Author Archives: Kelly

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit

Chris Matthews
Simon & Schuster ($28.99)

by Mike Dillon

“Doom,” poet Robert Lowell wrote of Robert Kennedy, “was woven into your nerves.” On June 5, 1968, the junior senator from New York, after winning the California Democratic primary, was gunned down in a crowded kitchen pantry at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Chaos surrounded him as he lay on a cement floor; his gaze was calm, “as if he knew it would all end this way,” wrote journalist Pete Hamill, who witnessed the scene. With the approach of the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death, another book has come along to remind us of the tragic dispossession from that turbulent spring.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, has synthesized a familiar story into a brisk, straightforward biography in which he casts Kennedy’s life as an existential progress of the soul—which it most definitely was. Late in Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, Matthews quotes Kennedy’s words to the wife of a staffer in 1967 after he visited heart-rending scenes of poverty and starvation in the Mississippi Delta: “I’ve done nothing in my life . . . everything I’ve done was a waste . . . everything I’ve done was worthless!”

Matthews, also author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, and other books, is well suited to tell the Kennedy tale. Like the Kennedys, Matthews grew up with an Irish Catholic lens on the world. Born in 1945 on the leading edge of the Boomer generation, and a former Peace Corps volunteer who went on to work for Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, Matthews breaks into the narrative here and there to connect his own personal experience to the Kennedy saga and the 1960s.

Matthews acknowledges two prior biographies as crucial sourcebooks: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s capacious Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978) and Evan Thomas’s Robert Kennedy: His Life (2000). His biography won’t replace those works or Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon (2016). Still, Matthews’ narrative, bolstered by archival interviews, manages to advance our understanding of an enigmatic man, the runt of the Kennedy litter who grew up under the shadow of an overweening father and a constellation of dazzling siblings.

“My goal here is to come to grips with his story, who and what he was and what lay beneath the man we saw,” Matthews writes in the prologue. “Born twenty years before me, he was from a different East Coast City and an environment far more privileged than mine. Yet the familiarities of our Irish Catholic world rang ardently through our everyday lives.”

Matthews has a sharp eye for those moments in Kennedy’s early life that flag the man he would become. One summer the four-year-old Kennedy jumped off a boat so he would have no choice but learn to swim. In 1951, while a law student at the University of Virginia and president of the school’s Student Legal Forum, Kennedy invited Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to speak on campus. According to state law the audience would be segregated. Kennedy wrote a five-page letter to the university president, logical and eloquent, arguing for integrated seating.

Early enemies made in Washington D.C. were also a credit to his character. They included the menacing Roy Cohn, whiz kid attorney and chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Cohn, later disbarred for unethical conduct in New York, went on to become Donald Trump’s mentor.

The legendary feud with Jimmy Hoffa, President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1958 to 1971, is the stuff of film noir. As Chief Counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee prior to his brother’s 1960 presidential run, the millionaire’s son had the corrupt union boss squarely in his cross hairs. Matthews notes: “Hoffa, Bobby would recall, ‘was glaring at me across the counsel table with a deep, strange, penetrating expression of intense hatred . . . There were times when his face seemed completely transfixed with this stare of absolute evil.’”

Kennedy managed John Kennedy’s quest for the presidency with tenacious—some said ruthless—efficiency, and as Attorney General he became his older brother’s most trusted confidant. Matthews give a good account of the pair’s slow swing toward the civil rights struggle. The violent mobs assaulting the Freedom Riders and federal authorities in Alabama in 1961 shocked the Attorney General. Matthews quotes singer Harry Belafonte, friend to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kennedy: “At last, Bobby’s moral center seemed to stir.”

Following his brother’s assassination in November 1963, Kennedy, his sharp features haunted by grief, dived into the works of the Greek tragedians and Albert Camus, trying to understand suffering. A successful run for the Senate seat in New York in 1964, riding on the hated Lyndon Johnson’s coattails, gave Kennedy a base from which to act. And so began his interregnum: unwelcome at Johnson’s White House, he pondered, in Hamlet-like fashion, a return of “Camelot” to the same address.

Finally, he began to doubt the war in Vietnam. In an speech to Senate colleagues in 1967, after pointing out that three presidents had overseen the war’s expansion, he admits, with nearly unthinkable political honesty: “As one who was involved in those decisions, I can testify that if fault is to be found or responsibility assessed, there is enough to go around for all — including myself.” Clearly, Robert Kennedy was no ordinary politician.

On the evening of April 4, 1968 it fell to the presidential candidate to inform an African American crowd in Indianapolis of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Matthews rightly quotes Kennedy’s speech in full. It was a rare moment in American history — a son of privilege, vulnerable and raw, speaking softly, at times haltingly, of tragedy and hope to the grief-stricken African American community like no other white politician could. That night riots broke out in major cities across the United States, but not in Indianapolis.

As he barnstormed in key states during the extraordinary 82 days of his presidential run, the man who searched deep inside himself for his better angels called on the country to do the same. In the last days of the California primary campaign, frenzied crowds rushed Kennedy’s open car, grabbing for a piece of him. “You know, I feel now for the first time that I’ve shaken off the shadow of my brother,” Kennedy tells family confidant Ken O’Donnell by phone on the night of his California primary win.

Kennedy’s victory speech called for an end to violence and division before he turned from the podium towards the kitchen pantry. He was 42 years old. “Give sorrow words,” Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth. This Matthews has done.


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Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner

Paul M. Sammon
Dey Street Books ($16.99)

by Ryder W. Miller

Blade Runner, though not a cinematic blockbuster, ranks up there at with the very best of science fiction films. Credited with revolutionizing science fiction filmmaking and heavily influencing the cyberpunk subgenre, the film presents a post-nuclear world in a state of anarchy, a dystopian setting with pollution that has caused permanent night and a police division that can kill the artificial life humankind has created without a trial or consequence. Despite the dangerous pollution on earth—the opening scene of the film landscape was actually called “Hades”—people are stuck on the planet even though they would like to go to the stars.

Future Noir, originally published in 1996 and now in its third edition, does a great job of exploring the film in depth (or perhaps I should say “films”; there have been seven different versions due to studio demands at the time, and more recently a sequel). Though loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the film moves the story out of the Bay Area and cuts some of the novel’s major elements, namely a fictional religion called Mercerism and dystopian society’s use of live animals as status symbols. Most life is now dead because of DNA-destroying radiation. Androids, here called “replicants,” have been created to be “more human than human” but they lack empathy. “Blade runners” are supposed to eliminate them from the population.

There is really not a hero in the movie; this is a film about replicants who cannot fit in. Dick was not thrilled about the adaptation process, and he died before the film premiered, but he knew it would change science fiction. He has since received a “cinematic rebirth” of sorts; so many movies have been based on his books, with more coming—which is good since his books usually explore dark undercurrents in society and politics.

Future Noir, which runs almost 600 long pages and contains interviews with director Ridley Scott and some of the actors, is the bible concerning Blade Runner. For those who want to know about all the infighting and struggles of putting a film together, and what is sometimes lost and misunderstood in the process, journalist and film insider Paul M. Sammon has done a monumental service.


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A New Enlightenment:
An Interview with Steven Pinker

photo by Rose Lincoln

Interviewed by Allan Vorda and Shawn Vorda

One of the most popular and widely read cognitive scientists of our era, Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, where he conducts research on cognition, language, and social relations. Pinker received his B.A. in psychology from McGill University in 1976 and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard University in 1979. He later did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught from 1982 until 2003. He is the author of over a dozen books, including How the Mind Works, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, and most recently Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, $35).

Pinker was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2004, has been twice named to Foreign Policy’s list of top global thinkers, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016; he has won many awards both for his books and his research, and he chairs the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Known for his long curly locks as well as for his impressive intellect, Pinker was voted in 2001 as the first member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.

The following interview took place at the ZAZA Hotel in Houston on March 9, 2018.


Allan Vorda: What was the genesis for writing Enlightenment Now?

Steven Pinker: One source was my coming across data sets that showed the world had improved in areas beyond those I had documented in The Better Angels of Our Nature. That book, which came out in 2011, was itself inspired by my surprise at data that showed many measures of violence had been in historical decline, such as crime, war, and violence against women and children. That surprise led to me to the conviction that it was an underappreciated story waiting to be told, and it set the challenge to me as a psychologist to explain it. Why has there been so much violence throughout human history and how have we managed to tame it? Enlightenment Now came from a similar epiphany, namely the realization that it wasn’t just violence in which the human condition had improved, but measures of hunger, disease, child mortality, maternal mortality, literacy, work hours—pretty much every aspect of human flourishing has shown an improvement. Once again the vast majority of literate, educated people are unaware of these improvements and once again they demand an explanation. I suggest that the overarching cause for this human progress consists of the ideals of the enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress.

AV: Can you briefly describe these four major ideals?

SP: The commitment to reason amounts to our not trusting sources and claims to knowledge other than reason, such as dogma, sacred texts, authority, tradition, intuition, gut feelings. Every belief should be justified by reason. The companion value of science holds that the world is intelligible, that we can understand it by forming possible explanations and testing them empirically against the world. And the value of humanism is the commitment to human well-being and flourishing as the ultimate moral good, as opposed to the glory or preeminence of the nation, tribe, or faith, as opposed to obeying divine commandments, as opposed to achieving feats of heroic glory, as opposed to advancing some mystical force or struggle towards a messianic or utopian age.

Shawn Vorda: In Part II of Enlightenment Now, you explain how these ideals have led to progress in just about every single measure of human well-being. Bill Gates recently cited five of his favorite facts from this section, ranging from time spent doing laundry to a global increase in IQ. Gates also declared Enlightenment Now is now his favorite book of all time. Are there any facts regarding progress that you consider particularly promising?

SP: Certainly the rise of global literacy is promising. The fact that 90% of the people in the world under the age of twenty-five can read and write is unprecedented in human history. The decline of extreme poverty is also promising; the level of extreme poverty is less than ten percent, and the UN has set as one of its sustainable development goals the elimination of extreme poverty everywhere by the year 2030. Lifespans continue to rise and life expectancy at birth is increasing. Also the many technological innovations in the pipeline promise additional improvements in human well-being; these include energy technology, recycling technology, synthetic biology and rational drug design, genomics, and many others.

SV: Despite an increase in the literacy of the world, recent Pew results indicate an overall decrease in literary reading. Do you have any thoughts on these results? Have you considered producing your work through other media, such as podcasts or YouTube, where they might reach a wider audience?

SP: It seems these are happening at opposite ends of the literary spectrum. The increase in literacy pertains mainly to the children in the developing world who formerly could not read at all, as opposed to the literary elite who might be reading less fiction or literature. I have been struck by ideas I want to share, and how the world of non-text media has exploded. There are hundreds of podcasts, and YouTube videos seem to get greater circulation than text interviews and articles. People recognize me on the street because they’ve seen me in a YouTube video, and impressionistically that does seem to have increased. I suppose I would need numbers to know whether the increase in YouTube viewership came at the expense of people who would otherwise read, or if it consists of people who would otherwise be watching television programs or playing video games.

AV: In the chapter “Reason” you state: “People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are.” In a polarized political society it seems we have come to a point where a political party puts their agenda ahead of the best interests of America. Essentially, a person might identify himself by saying, “I am a Republican” instead of saying “I am an American.” What can be done to limit this trend?

SP: I don’t know what can be done, but certainly identifying it as a prime source of public irrationality would be the first step; especially if a larger community of people can think about what can be done about it. I don’t have a prescription for turning around an entire society from the trends that have been following for the past twenty years. At least being aware of it would mean that some portion of the intellectual community, those that are not ideologically or tribally committed, are at least aware that all of us are vulnerable to it. Whether that can proliferate, go viral, or reach a tipping point, I don’t know. But there have been inroads against other forms of irrationality. People don’t believe in alchemy or unicorns or miasmas. There is an increasing number of people who are aware of the data revolution and insist on metapolls like 538.com, or sabermetrics in sports, or evidence based policy and medicine. It is nowhere close to a consensus, but it has certainly penetrated the awareness of many elite professions. Political tribalism as a source of irrationality is a new idea and I think it’s largely unknown. I think if it becomes better known, it sets the stage for us to take measures against it.

SV: Also in “Reason,” you discuss “The Most Depressing Discovery about the Brain, Ever” or “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.” Can you briefly describe the studies related to these articles?

SP: These were studies done by the Yale legal scholar Dan Kahan, who was a big influence on that chapter. The studies presented people with data from a fictitious study in which the first impression of the data contradicted the actual message of the data. That is, if you looked at the absolute value of the numbers but didn’t do a simple comparison of ratios, you could misinterpret the results. Kahan varied whether the content of these studies were politicized (the effect of a concealed carry law on violent crime) or politically neutral (the effectiveness of skin cream treating a rash). He post hoc divided his subjects into numerate, more numerate, and less numerate groups based on tests of mathematical ability. In the case of politically neutral content (the skin cream study), the more numerate subjects scored better than the less numerate subjects, regardless of left or right leaning tendencies. But when it came to political issues (the gun control study), each faction fell back on their primitive, innumerate impulses. The subjects were seduced by raw numbers and made mathematical errors if the results didn’t agree with their ideology’s favored position. It suggests that we’re apt to ignore evidence when it presents a challenge to our favored position, and we’re all too ready to accept evidence when it confirms it.

AV: Recent studies have shown that twenty-three percent of people are non-religious and the numbers are increasing every year. Nevertheless, when there is a political discussion on cable TV networks, they often talk about the religious right and the evangelical vote, but they virtually never mention the non-religious vote, which is almost a quarter of the populace. Why is this?

SP: In part it’s because religious groups are organized and they form effective voting blocks. They’re emboldened by their coalition and encouraged to vote in large numbers. Many of the so called “nons”—people without a religious affiliation—are not necessarily rational, secular atheists; rather, they’re people who have just dropped out of all institutions. They’ve not only dropped out of organized religion but also out of engagement with the entire political process. This is a regrettable development because it’s an example of how democratic politics is often pushed by the most energized interest groups, as opposed to the interests of the population as a whole. Perhaps it also speaks to the lack of political shrewdness of non-evangelical movements since they have not had the same success in mobilizing their forces and getting their faction to the polls. I also suspect a reason for the disengagement of so many center and left-wing voters is the left has joined in the Trumpist denunciation of mainstream institutions and his dystopian vision of American society. If you agree with Trump that the country is a cesspool of inequality, crime, police shootings, and racism, then you’re apt to figure there is no difference in the major party candidates. So it doesn’t matter if your president is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, because they’re both presiding over equally dysfunctional systems. One of the reasons I think it is essential to take note of the progress that has occurred, is so people don’t become cynical or fatalistic about our existing institutions, or perhaps tempted towards radical or nihilistic alternatives.

AV: Every day we wake up to news that is generally depressing. Your book is the opposite, since it presents a very positive outlook for our species, especially over the last couple of centuries. This seems to go against the grain of the “modern apocalypse” in regards to concerns of overpopulation, resource shortage, pollution, and nuclear war. What is the greatest existential risk now facing us and is there an existential risk that concerns you in the far future?

SP: I don’t know that the risk is existential, but climate change certainly poses a serious risk of disruption and perhaps human misery. If climate change disrupts the growth of food, forces wide-scale migration, and results in catastrophic tipping points like the diversion of the Gulf Stream, there could be wrenching changes. I doubt they would be existential, but they don’t have to be existential to cause great amounts of misery. The chance of nuclear war is something we should be concerned about, although I think the chance is small, but the consequence could be catastrophic. Again it’s too easy to leap to something being horrific to something being an existential threat. In the most extreme nuclear winter scenario, the threat could be existential, but that would require the exchange of hundreds of weapons. A single nuclear exchange would be far short of an existential threat.

SV: In a recent event we attended in Houston, both Sam Harris and Geoffrey Miller expressed concerns over the existential threat of Artificial Intelligence. Miller was specifically concerned with an ongoing “arms race” between China and the U.S. to develop AIs for defense systems. You explain in your book why you don’t share concerns regarding AI, but you do mention concerns regarding nuclear war. If newly developed AI is linked to our defense systems, is that not slightly concerning?

SP: I don’t think it’s more concerning than the systems we have now. In fact we have AI in cruise missiles and it’s a cliché of computer science that once a system starts to work we no longer call it AI. AI is reserved for computational challenges at the frontier of knowledge. So there isn’t even a clear line between AI and computer programming. There is a fantasy of a godlike artificial general intelligence that would be omnipotent, omniscient, and have the power to solve any problem instantly, and in some scenarios has a thirst for infinite power and influence. I think that’s fanciful. There is no evidence that current AI is on such a trajectory. It’s not clear that the concept of artificial general intelligence is even coherent, because intelligence requires knowledge in the domain in which one is reasoning. There is no reason to think that merely being intelligent is tantamount to seeking power and domination. The fear an AI system hooked up to vast infrastructure might be given a vague goal that would include collateral damage to humans is utterly fanciful, like giving an AI a task of curing cancer where it turns us all into guinea pigs for lethal experiments. I think if we were smart enough to design a system that could cure cancer, we would not be so stupid as to give it a blanket goal without programming in the various tradeoffs and considerations. Any system that is intelligent enough to accomplish anything of interest would be intelligent enough to consider all the tradeoffs and potential for collateral damage.

In general I think apocalyptic scenarios are accepted with too much credulity, whereas the reasons that apocalyptic scenarios don’t occur are boring and people don’t like to write about them. The previous apocalypse scenarios haven’t happened. We have never run out of a resource, and population is likely to plateau in the second half of the 21st century. The apocalypse makes for too enticing theatre to be evaluated rationally. The AI scenarios assume an utterly implausible handover of control to the systems, or an equally implausible megalomaniacal designer of the system, or a lack of control of the system despite the fact every interface with the real world has to be mediated with humans to make it happen.

SV: In “The Environment” chapter, you discuss the dangers of climate change and William Norhaus’ concept of a Climate Casino: if there is an even chance the world will get worse and a five percent chance of catastrophe, it would be prudent to take preventative action even if the outcome is uncertain. However, you seem less concerned with issues regarding resources. Could the same logic of the Climate Casino also be applied to concerns with resources, or other concerns in general.

SP: Yes, it could be applied to other concerns in theory. When it comes to resources, I think the concern is misconceived, because the model in which we successfully extract more and more of a resource until it depletes violates the way resources actually are exploited. Namely, as the more plentiful deposits are consumed, it becomes more and more expensive to get at the remainder, and that incentivizes economies to develop more efficient ways to extract the resources that remain, to conserve existing resources, or to switch to some substitute. Long before a resource is exhausted, the world typically does find a substitute. to quote Jesse Ausubel. The reason the world switched from wood to coal at the advent of the industrial revolution is not that we ran out of wood, just like the reason we switched from coal to oil is not because we ran out of coal. It’s because the new resources turned out to be more efficient with fewer negative side effects than the older one.

SV: In “Safety” you explain that we are safer in basically every aspect of life: in the workplace, from natural disasters, from homicide, etc. Gun control and safety is at the forefront of political discussions given the recent events in Florida. You briefly state “neither right-to-carry laws favored by the right, nor bans and restrictions favored by the left, have been shown to make much difference.” Do you have any further thoughts regarding gun control?

SP: I’m in favor of tightening gun control. It should be regulated like any other kind of dangerous technology, the way we regulate cars. The interpretation of the Second Amendment which nullifies controlling guns like we control cars is erroneous. It’s a tragic mistake the Supreme Court upheld that interpretation. I think it’s unlikely stricter gun control would make much of a difference in homicide rate, though. There might be fewer mass shootings, but there are so many guns already out there. The U.S. has such a well-developed culture of retaliation, intolerance of insults, and “culture of honor,” as anthropologists call it, that whatever the number guns we do have, we’re still going to have a higher rate of violence than other European countries. I do think these regulations are worth implementing and I think we need to acquire more knowledge about the effects of gun restrictions. The acquisition of such knowledge has been impeded by an absurd gag order on the Centers for Disease Control which prevents studies on gun violence. Being ignorant is always worse than being knowledgeable, and the policy of not studying something is always the worst conceivable policy.

AV: A common argument is with the increase of automation and A.I.s, there will be fewer jobs for humans. Can you explain your thoughts on this sentiment? Could there ever be a second Luddite revolution? Do you have any thoughts on universal basic income?

SP: I don’t have a confident expectation with what will happen with growth of AI or automation. On one hand they will clearly eliminate many jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily imply new jobs won’t materialize to put idle hands to work. Every challenge for robots has turned out to be much harder than we originally anticipated. We don’t even have cars that are allowed to drive automatically from point to point; there is some skepticism as to whether we’re going to see them any time soon. We may have trucks and cars that can change lanes, slow down or speed up on the highway, but we will still put a human behind the wheel to get it to the last couple of miles to the loading dock. Driving is a relatively easy challenge compared to ones that require a lot of tactile feedback, such as laying bricks, changing a diaper, or emptying a dishwasher. Even these tasks turn out to be harder than we thought. I’m skeptical of scenarios in which AI will revolutionize life because the problems AI have been set to solve are really hard problems, harder than one might think. I think this is a near consensus from people who are actually working in AI, at least ones I know. It may be as some jobs go the way of telephone switchboard operators or wheelwrights, the gains from automation could be redirected to other fields. We could perform more healthcare needs, hire teachers that instruct in the developing world over the Internet, or plant forests to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. We just don’t know whether the economy will be supple enough to find new lines of work for the people that have been displaced from their old lines of work. Indeed, in the stats thus far, there hasn’t been the leap in productivity unemployment one might expect from rapid advances in AI or automation.

We also know that economies can expand employment opportunities in response to the supply of workers. This is what happened in the 1970s when massive numbers of women entered the workforce. Each woman that received a job did not necessarily take a job from a man; rather, the total number of jobs increased. For all we know this could happen again. If not, and if there is widespread unemployment or underemployment, it might increase pressure to adopt a UBI (Universal Basic Income) or at least a negative income tax. We already have one, the income tax credit, but it could be expanded to discourage Luddites. It would allow the economy to adapt dynamically to opportunities made available by technology and not be dragged backward by Luddites. That alone might be a reason to encourage that kind of income transfer, so the entire society can benefit from the obvious gains in productivity that AI promises, even if it hasn’t delivered it so far. Many of the jobs rendered obsolete by robots aren’t particularly desirable jobs anyway. It’s kind of perverse to romanticize the job of a coal miner, or a forklift operator, or a truck driver—professions that not so long ago were the subject of woe and pity and concern.

AV: Since people are living longer, what impact do you think this will have on our health regulations and the possible legalization of euthanasia?

SP: It’s possible that the ability of medical technology to keep people alive in a state that isn’t worth living, that is in pain or disability, could increase pressure for physician assisted suicide. I personally think this would be a tremendously humane development, assuming it came with obvious safeguards so you don’t have daughters-in-law wanting to do in their mother-in-law to accelerate their inheritance. States and countries that have adopted physician-assisted suicide, as far as I know, don’t have an epidemic of sons and daughters-in-law knocking off granny.

AV: In Enlightenment Now, you state C. P. Snow “never held the lunatic position that power should be transferred to the culture of scientists.” Why not? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what scientists, engineers, and humanists could achieve if they were appointed to positions in the Cabinet to the President?

SP: I certainly think individual scientists who develop the expertise to run for office deserve our support, and I personally support a number of them. Not least to change some of the culture of the legislative process from the one that is second nature to lawyers, where the goal is to win, and replace it with one that is second nature to scientists, where the goal is to seek the truth. These are very different objectives in debate, and I don’t think we’re very well served by the lawyerly one. What I was referring to is the fear among many intellectuals that C. P Snow’s arguments and my arguments that suggest we should all think more scientifically is just a power competition among the elites. I certainly don’t think just because someone is a scientist that their positions on all issues should be taken seriously. I list a number of crackpot opinions that are often popular among scientists—not scientists that actually have the discipline and knowledge to run for legislative office. For example: we should have mandatory licensing for parents who screw up their children and harm society; we should seek the ability to colonize other planets in case we foul the earth so much that it’s unfit for human habitation, or the only way to prevent war is through a world government, or the only way to eliminate poverty and hunger in the developing world is to let them die of hunger or disease. I’ve heard all of these ideas from scientists now and again, and they’re all cockamamie ideas that should not be indulged just because they’re from scientists in some other field.

AV: They wouldn’t necessarily have to run for office, but they could be appointed, so you wouldn’t have people like Ben Carson saying things like the worse thing since slavery is Obamacare.

SP: On the other hand, he’s a neurosurgeon. I agree scientists who engage with the political process would be both an asset to the Cabinet or to Congress. I think a better example might be the contrast between Rick Perry as the Secretary of Energy, who is an utter ignoramus and buffoon compared to Ernest Moniz or Stephen Chu. It’s heartbreaking.

AV: Since the time of Freud psychology has become an influential science, and it really seemed to take-off in the 1960s. Its popularity with the masses may have tapered off, but there are expanding fields of psychology led by yourself and others such as your sister Susan Pinker, Jordan Peterson, Geoffrey Miller, and perhaps Gad Saad might also be included. What is your opinion about the importance of psychology in the world we live in today?

SP: I think psychology is tremendously important as a reminder of our limitations, our biases, our fallacies, and our illusions. Here I would point to cognitive psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Tali Sharote, my colleague Dan Gilbert, and Dan Ariely, who have brought into the public sphere an awareness of our cognitive limitations. We should not be so fooled by our intuitions and gut feelings. An awareness of our moralistic biases is highly relevant to discounting our own moral outrage and trying to put our ethics on a more defensible basis. Here I would point to people like Jonathan Height and Joshua Green—those are two examples, but similar to my discussion with scientists, it doesn’t mean we should trust everything psychologists say. Rather, the field of psychological research should be integrated into our understanding of politics, persuasion and behavior change, and the judicial system so that our best understanding of us as humans is brought to bear on the desire of our institutions. I have to add this is an idea that very much came out of the Enlightenment—that there could be a science of human nature and that it should inform the design of our institutions. That was at the forefront of the design of the American democracy, in The Federalist Papers and in comments by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine. They all alluded to their own intuitive psychology and their observations of what makes us tick, in order to design instructions that would lead to greater well-being.


Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

RAIN TAXI BOOK CLUB in THE COMMONS

Thursday, July 26, 2018,
5:00pm: Social Hour
5:45pm: Book Discussion
The Commons
425 Portland Avenue S, Minneapolis

BYOB for a social mixer and freewheeling discussion of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance! Drop in anytime starting at 5 pm with your own beer, wine, or beverage of your choice—we’ll have snacks handy and some cool swag to give away! From 5:45-6:30, we’ll chat about the Minnesota classic that got generations pondering the nature of “Quality.” ; discussion leaders include:

Patrick Coleman
(acquisitions librarian for the Minnesota Historical Society)
Nor Hall
(Jungian therapist who once rode the world’s smallest Harley)
Steve Marsh
(senior writer at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is available at many book stores in the Twin Cities. This event is free and open to the public!

Glimpse of Light:
New Meditations on First Philosophy

Stephen Mumford
Bloomsbury Academic ($14.95)

by Scott F. Parker

Writer and philosopher Stephen Mumford takes Descartes for his model in Glimpse of Light: New Meditations on First Philosophy, and readers for whom Meditations on First Philosophy is more than just assigned reading in college will welcome Mumford’s “new meditations,” which offer another inspiring run at an ever-elusive certainty on which to ground a worldview. The very possibility of a coherent worldview—could the narrative stakes be higher?

Following Descartes, Mumford’s book consists of six meditations produced over six days, to which he adds a chapter of “Objections and Replies.” Mumford situates his meditations in the fictitious story of Benedict Chilwell, a philosopher in mid-life who is at a crossroads. Chilwell travels in winter to an island in Norway, where a friend’s cabin has been made available to him. In these details, Mumford evokes another philosopher, Wittgenstein, who built his own cabin for meditation in Norway, and who gave what could have been Chilwell’s orienting axiom: “Whoever is unwilling to descend into himself, because it is too painful, will of course remain superficial in his writing.”

Chilwell is tired of being superficial. “I’m giving myself these six days,” he tells his Norwegian friend, “to find some certainty . . . some clarity . . . for what I believe in.” If he fails: “there’s nothing to go on for.”

Why does Mumford go to the trouble of crafting a fictional narrative around his meditations, especially when he himself took the retreat on which his book is based? For that matter, why did Descartes? Meditations, after all, that foundational text of western philosophy, comprises a simple but invented narrative. A man “withdraws into solitude” to do some thinking—we are in the territory of plot. Descartes wrote his Meditations over a period of years, not in the six days recounted, and like Plato, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, his work demonstrates that philosophy is a genre of literature, and argument a form of story.

Mumford’s story goes like this: Chilwell goes to the cabin for the peace and quiet that will allow him to find sufficient support for the philosophy of realism—the idea that “things existed whether we thought of them or not.” His isolation (and therefore his meditation) is interrupted by neighbors who drop by (some more welcome than others), but it soon becomes clear, even to Chilwell, that his meditations would run out of momentum if not for the stimulation these visitors bring him. It is only in response to the questions and objections of others that he is able to develop a workable metaphysics. The story allows Mumford the opportunity to dramatize the argument’s coming to be, a comment on philosophy’s methodology, rather than present it in the abstract.

None of this would amount to much of a story, though, if Chilwell weren’t able to develop his argument for realism. The bedrock he builds his worldview on is—contra Descartes—causality, which he takes for the sine qua non of existence. Objections come readily from the directions of science and religion, but Chilwell rebuts them all to his satisfaction. The fiction is inspiring in its own right; as with Descartes’s Meditations, the reader needn’t be convinced by the argument itself to be moved by the drama of a person struggling to think clearly.


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The Endless Summer

Madame Nielsen
Translated by Gaye Kynoch
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Richard Henry

Danish artist Madame Nielsen is best known for her multiplicity. After declaring the death of her birth-identity in 2001, she produced work under multiple names (Anders Claudius West, Peter Hansen, etc.) before arriving at “Madame Nielsen,” an evolution accompanied by a switch from male to female pronouns. Nielsen, who identifies as multi-gendered, works in a number of different artistic zones, ranging from performance art and music (her latest album Mum and Dad has just been released) to acting and writing novels. Her 2014 novel Den endeløse sommer has now been translated into English as The Endless Summer.

While Nielsen’s creative work is often the site of identity issues, surprisingly few drive The Endless Summer as its multiple dramas unfold. At most are the introductory scenes playing off the opening line: "The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it. The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but will never touch a man, never strip naked with a man and rub skin against his skin, never ever, no matter how titillatingly repellant the notion might be.” So goes the young boy, "so fetching, so delicate," who sleeps platonically with his stepsister as a matter of love and comfort. Eventually, however, the non-sexual drifts into the sexual, a sexuality that is simply part of the landscape here, an ordinary exploration into the human experience: "the girl and the sensitive, slender boy, who across the years, and every time they return from each their travels and each their adventures with other, unfamiliar or far too proximate genders, have kept on meeting up and resuming something that is long since over."

Is The Endless Summer a love story? Perhaps. As the narrator says: "all this improbable but entirely credible love story is, like every story in this story, a story in itself, which must constantly be interrupted and then resumed until every story has reached its more or less tragic ending." This larger story, a story which must constantly be interrupted, focuses on a woman and a much younger man from Portugal; they find each other by chance and discover a kind of happiness amidst the swirl of summer. The woman is married, however, and her relationship with the Portuguese hitchhiker actually constitutes her second affair. The reader learns that the woman’s husband, saddened by his wife’s first affair and the overwhelming demands of running a large estate he has inherited, vanished in the night—all with barely a comment from the narrator. In the fallout from his disappearance, the nameless woman drifts and eventually takes up with the nameless Portuguese man. The woman’s children, including the unnamed step-siblings and “handsome Lars,” drift also. The course of the novel is nearly dream-like as the characters move about as if in a cloud, as if lost in Nielsen's prose.

Perhaps The Endless Summer is more an elegy—an elegy for the beautiful boy, whose death marks the end of summer. It is the beautiful boy, the handsome boy, Handsome Lars, the sensitive slender boy, the boy who sleeps with his stepsister (who might as well be his brother). And with the passing of Handsome Lars, not from "those three letters of the alphabet, or at least in the silence that follows them," but from a "cold [that] turns into pneumonia, but it's not pneumonia, the doctor says, it’s it,” summer has ended, all things are undone. The mother and her Portuguese lover part ways, and so forth and so on, as the drama unfolds from sentence to sentence.

The Endless Summer is a lush read, best done in a single sitting, for its prose is luxurious and tumbling. Indeed, what most drives the narrative is Nielsen's style, a style captured by translator Gaye Kynoch as she moves from "The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it" to "through the Word, unto eternal life."


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Michael Ondaatje Broadside

This broadside, an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, was printed by supersessionpress on the occasion of Ondaatje's appearance in the Rain Taxi Reading Series on May 21, 2018.

Limited edition letterpress broadside, Printed in black and brown inks on French Mod Tone paper, measures 11" x 15". Limited to 60 copies. Each copy is SIGNED by the author.

Available with a donation of $100 to Rain Taxi, a nonprofit literary organization. Donations are deductible to the extant allowable by law.

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Black and Blur - Epistrophies

Black and Blur
consent not to be a single being

Fred Moten
Duke University Press ($27.95)

Epistrophies
Jazz and the Literary Imagination

Brent Hayes Edwards
Harvard University Press ($35)

by Patrick James Dunagan

In a recent interview in The Brooklyn Rail, poet Fred Moten says this when describing the “blur” resisting “individuation” of an artwork: “Everything is going on. There is an enigmatic line I always wondered about that Coltrane has in the poem that he wrote to accompany the third part of A Love Supreme, something like, It all has to do with it.” Moten also recalls

reading this great essay by Baraka called “The Myth of a Negro Literature” where he’s actually saying, There is nothing in this literary tradition that approaches the music, in terms of its complexity and depth. This was a commonplace formulation that seemed empirically true though there’s a great new book by Brent Edwards called Epistrophies: Jazz and The Literary Imagination (Harvard, 2017) which calls that so-called empirical truth into severe question. Still, for many, the music is at the top.

Moten’s Black and Blur joins with Edwards’s Epistrophies in challenging this longstanding status music has consistently held as “the top” influence within the African American artistic tradition. Exploring and exposing how this idea becomes a limitation, both books engage in a push to broaden the status quo, contributing to an ongoing re-formation of critical considerations shaping the tradition. Where Edwards offers an academically astute critical reading of a vein running through a broad cross-section of jazz history at points where themes or motifs of “literature” intersect, Moten implodes the subject area, assessing the various influences on artists and thinkers across the board—musicians, poets, philosophers, dancers, visual artists, etc.—what all is in the stew from out of which emerges an ongoing, if previously submerged, tradition that Moten is now a part of.

Edwards, it should be noted, is “attempting to do something more than provide nuanced interpretations of the formal interrelations between jazz and literature.” While later chapters do consider where and how jazz is taken up by poets such as Nathaniel Mackey and Ed Roberson, and there is (not too surprisingly) a chapter on Sun Ra’s poetry and music, other chapters focus on Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Cecil Taylor, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes. The reach is broad. In many cases, Edwards dives into the archives of writings by these artists, including reproductions of manuscript pages and transcriptions, in order to push our traditional understanding of what constitutes the literary; in doing so he offers a fresh perspective on how writing itself embodies the physical experience.

For example, in regard to Johnson’s versification in God's Trombones : Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, Edwards finds a distinctive “technique of transferring the ‘swing’ from the vernacular performing black body into the formal ‘body’ of the poem. In its manipulations of line, measure, and punctuation, the poem itself begins to be sketched out as a ‘breathing,’ ‘syncopating’ body.” Edwards sees Langston Hughes as having extended this practice into a “true compositional strategy.” He also examines the “zoning” practices found in Mary Lou Williams’ music by way of looking over her daily note-keeping, and includes a fascinating consideration of her musical relationship to Cecil Taylor’s practice as evidenced by the pair’s live concert album Embraced.

Edwards closes his book by asking “shouldn’t a criticism so deeply engaged with the art of innovation itself be innovative?” This is an exciting proposal, but as engaging as Epistrophies is, it comes nowhere near the complete revisualization presented by Black and Blur of what a critical text might be and how it might operate. Moten’s poems are decidedly of the experimental sort, often with a prose appearance, yet his prose here is most definitely neither poetic nor recognizable as a standard academic text. It is most definitely a creative critical engagement.

Implicit in Moten’s work is the idea that there are no firm boundaries. European critical theory and classical music are as relevant to the discussion as is consideration of contemporary art. In other words, while the engagement is with “blackness,” the discussion is ever attending to the (artistic) endeavor itself:

Blackness, which is to say black femininity, which is to say black performance, will have turned out to be the name of the invaginative, the theatrical, the dissonant, the atonal, the atotal, the sentimental, the experimental, the criminal, the melodramatic, the ordinary. It is and bears an aesthetic of the trebled (troubled, doubled) seer’s voice disturbed by being seen and seeing up ahead where escape, crossing over, translation will have meant the continual reanimative giving—unto the very idea of freedom—of the material.

Firmly grounded by his experiential perspective as a black man, Moten’s work enacts a broadening redefinition of the formal constraints of criticism: “it is our task to make an alternative practice, not form an alternative identity.” Reworking the expected narrative of a critical text by embedding a “blackness” throughout that refutes assimilative forces.

Moten slings astute references to postmodern theory with the best of them, but is equally not to give a nod to a friend’s remark. Consideration of a musician leads to a riff on a personal remembrance of deep recognition felt with an artist’s work, back into a passage from one philosopher or another followed by a further riffing from this or that performance or exhibit. The whole is a swirl of relations bound together by Moten’s discernment and critical reading as he follows the flow of associations along. Moten’s writing more than welcomes that motto of Coltrane’s he mentions in the Rail interview cited above: “It all has to do with it.”

In the same interview, Moten acknowledges, “When I read Derrida the first time it wasn’t like I knew what was going on, it was just that I knew I wanted to read more. So I kept reading.” That sums up how readers might best approach Black and Blur: Be ready to be wowed; be ready to be challenged; most of all, be ready for the long haul. It is, apparently, the first in a planned trilogy. Moten is tracking his own course, and it’s fast-moving and spectacular.


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Late Empire

Lisa Olstein
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by Denyse Kirsch

In Late Empire, Lisa Olstein’s fourth poetry collection, the poet throws herself into a disturbing discussion about 21st-century realities, pinpointing, questioning, and exhorting. It’s a riveting picture of the micro, day-to-day busy-ness against the macro, overshadowing struggle of existential survival. “We bring the world to bed with us, / its weather, its moving maps, / and its wars.” The writing is inclusive; we are all in the same bunker, facing constant trauma. This is well portrayed in “Night People”:

Tonight
we are all Malaysia Airlines
as we like to say, as we have learned
to say, as it somehow comforts us
to say. Tonight, this week, for as long as
we can bear it or until something
pulls us away we are all one hundred
and fifty-three Chinese nationals and
six Australians and three
Americans . . .

Structurally, the collection is divided into five sections, each written in a different form: sonnets, prose poems, poems written in tercets based on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and lyrical one-stanza poems that open and close the book. The atmosphere intensifies from section to section. A mystery figure, Whistle, enters the prose poems and becomes Olstein’s sounding board.

With repetition and short sharp sentences in the poem “The Disaster,” Olstein brings home the effect of round-the-clock reporting moving from catastrophe to catastrophe: “The disaster is not / our affair. The disaster takes care / of everything.” Additionally, Olstein is a master of poetic syntax. Her words paint fresh, beautiful images, as in “Glitter-spilled stars / velvet the gaze,” or “The foot / of the lake meets the mouth of the river.” Her sensitive lens focuses on our most basic dreams and fears: “Mark, what if / by chance I met my true love when I was / too young to know to keep him?”

Olstein also vents her frustration at our neglect of the earth. “Monday / it’s a report on the impossible future of bananas. Tuesday it’s / the story of limes held hostage by cartels. Both still appear / on our shelves, but we don’t know for how long.” “A Poetics of Space” deals with our connection with our surroundings, including the “intimate data” of shells and walnuts, garrets and rooms. Perhaps “I Want to Save This Whale” is the poet at her most ecologically passionate:

She’s tangled in nets and lines
and there’s only one way to
get her out, she tells us
with her bathtub-sized eyes
one at a time because we
have to swim around to see.

Lisa Olstein’s perceptive voice cuts through our “safe house” of complacency. She calls on us—and on the empire to which we belong—to take note of what’s going on before it’s too late.


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Remembering the Magic Year:
An interview with Danny Goldberg

Interviewed by Rob Couteau

Danny Goldberg has been passionately involved in the music business ever since the late 1960s. At the age of nineteen, he reviewed the Woodstock Festival for Billboard and later wrote for publications such as Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. In 1980 he co-produced and co-directed No Nukes, a film documenting the 1979 “No Nukes” concert at Madison Square Garden. He has since held many posts in the music and entertainment fields: president of Atlantic Records, Chairman of Warner Bros. Records, and CEO of Air America Radio among them. In 1999 he created his own independent label, Artemis Records, and in 2007 he formed Gold Village Entertainment, an artist management company that he still presides over in New York. A devoted political advocate, he serves on the Board of Directors of The Nation Institute, The ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Americans for Peace Now, Brave New Films, and Public Citizen.

Goldberg is currently working on a memoir about his friendship with Kurt Cobain, the former lead singer of the band Nirvana, which he managed in the 1990s. In addition to his latest book In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books, $25.95), he is also the author of Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How The Left Lost Teen Spirit (Miramax Books, 2003) and Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside The Rock and Roll Business (Gotham Books, 2008). This interview was conducted in February of 2018.


Rob Couteau: While reading In Search of the Lost Chord, I began to wonder if the principle thread running through the counterculture movement is the theme of agape, or universal love: a term you use at various times.

Danny Goldberg: I don’t think there was just one counterculture going on. So, I’m not sure that all the members of the SDS, who were an important part of the fabric of the ’60s, would agree. It depends on how you define counterculture. Tom Hayden used the word “counterculture” to distinguish it from political radicalism. Others use it in a way that includes, in its purest sense, the “hippie idea,” and what Allen Ginsberg was talking about a lot of the time, and the Beatles with “All You Need is Love.” To me, agape was certainly the aspiration.

RC: If one broadens the definition of agape, one could say that the long-term goal, even for the SDS, was a concern beyond the personal self, yes?

DG: Yes, it was. That’s where there was commonality. The policy goals—to end the war, to have more economic egalitarianism, to end racism and sexism—were consistent with the spiritual values. But there were certain people who were rationalists, who were informed by Marx, and who didn’t believe in mysticism, but who had an ethical construct that was their guiding light. Again, the goals and issues that were prevalent in ’67—antiracism, antiwar—were consistent with that. Not everyone who was a radical liked mysticism, Allen Ginsberg, the Maharishi, or Donovan’s records, but everyone who was a hippie was against the war.

RC: You begin with a wonderfully nuanced account of the January ’67 Be-In. Was this the first collective expression of agape at that time?

DG: It was the biggest one until that time. There were smaller things happening all during ’66. In Haight-Ashbury there were concerts, and things in the park that were organized. But the Be-In increased the scale of that experience by a significant factor.

RC: Did it serve as an ideal template for what the counterculture represented and for what might be possible on a broader scale in the future?

DG: That was the hope. It was a moment in time. And then, dealing with the reality of the day after, or the week or month after, was a different set of conversations. There were also Be-Ins in New York and Los Angeles on Easter Sunday. And in between, I’m sure there were plenty of others in different parts of the country. I think that was the idea, that it could provide an example and prove the concept, at least for an afternoon.

RC: What you just said about the aftermath reminds me of what Joseph Campbell says in his Power of Myth series. Everyone remembers that he said “Follow your bliss,” but he also said we must follow our “blisters.”

DG: I didn’t remember that, but I’m definitely going to use it going forward. It’s a terrific modification.

RC: I thought of this when you wrote about the Be-In, or perhaps it was one of those other events, when Allen Ginsberg went on stage and said: Now we have to focus on our “litter karma.”

DG: Yes! That was the end of the Be-In, when he told everyone to clean up. To the extent that there was one person who was the closest thing to embodying a lot of what was best in that incoming culture, it was him. For me, the political hero was Dr. King, and the cultural hero was Allen Ginsberg. They’re human beings, they had imperfections, but they came the closest to being role models that I would retrospectively want to look up to.

RC: They were so different in terms of personal style, yet their hearts were focused upon the same thing. What did they represent for you?

DG: To me, King is on a pedestal of his own, a kind of American saint. I often listen to his speeches and sermons. The more time that goes by, the more I’m impressed by how extraordinary he was as a being. Not just his political effects, but also as a spiritual prophet. He talked so much about the soul and the inner world, and he made it come alive. He’s one of the great figures in Western history, and he happened to live at that time, and was part of the mix. In addition to how extraordinarily brilliant and morally grounded he was—and effective and tactically brilliant—he had such a difficult time with the people around him. It was not as if he got a lot of support. To go back, and to realize how many opponents he had in both the black and white community, makes his steadfastness even more remarkable. As far as we know, he never took psychedelics, but he didn’t have to. He was there. He talked about agape all the time. He would conduct sermons where he would say: The Greeks talked about three different kinds of love. This was part of his regular language. It’s just incredible that he lived; he’s one of the greatest Americans, right in the top five all-time greatest. But in the context of that period, a lot of people that I admired—the black power movement and the hippies—didn’t necessarily realize that. I, myself, as a kid, didn’t appreciate him as much as I do now. And he knew who his enemies were: J. Edgar Hoover, and all the mainstream civil rights groups, and the young radicals! And then, within the SCLC, there was complete infighting and chaos—all the time. It’s unbelievable that he stayed centered through all that; it’s saintly. There’s no other word for it.

In terms of Allen Ginsberg, he had just an unbelievable life. Certainly, along with On the Road, “Howl” is one of the two most important works of the Beatnik culture. And unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg continued to be relevant in every subsequent decade of his life. In the period of time that I write about he was particularly powerful culturally, because he was almost unique in his ability to be accepted and respected in all these different subcultures, which otherwise detested one another. The fact that everyone from Emmett Grogan to William F. Buckley accepted Allen Ginsberg is mind-blowing. As Whitman writes, he “contained multitudes.” Over Allen’s bed, in the last place he lived, was a picture of Whitman. It was the only picture over his bed; it wasn’t as if he had a zillion pictures. So, that was certainly his north star.

My favorite poem by Allen is “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” That, to me, is his quintessential ’60s poem. It’s a fully mature commentary on what was happening in America at that time. I recently wrote a review of the Ken Burns documentary of the Vietnam War, and I said: “If you want to know what was actually happening, you’re better off reading ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra.’”

RC: Is the broadening awareness that we possess today about narcissism connected to the blossoming of agape in the ‘60s, especially since love and empathy are the antidotes of narcissism?

DG: The way that it’s often used, “The ’60s” is a kind of shorthand for the different countercultural rebellions, because obviously there were plenty of other things happening at that time, too. In some instances, the ’60s helped to be an antidote of narcissism, but in others it reinforced narcissism. That’s the whole thing even about psychedelic experience. Ram Dass says that if you think everyone is God, you’re a saint, but if you think only you’re God, they put you in a lunatic asylum. So, there’s this balance. There were people who became more narcissistic; for example, the cult leaders, the ultimate being Charles Manson. But he was by no means the only one who developed this kind of cult of personality by wrapping himself in the ’60s and the psychedelic world. There were others who saw it as an antidote, and it drew them closer to egalitarianism or agape.

RC: As you chronicle in your book, psychedelics played an enormous role during this period. What insights did you gain from dropping acid, and how were you able to integrate them into your life?

DG: It imbued me with a kind of optimism that I didn’t have before. It was like being given permission to be happy: that it doesn’t mean that you’re intellectually unserious to have joy or happiness. My notion of what it was to be a smart person was based on whatever the intellectual influences were that I grew up around. The canon in my home was T.S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud. It was all: “To be smart you had to be depressed and cynical” and people who were too happy must be stupid or not have depth. It’s like that scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen—who I doubt ever took LSD—says: “Obviously, people who are happy are just stupid.” You know, that kind of “modernism.” And it really allowed me to just experience the joy of looking at a strawberry, or to just feel the moment. That was a big deal to me, because it was the closest thing to a spiritual experience I had at that point. It also opened the door to the idea that, even if I wasn’t attracted to the limited religious options that were presented to me while I was growing up, there was something bigger than just the external reality of what your grades were, how much money you made, what your résumé said, and all that sort of thing. This paradigm shift was greatly liberating; it allowed me to have a little more confidence for the rest of my life.

For me, it was particularly helpful because I was not a good student. According to my parents, I had a so-called high IQ, and I did well on the SATs. But today I’d probably be considered ADD. I had a hard time at homework. I never found teachers that “got” me. I was just this huge failure in my mind, at fourteen or fifteen, because I wasn’t getting good grades. So my parents, who thought they had this smart kid, were disappointed. They were very lovely people; I miss my parents. But I was pretty unhappy with their disappointment in me at that time, particularly my mother’s. The psychedelic experience gave me this other way of defining myself. And then it turned out that there were all these other people that were going through the same thing. And so, it was like, overnight, I’m part of a community. I’d never been a part of a community; I’d been a loner. Maybe I had one friend every year, or two at the most, and we didn’t even like each other that much, but we were all that we had. But then, suddenly, I was part of this community, where you just look down the street and feel connected with somebody. Psychedelics were part of that; it wasn’t only politics or all the other things. So I’m very grateful for that. But ultimately, I felt it was no longer useful. I went completely antidrug, personally. I was arrested before my eighteenth birthday, and I was so freaked out that I’d put myself in that position that I just stopped. I’m not saying that I never did drugs again, but I didn’t do it for a long, long time. In terms of psychedelics, I haven’t felt the calling to revisit it since my early twenties. But I’m very grateful for the role it played. It opened me up to the idea of spirituality in a way that nothing else in my life had, until that point.

RC: What was the connection between agape and LSD?

DG: For me, and for many of those who took LSD—not everybody, but certainly in my experience with it and with that of many others such as Allen Ginsberg, Tim Leary, and Richard Alpert—it triggered a consciousness of love. People would look at a glass and say, “God is in the glass; the molecules are all from the same energy,” and see this commonality. It’s similar to what Aldous Huxley wrote about, a decade earlier, regarding his mescaline experiences. It gave us a temporary experience of universal love; it was not permanent. And how people reacted when they came down varied. Not everybody had that experience; there were those who had bad experiences. But what made it so popular for a lot of us was this feeling of enormous love that wasn’t just transactional or romantic love but was love of the universe: of whatever was in front of you. That was something that a lot of us experienced, and it was what we loved about it.

RC: One of the charming things about your book is the evocative title, which is borrowed from a Moody Blues song. What’s the metaphoric significance of the “Lost Chord” for you, and what are the notes it comprises?

DG: The metaphor alludes to what you said earlier, which was that there was this period that’s largely been forgotten. It was before the cartoon version of the ’60s became the established narrative of most of the media. Before the assassinations, and some of the darkest aspects of it, there was this genuinely idealistic feeling. It was what I felt as a teenager; it’s what inspired me. Why it’s “Lost” is that the media and the cartoon version, with the co-option of many of the external symbols, replaced this feeling with a sort of plastic version of the ’60s. And it’s a “Chord” because it was a product of a lot of different things that, together, if you were a teenager at that time, you were experiencing.

I very much wrote the book based on what I, as a kid, was influenced by—there were many things going on that were equally important to other people. Even though it’s a history and not a memoir, it’s a history of things told through my eyes: of things I was inspired by. This includes the antiwar movement, civil rights, psychedelics, and music. It includes a general curiosity about non-Western spiritual paths and an openness to it. And it includes an empowerment of young people that was also temporary but which, in the moment, felt very exciting. It really did feel as if everything was changing for the better and that one could be part of it—even if you were sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen. This combination of things didn’t last. I would argue that, certainly, by the end of ’68, the balance of those notes was different. Again, we lost two of our great political leaders, Robert Kennedy and Dr. King. And Nixon gets elected by the end. And in general, the drugs got darker. There was more speed and heroin, and there were drug dealers instead of psychedelic missionaries. It didn’t disappear, but it changed by then. You know, it’s arbitrary; it wasn’t exactly the calendar dates. But the collection of things that happened in ’67 was a good stand-in for a collection of feelings that I remembered as creating hopefulness, an optimism that society might get better.

RC: You also take 1967 and hold it up as a sort of prism through which many other events in the ’60s are seen. And I think that writing a subjective history of the ’60s is in keeping with the spirit of the time.

DG: By definition, any history is subjective; I’m just being open about it. CNN’s history of the ‘60s is also highly subjective. Part of it was this beginning of decentralization, of people in small communities thinking that their opinions mattered. Their ideas about God, sexuality, psychedelics, spirituality: all these things mattered, as opposed to just being told what to do by the authorities. The results weren’t all good, but that was the nature of the time. Initially, the phrase “a gathering of the tribes” just meant the radicals and hippies. But there were hundreds of tribes, because everybody in every living room was a tribe at that point. When I did the publicity stuff for the book, people would come up to me, and everyone would have their own story, and they weren’t exactly the same stories. For some, it was seeing Jimi Hendrix; for others, it was joining a sit-in at a college president’s office or studying TM. For some people, drugs were a big part of it; for others, drugs weren’t a part of it at all. So it’s inherently a subjective experience. But it’s my version of it, and I think many others saw the same picture that I saw.

RC: Your book certainly brought back many memories of things both big and small. For example, you talk about Jung’s Introduction to the I Ching: as you say, that became a huge best seller at the time.

DG: Oh, my God, the I Ching was such a big deal for me in high school! Even decades later, I’d meet people who would say: “You turned me on to the I Ching,” or that I’d remember had turned me on to the I Ching. It represented a way of thinking about cosmic issues in a different perspective, without having to join a church or sign onto any set of behavioral agreements. And it was a way of honoring the idea that there was another consciousness that’s smarter than the conversations that we have in day-to-day life.

In retrospect, the fact that Jung wrote the Introduction was such a big deal, because he was validating it from his perspective. I’ve reread his Intro; it’s fantastic. I don’t know as much about Jung as I’d like to, but what I know about him is just so cool; he’s such an interesting figure. And obviously, the I Ching long predated the ’60s. As I say, the ideas and values of the ’60s were not original to that time; they’d been around for centuries. What was unique was that they became part of mass culture.

RC: When things reach an extreme point, sometimes they can turn into their opposite, which is the fundamental principal behind the changing hexagram lines in the I Ching. How much of what occurred was due to a counterpoint reaction to the repressive atmosphere of the ’50s?

DG: Tim Leary said that you could not understand the ’60s without understanding the ’50s. Certainly, Leary was a guy who very much felt that it was connected. Although the Beats emerged in the ’50s, they were an influence on a lot of ’60s people. The Grateful Dead bonded over their shared enthusiasm for Jack Kerouac. Ken Kesey, an important ’60s figure, had Neal Cassady on the bus. The civil rights movement took a huge leap forward in the ’50s with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The roots of the Vietnam War were in the ‘50s: the reaction to the Korean War, the Cold War, and the first military advisors in Vietnam. There was the general mass culture in the ’50s, which was, to a lot of people, pretty shallow. There were only three television channels, and there was a fake, plastic notion of what families were like. It seemed as if one day that was reality, and the next day it was a joke. Somewhere in between there was Mad magazine making fun of this, and that set the stage for the joke side. You know, it’s a continuum. There isn’t anything in the ’60s that you can’t connect to something in the ’50s. In that one chapter in the book, I tried to give some context to this, so it wasn’t coming out of nowhere.

RC: Besides Dr. King, probably nobody did more to advance the cause of civil rights in the ’60s than Robert Kennedy, although that’s often ignored by mass media. What isn’t widely known is that RFK was not necessarily opposed to the intelligent use of LSD. During a Congressional probe on LSD experimentation by federal agencies, Senator Kennedy was quoted as saying: “I think we have given too much emphasis and so much attention to the fact that [LSD] can be dangerous and that it can hurt an individual who uses it . . . that perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that it can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”

DG: I wasn’t aware of that, and if I had been I certainly would have included it in the book! But I’m not surprised. I very much view Robert Kennedy as a ’60s character. The Jefferson Airplane, who’d never supported any other candidate that I know of, publicly supported him. And he met them and invited them to Hickory Hill.

RC: You say that Kennedy’s wife included a copy of the Airplane single “White Rabbit” in the jukebox at Hickory Hill.

DG: Yes. I spoke with Grace Slick, and she was very happy to talk about it. Her take was, “Look, we didn’t really know if they ever listened to ‘White Rabbit.’ There’s a very good chance that it was just done because they knew we were coming over, and they were using us as a way to get to the youth vote. But we were happy to be used by Robert Kennedy; who better?” You know, he wasn’t necessarily quoting the lyrics! [Laughs]. But, nonetheless, it’s true, and they were there. This showed a certain level of awareness of other parts of the culture that most senators didn’t have.

RC: You also describe how President Kennedy crossed picket lines to see the film Spartacus, which was scripted by the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Would you agree that the Kennedys were, in many ways, well ahead of their time?

DG: Yes. I’m a fan of John Kennedy; I feel he’s been underrated by history. I mean, look, Chappaquiddick was a bad thing. And with John Kennedy, I’m sure the stories about his behavior with women are, to some extent, true. But as a political leader he’s really underrated when they do these ratings of the presidents. He was only in office for three years. But the fact that there was not a war over the Cuban Missile Crisis is such a monumental achievement, especially given that, from what I’ve read, the entire military wanted him to attack.

RC: The Joint Chiefs of Staff were encouraging him to launch a nuclear first-strike—but they didn’t realize there were over 160 ready-to-go nuclear warheads aimed at the United States from Cuba!

DG: Right. And on civil rights, he took steps, in terms of moral leadership, that Eisenhower was never willing to take. The Test Ban Treaty was also a big deal. No one knows what he would have done in Vietnam, but I believe he wouldn’t have done what Johnson did. After he died, his brothers were against the war. He had been to Vietnam as a young man; he knew that it was bullshit. And he’d already confronted the military; he wasn’t going to be pushed around by them. So, that’s what I choose to believe.

RC: The evidence leans heavily in favor of what you’re saying, because President Kennedy organized a major conference on the war that was held in Honolulu, shortly before he was killed, in order to lay the groundwork for pulling out of Vietnam. But again, that’s been suppressed by the media.

DG: Yes. There’s this whole revisionism of how great LBJ was. Look, he did some terrific things, largely because he had the legacy of the love for Kennedy and this wide margin of Democrats in both houses in Congress. He was a New Deal guy, and he wanted to do the right thing on those issues. But without John Kennedy, there is no Great Society. I think you’re right: Republicans in the right wing put a lot of energy into trying to tarnish Kennedy’s legacy, and they succeeded.

RC: Emmett Grogan and Peter Coyote, both members of the Diggers, took a malign view of the media’s effect on the counterculture, while Abbie Hoffman regarded it as a powerful tool to be exploited. Talk about the difference between the Diggers on the West Coast and the Yippies on the East Coast.

DG: The Yippies were influenced by the Diggers; there’s no question about that. Abbie Hoffman spent time with Emmett Grogan and Peter Coyote. A lot of the language, and the sense of theater, such as throwing money onto the Stock Exchange, was out of the Digger playbook of trying to create theatrical events in public that would illustrate a larger point. When I interviewed him for the book, Coyote was still complaining about it, even though he softened to the point of saying he did believe Abbie was a good person, and was compassionate, and trying to do the right thing. But he felt betrayed by the self-aggrandizement and the publicity-seeking ways of Abbie. The Diggers had this very austere, purist notion of what was righteous. They were obsessed with anonymity, they were obsessed with “everything should be free,” and they criticized almost everyone else who wasn’t a Digger. It’s hard to find anyone who was active in the counterculture that they had good things to say about, although initially they got along with the Black Panthers. The Panthers used the Digger’s mimeograph machine for the first issue of their newsletter.

Abbie hung out with the Diggers, but then he left them. They felt that, when he published Steal This Book, it contained a lot of their ideas but that he put his name and face on it. By all accounts, Emmett and Abbie hated each other. There are those who believe the Diggers were the real thing and the Yippies were posers, but I don’t agree. I respect the Diggers’ intellectual originality, courage, and commitment. They were on the cutting edge, particularly in the formation of the Haight-Ashbury community. But they also became bullies, and they were not open-minded about other people trying to work in different ways at the time. Abbie Hoffman was an egotist, and he did like attention, but he also had this sense of theatricality. His understanding of the media allowed me, as a teenager, to hear about these ideas. Thanks to his interest in McLuhan, and the media, and his commitment to communicating to the masses, Abbie reached people that the Diggers would never have reached. So, they both played their role, and neither of them was perfect.

In retrospect, I’m not a big fan of the protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Although I could have gone, I had no interest in going. Ginsberg was against it, and Peter Coyote says that he also cautioned against it for reasons that are now clear. I do think that the Yippies meant well. But they got too intoxicated with their own drama to see how rapidly things were changing, and what the playing field was, and all that. I respect the Yippies, and I particularly respect Paul Krassner, who’s one of my favorite acquaintances, and who led an exemplary life. But again, I was more of a hippie, not a Yippie. I was always put off by the amount of anger that was in what they conveyed. Hoffman died tragically, and he had his issues, but he was an extremely positive force. They didn’t have any long-term vision, and they made some mistakes, but I think they were on the right side of things. But listen, Tom Hayden, coming from the nonpsychedelic, non-Digger influence of the left, was also there in Chicago. The Chicago Seven included Hayden and other SDS people. So, it’s not like the political radicals have more to be proud of.

RC: Was it a mistake to create this language of an “us” versus “them,” of “straights” versus “heads”? What’s the lesson to be learned from that today? I’m thinking of the politically correct jargon that’s alienated so many, on sides.

DG: Yes, this was one of the big mistakes. I certainly thought that way; I definitely wanted to know who was a “head” and who wasn’t. In those days “straight” meant not taking drugs; it didn’t have a sexual connotation. That there was “us” and “them,” and that they were “shallow”—that created resentment. Many felt left out of the party, and that helped fuel the divisions that we live with today, in this society. The language of many of those that I admired back then reinforced this idea: of dehumanizing what we called the Establishment.

Back then, to criticize civilization was morally correct, given the racism, materialism, and militarism. But to not recognize the good things about it was ridiculous. So yes, the “us” and “them” thing, the polarization, we contributed to it, those of us in the counterculture. Even the word “counterculture” says this. It contributed to the polarization, which led to the resentment of some of those that support Trump. I did an e-mail correspondence with Ram Dass about this, and his answers show that, clearly, he reached the same conclusion. He’s never shied away from thinking that LSD was a good thing, but he felt the polarization was counterproductive. And so, we have to try to heal the damage that was caused by this.


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