The Newtown, CT massacre has left many scrambling for words we can snatch and action we can take in response to the unthinkable. How can any person with a conscience carry on as if twenty children were not killed in a classroom? As President Obama remarked so eloquently yesterday:
We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain, that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll all stumble sometimes in some way.
On the other hand, nobody wants to be paralyzed by tragedy. A world without humor and mischief is as empty as a Styrofoam takeout box.
When I stopped Bat Segundo, I thought that this signaled some form of retirement. But Newtown has fired up my conscience. Beyond my constant thoughts for the victims and their families and friends, I am appalled by the NRA’s silence during a time in which a national dialogue about guns is essential. I am stunned by the timidity of the 31 pro-gun Senators, who all declined to appear on Meet the Press. I am deeply upset at the way in which institutional outlets outed the innocent Ryan Lanza and perpetuated misinformation without a serious investigation.
I thought that I could turn my head the other way as American reporting plummeted further into a sordid collection of gossip and half-truths. But it appears that I cannot. Candid, meaningful, and informed dialogue is now more important than ever if we expect to deal with the world’s complexities.
With this in mind, I will be returning to radio in 2013. The time has come to take what I do to the next level. I am preparing the first season of a new biweekly program. It will, like Bat Segundo, contain informed interviews with authors, in which I will again carefully read all the books and offer original points of inquiry, but it will also be very open to people outside books. The hook here is thematic. Many variegated viewpoints will be united under the same umbrella.
Because I feel that meaningful dialogue is one constructive response to Newtown, the first show will revolve around guns. I am hoping to talk with people who are for them and against them. And I have already lined up a few prospective guests for this experiment.
If you would like to spread the word, if you would like to be part of this, or if you are a publicist representing a pithy and/or topical book coming out in 2013, please don’t hesitate to contact me by email. I hope to have a detailed website up and running in January, roughly around the time we air the first program.
Thanks again to those who have listened to and supported my work in the past. It is my hope that this new show will take more risks and create more conversations. There will be more details in the weeks to come.
Martin Amis Takes Off His Jacket
Our latest one hour conversation with Martin Amis is now live. (Full transcript and other GIFs included.)
David Rakoff (1964-2012)
This is a mirror for those who cannot access the essay I wrote about David Rakoff’s this morning on Reluctant Habits, which has been hammered with traffic all morning.
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The first time I met David Rakoff, he offered me food and food and more food. It was 2007, just after Thanksgiving. With typical munificence, David had made too much of it. It became very clear from David’s steadfast concern and his adamant offers, in which he also insinuated that he kept some modular storehouse in neat hidden niches throughout his modest Union Square apartment, that this wasn’t some commonplace matter of fobbing off leftovers, so much as an opportunity to feed every spare mouth he could find. And that included overly prepared literary journalists. The man was an entertainer. It extended to his conversations. It extended to his kitchen. It was always there in his work.
“There is little in this world that I find more galvanizing than someone in trouble,” Rakoff once wrote. “I am well aware of how dubious that sounds, coming from someone who makes a living writing in the first person.”
David wrote his essays extremely slow: just three slim yet pithy books (Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty) in a little less than a decade. And this deliberate snail’s pace had much to do with the high neuroses David brought to the writing process. I once pointed out a few vaguely similar images he had used over a few essays. And David, mortified, put his hand to his mouth and cried out, “I’m a hack!” I then spent several minutes ensuring Rakoff that he wasn’t. In a world besotted with writers who recycle their own paragraphs or who fabricate quotes, David’s commitment to the original must also be memorialized. He was a man so committed to precise language that, during an 2010 interview, David and I spent five minutes looking up the word “vitiate” to ensure that we both understood its nuances.
Last year, David won a well-deserved James Thurber Prize for American Humor. Like many of our great wits, he was a man determined to dazzle you in high style with bountiful modifers. Here is how Rakoff described an unhappy couple he observed on New Year’s Day in his essay “Tokyo Story”:
He began that unmistakable wet-mouthed, lip-smacking, compulsive swallowing that indicates the impending need to vomit. His upper lip shone with perspiration, and his eyes were closed. The woman had nowhere to go — indeed, there was nothing else she would be able to do until the train reached the station, and that might not be in sufficient time. If the first thing you do on the first day augurs the spirit and tone of your new year, this woman was in for a very bad 1987.
David described giggling at this woman, but he pointed out that the joke was on him, for 1987 was to be his shitty year. Such vicious ironies would race throughout his life, yet David would receive them with realism and good humor. A self-described therapy junkie, it was hardly accidental that, years later, he read Julie Norem’s The Positive Power of Negative Thinking very carefully (yet became so consumed in his research that he was never able to write a piece about it). At 22, he was hit with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but managed to beat the cancerous rap after eighteen months of treatment. But in 2010, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and, in one of life’s malicious replays, was forced to start chemotherapy again. But this didn’t stop him from living. From “Another Shoe”:
I try to comfort myself with the first-person accounts I’ve heard of those who die on operating tables and come back: the light, the warmth, and the surge of love from one’s dead ancestors urging you forward. But even that doesn’t help as I wonder what on earth the Old World, necromancing Litvak primitives from whom I am descended would make of me? You’re forty-four and not married? You’re a what? We had one in the shtetl and he was chased from the town with brickbats. How much treyf do you eat? What kind of writing? And from this you make a living?
Here was a man who personally apologized to me for having to stop tape every 30 minutes to take the medication that was keeping him alive. The apology was unnecessary. I told David that if he didn’t want to talk, we didn’t have to. But for David, the show had to go on. The man summoned some wonder to the very end.
Last night, David lost his battle with cancer. But we still have the three books, the many This American Life appearances, and David’s quiet suggestion that a comic yet realistic dignity is an extraordinary defense against life’s cruel setbacks.
What the New Bat Segundo Advertising Arrangement Means
As of this morning, advertisements are starting to appear on The Bat Segundo Show. I want to be completely transparent about what this means for the show.
The Bat Segundo Show has initiated a new partnership with LitBreaker. I entered into this agreement for several reasons. First off, I had to justify the increasing time I was putting into the program (scheduling authors, reading the book in full for each guest, research, finding unusual angles and preparing the questions, conducting the interview, and post-production — a process that takes a minimum of 20 hours). LitBreaker’s Jason Chambers came along. I knew that LitBreaker had a good track record with numerous online cultural and literary magazines. But the one thing I didn’t want was for the advertising to take over the content, as I have seen with too many other sites devoted to ostensible cultural journalism.
Jason and I met a number of times. He addressed all of my questions and patiently listened to my ethos (the extent of it even surprised me). And I felt that this was something worth trying out. After some negotiation and ancillary back-and-forth, we arrived at a reasonable and respectful agreement.
Since Bat Segundo is very much about maintaining editorial integrity and an independent voice, I want to assure listeners that full editorial control is guaranteed under this agreement. This was one of the points I would not compromise on. Because I have to be able to carry on doing what I do. Bat Segundo is also committed to maintaining the hard line between advertising and editorial. The opening music cue will serve as a protective buffer between the 30 second advertisement at the beginning and the rest of the program. All advertising information will be confined inside the box clearly labeled SPONSOR. I realize that this practice might be considered quaint and pedantic and overly vigilant in an age which glorifies advertorial content and the junket journalist. Nevertheless, I feel that ethical journalism and ethical advertising are editorial virtues that are profoundly important, and that these must be upheld.
This arrangement will allow Bat Segundo to continue at its present rate of production. I will continue to be careful about avoiding ethical conflicts. I am also equally committed to small presses and emerging authors as I am the prominent names. (Indeed, I just booked a debut novelist with a small press a few days ago.)
I greatly look forward to working with LitBreaker and keeping my commitment to smart, goofy, distinct, and comprehensive conversations with variegated authors.
If you are interested in advertising on the show (or other books-related sites), you can contact Jason Chambers. And if you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Show #446: Nancy Cohen
Show #446, which runs 45 minutes and 27 seconds, was released a few weeks ago and can be listened to at this link. Nancy Cohen wrote a book called Delirium, which concerns itself with how the sexual counter-revolution (namely, right-wing efforts to strip back the progress of women’s rights over the last several decades) has drastically altered America. (And this climate may very well explain why a figure as soporific and unenlightened as Katie Roiphe has been permitted to expend an unreasonable amount of column-inches in recent years.)
I was just barely able to get this conversation into the schedule. But because I felt strongly enough about the book, I did everything in my power to find time to read it and to talk at length with Cohen, who I met at Peacefood Cafe (the cafe that I have devoted many of my politically oriented conversations to) under somewhat trying conditions: only a few days before I had to leave the country at the last minute. This may explain, in part, the somewhat frenetic tone. But the talk does unpack a great deal of history relevant in our age of Komen for the Cure cutbacks and misogynistic articles penned by Esquirewriters-at-large. And Cohen is gutsy enough to challenge Thomas Frank.
Here’s an excerpt from the show:
Correspondent: Your timing is quite impeccable. Because I’m talking with you the day after Representative Issa to basically not allow a woman to testify at the all-male hearing on contraception. I’m talking with you a week after Komen for the Cure initially pulled its funds from Planned Parenthood, saying, “Well, we can’t support any organization that is under congressional review,” and then changing this to be “Well, we can’t support any organization that is referring out its mammograms.” So I gotta say, maybe this might be the opportune time to discuss how we got to this point in American political history. How does this constantly wavering excuse fit into the political strategy of the religious right and the forces of what you identify as the sexual counterrevolution? How did this come into play?
Cohen: Well, I’m an evil genius. And when I came up with this idea a couple years ago, I planned for these hearings to take place.
Cohen: No, seriously, the first line of my first chapter is “Perhaps if the pill hadn’t been invented, American politics would have turned out very differently.” And at the time, it was kind of a literary allusion. A way to get some history down. So what we’re seeing is really the logical end point of what I call the sexual counterrevolution. Delirium tells the story about how a small group of reactionaries who want to control sex have hijacked American politics. And what we’re seeing this week, and last week, is really the essence of the Republican Party. The id of the Republican Party coming out to play because they are so intoxicated with the power that they got in the last elections.
Correspondent: Yes. Well, the id wasn’t always there. As you point out in the book, I mean, it’s become increasingly id-like over the years. What of the sensible conservative idea? What of the rational reactionary?
Cohen: The sensible conservative ideas Back in the ’60s and the ’70′s, the Republican Party was the small government/personal freedom party. They actually meant it. They were better on women’s rights. They were better on sexual freedom really. Even before the sexual revolution, the Republican Party was better. But what happened was, with the sexual revolution and feminism and gay rights, a group of people — surprisingly mostly women — were appalled, freaked out about all these changes and sexual life and women’s roles and gays coming out of the closet. And they organized on a grassroots level against these changes. And so they went up against the Equal Rights Amendment. And they won. And then they went after publicly financed child care. And they won. And then they took civil rights away from gays. And they won. And then they methodically started taking over the Republican Party from local, state, and county committees on to the school board until 2008, when they had one of their own, Sarah Palin, on the presidential ticket.
Correspondent: Let’s get into this. You point out that George McGovern is one of the key figures responsible for Democratic timidity in relation to the sexual counterrevolution. You suggest that McGovern losing his temper, telling a voter to kiss his ass — that was one factor. The really terrible decision he made involving ordering milk with a liver sandwich in a Jewish deli. Not exactly the smartest choice. There was also this idea that McGovern, because he encompassed this cultural radicalism and failed, that this was what encouraged the Democrats to backpedal. So I’m wondering to what degree is this political temperament and to what degree is this, I suppose, a cultural radicalism that Democrats are afraid of? I mean, 2004, you have Howard Dean’s famous scream. And even before that, everybody was like, “Wow, this guy’s finally standing up for progressivism.” I mean, it seems to me that if you have a situation where the Democratic presidential candidates are limited in what they can say and how they can act, that this kind of progressive idea of, say, supporting something like the Equal Rights Amendment, you’re almost not allowed to do that. So how did this state come to be and what solutions do we have for the future?
Cohen: Good question. So the sexual counterrevolution has affected both parties. And in the Democratic Party, it’s really about their overreaction to every time they lose. And the way it goes back to McGovern’s election is that they convinced themselves that the reason McGovern lost by a landslide is because of all the gays and feminists and multiculturalists that he associated himself with. And so there’s this idea that Democratic progressives alienate mainstream America. Mainstream America is conservative. That idea is a fixation of the Democrats. But if you look at the studies of elections and you look at the studies of public opinion, it’s not true at all. Democrats have actually won elections for being the more culturally progressive party on women’s issues and gay issues and race issues. And so Democrats, I believe, would actually do better if they did embrace their voters’ live and let live attitude about people’s personal lives and stood on principle for civil rights for every American. But Democrats are timid and they have convinced themselves that they lose on this issue. So it would be good for them to start to recognize that it’s a winning issue.
Correspondent: But what data are they using? I mean, it can’t just be McGovern that’s the linchpin for this.
Cohen: No. So what they generally look at is exit polls and focus groups. And to get a little wonky here…
Correspondent: Sure. Feel free.
Cohen: What I looked at in the books so that no one else really has to — except maybe Democratic strategists can start looking at this stuff — is a lot of research by political scientists and sociologists that do regressions of public opinion polling and elections, and conclusively show that all the things we think are true — you know, that the white working-class man is an economic populist, but a social conservative? Wrong. It’s the reverse. He’s pro-choice and doesn’t like the Democrats’s economic policies. That Bush won the election on gay marriage? Wrong. No evidence. That Democrats lose elections for being pro choice? Wrong. Clinton won the election in 1992 on a huge upsurge of pro-choice women and pro-choice men.
Correspondent: You challenge Thomas Frank’s ideas in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by saying that he was condescending in believing that Kansans were duped into voting for more right-wing candidates and so forth. How do we go ahead and factor in, oh say, scenarios like Scott Brown in Massachusetts? Which is very much a scenario in which arrogance and technocratic approaches tend to destroy a Democratic seat. I mean, how does this play into the sexual counterrevolution? And how do you reconcile this, what seems to me, legitimate Thomas Frank idea with this?
Cohen: So I do criticize Tom Frank for being condescending. But I also criticize him for having no empirical evidence for his argument. And that’s the main case. His idea is premised that, one, the working class doesn’t vote for Democrats. They actually do. It’s premised on the idea that Kansas has been some bulwark of Democratic politics. It’s actually been a bulwark of right-wing evangelical fundamentalism. So there’s a number of other factual errors. I actually went into the book assuming that I was going to extend Tom Frank’s thesis. And I found that it actually went back to this anti-McGovern idea and discovered that there was no evidence for it. And that’s when I started moving in this other direction on the sexual counter-revolution. So an election like Scott Brown’s, a lot of health care money went in there. A lot of the people that they say are white working-class populist men are actually middle income or better off people. So what you have in a lot of these elections, like 2010 and the Scott Brown election, is you have very low turnout from poor Democratic groups. Young people. Single women. Low income people. And so when the exit polls do show a surge of white men, they often don’t figure out, well, where are these men economically? And I do agree that the smugness of the Democratic candidate in that election.
Correspondent: Who we don’t want to name. (laughs) And you didn’t name in the book and I won’t name on this show.
Cohen: I think she’s probably reformed. So I do think that was a case of a sense of the Democrats being entitled to a seat and didn’t really see this both right-wing and corporate money coming into that election that year.
Correspondent: If Tom Frank is so wrong with his evidence, then why is that book constantly cited? Why over many decades does the idea of the McGovernik still hold within the Democrats? I think that’s the thing I really don’t get. If all of the scientific evidence says otherwise, then why are serious Democratic leaders going by this?
Cohen: Well, actually, serious Democratic leaders aren’t going by it anymore.
Correspondent: It only took them several decades. (laughs)
Cohen: Yes, well, they read the polls and they read exit polls and they do their own political polling. They don’t necessarily read the academic literature. But the key person who articulated this idea of the McGovernik, about the Reagan Democrat: Stanley Greenberg, who I hear is a wonderful man and has done a lot of good work for progressive causes, was one of the people who kept this idea alive. And he runs a polling company. And he uses his own polls. So just after, since 2008, he’s basically said, “You know what? The Reagan Democrats aren’t the key voting bloc anymore. Democrats need to go for this multiethnic, cosmopolitan, progressive base and they’ll pick up enough of these white working-class men to win elections. So it is Tom Frank — and I haven’t read his new book, so I don’t know how he’s amended his thesis. But there has been a shift among the leadership of the Democratic Party. And I think you see with Obama not defending DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], right? Saying, “I think it’s unconstitutional.” This is a sign that they’re starting to see that good principles are good politics.
Show #445: Maggie Anderson
Show #445, which runs 52 minutes and 5 seconds, was released a few weeks ago and can be listened to at this link. But this interview with Maggie Anderson almost didn’t happen.
First off, a few words about Maggie Anderson. For one year, she decided to buy from nothing but black-owned businesses. This effort (the Empowerment Experimented) permitted Anderson to discover many unexpected insights about race and economy that aren’t discussed nearly as much as one would hope in the 21st century.
Because of Maggie’s unique experience, I had to talk with her.
But the universe did nearly everything in its power to prevent Maggie from appearing on The Bat Segundo Show. On the day that I was scheduled to meet her in New York, I suffered from an acute and especially debilitating case of gastrointestinal poisoning. I was forced, much to my great dismay, to cancel our meeting at the last minute.
But I felt that the book’s subject matter was important. So I made a rare exception to my “in person only” rule and talked with Maggie over Skype. But then this appointment was delayed — in large part because the universe inflicted similar health interventions against Maggie’s family.
I am pleased to report that we did end up talking and that all parties are hale and hearty. And while the subsequent conversation was a fun and fruitful one, I should also note that Skype sent out an inconsistent signal for much of the conversation. My apologies to Maggie and the listeners for any lapse in quality.
Here is an excerpt from the show:
Correspondent: You are responsible for a rather amazing idea called the Empowerment Experiment, which you document in this book, in which you spent the entire year buying from nothing but black-owned businesses, frequenting them and so forth. Just to get the ball rolling here, I want to discuss why this is necessary. You point out in the book that there were 6,339 African-American owned and/or operated grocery stores in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century. And then, by the time we get to the new millennium, only 19 African American owned grocery stores existed in the U.S. So a number of questions come to mind. First off, what specific figures are you relying on? Is this from the 2002 Economic Census? What ultimately accounts for this dramatic decline?
Anderson: Well, the numbers are so important to us. And we’ve got to let your listeners know that we fashioned this as an experiment. It was, of course, a stand. But we really wanted these important numbers to be injected into the national dialogue. Those numbers. How we used to have so many businesses in the country in our community. We had hotel chains, department stores, hardware stores, drugstores. We don’t have any of that now. Grocery stores. And that when we have those businesses, our community didn’t suffer. We didn’t have the high unemployment. Our kids weren’t choosing gangs over college. We didn’t have all this drug abuse and violence and recidivism. So we really wanted to bear out that correlation. That when we had strong black-owned businesses, our community didn’t suffer. So if we can find a way to do little things to bring some of those businesses back, maybe we can counter the social crises that disproportionately impact our community. We wanted to show the numbers. The big number that we wanted to talk about was our $1 trillion in buying power and that less than 6% of that makes it way back to the black community.
Anderson: If we can just get a little bit more of our own buying power to be recycled in our own communities, maybe we can bring those jobs numbers up. The other number is that black businesses are, by far, the greatest private employer of black people. Black unemployment, we know, is three times the national average of our white counterparts. Highest among any ethnic group. And in some places like Birmingham and Cleveland, we’re at black unemployment like 15, 16%. So maybe if we start supporting more black businesses that employ black people, we can stop black unemployment. So it was really just about making sure the conversation about the black situation in America is thorough and comprehensive. We can’t just keep talking about black unemployment and then not talk about black buying power and the fact that black businesses employ people and that none of our buying power is going to black businesses. So the numbers that we depended on — to get back to your question — you know, it’s just kind of known in our community how we don’t support each other. How if you walk up and down the street in a black neighborhood, none of the businesses there are black-owned except for funeral parlors, barber shops, and the braid salons. It’s just kind of known that most of the products on the shelves, none of the retailers in our community, none of the franchises are black. So we just kind of know that and joke about it. It hurts, but we just accept it. But it’s so hard to find data to bear that out. My roommate jokes about it. But we did find an interesting study — I think it was an economist, John Wray. Who did a study based out of DC that proved this horrible statistic about how long the dollar lives in different ethnic communities.* This statistic is used a lot in this conversation when people talk about “leakage,” economic leakage, recycling wealth in minority communities, that kind of stuff. This is a well-known statistic. That in the Asian community, the dollar lives close to 28 days. In the Jewish community, I think it was 19 to 21 days. Hispanic communities: 7 days. But for black people? The dollar in the black community lasts six hours.
Anderson: And it’s like, no wonder we live at the bottom! So we’re just so frustrated. And no one talks about that six hours. Because if you want to talk about the six hours, then you’re basically saying that all of these horrible things happen in the black community as a reflection of our propensity and our potential. Not a byproduct of how there’s a lack of support from black consumers — it’s our fault! — or black businesses. Sorry about the long-winded answer.
Correspondent: Oh no.
Anderson: I can’t leave that out. It’s such an open-ended…
Correspondent: I know. No, this is all very good. And there’s a load of threads to start from here. Actually, I’m sure you’re familiar — there was a study in 2010. A rather alarming study from the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which revealed that the median wealth of a single white woman in the prime of her working years — roughly 35 to 49 — was $42,600. And the median wealth for a single black woman was only $5!
Anderson: Yes! Yes!
Correspondent: Yeah. I’m sure you’re familiar.
Anderson: I’m onto that one. I’ve heard about that. That’s just — man! The one that really blows me away. There’s the other one where I think we’re at 3% transferable wealth or whatever the definition of wealth. 3% compared to the white purse. [NOTE: I believe Ms. Anderson is referring to Arthur Kennickell’s “A Rolling Tide.” (PDF) The economist revealed that African-Americans had less mean wealth than white non-Hispanics.] But that thing about the single black woman, that’s ridiculous. I mean, we’ve been here 400 years. We have a black president now. We have folks like me.
Anderson: We have living manifestations of the American dream at work. You know that my family’s an immigrant family.
Anderson: You know, we have all of this and we still have that. And it’s going to be hard to make that kind of number a fair number. It’s going to be really hard. But at least, if everyday consumers like me were to try and find the businesses that were going to employ that woman or give her a fair wage or give her community a chance and invest in her community instead of just making money from that community and taking it away, maybe we can do something about that number.
Correspondent: And the statistics actually get slightly better when you account for marriage or cohabitation. The white woman has a median wealth of $167,500 and the black woman has $31,500. So better than $5. But still really troubling. I guess the question I have, since we’re talking about the idea of a black dollar not going so far, what do you think ultimately accounts for this failure to have the wealth reinvested in the community? In black neighborhoods? How can they be expected to invest their wealth in any concentrated matter? I mean, what are the underlying issues here? I’m curious.
Anderson: Right. And it’s so funny. Because when people just hear about the essence of our experiment — black families say they’re only going to support black businesses — there’s accusations of racism. And people will assume that the book is this thing of taking it to the Man. And getting back at Charlie. And all that stuff.
Correspondent: Getting back at Charlie. (laughs)
Anderson: The white man Charlie. But anyway, the book is really — if I’m yelling at anyone, it’s at black consumers. Because there’s a lot of history here that contributes to the bad situation we’re in. I’ll be really quick. A lot of it has to do with integration. Of course, we love what integration did in this country. Of course, we fought for it. But it had some really negative impact. Some deleterious impact into the black economy, if you will. Because we’re forced to, because we’re segregated, we built up our own businesses. We had a strong sense of entrepreneurship in our community. And we recycled our wealth. So that was just the fact. That was the way it was. And the University of Wisconsin just did a study** that showed in 2009, when there was over 50% black unemployment in Milwaukee, in the same area, where there used to be black businesses flourishing in the 1950s before integration, there was less than 7% unemployment. So it really bears out that when we have the businesses where black people work, black people are employed. So after integration, we were so anxious to be enfranchised. We were so happy to have that opportunity to shop at Woolworth, to go to Walgreen’s, that we did it in droves. And it was just kind of our way of saying, “Yeah! We’re going to show you that our money is just as good as white people’s money and we’re going to show you how important we are and how equal we are by spending as much money with you as we can!” And in so doing, we kind of abandoned our would-be Woolworth’s, which were already providing quality goods and services in the community. All of our consumers just left those local black businesses that helped our community shine to go out to these big corporations where we were denied the right to shop before. So that was the first punch. And then the second punch came in. Because these corporations started seeing the value of the black consumer dollar. So they started to market to us very positively. Another term that I’ll bring up, which is kind of funny. We used to say “colored on” at one point. Colored on. We were so excited if GM were to show a black family coming out of a house, driving their Cadillac to the family vacation. Or McDonald’s, where you’d have a black family enjoying a black family meal. We were so happy when we saw that and that was the best way for them to market to us. And we returned that honor with our dollar, with our loyalty. So that was the second punch. They started marketing to us more aggressively. And we started spending more money with them, with their businesses. And then the third punch was they started to recruit us. So when I was coming up — I’m 40 — so in the ’70s, when I was coming up, the big deal for black mothers, for black parents, for black grandparents, was for me that kind of shining star, that smart kid that hoped to get out of the ghetto, was for me to find a great job at a big white company. That was the goal. It wasn’t like with our Asian counterparts, even our Hispanic counterparts, to continuing the family business, to start a business, to stay in the community. No. It wasn’t that. It was get out and do so by getting that great job. So the would-be entrepreneurs or the Talented Tenth, if you remember that.
Anderson: We didn’t do our Talented Tenth duty. We left the community and we gave all our talent to big corporations. All of these things contributed to the lack of support for black business and our lack of entrepreneurship in the community. The big deal is to get a good job, not be an entrepreneur. So the entrepreneurs we do have don’t have the capital or the training to compete. So we can only survive in the industries where no one else can do it better. And that’s by braiding hair, cutting black hair, and providing funeral services in our community. So that’s where we can still have a stronghod. Even in black hair, in beauty supplies. Even in all that kind of stuff, we’ve lost those industries. That was kind of the fourth punch when immigrant groups basically started to leverage this wonderful phenomenon of a whole class of people that loves to spend money outside our community. They set up shop in our communities. Not racist. Not trying to steal our wealth. But they set up shop there and did well there. And now we’re upset because we can’t find quality black businesses in our own neighborhoods when basically we invited the intrusion by not supporting the black businesses we did have. So all of this has led to the demise that we have now. So some of it, yes. Some of it, our racist history. A lot of it has to do with our consumers, our people, kind of seeing our own businesses in a negative way. It’s a real difficult thing to talk about outside the black community. It’s just kind of cultural. But the definition is another term. White man’s ice is colder.
Anderson: Why go to a black business when you can go to a white business? The way we show that we’re equal is by buying Polo and Hennessy. By living in the white suburbs. That’s how we demonstrate our equality. Not by buying black products and supporting local black businesses. I know it’s kind of a disgusting thing to say, but that’s the truth.
Correspondent: Well, as an effort to unpack much of what you just said — for example, in this book, among the businesses that you include in the Empowerment Experiment are, for example, a black-owned Quiznos. But my understanding is that a white guy named Rich Schaden is the principal shareholder and that he and his company have this history of ripping off numerous franchise owners. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Quiznos franchise holder, Bhupinder Baber. He killed himself over this. So, yes, I agree that a black-owned Quiznos, it may indeed hire more black employees. But if the parent company is exploiting its franchise owners, I’m wondering if this cycle of exploitation has a negative impact on a black neighborhood or a black community. Shouldn’t one also consider the independent nature of a business as well? How does a black-owned Quiznos help a community more than, say, an independent family restaurant?
Anderson: Right. And this is a huge point that I have to contend with when I push this supply diversity franchise rediversity message into the community. And here’s how it goes when I’m talking to black folk who I’m trying to get to support black businesses. It should not be that tough of a fight, but it is. When I say this to them, they come at me, generally with stuff like “Well, we tried to Karriem [Beyah]‘s grocery store. He didn’t have the thing that we wanted.” Or it wasn’t like going to our Jewel, the big grocery store chain around here. Or you can go to this black franchise. But I didn’t see a bunch of black employees there. Or how do I know Quiznos is a good franchise to be supporting? So I get a bit of a challenge. Then I say, “Well, you know what? How is that? I mean, what are you doing now?” Basically, we’re just out there supporting anybody. Not thinking about what the businesses are doing for us. Polo. I mean, Polo blew the lid off of black consumers. We have black Polo parties that we have for our kids. I mean, it’s just ridiculous how addicted we are to the Polo brand. I have nothing against Polo Ralph Lauren. But I did have a friend who works writing for the CFO of Polo, and I asked her to do some research for me. She’s a conscious consumer like me. HBS grad. Very well connected in the company. And she thinks they talked with the marketing folks, the procuring folks, everybody about buyer diversity. Do you do business? How do you invest in the black community? We have so much money coming in from the black community. And their answer to me was, “Well, our label comes out of Indonesia.” And it’s unbelievable. That’s the best we can do to reciprocate the loyalty that the black community’s giving you? So it’s like, “Yeah. Maybe.” And you’re totally right about the Quiznos thing. But the first answer to them is, “But you’re supporting Polo. And it’s not like you’re stopping in support of Polo.” And I’m not saying don’t support Polo. But if you’re so discriminating with how you spend your money, there’s a lot of things that we shouldn’t be doing that we ought to be doing.
* — This study can also be found in Brooke Stephens’s Taking Dollars and Making Sense: A Wealth Building Guide for African-Americans. There seems to be no online version of this.
** — After reviewing the study (PDF), I believe Maggie’s slightly off — that is, if she’s referring to the Marc Levine findings from January. But black unemployment is absolutely a problem a Milwaukee. There was a huge hit in the last several decades. 1970: 84.8% employment rate for metro Milwaukee black men in their prime working years. By 2010, that figure had fallen to 52.7%. Here’s the important paragraph from Levine’s report:
The city of Milwaukee, where almost 90% of the region’s black males live, has lost over three-quarters of its industrial jobs since the 1960s. As Table 5 suggests, this manufacturing decline has disproportionately affected the employment prospects of African American males. In 1970 54.3 percent of Milwaukee black males were employed in 1970 as factory operatives, more than double the white percentage. By 2009, only 14.7 percent of black males were working in Milwaukee factories, about the same percentage as white males. By 2009, in fact, even though working-age black males outnumbered Hispanic males by 55 percent in Milwaukee, there were more Hispanic male production workers (7,200) than black male production workers (4,842) in the region, a sign of the degree to which manufacturing is no longer the bulwark it has been historically for the Milwaukee black male working class.
Show #444: Alain de Botton
Show #444, which runs 30 minutes and 18 seconds, was released a few weeks ago and can be listened to at this link. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk with Alain de Botton (he had only one day in New York), but he was kind enough to give us thirty minutes to discuss his latest book,Religion for Atheists. I like Alain and his writing a great deal, but one of the tricks with this conversation was persuading Alain to unpack some of his issues, which he was a bit hesitant to do (despite the fact that the man exudes classy cordiality). To express marvel is an essential quality to life. But if you’re going to really wrestle with ideas that have the potential to change the world, shouldn’t you work out the pragmatics?
It was perhaps this essential question that gave this program some unexpected sparks.
Here’s an excerpt from the program:
Correspondent: Your books very often have this moment where you describe a very funny yet sometimes socially awkward encounter where you attempt to impart some concept or some amazing idea in your head that you are excited about and that the person who is receiving this intelligence often expresses some dismay. I think of, for example, your long speech at the Mojave Airport Graveyard in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work or your attempt to pitch yourself as a writer-in-flight to the British Airways head honcho Willie Walsh. Obviously, I think, based off of this, you are aware that some of your excitement is being misperceived. So in light of trying to consider a scenario along the lines of what you’re preaching in Religion for Atheists — where you’re trying to have certain concepts stick in other people’s heads and religion is more fraught, more sensitive than the norm — how do you get through to these people? I mean, if you’re aware of these things, you’re probably going to have moments even more extreme than the two I’ve cited. So what of this predicament? How do you go ahead and convert these people over to your side?
De Botton: Well, I suppose, when it comes to religion, you’ve got extremists on both sides of the debate. You’ve got religious believers who are very fervent in their belief and think that anything else, anything besides full conversion to their creed is not acceptable. And at the same time, you have very fierce atheists who think that any involvement with religion is evil and to be resisted. And I’ve tried to write a book that’s somewhere in the middle of those two. It’s a book that tries to say that, as an atheist, you can nevertheless engage with aspects of religion. And indeed those aspects may be very enriching for your understanding of secular society. So it’s a weird book. Because it really is fairly in the middle of something that most people would consider to be incompatible, which is atheism and religion. It’s arguing that atheism should engage in, and can engage, with aspects of religion. And it can be shot at from both sides. But I also think there is a silent majority that is actually in sympathy with the approach I’m taking. But that is a silent majority that don’t have the pulpits.
Correspondent: But if the movers and shakers, such as the man at the graveyard, require twenty dollar bills to advance things, I’m wondering how you can instill these ideas into a new belief system if everything is centered around commerce, centered around capitalism, centered around the need to get ahead, centered around some unusual man asking to see the airplanes and so forth. I mean, this, I think, is one of the interesting takeaways I get from your book. So how do you solve this?
De Botton: Well, I think that the proposals that I make are aiming to get secular capitalist people in secular capitalist societies to rethink their positions on things. I’m arguing that there are certain things missing from modern society. Though we’ve been fantastically good at delivering material improvements and supplying material needs in the developed world, there are some other needs, which you might call spiritual — and I use that word without any supernatural implications. But spiritual, psychological needs have been left slightly unattended. I’m thinking here of things like our need for community, our need for moral structure, our need for certain guidance through the challenges of life. These things have not been so well done by the secular world and I’m arguing that one of the ways which we can plug some of the gaps in the secular world is to look back at the lessons of religion. And my book is full of examples, of concepts, of practices, of rituals that one might rescue or at least learn from as atheists in a secular world.
Correspondent: Well, there’s one idea — the Agape Restaurant — where you have different types of people sitting at the same table, sharing their stories and so forth. But I’m wondering what safeguards you have in place for people who are shy or who are introverted. There’s a new book by Susan Cain called Quiet that gets into the amount of social energy one has to exert if one is introverted or even ambiverted. And so this also leads me to ask — well, if I go into a situation and I’m asked to share my most intimate secrets with a stranger, I’m not certain if I would want to do that. Because maybe someone there might want to steal my identity or so forth. We would enter such a social arrangement with understandable suspicion. And if you’re an introvert, you may be very scared or it may actually be a little intimidating to be asked to engage in this extroverted activity. So what of these kinds of problems here? What are your solutions? What are your workarounds?
De Botton: I guess my starting point is that the modern world is not so good at community building. There’s a lot of loneliness. Because much of who we are doesn’t get an expression in social life. And this is surprising. Because with Facebook and other social media, we were supposed to have cracked this. But I think people will still complain that in many areas, we don’t have good communities. And religion’s unparalleled at building communities. Now how do religions build communities? One of the things they do is they gather people around a table every now and then and get them to break bread together and get them to talk. That’s how early Christianity started. It started as a series of meals between the followers of Jesus who remembered his lessons and got together to eat. And, as I say, you find this in all faiths. That somehow the stranger is invited to the table and is welcome to the table and a stranger is turned into a friend. It’s a beautiful idea. A simple idea. And I couldn’t help but contrast this with the modern world, where we’re obsessed with eating. And newspapers and media are full of places to eat. The restaurant world is high on the agenda. But what’s never really spoken of is the meal as a source of a social engagement. As a source of discovery of another person. And that is really what interested me. And so with the example of religion in mind, one of the things I do in my book is to suggest how we might learn from the tradition of communal dining of religions, and precisely set up meals between strangers. Now, of course, some of them may feel uncomfortable. And some people like to eat on their own. So it wouldn’t be for everybody. But I think in many of us, there is a desire to shed the armor which we normally have to wear in daily life and to eat with others and to discuss our shared and common humanity.
Correspondent: But what I’m saying is that the introvert who is very fond of, say, one-on-one exchanges, as opposed to mass group exchanges — I mean, how does such a communal dining experience account for that? They may feel very uncomfortable. There may be a lot of social energy. You’re saying that they should go ahead and answer very deep questions about what they fear. And so how do you account for them?
De Botton: Well, look, it’s not for everyone. As I say, if someone wants a one-on-one meal, if someone’s not interested in community, then it might not be for them.
Correspondent: Well, how do you get them involved in the community? If the ideal here is to get everybody on the same page, how…
De Botton: Well, it doesn’t have to be everybody. But it has to be those among us who hunger for community, as many of us do.
Correspondent: But introverts do hunger for community. They just go about it in a different way.
De Botton: Yeah. Well, I couldn’t speak for them.
Correspondent: Okay. Early in the book, you bring up the Day of Atonement — the moment on the Hebrew calendar where Jews must identify all those who they have hurt or behaved unjustly towards. Now those who are part of the Day of Atonement are inclined to forgive any offenders for annoying them or causing them grief. But it is an undeniable truth that very often when you apologize to someone in the secular world, well, they’re not exactly going to have the same degree of understanding sometimes. In fact, your apology may aggravate the other person further. So I’m wondering. To get something along the lines of a Day of Atonement for a secular or non-religious group, I’m wondering: Does it take a specific secular rite? For example, in Australia, if you go and vote, 95% of the people turn out. Because if you don’t vote, then you’ll actually get fined. So I’m wondering if a Day of Atonement along the lines of what you’re talking about would require something like a government mandate for everybody to apologize to everybody. What of this dilemma?
De Botton: Well, I don’t know. I mean, what strikes me as a secular person is how intelligent religious communities are at realizing that community is a very nice thing in many ways. But it’s also very challenging. And you find, throughout the history of religion, mechanisms to ease social tensions. And it struck me that the Jewish Day of Atonement was particularly clever and insightful in recognizing that what holds communities back is grudges. Things that are undigested in the past. And what it encourages people to do is to both accept that another person may have a grudge to bring up, but also that it behooves you not to drag out that grudge. So there’s a kind of mutual responsibility on both sides not to drag out an argument and to move towards forgiveness. And the underlying assumption is that God is the only perfect being. And anyone else is going to be flawed. And so we have to forgive on the basis of our fragility and flawed natures. And I think that’s a very beautiful idea. Look, the specifics of how an atheist might do this can yet be worked out. But it’s food for thought. I think, for me, what’s interesting here is that the psychological mechanism of forgiveness based on a recognition of imperfection. And this is something that the modern world struggles with.
Correspondent: How do you reach, though, someone who is not inclined to forgive? Or who may not in fact be on the same page? I mean, I’m all for you. I would love to see everybody forgive everybody for their sins or their errors or their sleights or what not. But the fact is that a lot of people are just not going to. So what does it take to really bring people around? Does it take constant promotion of idealism along the lines of what you’re saying or what?
De Botton: Well, in the Jewish Day of Atonement, what gets people motivated is a sense that it is normal both to forgive and to have a grudge that you need to bring up. And I think that too often when people annoy the mood for discussing issues, of discussing grudges, it’s because they feel that they’re not going to get a proper hearing, that it might be embarrassing to do this, and that dialogue with another is impossible. So it’s a kind of pessimistic position. And sometimes we may need a bit of help. We may need a third person.
De Botton: Mediators.
Correspondent: Voluntary mediators.
De Botton: And that, in a sense, was the role that God was playing in the Jewish community at that point. He is a mediator.
Correspondent: Yeah. So in addition to having a temple for atheism, we also need to get a mediator army of volunteers. Would this also help to spread further good will and bonhomie?
De Botton: I think you’re focusing a little bit unfairly on the practical aspects of this. I’m really writing as a psychologist. I’m interested in psychology of religion and the psychology of the dynamics that are being explored. So how exactly this might apply, how a secular person might absorb this into their life is capable of many different interpretations?
Correspondent: But aren’t pragmatics important when considering the psychological possibilities of what human beings are capable of?
De Botton: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely But we don’t have to decide today.
Correspondent: I’m just picking your brain here.
De Botton: Sure. Of course.
Three modest announcements:
1. Starting next week — on Monday, April 30 — we will be airing five shows of Bat Segundo. (There will be two shows on May 2nd, because we wish to express our solidarity on May Day.) There are some very special guests here — authors who, quite frankly, we never thought we’d ever meet. So do check in on that.
2. This Tumblr has been neglected in recent weeks, and we’ve been pumping out the shows. So we’re going to atone in the next few hours with some mini-entries for those who may have missed some of the recent shows.
3. Part Two of our Tom Bissell interview (Show #450) will be airing tomorrow. And trust me: it’s worth the wait. Many unanticipated truths about what it is to be a writer or to have a relationship with words in 2012 coming from both questioner and subject. So stick around for that!