: If we praise anyone just for saying the word “neoliberalism” — the ideology that dare not speaks its name — we’re making it way too easy for the right wing to win.

MM: Turns out it was the “thoughtfully scathing” (Chris’ words) Chris Hedges who attracted the most post show buzz. From the mailbag this weekend, Ken Brociner wrote in:

Chris, I must tell you how disappointed I am in how fully you seem to have swallowed the oversimplified dogma of people like Chris Hedges…Hedges comes across like a parody of a formulaic, rigidly dogmatic Marxist. It’s all about “corporate power” — everything is! Everything can be explained by this one-dimensional view of reality. Most of the Left grew out of that kind of claptrap years ago. Hedges fits the classic example of the convert who is more fanatically into his (relatively) new religion than those who grew up with it. You, of course, know the journey quite well — a one-time reporter for the NY Times who left the paper and then drifted to the Left. Fine — no problem. But I have seen you as being a flexible, eclectic lefty. An intellectual searching for the truth. Hedges has found THE TRUTH. But it’s such a childish version of it.

Chris responded:

Tickled to get your note, Ken. It is always kind of stunning to discover that some people are actually listening to what gets said on the radio — listening and trying to characterize the gabbers. I’m flattered to be cast as an eclectic lefty — and a curious work in progress, as I think of myself.

Chris Hedges is a complicated piece of work, and no simple-minded or vulgar Marxist, imho. I like him best when he goes heavy-duty cultural on us — as in his column this week that ended deep in Dostoevsky.

Even the faithful Potter found Hedges to be too absolutist for her taste: What put me over the top was Hedges calling NPR/PBS a subsidiary to the Koch brothers.

(Here comes my pitch for the all indie Open Source, which depends on non-Koch, non-corporate subsidies from listeners and readers like you!)

The response tells you something — that the political discussion needs new voices, like Nathan’s and Julius’ and not worn out phrases and reflexes. It also tells you what to expect from fans of OS. They’re wicked smaht!

Dressin’ the Paht:

From Open Source alum and good pal Pat Tomaino: I listened closely to OS guests this week Julius Krein and Nathan Robinson, and then I googled them obsessively — which is what you when you discover two fellows in your zip code who’ve launched new magazines in the past year who are younger than you. Despite their political differences, both share a fussy kind of Boston style: conservative jacket-and-tie uniform for the BPL reading room or the four minute CNN live spot.

It happens to a lot of the ambitious youngsters who come to study here. Between chapters of Durkheim and The Republic, they discover The Andover Shop and Bobby From Boston. They buy hats. And in that way, Boston marks them — signaling merit to others, and reminding them through their years in and out of government, from book tour to think thank, where they were when they learned what they learned.

So, the google search shifted, from these young guns to their de facto dean, Harvard’s own archconservative clotheshorse Harvey Mansfield, a man whose views probably should have brought him to Washington. But he so admired the local style that, despite decades of differences with his liberal employer and amid the comings and goings of the Nathan’s and the Julius’s, he’ll never leave.

Stumbling upon John Goodman’s photos of folks like Mansfield and Updike, Cambridge’s very own Barack Obama — and even Ray Flynn — I was reminded that Boston can actually seem quite a stylish place. I got such a kick out of these photos, I initially thought it could only be because, after 14 years in Boston, I’m simply a converted local. But obviously Boston leaves a mark. So what do you see in these pictures, besides dudes in suits?

For the Record

It’s true that Chris was present at the creation of podcasting back in 2003, along with media hacker and genius technologist Dave Winer, and every once in a while someone interviews them or does a feature about the podcast Marconis in our midst. The CBC did a terrific short piece, which you can listen to here, and that led to an email from a librarian in Houston who uncovered this buried treasure of interviews Chris did back in 2003, shortly after the podcast big bang. More on the origin story here.

Listening, Watching, Reading:

David Axelrod interviews Senator Kamala Harris. She’s one impressive woman! And lest we forget, Bernie is still on the case, taking progressive populism to the heartland to topple Trump. Novelist George Saunders has a terrific piece in The Guardian, “What Writers Really Do When They Write.”

Conor’s recommending four good pieces from the new Baffler (another indie magazine we love): Sam Kriss on “Why the Polls Tell You Nothing You Actually Need to Know;” Rick Perlstein on “The Liberal Cult of the Cognitive Elite;” Thomas Frank’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Curated,” and Matt Cameron’s piece (he helped us with our immigration show last week) on “The Wretched State of Immigration Enforcement.”

For International Women’s Day, our favorite classicist Mary Beard’s LRB piece on “The Public Voice of Women,” was great. So was this one from our good friend Louie Cronin.

Chris is loving Kay Redfield Jamison’s biography of Robert Lowell.

Props to:

Our favorite rapper, Chance the Rapper, for taking on the fight for public schools in his native Chicago.

Don’t Miss:

Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson

OS fave Heather Cox Richardson at Harvard on March 22nd discussing Shock Events and the Trump Presidency. Here’s the background on Heather’s facebook post that went viral.

That’s all from here, folks. Back atcha next week.

Mary, Zach and the OS posse.