by C. P. Farley, January 30, 2013 12:06 PM
As a writer, Whitney Otto is a democrat. Her tendency is to tell a story through a plurality of voices, to refract her narrative through a prism of perspectives. This is most obvious in her bestselling first novel, How to Make an American Quilt
, whose central metaphor is literally a collection of discarded bits of cloth pieced together into a cohesive whole, but the theme recurs in all her work. Her new novel is no exception.
Each chapter in her new book, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, tells the story of one woman photographer. Six of the eight are based on historical figures, though Otto changed the names and played freely with the facts of their lives. So, Imogen Cunningham becomes Cymbeline Kelley, Madame Yevonde becomes Amadora Allesbury, Tina Modotti becomes Clara Argento, etc. The final two photographers are invented entirely, though their work is based on the work of photographers Judy Dater and Sally Mann.
It's an interesting, engaging experiment. Through the fascinating lives of these eight unconventional women, the reader not only travels the arc of 20th century history, technology, and art but is brought face to face with the particular struggles creative women faced in the past century. As author Sena Jeter Naslund put it, "What makes Eight Girls Taking Pictures so remarkable is its simultaneous sharp focus and wide-angle lens."
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C. P. Farley: Why did you want to do a book on photography?
Whitney Otto: I didn't really want to do a book on photography. I wanted to do a book on these women who were photographers. They were all women whose work I liked before I knew about their lives in general. The exception would probably be Lee Miller. I knew more about her life as a muse and as a model than I did as a photographer. I didn't know she was a photographer, actually.
Farley: And she was a really interesting photographer.
Otto: Yes, very surrealist. And that's the other thing that's interesting about all these women. Even if they started out more traditionally, they all had a more modern take. Miller was a surrealist. Grete Stern was a collagist. Modotti... she was very, very modernist. Imogen Cunningham started out in an era when photography was still being used in a very painterly way: using soft focus, trying to replicate what paintings did. Then all of a sudden it was like, wait a minute, this is a whole different medium!
Farley: Sort of like early films, which were filmed more like stage plays, until they figured out the possibilities of film.
Otto: Right, it was the same thing, where suddenly filmmakers realized that they had other tools. Imogen Cunningham was a member of the group f/64 with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams and several other photographers. They wanted to use available light. They wanted everything to be as natural as possible, which was sort of like the antithesis of the painterly, soft-focus, allegorical stuff that early photographers had been doing.
Farley: One of the other photographers you write about, Madame Yevonde, did do a lot of allegorical stuff, but she was also doing something else that was really new — with color. Her photos are crazy.
Otto: Yes, her stuff looks so contemporary it's unbelievable. She's great. I mean, that really heavy color saturation, and that kind of wink and a nod, juxtaposing subject matter that was very classical, like the goddess photographs she did, with very modern techniques. Like giving a robed woman a Nazi helmet and a handgun — and she's Athena. She's one of the first photographers I absolutely loved in my life. She's not very well known here, actually, even today. I discovered her when I was in England. But the Internet has really brought everybody to fore.
Farley: A good deal of the book is focused on photographers in the first half of the 20th century. Did you focus on this era deliberately?
Otto: Well, again, I wasn't so much interested in photography as I was interested in these women, who all were photographers. I'm not really interested in writing about writers or writing. But photography is very much like writing to me because it can be a service — you can pay people to do it — or it can be an art form. Or it can be both at the same time. Writing kind of does that same thing. That's a connection for me.
Originally, I want to say in the '90s, I was going to write a memoirish thing, and I thought one section of this book would be about my cultural heroes. They'd be a sort of filter through which I could view my life. Of course, I never ended up finishing that, and in the early 2000s, I realized I was getting interested in these various photographers and their work and their lives. So I thought, I'll write about them.
It started out, in 2003, as a nonfiction book about these eight women photographers. But I always wanted to do a fictional version, too. I thought it would be cool to do two books that draw on the same material, one nonfiction, one fiction; they'd be these companion pieces. The only problem with the nonfiction version was that I thought nobody would buy it! [Laughter] So, I put it down for a few years. Then, when I went to pick it up again, I thought, I just want to do the fiction part.
With each of these women, I didn't want to write full biographies. I wasn't interested in their entire lives, just aspects of their lives or aspects of their work. I wanted bits and pieces. I thought, What is the one thing I want to say about each of these women? Then I realized the sum of their lives formed this 20th century arc.
So if you look at it, the book may start in 1909 and then it ends around 1927. The second chapter picks up again probably in 1900, but then it ends at the eve of the Second World War. Then it picks up again. The beginning of each chapter backtracks substantially, but it will always pull you further into the 20th century. That wasn't really by design, I'm sorry to say. [Laughter] It was just more by interest, because that was where their stories ended for me, or the interest ended for me.
Farley: In writing about these women, though, you blended fact and fiction very freely. The basic narrative arcs of their lives follow those of the historical women, but you gave them new names and identities, and in many cases invented much of the details of their lives. How did you decide on the balance between fact and fiction in this book?
Otto: Well, you know, I think for anyone who's going to write
by C. P. Farley, October 2, 2012 9:43 AM
In a 2003 TED Talk, Steven Johnson quipped:
"Who decides that SoHo should have this personality and that the Latin Quarter should have that personality? There are some kind of executive decisions, but mostly the answer is, everybody and nobody."
A running theme through Johnson's work is that complex systems operate best when they are left to their own mysterious devices. "Everybody and nobody" would make a concise, three-word summary of his life's work.
For example, in his 2001 bestseller, Emergence, he took the reader on a tour of emergence theory, which posits that in complex systems the whole is often smarter than the sum of its parts, even when the individual parts are literally as dumb as slime mold. In Everything Bad Is Good for You (2005), he argued that despite what your mother says, television is not only getting better, it's actually making us smarter. Yes, even reality TV.
In his latest book, Future Perfect, Johnson brings his understanding of the intelligence of diverse, decentralized networks to bear on our politics, going so far as to coin a new political worldview. Rooted in the power of decentralized peer networks and with its eye pointed squarely toward the future, he calls this the "peer progressive" movement. The peer-progressive outlook is deeply democratic. Central planning is avoided because peer progressives have faith that, more often than not, decentralized networks of individuals working together will make better decisions: "When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably."
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C. P. Farley: Future Perfect is a very upbeat, optimistic book. Yet you begin the book by talking about how pessimistic we are, how we seem to prefer negative story lines to positive ones. I'm curious why you wanted to begin the book there.
Steven Johnson: Well, I wanted to explain from the outset why I wasn't insane to be writing an optimistic book. [Laughter] You tell people that there are actually many parts of society that continue to improve, where there is an amazing track record of progress that we can point to, and with the state we are in right now, most would look around and say, Where? I don't see that. I wanted to start by saying, Look, there are success stories around us, and then move on to this new political philosophy that I believe will ensure that we see more of that progress. One of the things that I covered in researching the book that just blew me away, which has actually gotten a lot of coverage, is the extraordinary drop in crime in the United States over the last 10 or 15 years. We have lived through this extraordinary thing.
There have been books written about it and headlines in newspapers about it. It's been written about in books like the bestseller The Tipping Point and many others. But Gallup has been polling people in the United States every year for the last couple of years asking, "Is crime getting worse or is it getting better?" Every year they say it's getting worse. So everybody is ignoring this positive news and is convinced that things are worse than they were before.
Farley: Despite the conventional wisdom that the institution of marriage is falling apart, the number of divorces has actually declined over the past few decades.
Johnson: Exactly. So at some point in the book I just say, Here, take this little social studies quiz. What are the 20- or 30-year trends for the following things: divorce rates, air pollution, male-female wage equality, traffic fatalities, drunk driving? Fifteen key components of our social health, and they are all trending in the right direction. Some of them have improved by more than 40 or 50 percent over that period. These are things that you can point to and say, This is a significant section of society that is, in fact, getting better.
Farley: Ask a gay person of a certain age if they ever thought a plurality of Americans would be in favor of gay marriage in 2012!
Johnson: Right. We are experiencing changes that weren't even vaguely on the agenda 15 or 20 years ago. No one thought we would make it there — just look at our African American president! So it is not only possible to make progress, it's happening all the time.
But the other bias we have, which really gets to the heart of the book, is a bias against stories of extended network collaboration. When something good happens, we really want to find the Steve Jobs that was behind it. We really want to find the Thomas Edison that was behind it, so we can point to the superhero. I talk about Captain Sullenberger and the miracle on the Hudson. We want to point to the superhero pilot that saved the lives of all those people.
But while this is sometimes valuable, there is also a much more complicated, but just as important, story about the thousands of people who, in this case, helped create the electronic system that greatly assisted Sullenberger in landing the plane, and the jet engines that survived the impact of the birds and kept the electronics system working.
Those thousands of nameless innovators, starting at NASA in 1970 and then eventually working at Airbus and building the 320, were just as important. But because you can't point to one of them and put them on the Today Show the next day, we don't tell that story as much. We are biased against that kind of network innovation as well.
Farley: Over the past year, I have interviewed the liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz as well as the libertarians Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch from Reason magazine. And while all of them were basically critical of absolutely everything that is happening in the country right now, the libertarians had a much sunnier attitude about the future. They seemed much more confident that things will work out in time. I bring this up because, to me, much of the book seemed like a conversation between you and libertarians.
Johnson: Yes, that's absolutely true. There is an interesting back story to that, which is that this is a book about the power of decentralized systems, inspired by the success of the Internet and by the Web and by Wikipedia. This is a theme that has run through a lot of my books. I wrote a book 12 years ago called Emergence about the bottom-up complexity in everything from ant colonies to city neighborhoods to the Internet. So I have long associated myself with the power of decentralization. When I talk about this to libertarians, they start nodding. They are like, Yes, ex
by C. P. Farley, June 27, 2012 3:57 PM
After sitting on the President's Council of Economic Advisers from 1995 to 1997, acting as Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, and winning the Nobel Prize for economics in 2001, Joseph E. Stiglitz has clearly established his bona fides. As one of the leading economists in the world, his expertise has been sought after by policy wonks and power brokers from advanced economies and from developing nations alike.
In his previous book, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, Stiglitz argued that the financial crisis that began in 2008 was the result of structural changes made to the U.S. economy starting in the 1980s ? and that since the crisis, we have only made things worse.
In his new book, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future, he argues that over the past few decades, our government and our economy have become increasingly corrupt. The system has been rigged to shovel up the ladder as much of the country's wealth as possible, from the poor and middle class to the wealthy ? and, increasingly, to the super-wealthy: the "one percent." Ultimately, he argues, this will weaken the economy ? and the country ? for everyone.
Despite all this, Stiglitz is a remarkably pleasant fellow, warm, easy, professorial. When you imagine the men who go toe-to-toe with the president, you don't imagine Joseph Stiglitz. But he has gone toe-to-toe with presidents. He has taken on the Marie Antoinettes of the new oligarchy. And thank God: he is precisely the man for the job.
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C. P. Farley: Reading this book was one of the most depressing things I've done in a long time. [Laughter] I don't know if that was your intention.
Joseph E. Stiglitz: [Laughter] Not my intention, but it's one of those things: as you write, your views get crystallized. And it was a pretty depressing story. In the end of the book, I have a section where I ask, "Is there hope?" And I talk about the hope that the one percent will realize that it's in their self-interest that everybody share, that the top of the pyramid won't do well unless the bottom ? the foundation ? is strong.
The other hope is that more of the 99 percent will begin to understand that they've been sold a bill of goods, that certain things they've been told, like tax cuts for millionaires or taxing speculators at a lower rate than people who work for a living, are not in their interest. I mean, it's hard to believe that people would believe that, but there are many in the middle who have been persuaded that having low tax rates at the top is good for the people in the middle. A very strange view.
Farley: The What's the Matter with Kansas? phenomenon.
Stiglitz: Exactly. And part of the point of my book is that a lot of the money at the top ? not all of it, but a lot of it ? comes from rent seeking, from distortionary behavior, which actually weakens the economy. So, the story that you could only have more equality by giving up something is just wrong, and I hope they'll come to understand that.
Farley: But if you're a millionaire who's gotten wealthy by rigging the rules or by fleecing the government, you're not going to worry too much about the long-term health of the economy. A bank robber doesn't worry about leaving some money in the bank so there will be some there for next time.
Stiglitz: Yes, that's true. The good news is that there are some among the one percent, like Warren Buffett, who say, "It's wrong that I pay a lower tax than my secretary. That's not the American way."
The other way to see an element of hope is to remember that in previous episodes in our history, when we have reached high levels of inequality, we pulled back from the brink. The Gilded Age was followed by the Progressive Era, the Roaring '20s by the important social legislation of the '30s.
Farley: What's been dispiriting to a lot of people, I think, is that after the economic crisis revealed how corrupt our system had become, many people thought Obama was going to step in like FDR and make the system honest again. And it doesn't feel like that's panning out.
Stiglitz: Yes, that has been a big disappointment. What was striking about FDR was that, even given the severity of the Great Depression and the abuses that were uncovered by the Pecora Commission, which was the commission that investigated the origins of the Great Depression, there was a lot of resistance to his legislation. Most economists, actually, argued that what he advocated would be a disaster.
What was so striking was that, having taken office after Hoover had failed and the economy was in the Great Depression, Roosevelt had to fight. Of course, the greatness of the man is reflected in the courage of his convictions and his willingness to fight.
Farley: And the delight he took in the battle.
Stiglitz: Well, I think he would've preferred not to have to battle, but when he saw he had no choice, he joined the battle. Of course, every historical period is different, and we had been through a very divisive era under Bush. So, one could understand that Obama would want to have a period of reconciliation. You know, he was told by his Wall Street economic advisors that it's only through that kind of reconciliation ? don't beat up on the banks! ? that you're going to get recovery of the financial system.
Farley: Also, if politics is the art of the possible, what Obama was trying to do was...
Stiglitz: ...the impossible. [Laughter]
Farley: Yes. For example, many people have said that the stimulus was too small. But, the opposing view argues, in Obama's defense, that he got through what he could. What was possible. If he had tried for more, he would have gotten nothing. So, he was, in fact, very effective.
Stiglitz: Yes, that's what they say. My own feeling is that too many of his advisors came from that Wall Street mentality that says the only justification for large government spending is bailing out banks. The way I put it in one of my earlier books is that the fiscal hawks went on a vacation from roughly September 2008 until maybe the following March or April, when they had gotten out of the system all the money they could. Then they came back to the old mantra: Don't spend!
I think there's very little evidence that, in the end, he was not able to get Republicans to join the effort. And that means that good politics would've told him, as the attempt to reach a core consensus fell apart, that maybe he should've tried for something that was more ambitious and more targeted. So, rather than tax cuts, which have relatively little stimulus, focus on helping the states so they wouldn't lay off teachers.
by C. P. Farley, April 6, 2012 12:10 PM
Rachel Maddow's first book, Drift
, debuted at #1 on the New York Times
bestseller list. This isn't terribly surprising. Not only is Maddow the host of the top-rated liberal television show in the country, MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show
, but also in our current, highly polarized political climate, books by partisan pundits are invariably reliable sellers.
Yet Maddow has long claimed she is not a partisan. An unabashed progressive, for sure, but hardly a firebrand. As she puts it: "I'm undoubtedly a liberal, which means that I'm in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican Party platform."
Anyone inclined to disbelieve her should pick up a copy of Drift, in which she outlines the radical shift we've made as a country over the past few decades in the way we make the decision to go to war. Maddow doesn't try to score political points or to lay responsibility for the problems she identifies at the feet of the "other" side. This might explain why pundits from across the aisle have felt free to actually like the book. Not only did she receive a generally positive blurb from the chairman and CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, but conservative author Andrew Bacevich called Drift "scathingly funny, deeply insightful, and informed throughout by a deep and abiding sense of patriotism. Bravo, Rachel!"
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C. P. Farley: People seem surprised, not that you wrote a book, but that you wrote this particular book. So, I thought we could begin by talking about the reaction you've been getting.
Rachel Maddow: That seems to be coming from two different places. One is, essentially, Why didn't you write a book about partisan politics? or Why didn't you write a left versus right book? The other is, What are you doing writing about the military? [Laughter] I think actually both of those questions come from totally reasonable places and get to the heart of why I wrote this book.
I got the book contract a long time ago because, even though I was working in radio at the time and soon thereafter in TV, I've always had editorial control over what I do on my shows. I felt like I had this one thing that was really bothering me, about the way we are as a country right now, that I couldn't explain in a short form. I couldn't explain it in a broadcast of any length. It's an argument that I felt I needed to get off my chest, but I needed to lay out the evidence in a way that you can only do in print, you can only do in a book.
What was bothering me was that after 9/11 we didn't feel like we were a country that had gone to war; we felt like we were a country that sent our military to war. This was not something that was divided according to whether or not you were in favor of the wars, it was something that was felt, I think, left, right, and center, and even by people that didn't have much political affiliation at all.
Farley: Your interest in this issue has manifested on your show in the many, many segments you've done with military personnel and about military personnel.
Maddow: I think I'm slightly more interested than your average bear in national security issues, but I don't claim any special expertise about war or the military. This was really a book about politics, about how we make decisions about whether or not to use force, when to start wars, when to end them, and what the military should be like. Those are civilian decisions. Those are made through our democratic process. And that's what I have studied as an academic and have studied my whole career in political journalism.
Farley: The other reaction you're getting to the book is shock that you got a blurb from Roger Ailes. [Laughter] Who would have predicted that?
Maddow: I didn't know he would when I asked him. I was really happy when he said yes. [Laughter]
Farley: Yes, a lot of people in the media have noted it. However, I actually went back and read the blurb last night and thought, Oh! It's actually a little backhanded, isn't it?
Maddow: Well, he has criticism of the book but he also thinks that it's worth debating.
Farley: But, what he says is, "Drift never makes the case that war might be necessary. America would be weakened dramatically if we had underreacted to 9/11." Isn't he implying that you think war itself is unnecessary and that we shouldn't have done anything in response to 9/11? That's bogus.
Maddow: Well, it's an interesting place to start because my argument is not about the merits of any individual war ? Iraq, Afghanistan ? or any of the other wars that I write about in the book. It's about whether or not we went through a good decision-making process, not whether or not those wars were a good idea.
Somebody else who reviewed the book called it my "antiwar manifesto." But I'm not antiwar. Well, sometimes I am, depending on the war. But other times I think war is necessary, and we do need a great military. What I'm against is separating the decision about whether or not we use military force from the democratic process, separating it from our politics.
And, no, I'm not suggesting that we should not have reacted to 9/11. The book isn't about whether or not we should have reacted differently to 9/11; the timeframe of the book is mostly pre 9/11. It's about what had changed in our politics before 9/11 so that when it did happen, a lot of our decisions were almost, I think, preordained.
Farley: You talk a lot about the Founders' vision for how the nation should go to war. Can you expand on that?
Maddow: The basic thing that's in the Constitution is that Congress gets to make the decision. Congress gets to decide whether or not we are going to wage war. The president is the Commander in Chief, so the president gets to command troops and has a lot of leeway on national security decisions. But decision about whether or not we are going to be in a war is supposed to be that of Congress.
The book is not a comprehensive treatment of the Founders and their mindset, but it is interesting to see the way they talked about it. They weren't alone in that time in history in talking about the risks of an inclination toward war, which can structurally be the result of giving one person the power to decide whether or not we wage war.
They decided that they wanted the presidency to not be like a monarchy, in particular in the way that kings could use an army as their own. They didn't want the president to be like that. The Constitution with steadied care accordingly vests the question of war in the legislature. That was on purpose. They wanted it to be a collective decision, not one person's decision, because it's always easier for one person to make that decision than for people to have to debate it.
Farley: What led them to set things up that way? Was it a reaction to something the British were doing?
Maddow: I don't think we would be a country ? certainly we wouldn't have become the country that we are when we became the country that we did ? had the colonists not been seriously aggravated about
by C. P. Farley, December 5, 2011 4:52 PM
got his start as a journalist at the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel
in Indiana and later at the Sydney Morning Herald
in Australia (where he met his wife, celebrated author Geraldine Brooks
). He cut his teeth at the Wall Street Journal
, first as an overseas war correspondent and later as a reporter on national affairs, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He is best known, though, for his marvelously chatty, informative book-length accounts of his many elaborate adventures.
As an author, Horwitz is hard to categorize. Is he a travel writer? A popular historian? A naturalist? A commentator on contemporary culture? The easy answer is that he's all of the above. But what truly unites his books is a fascination with the almost incestuous relationship between past and present.
In his new book, Horwitz has made a return of sorts to the subject of the delightfully deranged Confederates in the Attic, in which he explored those (very) strange nooks and crannies in the American South where, to this day, the Civil War is more present than the Present. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War is also indirectly about the Civil War. But while the terrain may be familiar, this new book marks a departure for Horwitz: a straightforward history.
Midnight Rising chronicles the hard-scrabble, pious life of radical abolitionist John Brown, which culminated in his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry with 18 other men, his subsequent trial and hanging, and the media frenzy that consumed and further divided an already fractured nation.
Thoroughly researched, brilliantly told, Midnight Rising may be the definitive account of an episode that was, Horwitz ably argues, one of the seminal events in the lead up to the Civil War.
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C. P. Farley: In the afterword of Midnight Rising, you mention that you first got the idea of writing about John Brown from your wife. I'm curious how that happened.
Tony Horwitz: Well, the back story is that she wrote a Civil War-era novel about five years ago called March.
Farley: I think that book did pretty well. [March won the 2006 Pulizer Prize for Fiction.]
Horwitz: Yes, it did pretty well. [Laughter] And as part of her research on Bronson Alcott, who's the model for the protagonist in her book, she came across his association with what was known as the Secret Six. The Secret Six were Brown's corps of financial supporters and even included some Transcendentalists. She really started nagging me that I should do a book about the Secret Six, who aren't that well known. Just to get her off my back, really, I finally started doing some research. And the Secret Six are, indeed, fascinating. They're tortured idealists who try and, generally, fail to live up to their convictions. But they're her story, not mine.
I found myself more drawn to Brown, this man of action, and started doing more research on him. That really led me to this book. The Secret Six are certainly in there, but the focus is not on them. It's on Brown and his raid.
Farley: What about him, in particular, began to fascinate you?
Horwitz: He's just a tremendously compelling figure and very different from the myths about him. Also, he was not a lone gunman, and I was very intrigued by those who fought alongside him. I felt it was more than just his story. I wanted to do more a biography of an event, really, this raid and everything that led to it and flowed from it. So, he's the protagonist, but he's by no means the whole story.
Farley: You refer to "myths" about him. Was one of your purposes in writing this book to correct the record?
Horwitz: Yes, but also to try and approach John Brown in as dispassionate a way as possible. What struck me, when I read what others have done on Brown, is that he seems to drive even veteran historians crackers. Almost every book ends up portraying him either as a hero and martyr and freedom fighter, or as a monster and murderer. I just didn't feel those labels fit. He's more complicated than that. He's a deeply troubling figure, and I think we need to embrace him in all his complexity rather than try and fit him into some preconceived mold.
Farley: I thought you showed a great deal of restraint in the book. It's pretty easy to project one's own prejudices, one's own agenda, onto a man like John Brown. Was it difficult for you, while writing, to hold back your own views?
Horwitz: This book is different from my others in that I'm really not in it as a character, or as a loud commentator. I really wanted to present the facts as best I could determine them and tell the story in all its drama and leave it to the reader to decide. I hope part of the suspense of reading the book is figuring out how you feel about this complicated and often confounding man. I didn't want to tell the reader what to think.
Farley: You usually write about history by kind of bopping back and forth between the past and the present and between your own story and that of your subject. Why did you choose to write this book so differently?
Horwitz: It was a mix of things. First, this is not a whimsical story. I felt including my usual antics would create a confusion in tone, perhaps. Also, I just thought the historical story is so good and so little known that I didn't want to get in the way of it with my own story and adventures. I wanted to see if I could keep things in the past and really not break the spell of the narrative by leaping forward out of history as I've done previously.
And, partly, it was just personal. I'm now in my 50s and have two school-aged boys. It's not quite as easy or as appealing as it once was to disappear for weeks or even months at a time on open-ended adventures.
Writing a book like this was more compatible with my current life situation, and I really enjoyed this kind of full immersion in history for a change.
Farley: Your adventures these days take place more in libraries than they do in the field?
Horwitz: Yes. I did go to the places where the history happened ? in Kansas, in and around Harpers Ferry, in Connecticut and Ohio where Brown was raised ? and tried to weave that into my writing, but I didn't make that a main focus. Most of my research was in the archives.
Farley: In your prologue, you bring up 9/11 and outline a few obvious similarities between John Brown and Osama bin Laden ? then proceed to debunk them. Did you feel that you needed to address the issue of contemporary terrorism in order to put what
by C. P. Farley, August 8, 2011 6:00 PM
In their new book, The Declaration of Independents
, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch note with alarm:
You have to go back to 1946, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, to find spending that equaled as large a percentage of GDP [as it does now]. You need to return to 1945 to find a deficit that big on a percentage basis as well.
One might be tempted to point out that in response to this massive post-war debt, the U.S. government invested even more money into the economy ? and things didn't turn out so badly. But, as further government action to stimulate the economy is no longer even on the table, why bother?
As Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin lamented, the recent debt ceiling deal signaled the "final internment" of Keynesian economics, which guided American economic policy through much of the (very prosperous) 20th century. Conservative curmudgeon George Will, who may be old enough to have donned his bowtie in the presence of Keynes himself, put it more succinctly: "America is moving in the libertarians' direction."
This is good news for Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch. Not many Americans really understand what libertarianism is, and this passionate and articulate pair have just written as succinct and entertaining a treatise on its principles (the fewer the better) and spirit (Johnny Rotten meets Margaret Thatcher) as you'll find. Not surprising. As editors of Reason magazine and Reason TV respectively, they've had plenty of practice writing, talking, and blogging about libertarianism ? and cheerily pissing off both right and left along the way.
As the title of their book implies, The Declaration of Independents, Gillespie and Welch see the answer to our current predicament outside of our sclerotic two-party system. Probably a good thing ? which party would have them? You can't be for gay marriage and legalizing pot and giving women full control over their bodies and slashing the military and find a home in today's Republican Party. And what Democrat would welcome anyone who so often sees government not just as a problem but as a joke.
And yet today, in six states (and the District of Columbia), gays can get married. At the same time, it appears that we are also about to see the largest contraction in government since, well, since World War II. Maybe George Will is right.
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Chris Farley: One thing I was really struck by is how palpably optimistic the book is. Not a whole lot of that going around these days. So, why don't we start there: Why are you feeling so optimistic?
Matt Welch: It's very strange, that is probably the number one reaction to the book. Right, Left, libertarian, whatever, people are saying, "Why are you so damned optimistic?" We really didn't go in to this saying, "Hey, let's just out-optimist the competition," but Reason magazine, which has been around since 1968, has always had an almost pre-Wired magazine sense of techno, futuristic optimism that we're broadly getting better in the world ? which we actually are, compared to the world that we all grew up in.
We grew up in a time where half of the world ? or, at least, it seemed like half ? was living under darkness and Communism and was a poor, undifferentiated mass of red or black nothingness east of Berlin. And that was the world that we were going to live in forever. As it turns out, we didn't live in that world forever. China and India were supposed to have starved to death by now.
Nick Gillespie: The social milieu that gave rise to Reason in the late '60s was very apocalyptic, and it included people on the Right and the Left. The Right thought the Rapture was coming and they were going to float away to Heaven. On the Left, it was famine, and you wouldn't be able to breathe in cities ? everything was going to hell in a handbasket.
But, by the same token, there were people like the guy who founded Reason and the people who did the Whole Earth Millennium Catalog, Stewart Brand, and whatnot. I think that's where part of the optimism comes from. If you're gay, if you're black, if you're a woman, if you are a lover of fine foods, if you like TV, if you like movies, if you like books, this is a fucking great time to be alive. If you think of it this way, even with the shitty economy, things are getting better.
When you look at the last redoubts of the old model, whether it's in K-through-12 education, healthcare, retirement, you know, that's all bad. But this stuff in the good part of our lives is really incredible. And, it's winning. That's what's new. Not the fact that schools suck and that healthcare is too expensive and a pain in the ass and that you can't plan your retirement very well. That's all been around, but this other stuff is new.
Welch: There's reason to see, to use a debased phrase, "green shoots," even in these public-policy areas. Fifteen years ago no one was talking about concepts such as charter schools, home schooling, or medical marijuana. These have all been created in the Internet era. People are beginning to figure out ways to route around these fossilized and lousy government situations and create their own reality.
Fifteen years ago Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act to prevent any gay people from ever marrying ? period, damnit! And it's amazing, but we're routing around that now, too, to the point where 10 years from now, we're going to all look back and not quite laugh but just wonder, How the hell did we ever even talk about this?
Farley: It's astonishing how different it is for young gay people today than it was for our generation ? or, God forbid, our fathers' generation.
Welch: Think about how on the playground when we were growing up, you would just call anyone a fag. You even didn't know what fag meant.
Farley: I'm sure they still do. [Laughter]
Gillespie: But not in the same way.
Welch: Twenty years ago, Jane's Addiction, to name a band that I love, would have in their songs little breaks like, "Fuck it, suck it, faggot." There were lyrics like "Get your piss cock out of my fucking face" in a lot of popular music 20 years ago. Now, if you say that kind of stuff on the court as an NBA star, you're forced into an abject, humiliating public apology. You have to say, "I don't really have anything against my gay fans." That is incredible.
Gillespie: Just as there are 15 different eggplants you can get at Whole Foods, there are 15 new cultural identities that didn't used to exist. So, in that sense, the world is a much better place. It's a richer place, a more experimental place, a more innovative place. Those are all reasons to be optimistic.
Farley: You are optimistic about things like gay marriage and medical ma