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Now displaying: June, 2018

Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Jun 29, 2018

Millennials are on the rise, both on the left and the right. But their trajectories have been very different.

The young left has had unquestioned triumphs, including Tuesday’s New York primary, where a 28-year-old Latina and Democratic Socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, defeated a 20-year Democratic incumbent congressman and supposed heir apparent to Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). The activism of the anti-gun-violence Parkland students is another example of young people on the left being energized.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the right has been far more successful in recruiting millennials than the left.  

This trend is discussed by this week's Radio WhoWhatWhy guest, journalist Michael Hobbes. Hobbes is the author of a couple of compelling recent stories about these issues, including “The Right-Wing Millennial Machine,” and “Generation Screwed.” They are important touchstones for understanding today’s youth politics.

While the number of millennials who identify with the right is a small percentage of the population, the number of young people within Republican politics is disproportionately large. It’s no accident that the three youngest US senators are all Republicans and that Republican members of Congress are, on average, much younger than Democrats.

Donors on the right have been funding a resilient leadership pipeline, while the left has focused on individual causes. As Hobbes points out, the right is building a monolithic political infrastructure, while the left is busy supporting existing institutions.

Hobbes tells Jeff Schechtman that 20-something voters should not be seen as political outliers but rather as people who care about the same pocketbook issues everyone else cares about: the cost of housing, the price of education, wages, and healthcare. These are all issues that have directly impeded the social mobility of young people.

Hobbes, an important new millennial voice, shatters the myth that our debates today are a war of ideas. We are long past the point where anyone is being persuaded, he says. The right understands this, the left does not. The electorate is simply too bifurcated, and information is too siloed. Success for both sides will come from expanding their base, building organizations, and motivating and turning out voters. The endless 12-point plans laid out, for example by Hillary Clinton, no longer have value in today’s political environment. It’s not about trying to convince people, it's about advocacy.

What the right has learned so well about recruitment is that if you grab them by the wallet, it’s a lot easier for their hearts and minds to follow.

Jun 22, 2018

We always hear that the US is “a nation of immigrants.” But, according to immigrant rights activist Aviva Chomsky, this hides the real truth about America’s immigration history.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Chomsky, a professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts, places the current debate about immigration in America in a broader historical context.  

Chomsky outlines the 20th century policies that changed traditional patterns of migration and labor, and replaced them with prejudicial and, she argues, often arbitrary quotas and restrictions that favored Europeans over Mexicans and Central Americans. She explains how the idea of an “illegal immigrant” is a fairly recent one, and that the racialization of illegal immigration is what someone once described as the new Jim Crow.

Chomsky tells Jeff Schechtman how laws in the United States restricted citizenship to white people until the Civil War. Afterwards, thanks to the 14th Amendment, citizenship was extended to people of African descent. Indeed, the whole concept of citizenship by birth was essentially created by the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

New arrivals to the US who were not white were not even considered immigrants, a designation applied only to people from Europe.  

Chomsky says that in the early to mid-20th century, people crossing the Mexican border faced no restrictions because Mexican laborers were so desperately needed in the Southwest. Since Mexicans were considered workers and not immigrants, depriving them the opportunity to become citizens was perfectly legal.

The cumulative effect, Chomsky argues, is today’s inefficient immigration system, which ensnares so many victims, including thousands of young children.

Jun 15, 2018

During the Cold War the United States fought to defend its political system against the threat of Communism. But times have changed. Does the US now have to defend its republic and its democracy against the threat of a new Gilded Age, of oligarchs and the dangerous consequences of deep income inequality?  

Vanderbilt law professor and former Senate staffer Ganesh Sitaraman argues that, in a political system like that of the US, which was designed to be class-blind, widening the economic divide can actually bring down the system. He tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman in this week's podcast that political democracy cannot survive amid economic inequality.

Sitaraman explains how the founding generation thought about the role of the middle class in keeping democracy healthy. He says the constitutional system devised by the founders, while devoid of overt checks and balances on class, had enough flexibility to help counter inequality until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The excesses of the Gilded Age gave rise to the Progressive Era as a corrective.

He further argues that the period after the Great Depression of the 1930s led to additional government actions and programs that helped to temper further economic disparity, and as a result reflected the true benefits of workers, government, and business acting collectively. He contrasts all of this to what’s going on today, and argues that economics, more than anything else, explains the US’s current political dysfunction.

Ganesh Sitaraman is the author of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic (Knopf, March 14, 2017).

Jun 12, 2018

Google’s contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven — a controversial drone imaging program that uses artificial intelligence — prompted over 4,000 Google employees to sign a petition opposing the project, and about a dozen workers resigned in protest. In response, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced that the contract will not be extended, and that “there will be no follow-on to Maven.”

Yasha Levine has covered Silicon Valley for years, and his new book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet (PublicAffairs, February 6, 2018) details Google’s fifteen-year history of selling search, mapping, and satellite imagery services to the Defense Department and a number of intelligence agencies.

Levine notes that the complete name of Maven is “Algorithmic Warfare Cross-functional Team: Project Maven” and its purpose is to improve object identification for use in drone warfare. He also wonders how so many Google employees could have been unaware of their company’s deep involvement in military contracting through a subsidiary called Google Federal.

He explains that Google Federal, based near the CIA in Reston, VA, originated in 2004 with Google’s acquisition of a startup called Keyhole. Keyhole was midwifed by the CIA’s venture capital operation, In-Q-Tel. Keyhole’s CEO, Rob Painter, had deep connections to military and intelligence agencies, as well as to the vendors that compete for intel contracts worth an estimated $42 billion annually; Painter now runs Google Federal.

While Levine allows that some Google employees might be unaware of the military and intel work of the company, it’s widely known in Silicon Valley that most tech giants are deeply involved in these kinds of government contracts.

Jun 8, 2018

When the Chernobyl nuclear accident rattled the world and destroyed the myth of safe nuclear power in 1986, Serhii Plokhy was a young history professor who lived downwind from the power plant. Soviet leaders reflexively covered up the deadly incident but were forced to reveal some information because Sweden and other countries detected radiation from the releases at Chernobyl.

Today, Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. His new book, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, is a gripping account of the people responsible for the construction and operation of the nuclear power plant, and the fatal errors that occurred during a planned shutdown of Reactor 3 on April 25, 1986.  

He introduces readers to all the key players in Moscow, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and in the Soviet Union’s nuclear power establishment. A central figure is Viktor Bryukhanov, who built the Chernobyl complex, managed the emergency response, and was imprisoned after being blamed for the incident.

The powerful takeaway from Plokhy’s book, and this interview with Peter B. Collins, is that the Chernobyl disaster gave rise to what Plokhy calls “eco-nationalism” in Ukraine. This was a political movement that challenged Gorbachev and the central government in Moscow, and produced the first episode of glasnost, or openness, which ultimately led to the dissolution of the USSR.

Jun 6, 2018

In 1967, Robert Kennedy knelt in a crumbling shack in Mississippi, watching a toddler pick rice and beans off a dirt floor. It had been three years since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his war on poverty. What Kennedy saw on that trip would, in part, drive his run for the presidency one year later.

In this special WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to longtime journalist and University of Mississippi professor Ellen Meacham about the profound impact that Kennedy’s 1967 trip to the Mississippi Delta had on his renewed commitment to social justice in the last 14 months of his life.

While Vietnam was the most contentious issue of the day, poverty and its nexus with the civil rights movement were very much on Kennedy’s mind. RFK went to the Delta as part of a Senate fact-finding group. Some key players in the civil rights movement also took part.

According to Meacham, Kennedy had long felt that the poverty programs of the day were inadequately funded and failed to address real needs. What he discovered in Mississippi was not just the kind of poverty he had already seen in Harlem, the Bronx, and Bedford Stuyvesant. This was abject hunger, particularly in children.

What frustrated him the most was how so many local officials, including Mississippi's two US senators, refused to acknowledge how bad things were.

Meacham also reminds us how Kennedy saw so many of the nation’s resources, which might have been deployed to fight poverty, going instead to the war in Vietnam.

The experience brought him closer to Dr. Martin Luther King, who saw his own efforts for social justice and workers’ rights as the logical extension of the civil rights movement.

As King said, and Kennedy came to acknowledge: it does a man no good to be able to sit at a lunch counter if he cannot afford to eat.

Ellen B. Meacham is the author of Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi, April 2, 2018).

Jun 5, 2018

Many people doubt the official story of what happened when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel exactly 50 years ago. Their doubts are fuelled by painstaking research, solid reporting, and even cutting-edge science. But nothing compares to talking with people who were there when Kennedy was struck down.

Paul Schrade, a long-time friend and political ally of Kennedy’s, was shot in the head that night, but he recovered from his wounds. Two years ago, when Schrade was 91, WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman spoke to him about Kennedy, the assassination, and about his theory of the case.

This 48-minute conversation offers indispensable insights into the life and legacy of Bobby Kennedy, his murder, and how that tragedy changed history.

Jun 4, 2018

In this special WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman speaks with author and host of MSNBC’s Hardball, Chris Matthews. During a long career in Washington he rubbed shoulders with the Kennedys — whom he has been talking and writing about for years — and now he turns his full attention to Bobby.

Matthews argues that Bobby’s politics were rooted in bringing people together. Of course, there’s no way of knowing what his presidency might have been like. But Matthews reminds us of the crowds that gathered to salute the funeral train carrying RFK’s body from New York to Washington after his assassination in 1968. The mourners lining the tracks were black and white, waitstaff, firemen, and cops, who believed that Kennedy cared about them all. One relevant detail: Bobby was known as the only senator who would personally say hello to the Capitol police each day.

Matthews also tells Schechtman about Bobby’s penchant for making enemies, how he was once described as “a romantic, disguised as a streetfighter.” Some of it came from his upbringing as the younger brother to Joseph Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The runt of the family, as his father would call him, he always had to fight for attention.

We also learn about his relationship with Roy Cohn, which was a far cry from Cohn’s relationship with then-businessman Donald Trump.

Matthews explains the goals of Bobby’s 1968 presidential campaign. Besides wanting to end the war in Vietnam, he hoped to bring back Jack Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” but with many more working-class whites and minorities participating. He was, in Matthews’s words, “a streetfighter for moral justice.”

Chris Matthews is the author of Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit (Simon & Schuster, October 31, 2017).

Jun 1, 2018

Just how bad are things today? Let’s compare. Exactly 50 years ago, the Vietnam War was raging — the Tet offensive had begun and 30,000 more troops went to Vietnam while the war dead were returning home in body bags.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, race riots broke out in almost every large city in America, and one political party’s convention became a domestic war zone. In Europe, Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring was crushed by a bellicose Soviet Union.

Even before being elected, Richard Nixon was interfering with foreign policy in his own interests. President Lyndon B. Johnson was driven from office, and he was succeeded by a man who would end up resigning in disgrace.

Imagine if all of this had been covered by cable news 24/7? We would have had a national breakdown.  

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with Arizona State University professor Kyle Longley, who has written extensively about Johnson and 1968.

Longley reminds us how angry and frustrated the American people were throughout that decade. During the 1966 midterms, the Democrats lost 47 House seats. Johnson, who had sought power and the presidency his entire life, was watching the world spin out of his control. We learn much about the inability of even so well prepared a leader as LBJ to handle so many crises simultaneously.

By the end, Johnson had clearly lost his political grip, and his manic behavior, as seen through today’s lens, was troubling. What’s most striking, Longley tells Jeff Schechtman, is how many of the same themes and issues of race, class, political corruption, nuclear disarmament, Russia, and the limits of American power once again unsettle the US this year.

Kyle Longley is the author of LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval (Cambridge University Press, February 22, 2018).

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