Open Source with Christopher Lydon

Christopher Lydon in conversation on arts, ideas and politics


  • COVID in India

    May 07 2021

    The humbling of India, the torment of India, is full of messages for the rest of us. Beware the second wave of the pandemic: that’s the one that has turned India’s boastful first round into a hellish reprise. India the pharmaceutical giant, and exporter of vaccines, claimed last winter to have “saved humanity” from COVID. Come spring, India is suddenly the epicenter of the virus. It’s run out of vaccines, also life-saving oxygen. And the new cases of COVID in India are running at 400,000 a day. ...more

  • Armenia in History and the Heart

    Apr 29 2021

    Where is Armenia, the place, the idea? Where then? Where now? And how come the delight on top of the darkness in saying “I am Armenian”? Armenians were a tiny, ancient Indo-European people, between East and West, the first Christian nation, when Turkey wiped most of them off the map in 1915. It was the twentieth century’s grotesque model of mass slaughter of a people, a genocide by any measure. Yet there the Armenians are today—6, 7, maybe 8 million people in 80 countries of the world: a l...more

  • The Free World

    Apr 22 2021

    Recovery and renewal arrived on a flood tide that lifted all kinds of production—culture above all. This was the era that gave the world a new look: tail fins on new cars, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, new sounds like Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.  New films like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause, and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” Jack Kerouac had a hit with On the Road; he said: the “beat” in Beat poetry meant “sympathetic,” and now we g...more

  • Bidenomics

    Apr 16 2021

    Bidenomics is different, we are beginning to notice. Just keeping score in the trillions of dollars takes some getting used to. But some key rules have changed, too. Modern Monetary Theory holds that even massive borrowing at very low interest rates is almost free. The debt will be rolled over anyway, not paid back. So why not Go Big in Building Back Better? Inequality has been recognized as a deadly disease, to be treated by politics as well as policy. That’s new. Economics, on its recent recor...more

  • The Life of Roth

    Apr 08 2021

    Philip Roth, the late novelist, may hold the record for “most ways to tell his own story,” in fiction and fact; in his psychiatric farce around a boy’s solo sex in Portnoy’s Complaint, then a tender meditation on the making of an artist in The Ghost Writer, plus barely veiled memoirs of two miserable marriages, then epic fiction in American Pastoral and his counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America. Thirty-one books in all. What more was there for a biographer to reveal except that the Phil...more

  • We’ll Always Have Casablanca

    Apr 01 2021

    You must remember this, the song says. In fact, it’s hard to forget at Oscar time every April, that Casablanca, the Best Picture of 1942, was an all-time pinnacle of black-and-white Hollywood. To this day, it’s the whole world’s favorite American movie, for so many odd reasons — like the love triangle that ends unhappily, with Humphrey Bogart walking away with a French policeman and the incandescent Ingrid Bergman arm-in-arm with her tiresome hero, not her lover. See it again, and it’s bet...more

  • Back to School

    Mar 25 2021

    The public schools that are reopening this spring are not the same ones that shut down in the COVID cloud a year ago. “Learning in person” is back, yes, in the close company of teachers and other kids. But remote screen teaching, virtual education that ZOOMed in COVID time may be more entrenched than ever. Perhaps never again will you know an American school kid without a computer connection, with anything less than full Google access. Which is to say that Silicon Valley is on virtually every sc...more

  • Wagner and Wagnerism

    Mar 18 2021

    This show originally aired on September 17, 2020. Richard Wagner, man and musician, was the embodiment of excess—too much of a good thing if you loved him, something worse if you didn’t. Those weren’t just operas he was writing, but total works of art: multi-media folklore festivals, orgies of mind-bending sound, frenzied and addictive. It took him 25 years to compose his Ring cycle, and it takes a long weekend of late nights to perform it. For the World War II generations, it ruined Wagner f...more

  • The CRISPR Challenge

    Mar 11 2021

    The CRISPR challenge is back—first to grasp, then how to apply the biggest scientific breakthrough of our century so far. You remember CRISPR: nature’s own repair kit, guarding your genetic code, cell by cell, tuning up your DNA. Biologists had learned before CRISPR how to read the coded map of genes that make you a one-of-a-kind human being. What CRISPR shows them is how to write the code, as well, and rewrite yours, for this lifetime and all the generations that come after you. Then come the q...more

  • Plague Year Two

    Mar 04 2021

    We labeled it the Plague Year even before we began living it. The news last March came with medieval and bubonic overtones of catastrophe. A virus bearing down on the whole planet’s human population is still a shock and surprise, no matter that it had been forecast. One year in, it lives up to its grim billing. Two and a half million deaths worldwide, half a million in the U.S. It’s a $16 trillion virus, counting medical costs and opportunities lost. It’s been a stress test on this very social s...more

  • Billie Holiday at 100

    Feb 25 2021

    This show first aired July 30, 2015. The astonishment about Billie Holiday in her 100th birthday summer is how differently we hear her. Back in the day — in her music, in her autobiography — Lady Day was the full catalog of suffering in a 20th-century underground: abandonment and child prostitution on the way to drink, drug addiction, and death at 44. “The most hurt and hurting singer in jazz,” said the authoritative Nat Hentoff. But resurrection in art jumps out of the soundtrack here — starti...more

  • Write Like the Russians

    Feb 18 2021

    The invitation this hour, or maybe the dream, is to learn how to write short stories with the poignancy and power of the old Russian Masters, and how to become better versions of ourselves in the process. Anton Chekhov is our model writer; the modern American master George Saunders is our model reader and teacher, condensing his famous course for aspiring writers at Syracuse University. The Saunders idea—not quite a promise—is that Dr. Chekhov’s stories expand us morally. Follow his tricks and t...more

  • Malcolm X in Boston and Beyond

    Feb 11 2021

    This show first aired on February 13, 2020. The life of Malcolm X is the classic hero’s journey, in a setting we almost know: a story of anointment, dedication, fate, faith, family, incredible risk and reversals.  There was spontaneous poetry in it, enough sin to make salvation real, and redemption before an early, ugly death – all of it brilliantly told in an autobiography that wasn’t entirely Malcolm’s composition.  The question is about the dateline of the life: whether the core ...more

  • Market Mania

    Feb 04 2021

    Casino capitalism is the polite old phrase for the rigged game of high finance. Shark tank frenzy is a better fit for the action on Wall Street this winter. You notice in the GameStop trading war that the mighty sharks and the vampire squid are billed in the big press as the good guys, the last hope of order in the rising chaos. But you also learn that those upstart little sharks who claim to be good guys—opening up a democracy of investment, brandishing names like Robinhood, but labeled as “fou...more

  • Presidential Poetry

    Jan 28 2021

    Amanda Gorman did more than steal the show, more than capture Joe Biden’s inaugural moment. She may have opened a new road in poetry as well as politics with her ode to “a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.” For showing what public poetry could do there was never a day quite like it, and nobody quite like the “skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,” as she said, “who could dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one.” The l...more

  • Moral Prophecy

    Jan 22 2021

    Thomas Jefferson said: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” That is eighteenth-century American language for an intuition that never quite dies – the idea that people and nations are accountable sooner or later, that politics is not just “who gets what,” but a moral drama of right and wrong, rewards and punishments often hidden in the news cycle. God doesn’t have a speaking part in our pragmatic public culture, but still we want judgment. Hemingway’s line was that “what is...more

  • The Abyss

    Jan 14 2021

    The omens are powerful and clear for the American future—that is, for a reputedly sane and stable multi-racial democracy. It’s just that the two auguries of January 6 cut both ways and collide head on. First was the news that Georgia in a close vote had just elected two Democrats who will tip the balance of the US Senate: a black preacher, in the Atlanta lineage of Martin Luther King Jr., and a 33-year-old white Jewish film producer, who’ll be the first millennial in the Senate. Hours later came...more

  • St. Louis Blues

    Jan 07 2021

    The city of St. Louis is the story of this hour. At the heart of North America, where the great Missouri River joins the Mississippi, it was the gateway to Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase—to Indian territory, the fur trade, the buffalo, the plains, and all the minerals below—redefined in the 1800s as the American West. The World’s Fair of 1904 made St. Louis a monument to American progress. It included a village of Filipinos captured by the young US empire in East Asia. Henry James came ho...more

  • Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach

    Dec 31 2020

    This show first aired on May 21, 2020. The force of art to rescue a world breaking down; the power of music in particular to heal people one by one, perhaps all together: this was Yo-Yo Ma’s breathtaking mission for himself in his 60s, to nail down the convictions that have sustained his humble self at the very pinnacle of major-league music. His project, nearly finished, was to do 36 concerts in 36 venues, from the top of the world in the Andes, to the street music scene in Dakar, West Afric...more

  • Greta Gerwig Meets Louisa May Alcott

    Dec 24 2020

    This show originally aired January 23, 2020. In the Oscar-excitement around the new Little Women, director Greta Gerwig has a note for all of us: her hero at the party is still the woman who wrote the book a hundred and fifty years ago. Louisa May Alcott was the real thing: a bolder, braver character than the version of herself called Jo. She was the strongest abolitionist in the Alcott family; her precocious writing paid the family bills, as father did not. In book and movie papa Bronson go...more

  • The Joy and Genius of Erroll Garner

    Dec 17 2020

    Erroll Garner, the jazz pianist, is undergoing an upward revaluation of the sort that artists dream of: a reputational transition forty-some years after he died. In his time, mid-twentieth century, Erroll Garner was a pop star on records and concert stages worldwide. He could make the piano sound like a big band, or an orchestra; and he composed enchanting new music on the fly. It was tune-centered, accessible—danceable, even. Label it easy jazz, if you weren’t listening too carefully. In the lo...more

  • The mRNA Story

    Dec 10 2020

    mRNA is the bright spark in a disaster year still darkening under the surge of COVID deaths and new cases. mRNA is the messenger molecule with news of help on the way. It’s described as fast, fragile, unstable, short-lived, compared to DNA, but it delivers the code that makes the protein that animates every cell of life on earth. And now it’s been given a therapeutic mission. For cells under attack by a virus, it turns out mRNA has a way of delivering repair instructions and cranking up a flood ...more

  • Empire in Denial

    Dec 03 2020

    It’s not just Joe Biden under pressure in the post-Trump transition. It’s the American way in the world, the mindset of a global enforcer. Stephen Wertheim is our guest: a remarkable young historian with a concise and talkable take on the 80-year run of a world empire in denial. Before the fall of France in 1940, global primacy was not on the US agenda, maybe not in our DNA. But supremacy became the goal and then the reality when President Roosevelt took on the Hitler emergency in World War 2. I...more

  • Documenting Democracy: Fred Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’

    Nov 20 2020

    What Fred Wiseman found in Boston City Hall is not what he was looking for.  The master of documentary film is famous for his almost innocent camera eye that unlocks visual drama in big institutions — the New York Public Library, the Paris Opera, or in his early days: Bridgewater State Mental Hospital in 1960s Massachusetts. So why not finally get inside the modern brick and concrete fortress of official life in his hometown, and see what’s going on in the faces, the meeting rooms, the tone...more

  • Election Disconnection

    Nov 12 2020

    Call it a four-year try-out we’ve just been through of strong-man, one-man politics.  The election put it to a vote, and the country said: enough for now, but not quite No. The USA didn’t so much split down the middle as declare itself two states, of mind and geography, red and blue, or maybe three: Atlantic, Pacific and Farmland, with the next round in doubt. We feel saved, in some sense, but not cured or redeemed. So we do what you do: enlist the soundest of our friends and keep t...more

  • The Soul of Care

    Nov 06 2020

    This show originally broadcast February 20, 2020. Arthur Kleinman is a name that comes up again and again when you search around our big college town of Boston / Cambridge for people asking the great human questions, about our lived experience — about our inner and outer lives, secret lives, soul lives, and also about our vulnerabilities, our pain, and endurance. Dr. Kleinman is an M.D. psychiatrist who’s played anthropologist, too, in Chinese medicine, but he saved his best work and bi...more

  • COVID on the Ballot

    Oct 29 2020

    COVID, COVID, COVID, all you hear is COVID, the man tweeted, but how could it not be tagged as the COVID election in the plague year 2020? COVID has its place in history now: it’s the $16 trillion virus, and it’s having its second outbreak in the White House, and the country, as the voting gets underway. COVID, striking blindly, managed to read us better than we read the dangers – the danger of death, in the hundreds of thousands in the US by now, and lasting damage, too. It’s testing the idea o...more

  • JFK in the American Century

    Oct 22 2020

    A bold new life of JFK cues Emerson’s line: “there is no history, only biography,” particularly when the life of a man and the American Century roll out together. John F. Kennedy was born – April 1917 – just days from the U.S. entry into World War One, one day after Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in Petersburg to start a revolution. August 1939, young Kennedy, princely & curious, turned up in Berlin, a week before Hitler invaded Poland. As a Harvard senior, he wrote himself a bestselle...more

  • The Upswing

    Oct 15 2020

    Here’s the good news about the awful condition we’re in, from one of the great American people-watchers, Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame: it’s that we’ve been here before. “Unprecedented” is the wrong tag on this crisis of 2020, Bob Putnam says: 2020 is more like a hindsight mirror on the Gilded Age, that Mark Twain mocked post-Civil War: the age of gaudy monopoly fortunes, popular pessimism, unfairness to freed slaves and to women, scandalous politics up to the...more

  • Green New Generation

    Oct 08 2020

    The other historic 2020 political contest began in a hallway outside Speaker Pelosi’s office just two years ago. Not along party lines, oddly enough. The language was incendiary, but Donald Trump wasn’t there and didn’t much care. “We are angry,” said the 24 -year-old Varshini Prakash for the newborn Sunrise Movement, “angry at the cowardice of our leaders at a time when courage is needed most.” For the Democrats in Congress not to have a plan to save the underpinnings of human life, she declare...more

  • The Confidence Man

    Oct 01 2020

    From that food-fight of an un-presidential debate, the last month of the 2020 campaign is about democracy itself, in danger: reduced now to slanging between “this clown” and that “fool,” as they said of one another. It’s about democracy as E. B. White defined it immortally during World War II: “the line that forms on the right”; “the don’t in don’t shove”; “the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trick...more

  • Warped Speed

    Sep 24 2020

    The “warp speed” race for a COVID vaccine is a sort of lesson in bio-capitalism under pressure, as well as in pandemic politics. The vaccine tracker in the New York Times online charts almost 100 companies and teams, like horses in the Derby, testing 40 vaccines now on human beings, many more on animals. Real insiders follow company chances on the stock market. President Trump had hoped out loud for a certified “winner” by election day, or the end of the year. It’s Big Pharma, for a ...more

  • Look on the Blyth Side

    Sep 10 2020

    Mark Blyth is stumped. He’s the people’s economist who speaks the people’s language through his thick working-class Scottish accent. He hasn’t gone silent in the pandemic ruins of our prosperity. He’s as noisy as ever, but he’s dumbfounded by his adopted people, us American people who can’t see the trouble we’re in. The hardship of the pandemic is real and unfair, he’s saying, and the problem is obvious and deep: that forty million Americans don’t have enough to eat, at the same time our b...more

  • The Neuro-Adventures of Oliver Sacks

    Sep 03 2020

    This week, we’re replaying the conversation with Lawrence Weschler about his friend Oliver Sacks (it first aired on October 10, 2019). Oliver Sacks was the beloved doctor of strong souls in afflicted bodies. He was a neurologist with an eye for the invisible, the medical detective who found himself addicted to his patients in the back wards and to writing about them. Most famous of all was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a classic Sacks title. And now, four year after his death, we...more

  • The Unmaking of America

    Aug 27 2020

    Did you believe the investor Warren Buffett (net worth $80 billion) when he let down his guard a bit and said, “There’s class warfare, all right . . . and it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” That was years ago, and he sounded almost embarrassed, but the war went on and the unhappy end of it may be near. Kurt Anderson’s 40-year scorecard makes it a wipeout for wage workers, and the birth of a tiny wealth class that owns enough of the country now to control it. Yo...more

  • Moby-Dick in 2020

    Aug 20 2020

    Here’s why we read Moby-Dick—for the first time? for the eleventh time?— because it’s the Great American Novel about now, in 2020 more than ever. The giant fish story from Herman Melville in 1850 holds a mirror up to our reality. Reality, of course, keeps changing, but so does that mirror and what you can see in it. Before the Civil War, when Melville wrote Moby-Dick, you saw shadows of slavery on a free society; in World War One, it was about merchant empires crashing. In the Cold War reading, ...more

  • Casino Capital

    Aug 13 2020

    Enjoy our casino show, which first aired on July 11, 2019. Casino gambling makes an odd fit with old bean-and-codfish Boston, even with Boston today: the best big college town in the country, the leading edge of genomic medicine, the home address of sports champions and Red Sox Nation. And now it’s the home of Encore Boston Harbor, in the Steve Wynn chain of casino resorts. It’s an odd fit with the whole country, when you think about it: the licensed elevation of what used to be forbidden,...more

  • American Autocracy

    Aug 06 2020

    The late innings of Donald Trump’s four-year campaign in the White House come to look stranger than the big-league baseball season—both of which are in the deep shadow of the pandemic (13 St. Louis Cardinals tested positive this week). It’s the president who has to answer for a thousand COVID deaths a week in midsummer U.S.; China has next to none. Another president might wilt at the breaking of his boom economy, or the prosecution coming from Manhattan on charges of bank and tax fraud in the Tr...more

  • Nicholson Baker Searches for Secrets

    Jul 30 2020

    Nicholson Baker, prose writer beyond category, has a new book for COVID time, speaking directly to the dread of weaponized biology as only Nick Baker could treat it, in history and in his head. This is the same Nick Baker who wrote Vox, the phone-sex novel that Monica Lewinsky presented to Bill Clinton; the same Nick Baker who knocked Winston Churchill off a pedestal, and got away with it, in a pacifist’s retelling of World War 2 as an orgy of imperial killing: Human Smoke, he called it. It’s th...more

  • The Next Generation

    Jul 23 2020

    Everybody knows the force of Black Lives Matter by now; many millions have been touched directly. But what do you know about Sisters Unchained, or Families for Justice as Healing, or Say Her Name, or the Muslim Justice League? First thing you learn about the smaller causes is that their cadres all know one another. Second, that BLM would not have saturated the protest space coast-to-coast in the US without tentacles of kinship and vision linking legions of local organizers. Among their bonding ...more

  • A Public Conversation Gone Sour

    Jul 16 2020

    The All-American Thinking Class is beside itself: under pressure inside and out. It is a target already in Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, for lock-step conformity, he says, against “our magnificent liberty.” But the intelligentsia has its own nasty family fight going on inside—at the “woke” edge of liberal tradition. It’s about the authority to hire professors, fire editors, publish books, promote rising talent or see it cancelled, the Twitter-mob way. No, culture war is not a killer on th...more

  • Reparations and the Wealth Gap

    Jul 09 2020

    Forty acres and a mule was the promise made to black slaves, even before the Civil War was over. General Sherman of the Union Army drew up the plan, and Congress took a good look. The price-tag in 1865 would have been roughly $400-million; by today, the black stake in land ownership would have grown ten-thousand-fold by compound interest to several trillion dollars. But the promise, you know, was never kept. As Ida B. Wells put it later, emancipation “left us free, but it also left us home...more

  • Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

    Jul 02 2020

    This week, we revisit our 2017 show on James Baldwin. James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words have become the rallying cries for a new rising generation—in film, in music, and in the press. Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, s...more

  • Warrior Cops

    Jun 25 2020

    Once upon a time in the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, “community policing” came forth as the solution to a law-and-order problem. In 2020 hindsight, the road to our hellish crisis today of police practice and racial injustice can seem to have been paved by the very mixed intentions of anti-crime fashion back then. The issues in the ’80s were called drugs, guns, and gangs. They are back to haunt us as mass incarceration, over-policing (like “stop and frisk”), and police immunity, eve...more

  • Deaths of Despair

    Jun 18 2020

    The warning bell sounded in 2014: a down dip in the ever-rising American lifespan, which was 50 years, on average, in 1900, and up close to 80 years into the 21st century. Then something happened and kept happening – not to the very old-agers, but in mid-life. It was a white-working-guy disease that hit women too, but not everybody – not African-Americans the same way, not college graduates at all. It was a sharp surge in desperate death by suicide, often with alcohol or opioids. “Deaths of Desp...more

  • Inequality and Injustice

    Jun 11 2020

    “A Change is Gonna Come,” the songwriter put it: it was Sam Cooke, at a peak of the civil rights movement in 1964. And it is surely coming again, around the police murder of George Floyd. Change is driven now by a national mass protest and by police responses in city after city that seemed to nail the argument that law enforcement much too often shows a brutal streak facing black and brown Americans. What change is coming, and when, we don’t know, yet in fact models of it are here already, in in...more

  • Reviving Reconstruction

    Jun 04 2020

    We’re transfixed, all of us, looking at a collision of deadly viruses, racial hatred and a pandemic disease. Suddenly what commands attention is the black push-back, with a lot of white support, against an injustice system – sparked by yet another police killing of a helpless black man, 30 years down the video trail from Rodney King. What grips us is partly the video spectacle of cop cars burning last weekend, and mostly peaceful marches everywhere since then. It’s also this replay loop of docu...more

  • Moral Economics

    May 28 2020

    John Maynard Keynes was a philosophical giant in twentieth-century England. In his day job, he was a public economist; in America he was a political football for the very idea of “deficit spending” to charge up private investment in a recession. It made the name “Keynes” a cuss word until our politicians fell in love with deficits as a way to pay for tax cuts and wars. “We are all Keynesians now,” Richard Nixon said, in Vietnam time. It’s only much later, in long hindsight, that Keyn...more