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Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Aug 20, 2018

We live in an age of paradox. According to study after study, almost everything we can measure is moving in a positive direction. Worldwide, there is less violence, less pollution (except for greenhouse gases), less war, greater longevity, and most diseases are declining. From the perspective of material living standards, in every part of the world, things are getting better.

But there is another side.

Diseases that were once a death sentence are now manageable, but health care costs are escalating, and the divide between those that can and cannot afford quality healthcare is widening.

Millions of people in the developing world are experiencing a standard of living never imagined possible, yet how people feel about the world is increasingly negative, especially in the United States. Technology has made life easier in so many ways, yet Silicon Valley is becoming the boogeyman.

In spite of all the positive trends, tribalism divides us, social media, politics, and economics reinforce the divide, and the 24/7 always-on culture makes it happen even faster.

So where are the reasons for optimism?

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with prolific author and longtime Atlantic journalist Gregg Easterbrook about why he believes things are much better than they look.

Easterbrook reminds us that pessimism was in our national psyche long before social media. He argues against the common claim that the good old days were so good. In his view, it is this false pessimism that in large measure gave us Donald Trump.  

His goal is to make optimism intellectually respectable. While he agrees there is plenty to worry about, Easterbrook insists that a change in national attitude could go a long way toward making positive change. In fact, he says that history shows that optimism is the best argument for reform: only optimism could have lifted 1.8 billion people, in China and India, out of extreme poverty in a single generation.

In discussing the broader consequences of negative thinking, Easterbrook explains why we have to take a more global view, and why we should not be so quick to discard the mechanisms for reform we already have.  

And while it might be OK, as someone once said, to be a pessimist about tomorrow, Easterbrook exhorts us to at least be optimistic about the day after tomorrow.

Gregg Easterbrook is the author of It’s Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear (PublicAffairs, February 20, 2018), and The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House Trade Paperbacks, November 9, 2004).

Aug 17, 2018

Some days it seems, at least from reading the mainstream news or cable television, that all millennials are voting for Democrats, or that college-educated kids are all going to be part of the “blue wave.”

In fact, there is a whole cadre of young Republicans and conservatives populating college campuses, who see themselves as the post-Trump future of the Republican Party.

Journalist Eliza Gray recently went looking for the heart and soul of young conservatism as part of a story for the Washington Post Magazine. She shares some of her findings, in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, with Jeff Schechtman.

Gray interviewed over 50 young conservative leaders. She started with College Republicans, and her search took her to groups that ranged from William F. Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom, to organizations founded in the Reagan era, to libertarian offshoots of the Ron Paul campaign, as well as some Christian groups.

While Trump is certainly not the model all of them want to emulate, and they are hardly falling in line behind his approach of being “light on policy and heavy on combat,” some still see him as a means to implementing their own policy preferences.

According to Gray, the libertarian streak is perhaps the most prominent feature of these young conservatives, some of whom have taken to calling themselves Conservatarians. But even with their libertarian leanings on issues like sexual preferences and foreign policy, the vast majority are strongly pro-life. And many agree with Trump in his attacks on both the media and popular culture.

As for young, moderate Republicans, they have, says Gray, become an endangered species; according to her research, many were turned off by the rise of Trump.

Gray explains why the biggest heroes of many young conservatives are commentator Ben Shapiro and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Most are not fans of Sean Hannity.

There is also very little hero worship for what some see as a mean, frequently crude, ideologically fickle 72-year-old man. Many realize they will have to fight to rebuild the party and conservatism in their own image.

Aug 10, 2018

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton. A former Iranian ambassador to Germany, he was the chief spokesman for Iran during its nuclear negotiations with the international community. Several years ago, he parted ways with the Iranian government. This week he joins Jeff Schechtman for our WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Mousavian sets the stage with a look at Iran’s reaction to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA). He talks about the debate that took place inside Iran on whether or not Iran should even enter into negotiations with the US. He reminds Schechtman that 40 years of distrust is a very high hurdle to overcome.

Mousavian details the 10 years of negotiations that took place between Iran and the Europeans, beginning in 2003, long before the US was ever brought into the talks. In fact, he reminds us that this effort with the US was the first time there had been any high-level negotiations or even just talks between Iran and the US in more than four decades.   

Mousavian strenuously argues that Iran has been complying with all aspects of the agreement, as attested by 11 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

According to Mousavian, the Iranians see this deal as something worth saving, and that it should be a model for other non-proliferation deals around the world. In an obvious reference to Israel, he argues that if other nations, particularly in the Middle East, were to agree to the same deal, it could make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

From a diplomatic perspective, Iran is clearly making every effort to paint the US as the bad guy for pulling out of the deal, and Iran, which says it has been fully complying with the deal, as the good guy.

Mousavian says that the US’s rejection of the JCPOA is increasing tensions in the region. From Iran’s perspective, if the US had abided by the deal, the trust generated might have formed the basis for further negotiations on a whole range of complex issues in the region, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, etc. Now that the trust is broken, he says, there is very little chance for US and Iranian diplomacy on these, or any other issues. The net result makes the world less safe.

The only hope now appears to be that all those years of direct negotiations between the Europeans and Iran will pay off and that China will assume a bigger role as an honest broker in this region and provide economic relief from the US sanctions. The problem is that in order to keep the agreement alive, all remaining countries may need to violate the secondary sanctions provisions of the deal. These secondary sanctions put pressure on third parties to stop their activities with the sanctioned country, i.e. Iran, by threatening to cut-off the third party's access to the sanctioning country.

On a more encouraging note: Mousavian says that, in spite of all the mistrust, Iran might still be willing to enter into new negotiations with the Trump administration. After all, he says, the US and Iran are the two biggest powers in the region and it makes sense for them to find a way to talk.

For now, however, nothing further will happen if the US president and members of his administration keep spouting about regime change. Mousavian reminds us that such efforts have failed for 40 years, and that President Trump needs to learn from the lessons of history.

Aug 7, 2018

From long before the rise of Fox News, talk radio has been the essential medium through which millions and millions of hard-core conservatives comprehend the world.

From its inception, talk radio has been built around codes of tribal identity, grievances, and scorn. Originally tapped as entertainers, talk show hosts soon learned to mobilize public anger in ways that boosted their listenership enormously. Talk radio’s modern era began 30 years ago this month, with the national launch of Rush Limbaugh’s show.  

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with Michael Harrison, founder and longtime editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine, often referred to as “the bible of the talk radio industry.”

Schechtman and Harrison discuss how talk became big business by giving us an unparalleled group of personalities who thrived in an atmosphere that they helped drive of personal and political divisiveness. In a way, Limbaugh begat Fox News, MSNBC, the Tea Party, and, finally, Trump. All without ever losing his own audience or identity, which was overwhelmingly conservative. The Economist said last year: “[T]o understand the Republican party, get in a car, turn on the radio and drive.”

With the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 — the FCC policy that had required the holders of broadcast licenses to present matters of public importance in a fair and equitable way — all aspects of politics became fair game. And in 1988, a little-known Sacramento, CA, sports host moved into politics.

The way he caught on was dramatic. Love him or hate him, it became clear, as Harrison points out, that Rush was a once-in-a-generation talent.

Harrison and Schechtman chat about the early days of talk radio, and how Rush changed it. About the difference, initially, between Rush’s idea of entertainment and how his audience often took him very seriously. Harrison speculated that, in the early days, Limbaugh was a kind of right-wing Jon Stewart.

He combined everything that had come before in talk radio. He was conservative, he was angry, he was well-informed, and he had humor. In his early years, before he began to take himself too seriously, you never knew if his vitriolic flights of rhetoric were real or shtick.

Starting with just 56 stations in 1988, he was heard on 800+ stations only three years later. In 2008, he signed a $400 million eight-year deal and his success inspired many imitators.

The roll call of clones he spawned includes Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Dennis Prager, Michael Savage, Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham, and Mark Levin. To say that Limbaugh and his emulators made possible Trump’s election may be hyperbole. Or maybe not.

Jul 30, 2018

“It’s the economy, stupid.” Those words have become ingrained into our politics. But seldom have we seen such a disconnect between raw data, the kind that President Donald Trump bragged about on Friday, and the economy people are actually living in.

Journalist Alissa Quart, in her new book Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, went looking for the real America. In this WhoWhatWhy podcast she talks to Jeff Schechtman about what she found.

She discovered an America that is a far cry from one where anyone is jumping up and down over a 4.1 percent GDP increase in a single quarter. In fact, after ten years of steady growth, which began during the Obama presidency, the overhang of the Great Recession as well as some negative employment and economic trends that started before the recession are still with us.

Wages have been stagnant, housing costs continue to go up, health care costs continue to rise, education requires more and more debt, and self employment and the gig economy have not helped. All of this is before we are even really feeling the full impact of automation and AI.

Quart argues that we have to reassess what we value in society. Instead of being so happy at the lower cost of consumer goods — like our phones, computers, and TVs — we need to be far more concerned that the cost of basic necessities like healthcare, child care, senior care, education, and housing have skyrocketed.

Quart reminds us that this is not a problem limited to the uneducated. She talks to Schechtman about the plight of professors, school teachers, health professionals, and journalists.

According to statistics, kids today have only a 50/50 chance of doing better than their parents.

Equally striking is how few of these would-be members of the middle class are politically engaged. They’re exhausted from just getting from bind to bind.

Many are cobbling together patchwork solutions, like co-living arrangements and shared child care. But, Quart explains, for those struggling, a lot of time is often spent watching the 1 percent on television viewing a kind of “aspirational porn.”

Maybe that’s also how Trump got a toehold with so many of these same people.

Before you hear the next boastful presidential report on the economy, this is a must listen.

Alissa Quart is the author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (Ecco Press, June 26, 2018).

Jul 25, 2018

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin singled out 12 Americans he’d like to see the US hand over to Russia for interrogation in exchange for allowing special counsel Robert Mueller to question the 12 Russian GRU agents he recently indicted. Of those, much attention focused on former US Ambassador Michael McFaul. (WhoWhatWhy also interviewed McFaul just a few days ago.)

 But Putin singled out, even more prominently, international businessman Bill Browder, a major force behind the passage in 2012 of a particularly powerful piece of legislation, the so-called Magnitsky Act. Browder is Jeff Schechtman’s guest in this WhoWhatWhy podcast.

 The Magnitsky Act, initiated and lobbied for by Browder, was named after his murdered lawyer, who uncovered Russian government corruption. It created visa and banking sanctions for Russian officials violating human rights. The Magnitsky Act has long been a major point of contention for Putin, and he’s actively worked to get the law overturned.

 The legislation which passed the US Senate 92 to 4 has since, according to Browder, gone viral. It’s been copied and passed into law by seven countries, including Canada, and eight more countries are on deck to put it into law.

 Browder explains to Schechtman that Putin’s hatred of the legislation has nothing to do with ideology. It’s about narrowing the range of countries in which Putin and his oligarchs are allowed to park their ill-gotten fortunes and therefore puts their money at risk.

 What surprised Browder most about Helsinki was not Putin’s talking about him, or even offering an exchange to get Browder back to Russia, since the Russian president has long been chasing Browder. Rather, he was shocked that Trump had labeled Putin’s proposal an “incredible offer.” Putin had suggested that McFaul, Browder, and a group of legislative staffers who had worked on the Magnitsky legislation be sent to Russia for “interrogation.”

 Browder reminds us that he is a British citizen and therefore not even subject to Trump’s wishes. Similar requests made to the British government of Theresa May, and David Cameron before her, were turned down immediately.

 Browder also sheds some new light on the role of Natasha Veselnitskaya — the convener of the famous Trump Tower meeting and her role as Putin’s point person within the US to work toward a repeal of the Magnitsky Act.

 Browder, who has long known Putin, talks about the Russian leader’s clear understanding of the “Deep State” and how America works, and how the former KGB agent benefits by being a “long-term player.”

 As Browder sees it, “If Putin can’t bring Russia to the level of the West, he's determined to bring the rest of the world down to the level of Russia.”

 Bill Browder is the author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice (Simon & Schuster, paperback version, October 20, 2015).

Jul 24, 2018

As Ecuador’s president, Lenin Moreno, visits London, reports indicate he is about to withdraw asylum for Julian Assange, exposing the WikiLeaks founder to eventual extradition to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act.

State Department veteran Peter van Buren joins Peter B. Collins for this Radio WhoWhatWhy interview. Acknowledging the imperfections of Assange, van Buren makes the case that Americans, and especially journalists, should support Assange’s right to publish.  

And he warns that if Assange is prosecuted, some reporters may go to jail, and others will likely self-censor to avoid that risk; the result will be more government secrecy, and denial to the public of access to important government information.

Van Buren thumbnails the history of the Pentagon Papers, characterizing the Supreme Court rulings as protection for publishers, but not leakers. He notes that the New York Times, which defied Nixon in publishing Dan Ellsberg’s leaks, has made wide use of WikiLeaks documents but doesn’t advocate strongly for the rights of Assange and his organization.  

The discussion also touches on the current case of Times reporter Ali Watkins, whose emails and phone records were seized by FBI investigators earlier this year.  

Peter van Buren served 24 years at the State Department. His first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books, August 21, 2012) , covered his one year tour in Iraq working on reconstruction projects. His most recent book is a novel about World War II Japan, Hooper’s War (Luminis Books, Inc., May 1, 2017). You can read his commentary about Assange here.  

Jul 20, 2018

Russia, Russia, Russia. Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has our gaze been so resolutely focused on the land of the Czars. And yet with all of that focus, it’s amazing how much we don’t understand about the country and its people.

Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, is suddenly front and center in the latest Trump/Putin controversy. At their recent summit, Putin is said to have made Trump an offer: The US could pose questions to Russian military intelligence figures named in Mueller indictments as alleged participants in email hacking — if Putin’s people can do the same with McFaul and Bill Browder, two well-known critics of the Russian president.

We may never know precisely what Trump and Putin discussed on the issue. On July 19, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it.” But this may change.

What we do know is that McFaul understands a great deal about Putin and Russia -- and he shares these insights with Jeff Schechtman in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.

In this interview, recorded just before he became the latest mini-star in the ongoing Russiagate saga, McFaul reminds us that, though hard to imagine these days, Russia is more than just Putin. There is a far greater diversity of thought than US media give the Russians credit for: While many may be forced to go along to get along, there are many who don’t support Putin or his approach to the world.

McFaul emphasizes the fragility of Russian society today. He explains how Putin consolidated his power while the economy was working well. But with its recent slippage, he has come to rely more on jingoistic Russian nationalism, as exemplified by his military forays into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. According to McFaul, even that's now wearing thin with the Russian people.

McFaul talks to Schechtman about Putin’s ideology what he really believes. About his conservative approach to governing, his genuine dislike for what he sees as the decadent liberal ideas of the West, and how he has given money to political organizations and NGOs around the world that support and embrace his ideology.  

McFaul says that Putin expects his struggle against the West to go on for years. At the same time, the former ambassador believes we can still engage the Russian leader on topics like arms control and even trade, as long as we always understand his motives and develop specific strategies to push back.

Finally, McFaul reminds us how much Putin’s personal philosophy has in common with the nationalist, nativist, anti-globalist desire for ethnic purity that has driven the American alt-right.

At a time when it seems that all our news about Russia is accompanied by noise and confusion, this is a calmer, more nuanced look at Putin and Russia today.

Michael McFaul is the author of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 8, 2018).

Jul 13, 2018

You may remember that back in May of 2015, senior FIFA officials were arrested on corruption charges in Zurich. Those arrests rocked the foundations of the world's most popular sport. But little did we know at the time that the case was so wide-ranging and complex that its reverberation involved the FBI, the IRS, Donald Trump, Christopher Steele, Robert Mueller, James Comey, and Vladimir Putin.

As the final of the World Cup is played in Russia this weekend, the WhoWhatWhy podcast features a conversation with investigative journalist Ken Bensinger, who spells out the 40-year history of bribery, corruption, and money laundering that has been at the heart of world-wide professional soccer.

Ken Bensinger was part of the team at BuzzFeed that uncovered the Christopher Steele dossier. He’s also become the go-to authority on the complexity of the world’s biggest sports scandal.

This week, Bensinger tells Jeff Schechtman how corruption ran unchecked for decades, until a team of investigators from the one country that cared the least about soccer stepped in to try to stop it.

He takes us up close and personal with American FIFA executive Chuck Blazer, considered the most corrupt soccer official in history. He was a friend of Donald Trump and lived on the 49th floor of Trump tower. When the IRS discovered and confronted him about not having paid taxes for 17 years, Blazer turned state's evidence against other FIFA officials.

We learn about the FBI and IRS soccer task forces. The multinational crimes unit overseen by the FBI director, at the time Robert Mueller. When the arrests were made in May 2015, it was announced by then-FBI Director James Comey.

Bensinger also tells Schechtman about how Putin became interested in wanting the 2018 World Cup, and how he enlisted oligarchs in the process. And finally how Putin’s corrupt efforts were uncovered by the British, who’d had a competing bid, and hired none other than Christopher Steele to find out what the Russians were up to.

There is a lot more to this complex global story — including heads of state, like the president of Argentina who felt soccer was more important than his government; an illegal sports book that was busted at Trump Tower; and the role of Russian organized crime. Listening to this week’s podcast is a great prelude to the World Cup final.

Ken Bensinger is the author of Red Card: How the US Blew the Whistle on the World's Biggest Sports Scandal (Simon & Schuster, June 12, 2018).

Jul 6, 2018

It sounds like it should be the beginning of a joke: A virus walks onto a plane… Only it’s not a joke. It’s how a global pandemic can start. One that could be far more immediate and deadly than our twin fears of climate change or nuclear proliferation.

The recent outbreak of Ebola in the Congo is a grim reminder not only of the 2014 West African outbreak, but of the much wider dangers of the global spread of infectious diseases diseases that know no walls, no travel bans, and respond only to medical and political competence.

The Hill’s national correspondent Reid Wilson, in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, talks to Jeff Schechtman about the very real dangers we face and how the incompetent handling of such a crisis could lead to loss of life on an unimaginable scale.

Wilson, the author of Epidemic: Ebola and the Global Scramble to Prevent the Next Killer Outbreak, takes us through the slowness of the global mobilization in 2014 and what we have since learned. It was a time when as Wilson says in parts of West Africa, it was easier to count survivors than count the dead.

Wilson explains how the World Health Organization (WHO) has learned how to better navigate global politics and local customs. As an example, 70 percent of those that had contact with dead bodies in 2014 contracted the disease; WHO learned that, in dealing with the dead, anthropology was as important as biology. In navigating behavior around the dead, respect had its own rules and customs in the developing world.

Wilson singles out Doctors Without Borders as the most heroic of the organizations that have been called upon in these global outbreaks.

We learn about the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the previous outbreak. It was an event that precipitated a major transformation of the CDC one that resulted in the CDC sending about 1,400 people to Liberia during this recent outbreak. This was a drastic improvement over past efforts where only a few CDC field operatives were mobilized. Additionally, in 2014 the CDC only had four US facilities prepared to triage highly infectious diseases, such as Ebola. Today there are over 50, at least one in every state.

Even with all the progress and lessons of the the past four years, Wilson reminds us that a strategy for dealing with a rapidly spreading and deadly disease is only as good as the weakest link in the global public health system. That no matter how much the US may want to withdraw from the world, the public health systems in countries like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone matter to us all.

Wilson reports that what keeps public health professionals up at night is the fear of a disease with the lethality of Ebola, the prevalence and transmissibility of something like Zika and one that develops enhancements for human-to-human transmission capability.

Some bird flu cases in China have already hinted at the possibility of these properties. These are diseases that could easily exceed the Ebola mortality rate of over 40 percent.

All of this is against the backdrop in the US of the Trump administration trying to claw back $250 million out of the Ebola supplemental funding bill, which was passed in 2014 and has been critical to the CDC efforts. Clearly we ignore global partnerships at our peril, especially as they involve the arena of public health. All the while the Chinese seem to be taking on greater and greater responsibility as part of their efforts to sit atop the world stage.

Jul 3, 2018

What happens when prosecutors break the law? Almost nothing.

Nina Morrison is a senior attorney with the Innocence Project in New York, and in this podcast she explains how homicide prosecutors like Glenn Kurtzrock face few consequences when caught concealing exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys. Kurtzrock who was fired by the district attorney in Suffolk County, NY, after his misconduct was exposed has never been charged with a crime, and has not faced any disciplinary action from the New York Bar Association.

Morrison explains the legal precedent of the Brady v. Maryland decision, which requires the prosecution to share all evidence in a timely manner, and how there is almost zero accountability. Morrison can claim the only known conviction of a wayward prosecutor, in a Texas case where her client spent 25 years in prison on a wrongful conviction because prosecutor Ken Anderson withheld critical evidence of the innocence of Michael Morton.

Anderson had become a judge, and was bounced from the bench and disbarred, but only served six days of an eight-day sentence in county jail.

Morrison notes that about half of 2,200 exonerations are attributed to “official misconduct,” and that many of the 28 exonerations she has won were the result of prosecutorial violations of the law.

We also discuss a powerful commentary by Frederic Block, a federal judge in Brooklyn, who is outraged not only by misconduct, but by a Supreme Court ruling in Taylor v. Kavanaugh that explicitly grants immunity to prosecutors even for “the falsification of evidence and the coercion of witnesses.”

Recently, both houses of the New York State Legislature have passed bills creating a new commission to investigate misconduct by prosecutors; it awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature.

Read Nina Morrison’s New York Times op-ed here.

Read Judge Frederic Block’s commentary here.

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).

May 25, 2018

“What would you want if you could have any wish?” asked the photojournalist of the haggard, bloodied Marine before him. The Marine gaped at his interviewer. The photographer snapped his picture, which became the iconic Korean War image.

Finally, the soldier revealed his wish: “Give me tomorrow,” he said at last.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with military historian Patrick O’Donnell, who wrote a book about the war almost a decade ago, entitled “Give Me Tomorrow,” a deeply personal look at those who served amid the extreme brutality of the Korean War. That war, fought almost 70 years ago, still echoes today.

O'Donnell tells Schechtman about the war, particularly of the horrors suffered by George Company — a group of men untrained for what they would face in the bloody Chosin Reservoir campaign. O’Donnell explains how the battle went right up to the Chinese border, and how aggressive and brutal the Chinese were in fighting alongside North Korea. He further explains how the North Korean army was in tatters, and that the Americans underestimated the possibility of a Chinese intervention. Eventually, the Chinese massed over 150,000 men near the Chosin Reservoir.

O’Donnell touches on the other epic battles of the war, and why those who came home have always been reluctant to talk about their experiences, which felt so small in the shadow of the Greatest Generation.

He explains how unprepared the US was to fight this war. How budget cuts and demilitarization after WWII left the soldiers with inferior equipment that cost many lives.

O’Donnell makes it clear that the soldiers of George Company, and particularly their performance at Chosin Reservoir, define the very essence of what we honor on Memorial Day.

Patrick O’Donnell is the author of The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home (Atlantic Monthly Press, May 22, 2018).

May 18, 2018

The recent Chinese investment in Donald Trump's hotel project in Indonesia is just one in a long string of Chinese ventures across the globe. This deal, between a Chinese state-owned company and an Indonesian developer, falls under the umbrella of China’s One Belt One Road initiative.

One Belt One Road is an ambitious effort to spread the country’s money and influence around the world. The Chinese see it as an extension of their foreign policy: projecting soft power through the financing and construction of infrastructure and other projects.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with journalist Will Doig,  who covers urban development, transportation, and infrastructure, was international editor at Next City, and wrote the weekly "Dream City" column for Salon. Doig talks in detail about China’s attempt to pull half the world into its orbit through One Belt One Road.

According to Doig, this is a kind of Chinese Marshall Plan. By lending money to other nations for once-in-a lifetime infrastructure projects, China makes these indebted nations more beholden to its wishes.

One example is the massive Southeast Asia railway project currently underway. Building the railroad through rural areas in Southeast Asia fosters urbanization along the route. The growth of these new communities creates more building and selling opportunities for China. Moreover, these are projects whose complexity requires Chinese labor, technology, and supply chains.

Doig tells Schechtman that the government of President Xi Jinping works on a very long time scale. The Chinese are happy to build cities today that may not fill up for 20 or 30 years — a time when they see themselves as the dominant power in the world.  

Doig is the author of High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia (Columbia Global Reports, May 1, 2018).

May 15, 2018

In spite of a Senate hearing in which Gina Haspel repeatedly evaded tough questions about her views on torture, it appears that she will be confirmed as the new CIA director. Enough senators were apparently mollified by her qualified assurances that there will be no more “enhanced interrogation” at the spy agency on her watch.

But John Kiriakou, who as a CIA insider exposed the original torture program in — and ironically was the only government official who went to prison over the issue — thinks that Haspel is actually a true believer in torture.

In his conversation with WhoWhatWhys Jeff Schechtman, he reminds us of all the opportunities she has had to renounce torture and the torture regime she presided over. Had she done so, Haspel could have changed her legacy, as well as the legacy of those who supported her in her efforts. But time and again she chose not to.

Kiriakou is still surprised by how few people have come forward to speak out against what happened. He believes that there are still many in the agency who want to recapture its vaunted “cowboy authority.”

Even as director of the CIA, Kiriakou says, Haspel may not be able to turn the clock back to 2001. But with Trump egging her on, anything can happen. And if the CIA does resume torture of any kind, the senators who voted for Haspel will shoulder part of the blame and should be held to account.

May 14, 2018

In 1952, in the early stages of the Korean War, North Korea accused the United States of using biological weapons a claim the US has always denied. Journalist and retired psychologist Jeffrey Kaye found a copy of a report by the International Scientific Commission on the issue, originally released in 1952. Its investigation concluded that the US used a number of biological weapons, including anthrax, plague, and cholera, and that the confessions of many captured American airmen provided confirmation.

Those confessions were characterized by the US as the result of torture and brainwashing, which Kaye now believes were exaggerated to discredit the biowarfare claims. He describes the events of March 25, 1952, when a swarm of fleas — later found to be infected with bubonic plague — was dropped from aircraft on the North Korean village of Kang-Sou.

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist and the author of Coverup at Guantánamo: The NCIS Investigation into the “Suicides of Mohammed Al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri (publisher: Jeffrey S. Kaye, PhD, 2nd edition: September 10, 2016). He has written widely about torture, asylum, and many other issues related to the US military.

Related: JFK Files Reveal US Biological War Plans Against Cuba

May 11, 2018

Globalization has created a true global middle class, brought millions out of poverty, reduced the price of goods, and created remarkable economic benefits. As an economic system, it has worked exactly as promised. On the other hand, globalism, as a political idea, has been a dismal failure. This is according to Eurasian Group CEO and global analyst Ian Bremmer.

In his conversation with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about what connects so many of the global problems we face today, Bremmer makes the case that democracy, plus technology, plus political globalism simply can't work. The West’s existing institutions cannot cope with huge amounts of wealth concentration, technology, big data, and artificial intelligence. According to Bremmer we need look no further than Trump, Brexit, and recent European elections for proof.  

As counterexamples, he cites Japan and Israel. Each has, in different ways, walled itself off, maintained homogeneity, and either rejected or blocked immigrants. As a result, each has been far more successful than Western democracies in negotiating the perils of the global age. Japan, he points out, made a conscious decision to trade slower growth for more “us” and no “them.”

Adding to the global unease is the rise of China. An authoritarian capitalist state, China is thriving in the global age — so much so that its leaders are offering its economic success as a model to the world. Bremmer notes that with all these challenges, the US could not have picked a worse time to precipitate an “America First” crisis of confidence.

Ian Bremmer is the author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalization (Penguin Audio, April 24, 2018);  Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (Penguin Audio,  May 19, 2015); Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World (Co-authored with Willis Sparks) (Gildan Media, LLC, May 1, 2012).

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