Episode 111: Socialism or Barbarism w/ Micah Uetricht

Micah Uetricht is managing editor at Jacobin Magazine and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity. Like many of us, he’s watching with a combination of delight and disbelief as left-of-liberal ideas enjoy a rare moment in the mainstream spotlight, from the 1950s-style red-baiting of Fox News to Stephen Colbert’s recent declaration that “God is a socialist.”  Even the ladies of The View are getting in on it, sitting down with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for a friendly little chat about democratic socialism. To Uetricht, these moments are further evidence that the time is ripe for a return to the working class politics that defined the Democratic Party in past eras.  

In this conversation, Uetricht tells how his early experiences as a union organizer influenced his ideas, what he sees as the future for labor in America, and why he thinks it’s so critical for the left to wrest power from the neoliberals who control the Democratic Party:

“It really is a kind of  socialism or barbarism moment. We can either offer something to people, or someone like Trump can. This is why we do have this responsibility, because obviously what is on offer by the Democratic Party, by the tepid centrist liberalism, is just going to continue to play right into the hands of people like Trump. And so our responsibility is to create an alternative that can actually speak to these very understandable and real and rational feelings that a huge chunk, if not the majority, of the population are feeling right now.”

Episode 110: War is a Racket w/ Nate Bethea

Nate Bethea is co-host of the podcast A Hell of a Way to Die, a funny, often bracing show about the intersection of leftist politics and American military culture. While serving as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army from 2007-2014, and deploying to Afghanistan in 2009-2010, Bethea reports that he “lived the Army values so hard that I became a socialist.” In this conversation, he discusses the hazards of being openly left while on active duty, the disturbing rise of MAGA-style fascism among veterans, and how his experience at war deepened his political commitments:  

“Leftist veterans aren’t coming from the perspective that everyone should be in the military, but what we’re saying is that we’ve seen some of these policies put forth in the military, we’ve seen things like universal health care, things like the GI Bill covering your full tuition—we see these things, and we think, why can’t everybody have this?

And we also have seen the waste and the stupidity . . . the containers full of shit burned in Afghanistan, vehicles valued at $300,000 abandoned in Iraq . . . I mean, if you take ROTC paying for my undergrad, and the GI Bill paying for my M.F.A., and if I had done a Ph.D., all of that tuition put together, and all the cost of living allowance they’ve given me, would not equal the cost of one stupid Humvee that we gave to the Iraqis and then ISIS stole, and then we bombed it with a bomb that cost more than the Humvee.”

Episode 108: Seizing Socialism's Moment w/ Alex Press

Alex Press is a writer and assistant editor at Jacobin Magazine whose work explores the contours and possibilities of American working class politics. In this conversation, she tells about being radicalized by the Occupy movement in 2011, her journey through anarchism and socialism in a basement full of radical literature, and her thoughts on the rising visibility of socialist politics in the U.S. mainstream. Surveying the current political landscape, Press sees many opportunities for the left to more effectively harness the anger and energy felt by millions of Americans. She argues that popular social movements, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, can and should be channeled into real working class power:

“We don’t have a very visible fighting feminist movement in the way that we’ve had in the past. You have this incredible energy around #MeToo, so many people wanted to change this thing, everyone agreed it was terrible that every woman they know seems to have experienced really awful things, whether in their work life or elsewhere, and yet there was nowhere really for people to go. And when you don’t have that infrastructure of an organized left that can really lead that energy, and develop it, and demand certain changes, it dissipates. It’s a real missed opportunity, and it’s why left organizations should be preparing themselves to actually figure out a way to fight back against incredibly anti-feminist policies in this country.”

Episode 107: Mapping the Face of War w/ Bhakti Shringarpure

Bhakti Shringarpure is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Warscapes, an online magazine that features interviews, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art from regions of conflict around the world. In this conversation, she talks about her youth in India, her work with poet Ammiel Alcalay in graduate school, and why Warscapes avoids the clickbait format of mainstream digital media. In discussing recent outrage about Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza, Shringarpure explains how the urgent tone of social media distorts our perceptions:

“I think it’s not a new moment. Those things, the brutality toward children, the right to maim, all these things that people are shocked by, have always been endemic to that conflict, and to many conflicts. But I think we have this very bifurcated moment. We have this over-vigilant reportage [with] Twitter and social media—we’re finding out a lot, so the outrage machine is very intense.

On the one hand, we have all this information, we can see how intensely horrible it is, and then we have a set of governments that seem completely disinterested in what’s causing us this daily outrage. We are constantly forced to think of the insensitivity of these governments, alongside the hypersensitive, over-the-top, social media internet machine giving us image after image after image, and I think there’s a shock there . . . but the actual violence is unchanged.”

Episode 106: Hyperspeed of the Immediate w/ Maximillian Alvarez

Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and academic whose work often explores the intersections of changing technological environments and the production of radical political philosophy. In this conversation, he talks about being surrounded by conservatives in Southern California during the 1990s, how the discovery of Russian literature expanded his political and intellectual worldview, and why it’s vital for academics to bridge the gap between the university and the wider public. Reflecting on Trump’s rise and the increasingly overt fascism of his troglodytic supporters, Alvarez invites us to consider the dark implications of social media’s powerful grip on the American mind:    

“We are seeing and experiencing first-hand how the changing media environment in the 21st century shapes politics . . . When we’re writing the history of the beginning of the Trump era, we’re going to have plenty of work to do to figure out how his brand of populist ethnonationalism came to resonate with people, how the backlash to Obama materialized, the shifts on the right, etc. But we’re also going to have to ask other questions that are incredibly difficult.

What, for instance, are the political ramifications of a country’s increasingly pervasive loss of long term memory? [We’re] plugged into this hyperspeed of the immediate that social media and the digital news flow attunes [us] to, and I think this is having a very significant impact. The politics of resentment has found a place to flourish in a social media economy where the dopamine hits come from the responses of other people, that you get to see on your phone.”

Episode 105: Between Oligarchy and Democracy w/ Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is a historian of American politics with a number of important books on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the ideological evolution of the Republican Party. Richardson’s work tracks the space between rhetoric and reality, showing us how political parties pull the levers of race and class to manipulate public opinion and gain power.

Richardson’s recent focus is the way American conservatism has influenced the direction of the Republican Party over the course of the past several decades. In this conversation, she explains how “movement conservatives” since the Buckley era pushed the GOP to embrace increasingly extreme candidates and positions, setting the table for the Trump nightmare:

“Americans figured out fairly early on that [Republican economic policies] didn’t really help them. So Republican language has gotten more and more crazy. For me, the real sign was when Carly Fiorina, in the debates in 2016, said that Democrats were literally killing babies so they could sell their body parts . . .

They’ve had to ratchet this language up more and more. So when Trump came in and said and did the horrific things he did, he was really simply playing that movement conservative narrative out to its logical end. It’s exactly the path we started on in 1951 with God and Man at Yale.”

Episode 103: No Really, You Don’t Need a Weatherman w/ Michael Kazin

Michael Kazin is a historian of American labor and social movements, and co-editor of Dissent magazine. As a student at Harvard in the late 1960s, he was a leader within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and played a part in its short-lived militant faction, the Weatherman. In this conversation, Kazin reflects on his path “from revolutionary to professor,” explaining how his early experiences in the New Left inform his analysis of the massive political shifts over the decades that followed. In explaining the recent popularity of left figures and organizations, from Bernie Sanders to the DSA, Kazin sees liberal failure as a significant part of the equation:

“When liberals are in power, it actually helps the left, because they make promises they don’t keep. The left grew in the 60s under liberal presidents, the left grew in the 30s under Franklin Roosevelt, the left grew under Woodrow Wilson before then, and the left grew under Abraham Lincoln, who was in effect a progressive though no one used that term at the time.

And so people, especially young people say ‘I thought Obama was gonna do all this great stuff— he talked about a movement, he was gonna stop climate change, he was gonna get everybody better wages, he was gonna help unions organize.’ And the financial crisis made it seem as though, maybe capitalism’s not so great after all. Maybe this globalized economy, what some people call neoliberalism, made promises it couldn’t keep.

So under Obama, we have Black Lives Matter, we have Occupy . . . and people are open to hearing the kinds of things that Sanders has been saying for 50 years.”

Episode 102: Immigration and the Carceral State w/ Carl Lindskoog

Carl Lindskoog is a historian of immigration, race, and rebellion whose forthcoming book Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System locates the roots of America’s current immigration policies in the history of U.S - Haiti relations over the past several decades. His latest piece reminds us that horrific practices like child detention are sadly nothing new, explaining how the U.S. government’s response to an influx of Haitian refugees in the 1990s created the template for the harsh, punitive immigration system that exists today. In this conversation, Lindskoog tells the extraordinary story of Haitian children rising up against their American captors at a detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, and discusses how the history of resistance to the U.S. immigration system is part of the wider movement to confront the brutality of the American carceral state. LISTEN HERE.

“It’s always the two sides, repression and resistance. Long before it’s Guantanamo detainees or immigrant detainees in the United States doing hunger strikes and resisting and organizing inside—which they’re doing right now and we’ve been hearing about for the past several years—in the 1970s Haitian women in a prison in West Virginia have a hunger strike . . . so this is a big part of the movement for refugee and immigrant rights that’s been going a for a long time.

"And this is where I see the Haitian story as connected to the [work of] Heather Ann Thompson and other people who are documenting prisoner resistance and resistance inside, because just as incarcerated people have always fought for their freedom, so have incarcerated people who are immigrants . . . and that needs to be part of the story too.”

Episode 100: Writing Attica's History w/ Heather Ann Thompson

Heather Ann Thompson is a historian and writer whose 2016 book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. In this conversation, she discusses how her upbringing in Detroit shaped her views on American politics and ignited her interest in tracking the history of mass incarceration. Thompson also talks about the 13-year process behind writing a book like Blood in the Water, a project that included intense research, wrenching oral histories, and a narrative that’s been intentionally distorted and covered up for decades. By putting Attica’s history in context, Thompson’s work considers the larger moral dimensions of America’s obsession with crime and punishment.

LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE.

“We have to explain not just why we get drug laws . . . what we really need to explain is:  When did we become a country where it’s okay to have 400 children in Michigan serving life sentences? When did we as a society become okay with people spending 10 years in solitary confinement?

And that was where I felt that the memory of Attica was so critically important. Somehow, we had been given this opportunity to do right by the folks that were serving time, and that is exactly what the men in Attica had hoped would happen. And yet, the exact opposite happens and we come out of Attica seeing prisoners like animals.

How does that happen?”  

Episode 99: The Long Seventies w/ Bruce Schulman

Bruce Schulman's 2001 book The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics is a fascinating take on a critical era, and helps put the Trump era into an understandable historical context. In this conversation, Schulman discusses how popular culture came to be such a central element of his methodology, helping him chart a course through the political and social history of late 20th century America. LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE

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Episode 98: The Ruins of History w/ Megan Kate Nelson

Megan Kate Nelson's interdisciplinary approach to environmental history puts towering events like the Civil War into wholly new contexts. Her book Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War investigates the human, biological, and infrastructural devastation of the era, and asks critical questions about American memory. In this conversation she explains the development of her methodology and the direction of the historical discipline. LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE

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Episode 96: The Longue Durée of Modernity w/ Daniel McClure

Daniel McClure is a historian and writer interested in long term historical processes (like capitalism, imperialism, and the nation-state), connecting those big ideas to American popular culture and media in the postwar era. He explains how a theoretical approach to the study of history, while often met with skepticism in the academy, provides such an effective lens for understanding the current moment. LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE

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Episode 94: The Greenwich Village Folk Explosion w/ Stephen Petrus

Stephen Petrus is a historian of 20th century America and author of Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival. In this conversation, he tells me about discovering the world of beat poetry, folk music, and a rising "counterculture" in his younger years, and how becoming an academic historian led him to explore the complex social, political, and economic trends that created such a potent cultural moment in 1950s and 1960s New York City. LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE

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Episode 93: Jason Wilson

Jason Wilson's coverage of last summer's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer, helped frame the rising presence of "alt-right" and white supremacist actors on the American political stage. In this conversation, Wilson tells me about his youth in Australia, years studying media theory in grad school, and how he became alternately fascinated and horrified with America's radical right-wing. LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE

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Episode 92: Allen Ruff

Allen Ruff is the host of A Public Affair on WORT-FM community radio in Madison, Wisconsin, a show that features interviews with a wide range of figures from the left side of the American political and cultural scene (including yours truly). In this conversation, he talks about his experiences in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s, his subsequent career as an academic historian, and his trajectory on the radical left. LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE

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Episode 91: Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank might be best known as the author of What's the Matter with Kansas?, a 2004 book that sought to explain why so many Americans in "flyover country" vote for the Republican Party. But his analysis goes much deeper than just Kansas. In this conversation, he discusses his development as a political analyst and historian, and offers his perspective on what's happened to the left and right in recent decades. His latest book, Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? traces how Democrats became the party of Wall Street, and Republicans hone their image as the party of "ordinary working people." LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE

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Episode 90: AM/FM - The Political Economy of Mass Shootings

In this episode, Justin Rogers-Cooper joins me to unpack the mass shooting phenomenon in the wider context of American history. Why do Americans kill each other? Who benefits from mass killings? And how is social violence connected to the structures of capitalism? LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE

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