Episodes

  • “Maybe the opposite of goodness is not evil. Maybe the opposite of goodness is, in fact, numbness.” 
    There are so many questions we never ask. So many assumptions we make every second of every day because our minds and our lives are sealed off from one another, accessible only through time, patience, and the slow work of trust—all of which are often in short supply while we’re running around trying to stick to schedules. And there are some questions we don’t ask for other reasons—because the answers might tell us more than we want to know about ourselves. 
    I’m so very happy to be here today for the second time on this show with British-Turkish author, speaker, and educator Elif Shafak. In her latest novel, as in all of her work, she asks some of these forgotten questions and, maybe more important, signposts the infinity of doorways we walk past without noticing. The book, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World, was one of six on the shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize. Like any human life, that of its heroine Leila is strange, beautiful, and important. And all too easily tossed aside. 
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode: 
    Ibram X Kendi on the dangerous idea of the dangerous black neighborhood, and anger and analysis in social justice movements, from our conversation on Think Again
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  • Some experiences change you so completely that you’re left with a choice: either spend your life running from them or spend your life turning them over in memory, trying to find new ways in, through, and out the other side. The power of the impulse to explain or somehow articulate these experiences is inversely proportionate to other people’s ability to understand them. They’re everything all at once. It seems to me that my guest today has made that second choice, the hard choice not to run away. Or maybe it’s a choice you have to keep making over and over again. His name is Reginald Dwayne Betts. He’s 39 years old—an accomplished poet and essayist and a graduate of Yale Law School. But he spent most of his teenage years and young adulthood in prison and over a year in solitary confinement, experiences neither society, nor memory, nor his fellow feeling for the more than 2 million people behind bars in the United States, the vast majority of them black men and boys, has let him forget. Dwayne’s beautiful and necessary new book of poems is called FELON, and I’m honored to have him with me here today to talk about it.
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  • Do you have a body? I do, but I was mostly unaware of this fact until somewhere in my mid-30s, when my life strategy of living like a bourbon-loving brain-in-a-vat became increasingly untenable. Since then, I’ve come to understand something that might have been obvious to you all along. The body’s not just a convenient support system for coming up with clever things to say—it’s how we experience the world. It’s most of what we mean by living.
    And for all its marvelous autonomy, it’s also wonderfully, bafflingly complex. My guest today is the author Bill Bryson. In his new book THE BODY: A GUIDE FOR OCCUPANTS, he has been kind enough to demystify it for us to the extent that that’s possible, and to help us revel in its mystery everywhere else. Bill is the beloved author of A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING and A WALK IN THE WOODS, and I’m delighted to have him on the show. 
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode: 
    Excerpted from Think Again episode #215 with Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie. 
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  • I grew up in the almost entirely white suburbs of 1980’s Bethesda, Maryland thinking of myself and my world as 100% not racist. It’s hard to notice what’s missing: for example pretty much any black or brown people anywhere I went except on vacation, in spite of the fact that we were right next to Washington DC. At some point in middle school I learned that my Jewish dad had been unwelcome at the most popular local country club, and so chosen another, less popular one that admitted Jews at the time. But this seemed like a weird anomaly, and boo hoo about not getting your first choice of country club anyway, right? 
    Then, at 16, I had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Anacostia, DC and was astonished to find it wasn’t the “war zone” I’d been told it was throughout the Reagan years. To see people walking calmly to the grocery store or chatting on the corner. No guns. No open air drug markets, whatever those were. Racism, gender bias, economic elitism—they’re not anomalies. They’re cultural, economic, political, psychological. But as Paul Simon—a favorite songwriter of mine who some see as the poster boy for cultural appropriation once wrote: "Well, breakdowns come and breakdowns go, so, what are you gonna do about it? That’s what I’d like to know.”
    My guest today is Ibram X Kendi. he’s been working on these problems for a long time, and he’s developed some powerful ideas and methods for solving them. Ibram won the National Book award, he’s the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington DC, and he’s the author of the important new book How to be an Anti-Racist. 
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode: 
    A read excerpt from MINDF*CK: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America, by Christopher Wylie 
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  • In 1972, the year I was born, there was apparently a famous TV ad for Geritol. My guest today describes it thus:
    “…a husband spoke to the camera while his wife draped herself over his shoulder, smiling like something between a model and the brainwashed resident of a creepy commune…”My wife’s incredible. She took care of the baby all day, cooked a great dinner and even went to a school meeting—and look at her!”
    Her potion of eternal youth, of course, is Geritol. It’s got all the vitamins and iron she needs. This perfect woman grins silently at the camera as her husband concludes: “My wife: I think I’ll keep her.” 
    Though what constitutes “getting old” for women in America has been a moving target throughout US history, it has rarely been a picnic. But our history’s also full of women who have raised hell and pushed back in a hundred different ways against the cultural and literal corsets America keeps trying to stuff them into. 
    My guest today is New York Times columnist and celebrated author Gail Collins. Her new book is No Stopping Us Now: the Adventures of Older Women in American History. It’s a bumpy, often exhilarating ride through the lives of older women in America from colonial times up to the present day. And Gail’s good company as our wise, wisecracking stagecoach driver. We’re headed West, and there’s hope on the horizon.
    Conversation starter clips in this episode: 
    Liz Plank on masculinity, from episode 214
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  • I don’t even know where to begin with this one. You’ve probably heard of Cambridge Analytica. Maybe you know they’re a company that did some nefarious things involving facebook and the 2016 US presidential elections. If you’re anything like me, you don’t know the half of it. If you get through this episode without wanting to move to a remote hut in the Arctic circle, I will personally refund this hour of your life.
    My guest today is Christopher Wylie, author of MindF*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America. in high school, he found himself on the outside of lots of social circles. Computers and hacker culture gave him community. Identity. From there, it’s a long strange trip through progressive politics in Canada to military Psy ops in London to helping Steve Bannon and the Billionaire Robert Mercer build the most powerful psychological weapon of mass destruction in existence—one that very likely won the presidency for Donald Trump and the Brexit vote.
    Chris was 24 at the time. When the scale and consequences of Cambridge Analytica got too big to ignore, he turned whistleblower—and none of our lives, his included, will ever be the same.
    Conversation starter: A clip from an upcoming episode with Ibram X. Kendi
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  • In the past half century or so feminism has had its hands plenty full dealing with the abuse and inequality women suffer at the hands of horribly behaved men and the systems they build. Too full to worry much about what the hell is going on inside those men and why. And there are powerful arguments to be made for the fact that it is not women’s responsibility to help men figure out how not to be monsters.
    But I’ve noticed an interesting shift in the discourse lately. In the wake of the #MeToo movement (things happen fast these days…that blew up at scale in 2017), some threads of the public conversation have turned toward what my guest today might talk about in terms of the "gender ecosystem", the ways that ideas about gender shape our identities and behavior and the fact that those behaviors impact everyone in society for better and worse. Regardless of whose responsibility it is to solve these problems, the question of where masculinity goes from here should matter to everyone.
    My guest today is journalist and cultural critic Liz Plank. she was named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30, has produced and hosted multiple acclaimed digital series for Vox, and is the author of the new book FOR THE LOVE OF MEN: a  new vision of mindful masculinity.
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  • If the word ‘epicurean’ brings to mind a porcine man in a toga reclining on a velvet couch and dropping fat juicy grapes into his open mouth, one by one, you are not alone.
    But this caricature, probably the descendent of some ancient propaganda by rival philosophers, tells us very little in fact about Epicureanism - the worldview of the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher Epicurus and his later disciple Lucretius, whose ideas prefigured and shaped much of the modern world.
    My guest today is philosopher Catherine Wilson, author of the book How to be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. At a confusing cultural moment where many people are looking for a guiding framework, she’s here with a strident defense of Epicureanism as a way of life. In its pragmatic approach to embracing pleasure and minimizing pain, she sees a saner way of living in the world. And maybe enjoying a few juicy grapes while you’re at it.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Mass shootings and masculinity with Michael Kaufman, founder of the White Ribbon Campaign
    Longevity with Dave Asprey of Bulletproof Coffee
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  • Like too many of us, I hated history classes throughout my school career, and only realized as an adult that there are few things more interesting to ponder than the ways people lived and thought in different times and places than my own.
    After all, we’re all stuck in our own time, limited by our culture, consciousness, and whatever knowledge we may possess of what came before.
    Maybe that explains part of the appeal of historical fiction like the series Downton Abbey, set in a great Edwardian country house in the early 20th century. My guest today is stage and screen Director Michael Engler. He’s the director of the new Downton Abbey feature film, and he directed episodes of Downton Abbey, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, 30 Rock and much more for TV.
    Meticulously recreating one corner of Edwardian England and building original story worlds within it, Downton Abbey is part romantic comedy, part historical drama grappling with the tensions of class and society at the sunset of empire.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Comedian Pete Holmes on visualization 
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  • “A conversation is like a tunnel dug under the prison floor that you—patiently and painstakingly—scoop out with a spoon. It has one purpose: to get you away from where you are right now.”
    That is from the very, very weird tale Car Concentrate from Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s wonderful new collection of short stories called FLY ALREADY. It’s not a bad description of the situation most of Keret’s characters find themselves in—wriggling like butterflies stuck on the pins of their own minds or circumstances, trying by any means necessary to get free. It’s maybe not too much even to say that this is the human condition as Keret sees it and the reason he writes stories—to open up magical escape hatches in the midst of suffocating realities like divorce or religious hatred. His stories are strange, beautiful, funny, and poignant—somehow emotionally connected even though they’re full of people who struggle to make sense to (and of) one another. Like all great art, they defy description, so ignore everything I’ve just said and go read them…but first, stick around for a bit to see what kind of escape tunnel this conversation might turn into. 
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Michio Kaku on uploading your consciousness and traveling to other planets
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  • There’s a pattern that happens with any new thing. First it’s scary, then you settle in to a rhythm, then you hit your stride, then you get too attached to things being the way they are. For a while there I thought I could only record an episode of this show sitting in a particular chair facing a particular direction. When that kind of thing happens, it’s time to shake things up. So today’s show was recorded 5000 miles away from my comfy New York studio, in my wife’s hometown of Istanbul, Turkey. We took a ferry from the European to the Asian side of the city, to the neighborhood of Kadikoy. There we met Chef Musa Dağdeviren—a one of a kind of food ethnographer who’s trying to preserve techniques and recipes from Turkey’s vast and diverse culinary history before they disappear forever. We ate at his restaurant Ciya Sofrasi and talked to him afterward in the offices of Yemek Ve Kultur (food and culture), the magazine he’s been publishing for the past 15 years. Musa is a man on an ambitious labor of love—a mission his mom gave him as a small child to investigate, understand, and pass on this knowledge. He’s totally unlike anyone I’ve ever met, and I’m happy to share this very different episode with you.
    THE TURKISH COOKBOOK — Musa’s vast compendium for an English speaking audience. Comprehensive as it is, it contains less than half of the 1500+ recipes he’s collected in his travels. More to come!
    A beautiful documentary on Musa’s work on Netflix’s CHEF’S TABLE, Season 2. 
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  • When I was a teenager and music was still on cassettes, a mixtape was an act of love. The selection and sequence of songs were a kind of message to the listener that left plenty of space for their own thoughts and feelings. Back in June Think Again hit its fourth year and its 200th show and it feels like the right time to take a step back and revisit some of the places the conversation has gone this past year. I’m intuitive rather than strategic about choosing guests for the show and books to read—when it works, it’s an art rather than a science. And as with any art, themes emerge and recur in different guises. In this episode, I’m putting together some of my favorite moments of 2019, strung together with minimal interruption from me. So kick back and enjoy this eclectic collection, and feel free to write me through my website jasongots.com and let me know your thoughts, feelings, and insights. Or send me a mixtape of your own!
    Featuring: Joseph Goldstein, Benjamin Dreyer, Anaïs Mitchell, Martin Hägglund, Aml Ameen, Marlon James, Terry Gilliam, Jeff Israel, Eve Ensler, Tracy Edwards, Frans De Waal, Edith Hall, Lama Rod Owens, Elif Shafak, Robert MacFarlane 
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  • Quick question. Answer without thinking too hard. Ready? Where is your mind? What is your mind?
    Ok, Raise your hand if you thought of your brain.
    If you did, you’re in good company. For centuries, Western science, culture, and language has been obsessed with the head as the center of thought and the body as the center of feeling. This split can get hierarchical, attaching ideas like “sin” and  to the body and the emotions while putting the brain, along with rationality, up on a pedestal.
    I’m very happy to be speaking again today with neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio, who has done more than anyone one else I know to get that brain down off its high horse and reattach it to the body. We last talked a year ago, about his book THE STRANGE ORDER OF THINGS - Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, which has now come out in paperback. It turns everything upside down, not only re-anchoring mind in body, but finding in primitive bacteria and social insects patterns that help explain human culture. Maybe there’s more going on in the Mona Lisa than in a bacterial colony, but they also have quite a lot in common.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Frans De Waal on animal consciousness
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  • The first computer I ever had was the first Apple Macintosh, back in the mid 80’s. I can still remember the sense of friendly reassurance from that smiling little icon that popped up on the screen when you turned it on—a cute, tiny computer smiling back at you. This device, it suggested, knew you. Understood you. Was someone you could trust.
    Since then, we’ve come a long way, baby. The cold, black, addictive rectangle in my pocket—a gleaming window into all the hopes and terrors of the known world—is a far cry from the early, friendly promises of that smiling machine on which I could magically paint things at the touch of a button.
    My guest today, in a very different way, grew up in the long shadow of that same cultural trajectory. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was her dad. But like our relationship with the machines he helped unleash on the world, hers with him was deeply complicated. In her beautiful memoir Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs writes about his indifference, his attention, and her struggle to find herself in and outside of his shadow.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode: None, due to tight taping time. 
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  • When I think of my childhood home in Bethesda, Maryland, depending on what kind of mood I’m in, I think either of the mall or of the woods. Although there were some fun moments looking at the inappropriate novelty items like at Spencer Gifts, such as edible underwear, the mall in my memory is a symbol of suburban anomie and alienation. A place, as my guest today would put it, without context.
    The woods, on the other hand, were endless and full of surprises. We’d follow the twisting creek, overturn rocks to find crawfish, and eat sassafras leaves. Once we made Molotov cocktails out of my mom’s nail polish and threw them into the creek with pure, anarchic joy. In the woods, I was always, utterly present—connected to every sound and attuned to the slightest movement. In the mall, I was mostly conscious of whether or not my jacket looked cool.
    I’m here today with Jenny Odell. She’s an artist and educator who grew up in Silicon Valley and teaches at Stanford, the heart of the attention economy that’s colonizing more and more of the cultural woods. She’s also an avid bird watcher—or “bird noticer”, as she might put it. Her wonderful new book HOW TO DO NOTHING: RESISTING THE ATTENTION ECONOMY is something like a primer for growing the woods inside the mall. It’s about carving out space for ourselves in a world that wants to put our time and our lives to other, more utilitarian uses. 
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Edward Slingerland on the Taoist concept of Wu Wei and how it plays out in Chinese business culture 
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  • A Rabbi, a Priest, and an Imam walk into a bar. No, wait. Imams don’t drink. Most rabbis don’t drink much either, come to think of it. Priests drink—at least in the movies—but mostly not in bars . . .
    So maybe nobody walks into a bar? How, when, and where are we all supposed to figure out how to get along?
    My guest today, who also happens to be an old, good friend of mine, has an answer, or several. He’s Jeffrey Israel—a professor of Religion at Williams College and the author of a new book Living with Hate in American Politics and Religion. He argues that pluralistic societies like the United States need two uneasy siblings: a strong political will to recognize and protect our common humanity and also “play spaces” where we can give rein to the difficult feelings- anger, resentment, even hate- that can’t be erased by politics, a Beatles song, or just by wishing them away.
    In his generous and provocative book, Jeff mines Jewish-American humor from Lenny Bruce, Philip Roth, and the sitcom All in the Family for models of rough and reflective play. Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing gets a well-deserved star turn, too. And for a civics that can protect human dignity while making space for all the nastiness and alienation we have no choice but to live with, He looks to philosopher Martha Nussbaum, among others.
    It’s a difficult conversation for an imperfect and imperfectable world, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. So Jeff makes a bold case and invites us all to the table —rabbi, priest, Imam, and the rest us who don’t fit into easy categories—to hash it out.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    David Epstein on “lateral thinking” 
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  • In spite of all the weird ways the word has been abused since the 2016 elections, I think of myself as a liberal. As a basic value, I try to be open-minded. And like many liberals, I live in a big, liberal city where I rarely meet anyone who doesn’t share my values, religious outlook, and political beliefs. As a result, like it or not, I’m in a bubble. And when I’m not being careful about it, I’m vulnerable to seeing “the Bible Belt” and the American South as one monolithic, mostly white, evangelical, anti-abortion, Christian Right-leaning mass. As some kind of living history exhibit of a past us New Yorkers have left behind.
    And I know lots of people in some of the same bubbles I occupy who are quick to point to religion as the cause of horrors throughout human history. People who see reason and science as progress, religion as unequivocally retrograde, and who point to data showing that people everywhere are getting less religious as a hopeful sign that humanity might be moving in the right direction. But just as it doesn’t have a monopoly on morality, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on intolerance. And reason alone can’t give us values like love and kindness. Religion’s one of many ways that people organize their lives and like everything we make, it’s subject to both our courage and our cowardice. The best and the worst of us.
    A recent Pew survey says that 63% of Americans believe in God. In Bible Belt states like Oklahoma, where that number is much higher, there are fierce political battles going on for control of the Christian narrative—pushback against fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible as aligned with conservative republican values. These battles, invisible to most of us out here on the coasts, are the subject of AMERICAN HERETICS, a powerful new documentary by my guests today, Jeanine and Catherine Butler.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Michael Pollan on the history of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms in America
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  • After four years and just over 200 conversations for this podcast, I’m feeling the need for a new kind of politics. One that would champion uncertainty, fragility, emotional vulnerability against the tyranny of opinions that push us one way or another. I used to think that art was sufficient for this purpose. After all, it was books like J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey or Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, bands like the Smiths and the Velvet Underground that gave a much younger me courage to embrace ambiguity as a great teacher.
    Art’s an open door, but you have to walk through it. And it’s the politics and culture around you that shape your ability to do so. We’re hurting and hungry for connection. Sick of misunderstanding and violence. I think this is true all over the world. I think it runs so deep it’s like an underground river, one whose presence we can only guess at from the contours of the surface earth.
    I’m very happy to be talking today with Turkish-born global citizen, novelist and activist Elif Shafak. She’s the author of  HONOR, THE FLEA PALACE, and THREE DAUGHTERS OF EVE, among many other books. In her writing and public speaking, she’s one of the most eloquent voices I know of this new politics that doesn’t fit easily on any flag.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Pete Holmes on #metoo and binary thinking 
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  • What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done? The thing everyone said was impossible,  that you knew you had to do anyway, and that you doubted a thousand times while it was underway that you’d be able to see through to the end?
    There’s a good chance you can think of at least one example. And an even better chance it doesn’t even come close in monumental, soul-smelting intensity to what Tracy Edwards put herself through back in 1989 to 1990, along with the all-female crew of her racing yacht Maiden. In that year, with the dismissive, derisive, mostly male eyes of the racing world upon them, this 9 member crew proved beyond a doubt that they could sail every bit as skillfully and fearlessly as their male competitors in the Whitbread Round-the-World-yacht-race.
    They crossed the southern ocean from Uruguay to Australia, surviving icebergs and deadly waves to win the most difficult leg of the race, then beat their closest rival, move for move, in a tactical sprint to New Zealand. By the time they made it home to England, derision had long given way to admiring awe.
    Tracy and her crew did a thing everyone thought was impossible. And in doing so they gave hope to countless others. The documentary film MAIDEN, out from Sony Pictures Classics, captures every leg of their incredible journey, and shows the full cost and rewards of Tracy’s single-minded persistence.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Explorer Erling Kagge on journeys and solitude
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  • When I was in middle school in the suburbs of Maryland, a man—let’s call him Robert—started doing some occasional gardening and housecleaning for my parents. By high school, Robert was our full-time housekeeper and a nanny for me and my sister, a family member, really. And he had become a she—let’s call her Tina. My sister and I learned to use her new pronouns and we watched as her clothes and then, with the help of hormones and surgery, her body changed to that of a woman.
    At the same time, the transition we went through with Tina at home was playing out in American popular culture. Homosexuality and drag and other queer lives and identities came out of the closet and onto the stage, screen, and streets. In 1984, in Mahattan’s Tompkins Square Park, Wigstock was born. It started as a kind of afterparty and evolved into a DIY, outrageous, funny, and fabulous annual drag festival that by the 90’s was drawing crowds in the thousands.
    It’s hard even to think back to the time when Robert who became Tina had to hide who she was for fear of upsetting her religious mother or—who knows—maybe not getting that job with my folks. In a world where RuPaul’s Drag Race is going into its 12th smash season, It’s easy to forget the courage it took, and still takes, for so many people to live on the outside what they know they are on the inside. My guest today is documentary filmmaker Chris Moukarbel, the director of Lady Gaga biopic GAGA FIVE FOOT TWO. In his new HBO documentary WIG, Chris and his stars—including Lady Bunny, Charlene Incarnate, and many more—take us back through the history of drag in New York City. And they show that now more than ever we need public spaces like Wigstock where we can perform, amplify, and celebrate our differences.
    Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
    Bill Eddy on “toxic people”
    John Cameron Mitchell on online communication and miscommunication
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