Monday, November 30, 2015

Q&A with Eric Rauchway

Eric Rauchway is the author of the new book The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace. His other books include The Great Depression and the New Deal and Murdering McKinley. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The American Prospect and the Financial Times. A historian at the University of California, Davis, he lives in Davis, California.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about FDR's monetary policies?

A: There's a lot of confusion about Roosevelt himself owing to the way his mind worked. As I explain in the book, Roosevelt came into office in March 1933 determined to end the gold standard, already persuaded that the gold standard had, through deflation, helped cause the Depression.

The first substantial act he took as president was to end the gold standard. Over the next 10 months or so of his presidency he took a series of further steps to replace the gold standard with provisions for managing the value of the dollar domestically and coordinating currency management internationally, so nothing like the Depression would happen again; by the end of his presidency he had realized this vision for both the U.S. and the world.

He was consistent in this purpose. But he did not lay out a detailed plan for it nor, I think, did he have one. Which is what seems to bother a lot of people.

Roosevelt had a particular kind of mind; as he said himself, early in his presidency, he was like a football quarterback: he knew he wanted to get his team to the end zone, and he knew what play he was going to run next.

But as for what he was going to do after that—well, he didn't see any point in thinking about that, because it all depended on how this next move worked out.

So he knew where he was going, but he didn't know, step-by-step, how he was going to get there—because Roosevelt knew he had to work through a political process, where there was opposition, and advances came piecemeal.

That way of thinking seems to me typical of one kind of goal-driven, competent mind, but it's also infuriating to another, more methodical kind of mind, which wants to know exactly how things are going to play out.

Many historians seem to belong to that latter sort, and therefore have been eager to say that Roosevelt didn't know what he was doing and that the U.S. lucked into a good monetary policy.

But I think if you note what Roosevelt said and pay careful attention to what he did, you can see how it is he operated, and how he achieved both short-term and long-term successes.

Q: How directly did Keynes's ideas influence Roosevelt, and how much did the two interact?

A: Keynes came to the U.S. and met Roosevelt in 1934, and again in 1941 (twice) and 1944. More importantly, though, Keynes's ideas were circulating among Roosevelt's closest advisors from before the time he took office, and were widely discussed.

Keynes worked directly with Roosevelt's advisors to articulate the president's proposed international monetary plan in 1933; he wrote to Roosevelt (both publicly and privately) about recovery policy in the 1930s; and worked with officials in the administration and the president directly to plan both Lend Lease and the peace policies in the 1940s.

The ideas seem to have had considerable impact on Roosevelt, but it's also true that Roosevelt's actions had considerable impact on Keynes's ideas—so it's not entirely clear which way the causality runs.

Q: What were some of the most important impacts of FDR's monetary policies outside the U.S.?

A: Roosevelt used monetary policy to support international resistance to fascism during the 1930s, when by law he could not use the budget of the United States to do so; he worked with the British (in the person of Keynes) to intertwine monetary policies and aid to Britain in the fight against Nazism in 1940 and 1941; later in 1941 he did likewise for the Soviet Union; and of course at the end of the war, the idea of using monetary policy as a way to ensure peace, prosperity, and economic development became a cornerstone of the United Nations' plan for peace.

Q: Looking at FDR's monetary decisions during his presidency, what are some of the lessons for today's financial and government leaders?

A: Roosevelt knew that bankers were first and loudest in their call to avoid inflation, even amidst severe deflation, and he discounted their views accordingly. He knew that managing a nation's currency to ensure prosperity was vital not only for economic purposes, but for political purposes—to avoid a turn to fascism.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a book about the period between the presidential election of 1932 and Roosevelt's inauguration, the last time a president waited until March 4 to take office (it's been January 20 ever since). I'm taking the view that the hundred days before the New Deal began are as important, or more so, in understanding Roosevelt's presidency than the hundred days after.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 30

Nov. 30, 1874: L.M. Montgomery born.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Q&A with Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is the author of the new story collection Only the Animals. She also has written the novel Blood Kin. Born in South Africa and raised in South Africa and Australia, she now lives in Sydney, Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for this book?

A: One day halfway through my degree in social anthropology at NYU in New York, I was talking to the department secretary who was going out to Utah to volunteer at an animal shelter filled with dogs and cats that had been airlifted out of Beirut during the 2006 bombings.

She showed me some photos of these creatures while she was telling me about the shelter, and I felt some very powerful emotions – sorrow, pain, right to my core – that I somehow could not feel for the human victims of the same conflict.

And around the same time, one of my favourite professors at NYU, the brilliant anthropologist Emily Martin, told me about her pet parrot Ruben, who had witnessed the second plane hitting the Twin Towers on 9/11 with her, and had become very sick and stressed in the weeks afterwards.

And this story just brought me to tears on the spot. I wrote the parrot story – in very different form – that year, and it was the start of the whole project.

I didn’t really realise it was going to be a “project” until I found myself wanting to write from the perspective of an ape after finishing the parrot story – so I did that. And then I suddenly wanted to write from the perspective of a camel in colonial Australia.

That’s when I think I realised I was going to have to work through these animal voices in my head and see where they might lead me.

Q: The book includes a variety of time periods and locations, as well as different animals. How did you select them?

A: They really emerged organically, from wide but quite unstructured reading and idiosyncratic research. I had a sense that I wanted the stories to span the whole century and its turnings, and to be from diverse parts of the world, but other than that, I let my reading guide me, and waited until I had found the right “voice” (whether animal or author) for each conflict.

I also tried to set the stories in countries I had visited so that the local details could be drawn from observation and not just research or imagination.

In terms of selecting the animals, I again let my reading of authors who had written about animals in the past century or so inspire me - so as soon as I knew I was going to write about a parrot, I went back and re-read Flaubert and Julian Barnes, and as soon as I started working on an ape story, I knew I had to re-read Kafka, and so on.  

Q: Can you say more about the research you conducted to write the stories?

A: Again, this differed for each story as I was aware that the book's premise could seem formulaic if each of the stories didn't respond to the brief I'd set myself in a creatively different way and form.

Sometimes I could only find the animal's voice after I'd read the work of contemporary animal behaviorists who are studying animal sentience and consciousness; at other times I found the animal's voice after reading the journals or original writing of one of the authors I admired (for example, Colette's articles, stories and journal entries about her obsession with her pet cat, Kiki-la-Doucette).   

Q: On your website, you ask a number of questions about writing and about animals, the first of which is, "Why do animals sometimes shock us into feeling things we can’t seem to feel for other humans?" How would you answer that?

A: This book was really an attempt to understand the human capacity for empathy - across species lines, but also the radical empathy that I think any project of fiction-writing attempts.

I don't have any answers, unfortunately! But the stories, taken together, perhaps go some way to at least nudging us towards thinking about these questions, and remembering what is unique and remarkable about our species (this very capacity for empathy for the fellow suffering of our creatures) but also what is worst about our exceptionalism, that is, thinking that we are not part of the animal world.

The only more direct answer I can think of is that somehow animals free us up to feel something that is authentic because we don't put up defenses against animal suffering the way we do for human suffering.

Precisely because we don't feel obliged to feel something for animals, we are freed up to feel more deeply for them - but when faced with human suffering, we often feel completely helpless or defensive, as it is too much for us to really try to understand another human's pain, and reminds us uncomfortably that we, too, are mortal and able to suffer.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A new novel - I loved writing the stories, but I'm not sure it's my natural form, and feel more comfortable within the space of a novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 27

Nov. 27, 1909: James Agee born.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Q&A with Sarah L. Kaufman

Sarah L. Kaufman is the author of the new book The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic for The Washington Post, and she lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Q: You write, “I’ve written this book to locate grace and hold it up for examination.” How did you decide on the examples to highlight?

A: The book really grew out of an essay I wrote five or six years ago about Cary Grant. As a dance critic, I’ve always written about concert dance, but also about performance and movement in other ways, not in theaters—the dance of life, celebrities who move well.

I was looking at actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, when movement was so important and delivered a lot of information about your character. I became fascinated with what Cary Grant could do with everyday movement, the awareness of what he was doing in every scene.

It boils down to attention, detail, attention to the actors around him. It struck me that this was unusual. I began to read books about him, and discovered that he practiced that elegant ease and attention off screen. He was a good friend. He paid attention to current events. He donated his salary from The Philadelphia Story to the British war effort.

He conducted his life very thoughtfully. He stood up for Ingrid Bergman when she was attacked for her love affair with Roberto Rossellini. The same with McCarthyism. He embodied the idea of inner and outer qualities of grace—physical and behavioral.

Then I wanted to look at where these qualities were found elsewhere—celebrities, ordinary people, political leaders, people we meet in our work life—the everyday and the extraordinary.

Q: I was going to ask you why you started your book with Cary Grant—I guess it’s because the idea for the book started with him!

A: He’s a good jumping-off point. He came through adversity. A lot of the examples [in the book] had rough edges. Grace is not perfection. It’s not prestige. It’s not a quality of your birth. It’s composed of other kinds of qualities that are available to all of us. His rough start in life, his struggles as a performer helped give him that kind of sensitivity.

Q: The book covers so much ground, looking at so many different people and different topics—how did you research it?

A: It was so much fun! The bumblebee flight of this idea was darting here and there, but I was trying to anchor it in the principles of the examples I use.

I did a lot of research at the Library of Congress, going back to very old topics, and not finding very much new at all. One of the oldest texts I used is the oldest text in existence, [from ancient] Egypt, in hieroglyphics. It’s the first book, a set of lessons for [the author’s] son in how to be in the world.

It’s amazing because when you read it, it sounds kind of biblical, or like old books on civility, but it also sounds very modern—not getting angry at the table, listening to other people, if you’re in leadership, listen to what your subordinates are saying. It’s the idea of paying attention. Only by paying attention to one another can we understand each other.

Q: You state that these days, “we’ve lost sight of grace.” Why is that, and what can we do to find more of it?

A: There are so many reasons. There was a big shift in social mores in the mid-20th century as postwar life was so different from everything that came before.

The fragmentation of families, baby boomers rebelling en masse, as every generation does at what their parents are trying to stuff down their throats—but this was the biggest generation.

A lot of good things came out of this—civil rights, women’s rights, the antiwar movement. They all needed to happen. But along with it was the idea of the old ways and behavior [seeming] not very appealing.

Now, there are so many ways our attention is splintered. We’re plugged into electronic devices, checking social media feeds, overwhelmed at work…there are so many ways our attention is fragmented. We are not aware of each other in the same way.

The word “grace” is not very common anymore. It’s a beautiful notion of being with other people, and [taking] care of other people’s feelings. It has become devalued.

Q: Is there a way to get it back?

A: Absolutely, there is a way! We have to turn ourselves outward, and have real conversations where we’re actually listening to someone. It calls for slowing down.

These qualities underlie grace: compassion, care, nonjudgment, and generosity. They are all things that take time to cultivate, and take time to demonstrate. It’s really through slowing down our responses, slowing down our impulses, really focusing on other people, we can get to a point where we are more gracious.

I don’t in any way want to be a scold. The book is really about pleasure, and how it’s a delight and joy to experience moments of grace.

The way to experience them is to pay attention, the way…the people in the book all managed to do—through a sense of humor, stopping and attending to people. The notion of taking care, of giving people space. We all must live together—we can’t if we’re thinking of ourselves first.

Q: As a dance critic, what role do you think dance, or training as a dancer, plays in achieving grace?

A: This isn’t a dance book, although I do have a chapter on dancers. There is a dance sensibility weaving through it. Dancers, from the point of view of physical grace—they’ve got that down! They’ve devoted their lives to it.

I would love to inspire people to achieve a measure of that by moving in their life—you don’t have to run a marathon or go to the gym every day. You can simply take a walk, and feel how wonderful that is, without being glued to your headphones.

The thing dancers do really well—they have to pay attention to one another. They develop empathy in being a dancer. They feel what the other dancers are [feeling]. They need to be aware of the audience and the other dancers around them.

The notion of awareness and paying attention is very heightened among dancers. It had a very profound influence on me, as a serious dance student in my younger days, and as a dance critic. It made an impact on me—the deep empathy that arises when you’re paying attention to your surroundings.

Q: Are you planning to write another book?

A: I would love to! I’m thinking of ideas. I have two ideas I’m tossing around in my mind….I loved the process of writing this book. It was a complete and utter joy, beginning to end, and it hasn’t ended yet. The continuing conversations are extremely exciting.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As we move into the holiday season, where dining rooms around the country can become very fraught, tinderboxes of contrasting opinions and claims of territory, I love to put out the idea that grace is [the way] different people can exist together.

We don’t have to respond to every perceived slight…we can do something about our own reactions, if we focus on what brought us all together. In a holiday setting, that’s usually family, friends, love. If we keep focused on that and let the other stuff drop away, we can have a nice time together.

In big ways and small, there are so many things you see around the world, so many bad things—people are not able to transcend rigid positions. In a situation with other people, rigidity is not helpful. You have to bend.

The epigraph [in] the book is, “In life, as in art, the beautiful moves in curves.” I love the idea of curving—curving to accommodate. The curve is a graceful path, not a straight line. It’s smoother, gentler, with smoother edges and a more accommodating position.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 25

Nov. 25, 1909: P.D. Eastman born.