Current Affairs
Current Affairs
Current Affairs
A podcast of politics and culture, from the editors of Current Affairs magazine.
The Role of Drugs in American Life (w/ Benjamin Fong)
Benjamin Y. Fong is the associate director of the Center for Work & Democracy at Arizona State University and the author of the new book Quick Fixes: Drugs in America from Prohibition to the 21st Century Binge. From cigarettes to crack to opioids, Fong's book looks at how the United States became a country with a major drug habit. He talks about the role of private industry in monetizing addictive chemicals, and the hideous consequences of the war on drugs. For a leftist, drugs pose a certain conundrum: On the one hand, we believe in full legalization and an end to the horror of the drug war. However, we also don't take a fully libertarian "drug use as an expression of individual preference" approach, and recognize that drug use can be (1) a response to desperate conditions and (2) pushed by private actors who profit off misery. Legalization alone will surely produce more destructive industries like the cigarette industry, which profits from slowly killing its customers (and constantly addicting new ones). What, then, is the progressive approach to drug use? Quick Fixes offers a nuanced and fascinating look at the intersection of capitalism and chemical dependency. "Misguided and destructive as the War on Drugs has been, the key proposals of liberal drug reformism don't inspire much confidence in an alternative. Legalization has, for one, long been the principled position of the libertarian right: from Ludwig von Mises to Milton Friedman, free marketeers have loved pointing to the example of illegal drugs to prove their belief that markets solve everything. Place the drug trade in the stable hands of legal profiteers, they say, and away go the absurd profit margins, the government corruption, the distortion of local economies, the crime, the enforcement budgets, and the drug contamination... Unfortunately for their elegant argument, it's the legal drugs—cigarettes and alcohol—that are most hazardous to Americans. Letting profit-hungry corporations sell psychoactive drugs virtually assures abuses detrimental to public health... Illegal drug dealers can be dangerous sociopaths, but they are nothing compared to CEOs." — Benjamin FongThe chapter of the book on cigarettes actually began as a Current Affairs piece, which can be read here. The 2018 Current Affairs article "Death and the Drug War" may also be of interest. 
Feb 19
37 min
The History of Arab-Jews Can Change Our Understanding of The World (w/ Avi Shlaim)
Avi Shlaim is a distinguished historian and Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University. He is one of the Israeli "New Historians" whose pathbreaking work debunked some of Israel's most cherished national myths. Now he has written a fascinating memoir, Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew that challenges conventional understandings of Zionism, the binary categories of "Arabs"/"Jews," and the very nature of nationalism. Prof. Shlaim is known as a "British-Israeli" historian, but as his memoir explains, he was actually born into a cultural world that has long since vanished: the Baghdad of the "Arab Jews," whose culture and language was Arabic but whose faith was Judaism. Shlaim's memoir tries to recapture this cosmopolitan existence, where Muslims and Jews lived in relative peace side-by-side. For families like Shlaim's, the birth of the state of Israel was something of a tragedy, because it shattered their world, creating new animus between Iraqi Jews and Iraqi Muslims. Prof. Shlaim's discussion of the early days of Zionism, and the effects it had on the Jews of Baghdad, shows that Israel's claim to operate in the interest of the world's Jewish population is highly questionable. Prof. Shlaim even claims that he has uncovered evidence that the Zionist movement was willing to resort to violence against Jews in Baghdad in order to build the Jewish state. His memoir, despite being tragic in many ways, is ultimately hopeful, because Prof. Shlaim still believes in the possibility of a country where ethno-religious binaries break down and different peoples can live side by side in a hybrid culture. “Time and again we are told that there is a clash of cultures, an unbridgeable gulf between Muslims and Jews. The ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis has become entrenched, supplying ammunition for rejectionists on both sides of the Arab–Israeli divide.The story of my family in Iraq – and that of many forgotten families like mine – points to a dramatically different picture. It harks back to an era of a more pluralist Middle East with greater religious tolerance and a political culture of mutual respect and cooperation between different ethnic minorities. My family’s story is a powerful reminder of once thriving Middle Eastern identities that have been discouraged and even suppressed to suit nationalist political agendas. My own story reveals the roots of my disenchantment with Zionism.” — Avi Shlaim 
Feb 16
46 min
A HEATED Encounter with Chris Rufo: Critical Race Theory, The Left, and American History
Originally aired 7/23/2023. Get new episodes early at !Today we have another in our Contentious Arguments series, as Nathan clashes with Christopher Rufo, the architect of the right's "critical race theory" moral panic and a close advisor of Ron DeSantis. Rufo has lately been criticized by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for appearing to retaliate against public university professors for their political beliefs in his capacity as a trustee of New College of Florida. His new book, America's Cultural Revolution: How The Radical Left Conquered Everything argues that 60s radicals have successfully staged a "long march through the institutions" and exhorts conservatives to stage a "counter-revolution." You can read the review that Nathan and Matt McManus wrote of that book here.The quotation "Has the goal of the left, for a century, been the destruction of every Western institution?" is from the book's official publicity page. Nathan's essay debunking Michael Shellenberger's climate lies is here. For more on the subjects covered in today's episode, read Nathan's article "Why Critical Race Theory Should Be Taught In Schools" and Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments. Christopher Rufo: No, no, no, the United States was not founded on racism. I think that that is a total misunderstanding of history.Nathan Robinson: How many Founding Fathers were Black?Christopher Rufo: How many people in the Chinese Politburo are European? I mean, it's like the representation fact. Look, hold on...Nathan Robinson: There's not a big class of European slaves in China. But if there was, it would be a racist state.Christopher Rufo: That's true. But look, if you say "What was the United States founded on?" it's a very specific question, and I'll answer the question for you. The United States was founded on a vision of human nature, of natural rights, of equality and liberty.Nathan Robinson: That excluded Black people.This edited has been very lightly edited to fix cross-talk. (In the original, much of what was said was unintelligible because both Rufo and Robinson were talking at once.) A directionless several-minute tangent about the nature of artistic talent has also been excised. In the interest of avoiding any allegations of selective editing, that outtake can be heard here. Otherwise, the interview is presented in its entirety.
Feb 14
52 min
The Dark Side of Fashion (w/ Alyssa Hardy)
Alyssa Hardy is a fashion journalist whose work has turned in recent years to exposing the underbelly of the industry, from the labor conditions of those who make the clothes to the colossal amounts of waste in our clothing industry and the climate consequences of "fast fashion." Today she joins to discuss her book Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion's Sins, which is appreciative of good style but devastatingly critical of an industry where the people who make the clothes are mercilessly exploited and millions of dollars are spent trying to make consumers feel like they're not cool unless they keep buying new clothes. We discuss "microseasons," the lack of ethical standards in fashion journalism, and the radical turn of Teen Vogue, for which Alyssa has worked. “It pains me to say it, but so much of this industry, including the jobs that I dreamed about having for so long, is bullshit. When I was in high school, I had a cover of Teen Vogue taped to the inside of my locker so that every day I remembered exactly what I wanted to do with my life. It’s all I ever wanted and that’s why I want it to be better—I didn’t dream of pushing people toward clothing on Amazon that I wouldn’t even buy myself because the magazine gets 3 percent of the sale. It’s also why I want to empower you to make choices that feel good and to arm yourself with knowledge about how this whole thing works.” — Alyssa Hardy Our previous podcast about Vogue editor Anna Wintour's MasterClass is here. Our conversation with Sam Miller McDonald about menswear is here.
Feb 12
37 min
How To Make Schools That Children Actually Enjoy Going To (w/ Lauren Fadiman)
School sucks. But why? And must it? For our print magazine, Lauren Fadiman writes about how radical leftists have historically tried to rethink schooling entirely, to create alternative schools that truly nourish the mind and soul rather than simply preparing kids to enter the workforce. Today she joins for a discussion of why we shouldn't just think of fixing schools as a matter of increasing their funding, but should broaden our imaginations and look to historic (and contemporary) examples of schools that truly care about preparing students to be empowered members of a democratic society.We discuss a Democratic education secretary's comment that meeting industry demands for a workforce should be a major purpose of education, the right's belief that children should go work instead of school, the attacks on public education, and why leftists should run for school boards and even found their own schools. We discuss the Summerhill school, the Ferrer schools, the Brooklyn Free School, and more radical alternatives to traditional education. And we discuss why kids' love of dinosaurs should be indulged and encouraged. "There is good reason, therefore, for leftists to start now to take back the American school system—not through programs like Teach for America, which sics largely untrained, prestige-hungry Ivy League grads on school districts, but in the old-fashioned ways: by becoming tutors and teachers, joining school boards, advocating for greater federal oversight of education. And—where the political environment is hostile to critical pedagogy—perhaps even taking matters into the Left’s hands and founding alternative schools." — Lauren Fadiman An article Nathan co-wrote on the purposes of education is here. The Financial Times article "Why Do Kids Love Dinosaurs?" is here. A response to the pro child labor arguments on the right can be found in Nathan's Responding to the Right. 
Feb 9
44 min
How Rupert Murdoch Killed The Only Good Social Media Platform (w/ Michael Tedder)
Perhaps only those between the ages of about 30 and 35 will remember the golden years of MySpace, which dominated social media before Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. MySpace was a mess, but it's looked back on fondly by many, in part because it encouraged individual expression and customization. Michael Tedder, in his new book Top Eight: How MySpace Changed Music shows that MySpace allowed musical culture to flourish in a way that succeeding social networks haven't. This was in part because the network was created by people who liked and appreciated music, which raises interesting questions about how a social media network can be built to either facilitate or inhibit the development of certain kinds of cultural forms. Tedder's book encourages us to ask questions like: What would a good social network look like? What parts of ourselves would it bring out? What bad tendencies would it discourage? While perhaps not as nostalgic for MySpace as Michael is, Nathan agrees that it had some quirky qualities that are sorely missed today. We talk about what it would mean to have an internet for the people, a crucial conversation at a time when much of the internet seems to be dying a depressing death. Alas, MySpace itself was killed after being bought by Rupert Murdoch, a part of the story that shows how ruthless profit-seeking capitalism can snuff out things that are valuable. The story illustrates why who owns social networks is so crucial, and the values of owners are reflected in user experiences. (Elon Musk's Twitter, for instance, is saturated with his personal stupidity and bigotry, while Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook is as bland as he is.)Nathan's article "Toward the Wiki Society" is here, and his article on Rupert Murdoch is here. Our interview with Cory Doctorow about the early promise of the internet is also relevant.
Feb 7
36 min
How Labor Can Drive a Hard Bargain (w/ Jane McAlevey and Abby Lawlor)
On this program, we have previously discussed the inspiring fight waged by the Amazon Labor Union on Staten Island, and the confrontational tactics that can help unions win recognition despite the best efforts of corporations to thwart them. But even when unions win recognition, in many ways the battle is only just beginning. At Amazon and Starbucks, workers may have won recognition, but they haven't actually gotten contracts, because the companies are ruthless at the negotiating table (and ruthless about staying away from the negotiating table). So what happens then? What do workers do in Phase II, where they need to actually get a contract? Jane McAlevey and Abby Lawlor join us today to give us some answers. Their book, Rules to Win By: Power and Participation in Union Negotiations (Oxford University Press) follows on from McAlevey's earlier work on how to organize a union in the first place (see her previous interview with Current Affairs). They discuss how to extract concessions from intransigent employers and why the workers themselves (not an aloof, unresponsive team of professional negotiators) need to be at the heart of any negotiation. The lessons they offer are not just useful for unions, but as they explain, are practical for many other social movements who are trying to take on the powerful. "The labor movement presents some of the best insights for other social movements into how to negotiate effectively, because negotiations are a regular feature of union life. Sadly, very few social movements ever build enough power to pull up to serious negotiations—the kind that result in a written, enforceable agreement. Social movements, when they do win, often fail to secure good enforcement language. To this day, most provisions of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, achieved some fifty years ago, have never been implemented. Not only can social movements learn from strong unions what it takes to build strong enforcement into an agreement, but also what it means to keep your organization strong enough to hold the inevitable opposition in check. This is true any time there are real stakes to a settlement, whatever the field." — Jane McAlevey and Abby Lawlor 
Feb 5
36 min
Learning From Neglected Novels By 1900s Radicals (w/ the Rickard Sisters)
The Rickard Sisters, Sophie and Scarlett, have produced two wonderful graphic novel adaptations of books by early 20th century radicals. First they made The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, adapted from Robert Tressell's classic socialist story about a group of house painters who experience all of the horrors of laissez-faire capitalism. Then the Rickards made No Surrender, adapted from Constance Maud's neglected novel about the suffragette movement. Today, the Rickards join to talk about why they see the struggles of a century ago as so enduringly relevant. They have spent years adapting these novels for today, and the results are beautiful, colorful, funny, and moving. These two adaptations are some of the contemporary left's most accomplished and dazzling contributions to the graphic novel medium. But what is it that makes the original books so compelling? What can Robert Tressell and Constance Maud still offer us, so long after their deaths? Listen to the Rickards explain their project.
Feb 2
37 min
Why Minimalism? (w/ Kyle Chayka)
Kyle Chayka is a cultural critic and staff writer for the New Yorker. (Incidentally, he also wrote a piece back in 2017 that covered the early years of Current Affairs.) Kyle's book The Longing For Less: Living With Minimalism, is a delightful, profound exploration of the idea of "minimalism." Beginning with the Marie Kondo phenomenon, Kyle tours world history and culture to discuss everything from Thoreau's cabin to John Cage's music to Japanese rock gardens to the sculptures of Donald Judd. Today Kyle joins to talk about why there have been periodic movements stressing the importance of having "less." We talk about how contemporary Instagrammable minimalism can actually be quite expensive. We ask whether Jesus was a minimalist. We probe the mystery of why Agnes Martin's minimalist paintings are so mesmerizing. Nathan is on the record as being a proud "maximalist" who loves ornamentation and chaos (he has even written an article called "Death To Minimalism") while Kyle is sympathetic to the minimalist instinct, even if he highlights some of its more absurd manifestations (such as the glass walls in the Apple headquarters that were so "minimalist" you couldn't see them, leading employees to constantly bonk their faces on them). But the important questions are: what leads us to want to reject the very things that supposedly make our consumer society so "abundant" and fulfilling? What's behind the Thoreau-like instinct to chuck it all away and do without luxury or adornment? Is the minimalist instinct the right response to a civilization of wasteful excess? If it is, however, how do we determine what is "enough"? “Maybe the longing for less is the constant shadow of humanity’s self-doubt: What if we were better off without everything we’ve gained in modern society? If the trappings of civilization leave us so dissatisfied, then maybe their absence is preferable, and we should abandon them in order to seek some deeper truth....Minimalism is a communal invention and the blank slate that it offers an illusion, especially given its history. It is popular around the world, I think, because it reacts against a condition that is now everywhere: a state of social crisis mixed with a terminal dissatisfaction with the material culture around us that seems to have delivered us to this point, though the fault is our own. When I see the austere kitchens and bare shelves and elegant cement walls, the dim vague colors and the skeletal furniture, the monochrome devices, the white t-shirts, the empty walls, the wide-open windows looking out onto nothing in particular—when I see minimalism as a meme on Instagram, as a self-help book commandment, and as an encouragement to get rid of as much as possible in the name of imminently buying more—I see both an anxiety of nothingness and a desire to capitulate to it, like the French phrase for the subconscious flash of desire to jump off a ledge, l’appel du vide, the call of the void...The popular minimalist aesthetic is more a symptom of that anxiety, having less as a way of feeling a little more stable in precarious times, than a solution to it.” — Kyle Chayka 
Jan 31
40 min
Is U.S. Democracy Just Going To Be Dysfunctional Forever? (w/ Benjamin Studebaker)
Benjamin Studebaker's new book The Chronic Crisis of American Democracy: The Way is Shut is a provocative critique of contemporary American politics. Studebaker argues that "none of the existing political movements in the United States are capable of responding to [our] economic problems." He's critical not only of conservatives who stir up culture war issues to distract from people's economic suffering, but of a left which he sees as irrationally committed to goals and strategies that won't work. Studebaker's book is quite pessimistic, because he sees the existing system as incapable of satisfying people's needs, but also deeply resistant to being changed. He raises challenging questions for those of us who want to see that kind of change, foremost of which is: how do we expect to make it happen? Today Benjamin joins for a lively discussion with Nathan about his theory of American democracy. Nathan, who is of a sunny and hopeful disposition, rejects some of Benjamin's analysis, but admits it's important to wrestle with. Nathan puts his disagreements and queries to Benjamin, who offers his responses. (You might remember that a few years ago, Studebaker joined for an argument on whether a Joe Biden or Donald Trump presidency was actually worse for the left.)"[P]olitical professionals and their followers become politically estranged from the rest of society. What, then, becomes of everyone else?...Every political path these Americans might take is blocked. They cannot reform the global economic system, and they cannot overcome it by revolutionary means. The political professionals do not represent them. Their interests continue to be ignored, and politics continues to disappoint them. They have nowhere to turn, and there is nothing they can do. And yet, these Americans must go on living. They must continue to do the best they can to pay their bills, to pay down their debts, to keep their businesses open. What becomes of them?" — Benjamin Studebaker 
Jan 29
59 min
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