Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Q&A Peter Kramer

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe,

By Harvey Blume

When I phoned Peter Kramer recently to talk about his new book, "Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind," he said the volume represented his "most negative" encounter yet in a "lifelong series of encounters" with the work of Sigmund Freud. Given Kramer's knack for summing up and helping to shape the zeitgeist -- as demonstrated by his 1993 bestseller "Listening To Prozac" -- a negative report from him is not good news for 21st-century Freudianism.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Q&A Henry Louis Gates Jr.

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., the head of Harvard's African-American studies department, was hobbling around on crutches in the aftermath of leg surgery when he invited me into his Cambridge house last week. I was there to discuss "The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin," the new scholarly edition that he and Johns Hopkins University's Hollis Robbins prepared for W.W. Norton. 

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Q&A Bill Moyers

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

 By Harvey Blume

THE TELEPHONE ISN'T my favorite means of communicating," Bill Moyers noted, after scheduling conflicts compelled us to speak by phone. "I like to see the other person's face."

That gave me insight into the sometimes alarmingly intent expression Moyers wears in the PBS interviews he's been doing for more than 30 years: He's not merely listening, but studying his interviewee, trying to take in the whole person.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Q&A with Niall Ferguson

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

WHEN THE Glasgow-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and I got together in his office last week, he asked if he might prepare tea before we launched into a discussion of his new book, "The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West."

Gracious as the offer was, in England, where Ferguson, 42, spends part of the year as an Oxford research fellow (he's also a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and the Los Angeles Times), he is known less for his disarmingly good manners than for inciting controversy. In "The Pity of War: Explaining World War I" (1998), he proposed that the 20th century would have been less murderous had Germany won the First World War--a thesis that could easily irk an Englishman. In "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire" (2004), and in numerous newspaper pieces, he challenges Americans to rethink their place in the world.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Marshall Berman: On the Town

Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report
Date Approximate

On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, by Marshall Berman
Random House; 304 pp.; $25

Harvey Blume New York

For Bronx-born and raised Marshall Berman, New York's fabled Times Square was home away from home during his teen years in the 1950s. He's maintained ties to the area since. Now sporting the official title of Distinguished Professor of Political Science at City College, he has teaching responsibilities that regularly bring him to City College's midtown campus, only blocks from the Square. And he'd be the first to acknowledge that his youthful experiences in the Square helped direct him toward his lifelong study of city life.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

George Soros Q&A

First appeared in the Boston Globe

By Harvey Blume

"I GOT LOST in philosophical abstractions," writes 75-year-old billionaire philanthropist George Soros, about his attempt, decades ago, to compose a philosophical treatise. "I decided to quit and devote myself to making money." 

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Arthur Kleinman Q&A

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe

By Harvey Blume

"AFTER ALL THESE YEARS of being a psychiatrist, and anthropologist, what have you learned that's useful for living?" That's the question Arthur Kleinman, a professor of anthropology at Harvard and a former chair of the department, challenged himself to address in his new, plainspoken, and engaging book, "What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger" (Oxford).

Kleinman, now 65 years old and still, despite the often somber tone of the book, hale and hearty, has had an influential career as a psychiatrist, teacher, researcher, and writer. His book "The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing and the Human Condition" (1988), now standard fare in medical curriculums, is a defining text of medical anthropology, a field that uses anthropological methods to study the social and cultural elements of disease.

In "The Illness Narratives" Kleinman insists that it isn't enough for physicians to master the relevant biology, especially when treating chronic illness. Chronic diseases, he wrote, "by definition cannot be cured," and to effect even "modest improvement," a doctor must appreciate the psychological and social components of the ailment. It is in part due to Kleinman's efforts that the idea of healing--alongside the more traditional notion of curing--has gained a foothold in the medical establishment.

The new book broadens the scope of Kleinman's earlier work by asking the same kinds of questions about human life as a whole that he had previously asked about illness per se. Given that most of us are bound to experience, "some kind of health catastrophe near the close of our lives, if not sooner," what, he asks, makes for a good life, a meaningful life? To find answers, Kleinman mines his own experience and that of eight other people--a disparate group that includes a New York City sanitation worker, an Israeli kibbutznik, and an English psychologist who treated soldiers shell-shocked during World War I. What he values in these cases is people's efforts to act ethically in the midst of suffering and adversity.

When I met with Kleinman in his office at Harvard's William James Hall, I opined that "What Really Matters" was obviously not written with the youth market in mind.

KLEINMAN: You have to be of a certain age, to travel through dark periods. I've spent my whole career working on suffering, so it's not that I'm unfamiliar with it. And I've had some diseases--asthma, for example, hypertension--but they never affected me the way my wife's neuro-degenerative disease, which has ruined her vision, affected me. The book was written during a stage of my life that was--that is--difficult.

IDEAS: The book is in some ways a critique of language, isn't it? You make a point of trying to clear the air of the medical language that obscures what you see as the basic realities of human life.

KLEINMAN: There are key psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and depression, but I'm very concerned about people who have ordinary unhappiness, or have experienced a catastrophe, or just bad luck, and are renamed depressed or having an anxiety disorder. That's happening in a big way right now. I'm concerned about taking ordinary life, stripping it of its moral content, and making it over into a disease.

IDEAS: Are you still a practicing psychiatrist?

KLEINMAN: I stopped practicing about six years ago. But I had 25 years of practice and saw thousands of cases. I saw many people in psychotherapy and also used psychopharmacology. It's precisely because I believe in the seriousness of mental illness that I've been concerned about medicalization, remaking the normal into the abnormal.

IDEAS: Why is this happening?

KLEINMAN: There's a hyping not just of psychiatry, but all of medicine. This has come out of the medical-industrial complex, and the need to get medicine the resources and support it needs, for research, among other things. I'm all for medical research--but not the hyping. The other day I received a solicitation from a medical foundation, and was surprised by the first sentence, which said: "Imagine a world free of disease." That's inhuman! There can't be a world free of disease. Disease is part of what life is about.

By the time you get to be my age, in the middle of your seventh decade, you're going to realize that just about every family is going to deal with a social or health catastrophe. That's not something people have been prepared for. It's grim. But the grimness is made over by religion, aesthetics, ethics, into something that makes life meaningful.

IDEAS: One of the key figures in the book is Winthrop Cohen, a hero of World War II in the Pacific, who came to you in his 60s, some years ago, and was depressed. But didn't you, when you looked over your notes more recently, conclude that by calling him depressed you were missing something essential?

KLEINMAN: I missed the moral statement. Here was a decorated solder, who had, in his own words, been turned into a killer, committing several atrocities. The worst was that he'd killed an unarmed Japanese doctor who had been treating Japanese wounded. Think of how hard it is for a guy who's been treated as a hero to say, "I killed a doctor up close, who looked in my eyes, and made me feel I was a real killer." There are some things you can't say.

The rest of his life was an encounter with that atrocity, a constant attempt to deal with it, and finally, a kind of giving up. That produced a very severe clinical depression. But the clinical depression was in the context of the tragedy. And maybe the illness, the fact that he really did become depressed, allowed him to speak.

IDEAS: You stress the importance of ethics to meaningful life--the need to resist local norms, go against the flow. But whether you're writing about Winthrop Cohen, or a survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or a humanitarian worker in Africa, or telling your own story, what comes out is how hard it is be ethical, how many gray areas there are.

KLEINMAN: The best most of us, me included, can do, is less than heroic. Most of us are caught in situations in our work, in our institutions, maybe even in our families, where part of us is a collaborator. Periodically, we make a decision to stand up for something. How do we do that? I don't have the answers. I'm just saying that in looking at people over the course of my life I'm astonished to see that most of us try to build this ethical part of our lives.

DEAS: How important is guilt to ethical behavior?

KLEINMAN: It is important to the moral imagination. It makes us unpack ourselves, be critical of ourselves, and begin to step out of ourselves. It helps us imagine what it would be like to be in the other person's shoes.

IDEAS: Can you give me an example of ethical behavior from your own life?

KLEINMAN: I'll never forget this. I was sent by the NIH to a medical research unit in Taiwan during the Vietnam War. I was odd man out because I was from the NIH. The worst the captain who ran the place could do to me was send me back to Bethesda, Maryland. Navy doctors could be sent to the boonies in Vietnam with a Marine battalion. So no one ever spoke up, except for me.

We had a neurosurgeon who was comparing the Korean War to Vietnam, and said: "We've made incredible gains in neurosurgery. Today we can keep a soldier alive who's got half a brain." I remember him saying that, exactly. So I raised my hand and said, "Well, maybe preventive medicine would be better." Everyone looked at me. If I was a Navy physician, I wouldn't have said that.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Q&A Jaron Lanier

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe,

By Harvey Blume

EVER SINCE musician, writer, and technological visionary Jaron Lanier coined the term "virtual reality" in the early 1980s, and headed up efforts to implement the idea, he's been a member of the digerati in excellent standing. But he's an anxious member, known to raise alarms about just those big ideas and grand ambitions of the computer revolution that happen to excite the most enthusiasm among his peers. That was the case with his contrarian essay, "One Half of a Manifesto," in 2000. He's done it again in a new piece, "Digital Maoism," which has roiled the Internet since it was posted at edge.org on May 30.

In "One Half of a Manifesto," Lanier attacked what he dubbed "cybernetic totalism," an overweening intellectual synthesis in which mind, brain, life itself, and the entire physical universe are viewed as machines of a kind, controlled by processes not unlike those driving a computer. This digital-age "dogma," he argued, got a boost from the era's new and "overwhelmingly powerful technologies," which also obscured the dangers inherent in totalist thinking. People who would steer clear of Marxism, for example, might fall for an even more grandiose world view if it had digital cachet.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Simon Schama Q&A

First appeared in the Boston Globe
By Harvey Blume 

"I'M A TOTAL OUTSIDER to American history." That's how Simon Schama, the British born and educated historian, who has been teaching at Columbia University since 1993, described himself to me when the tour for his new book, "Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution," brought him to Boston. It's true that none of Schama's varied writings--on art (he was an art critic for The New Yorker from 1995 to 1998), art history, and British, French, and Dutch history--have homed in on America. But that seems to have worked to Schama's advantage.

In "Rough Crossings" he approaches the story of slavery during the Revolutionary War with fresh eyes, and restores to its proper place a significant aspect of the tale that has been omitted from standard accounts. In brief: Tens of thousands of slaves fled Southern plantations during the war, making their way to British lines and taking up arms against their old masters.

For them, Britain represented the possibility of abolition, whereas American independence signified the certainty of ongoing slavery. Britain encouraged blacks to think this way. For one thing, there were genuine abolitionists in London, and many slaves, for all that their masters tried to keep them ignorant, were aware of them. Furthermore, it gave Britain a polemical advantage to accuse American patriots, for all their talk of freedom, of being hypocrites, wedded to a barbaric institution.

Britain thought drawing slaves to its side would materially weaken and thus discourage the patriot cause. As it happens, the opposite occurred. Slave owners identified Britain with the slave rebellions already raging in the Caribbean, which prompted them to fight all the more wholeheartedly for American independence.

One of the virtues of Schama's book is that it portrays blacks as agents of their own history. Aware of slave rebellions further south, revolutionary activity around them, antislavery stirrings in London courts and Parliament, they tried to thread their own way toward freedom.

IDEAS: What was the source of your interest in what became "Rough Crossings"?

IDEAS:I've lived almost half my life here, and half there, and wanted to do some sort of Anglo-American work. I remember going to the memorial services for the British victims of 9/11--incredibly heartbreaking--in New York. There were the two flags, and the great and good on both sides, Rudolph Giuliani, Tony Blair. I thought: It's time to do an Anglo-American book, and don't do it in a way that is a piece of sentimental garbage.

I always thought if I do the Anglo-American book, it would be a book of arguments, where you find out, almost in the Jewish sense, what links you through argument rather than through vague exchange of compliments. So I thought, why not write about post-divorce custodial disputes: Who owns the bragging rights to freedom? And then I found that there was in fact a slave who had escaped, fought for Britain, and renamed himself British Freedom.

IDEAS: How well known was this material?

IDEAS:It's been known for a while, but there's a peculiar reluctance to integrate it into the central narrative of the founding of the nation.

IDEAS: What did you add?

IDEAS:Almost nothing.

IDEAS: You brought it into the mainstream?

IDEAS:Right. When I started writing about this, I went to people like my Columbia colleague Eric Foner, and asked: Is this is bringing coal to Newcastle? They said, absolutely not: Do it.

IDEAS: Why is this story not better known?

IDEAS:A lot of the problem had to do with how much had to ride on the ability of the African-American community to demonstrate it had fought patriotically in the Revolutionary War. Tragically, the other part of the story was simply erased. It was a loser's story. It didn't help anybody's cause. So it is remarkable to find people like Frederick Douglass being absolutely aware of that history.

IDEAS: One thing I learned from the book is that there was a sort of global black network of intelligence back before even a black historian like W.E.B. Dubois, in "Black Reconstruction," assumed it existed, and that the network was attuned to both London and the Caribbean.

IDEAS:You have to piece it together. It's absolutely electrifying when you do indeed find advertisements in the Virginia Gazette by slave owners--who have no reason to say this unless they think it's true--to the effect that their slaves have gone over to the British in the deluded belief that because of the Somerset case in London [a ruling against slavery in England] they were going to be free.

We're in a kind of Ralph Ellison invisible man world here, where blacks supposedly don't have heads and faces and ears and eyes. On the other hand, the most sensitive thinkers--like the Adamses--knew blacks were going to be thinking and talking and it might have consequences. It's John Adams who says the Negroes have a remarkable way of communicating intelligence, and that news flies from place to place.

IDEAS: Sometimes, in "Rough Crossings," it seems you're on a bit too intimate of terms with your characters. And you seem to know a bit too much about the weather in 1776, or how the waves looked on the Atlantic.

IDEAS:As far as weather goes, Henry Lawrence writes about weather to his brother John every single day.

IDEAS: Still, you do have a novelist's sort of intimacy with what goes on.

IDEAS:That's true. I do try imaginatively to offer a thickly vivid sense of what it was like. If you know my work, you know I'm not very good at distance.

I'm not comparing myself, God knows, to Tolstoy, but I was very struck by his calculated rejection of any introductory apparatus to "War and Peace." The book famously begins with a half sentence of dialogue, as if there's a window through which the reader could climb into actual events. I love the possibility of actually starting in medias res, which my discovery of the slave called British Freedom, with whom I begin the book, allowed me to do.

I've wanted to write something that was clearly a historical novel, but haven't had the time to do it yet. I have a story. Bad luck to tell you about it.

IDEAS: You're English, but may have changed for good the way Americans, black and white, tell the story of slavery.

IDEAS:It's a painful thing to take on board that in the deep defining moment when a nation comes into being, it comes into being with this birthmark on it.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. 

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Q&A David Milch

First appeared in the Boston Globe.
By Harvey Blume

Few people credit heroin, rather than, say, Jesus, for giving them a new lease on life. But when award-winning television writer David Milch ("Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue," "Deadwood") spoke at MIT earlier this month, he avowed that exchanging the various "experiments in psychopharmacology" he had been conducting on himself for a heroin habit was nothing less than life-saving. 

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Kara Walker Q&A

First appeared in the Boston Globe

By Harvey Blume  

THE CURRENT DIVERGENCE of opinion about African-American artist Kara Walker dates back at least to 1997, when, at the age of 28, she won a MacArthur "genius" award for work with what she calls the "second-class" medium of silhouettes, a medium that in the 19th century was reserved primarily for women and children. Some compare Walker's silhouettes (and, more recently, gouaches and video) to Goya--others refer to Uncle Tom. Cultural conservatives scorn her as just the sort of politically correct, aesthetically negligible poseur the art market loves.

Monday, March 6, 2006

Q&A Alan Dershowitz

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

"HISTORY ISN'T a court of law"--or so I insisted to Alan Dershowitz last week in a conference room at Harvard Law School. Dershowitz didn't strenuously argue the point, as I expected. He gave no sign of turning into the firebrand his wife calls "the Dersh character," famous for sarcasm and bad manners in public disputations. The Alan Dershowitz I met smiled graciously, and waited for me to go on.

I did so by referring to the comparison he made in "Chutzpah" (1991) between Palestinian refugees and city dwellers forced to relocate by the ordinary processes of urban renewal. Whatever weird sense that might make in some court of law, I said, it made no sense when it came to the dynamics of history. Dershowitz agreed, surprisingly, informing me that he'd learned a lot about Palestinian suffering since "Chutzpah," and that he has always opposed Israeli occupation of the West Bank and supported a two-state solution.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Q&A Christopher Lydon: Signal and noise

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

By Harvey Blume

"MY BUBBLE never burst," Chris Lydon exclaimed over coffee last week in Harvard Square, just around the corner from the WGBH studio where he hosts "Open Source," his new, Internet-savvy public radio talk show.

When we met, Lydon argued passionately for what he sees as the vast, bubble-proof potential of the Internet. I'd heard talk like that before, had talked that way myself in the '90s. But Lydon made his case earnestly and energetically enough for me to want to reexamine the skepticism I had acquired since.

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Q&A Todd Gitlin: Patriot acts

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe

The onetime president of SDS calls on liberals of his generation to embrace an older form of patriotism

By Harvey Blume

IN 1963, Todd Gitlin was president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main vehicle for student activism during the '60s. Gitlin's landmark account of those years, "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" (1987), along with seven other books--including his 1999 novel, "Sacrifice"--and innumerable shorter pieces, constitute engagé writing at its best. What you get from Gitlin is the convergence of a deep political culture with a sharp sense of urgency.