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Past Present Future

Past Present Future

Past Present Future is a bi-weekly History of Ideas podcast with David Runciman, host and creator of Talking Politics, exploring the history of ideas from politics to philosophy, culture to technology. David talks to historians, novelists, scientists and many others about where the most interesting ideas come from, what they mean, and why they matter.

Ideas from the past, questions about the present, shaping the future. Brought to you in partnership with the London Review of Books.

New episodes every Thursday and Sunday.

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The History of Bad Ideas: The Death of the Author

For our penultimate episode in this series David talks to Kathleen Stock about Roland Barthes?s idea of the Death of the Author (1967). Once very fashionable, the notion that readers not writers are the arbiters of what a text means has had a long and sometimes painful afterlife. As well as exploring its curious appeal and its persistent blindspots, Kathleen discusses her personal experience of how it can go wrong.


Two bonus Bad Ideas episodes for PPF+ subscribers ? on Email and VAR ? will be available very soon. Sign up now and get ad-free listening too! www.ppfideas.com


Coming Next: Helen Lewis on Mesmerism


Coming Soon: The Great Political Fictions Part 2, starting with Middlemarch


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2024-05-16
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The History of Bad Ideas: Anti-Suffragettes

In this episode of our series on the lingering hold of bad ideas David talks to the writer and broadcaster Helen Lewis about the arguments made at the turn of the last century against giving the vote to women. Why were so many women against female enfranchisement? What did attitudes to women in politics reveal about the failings of men? And where can the echoes of these arguments still be heard today?


Helen Lewis?s Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights is available wherever you get your books https://bit.ly/3wp8DNX 


Sign up now to PPF+ to get ad-free listening and bonus episodes to accompany every series. Coming soon: two bonus bad ideas just for PPF+ subscribers www.ppfideas.com 


Next time on The History of Bad Ideas: Kathleen Stock discusses The Death of the Author.


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2024-05-12
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The History of Bad Ideas: Taxonomy

For the latest episode in our series about the hold of bad ideas, we welcome back the geneticist Adam Rutherford to talk about Linnaean taxonomy, a seemingly innocuous scheme of classification that has had deeply pernicious consequences. From scientific racism to social stratification to search engine optimisation, taxonomy gets everywhere. Can we escape its grip?


Sign up now to PPF+ to get ad-free listening and bonus episodes to accompany every series. Coming soon: two bonus bad ideas just for PPF+ subscribers www.ppfideas.com 

Next time on The History of Bad Ideas: Helen Lewis on women against the enfranchisement of women.


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2024-05-09
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The History of Bad Ideas: Antisemitism

Today?s bad idea is one with a very long history: David talks to the historian Christopher Clark about antisemitism and the reasons for its endless recurrence. What has made discrimination against the Jews different from other kinds of violent prejudice over the course of European history? How did the ?Jewish Question? become the battleground of German politics? Why do so many Christians have a love-hate relationship with Judaism? And where does the state of Israel fit into this story?


For ad-free listening and bonus episodes ? including more bad ideas ? subscribe to PPF+ www.ppfideas.com


Next time on The History of Bad Ideas: Adam Rutherford on Taxonomy.


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2024-05-05
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The History of Bad Ideas: Facebook Friends

In today?s episode about seemingly good ideas gone badly wrong David talks to the philosopher and journalist Kathleen Stock about Facebook Friends, something that was meant to make us happier and better connected but really didn?t. How did online friendship become so performative? Does its failings say more about Facebook and its business models or does it say more about us? And why are academics so susceptible to the madness of social media?

For ad-free listening and bonus episodes ? including more bad ideas ? subscribe to PPF+ www.ppfideas.com

Next time on The History of Bad Ideas: historian Christopher Clark on Antisemitism


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2024-05-02
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The History of Bad Ideas: The Gold Standard

In the second episode in our series on bad ideas David talks to the political economist Helen Thompson about the gold standard, which was meant to anchor the world economy until it all fell apart a hundred years ago. Why does gold so often appear like a stable basis for money in an unstable world ? and why not silver? What made the gold standard a source of instability instead?  How can money work if it has no material basis? And is quantitative easing a bad idea as well?


For ad-free listening and bonus episodes ? including more bad ideas ? subscribe to PPF+ www.ppfideas.com


Next time on The History of Bad Ideas: Kathleen Stock on Facebook Friends


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2024-04-28
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The History of Bad Ideas: Eugenics

For the first episode in our new series about the hold of bad ideas David talks to the geneticist and science broadcaster Adam Rutherford about eugenics: from its origins in the 19th century through its heyday in the 20th century to its continuing legacy today. Is eugenics bad science, bad morality, bad politics ? or all three? What are the fears that keep drawing people back to trying to control the consequences of human reproduction? And is a new age of consumerist eugenics upon us?


For ad-free listening and bonus episodes ? including more bad ideas ? subscribe to PPF+ www.ppfideas.com


Next time on The History of Bad Ideas: Helen Thompson on the Gold Standard


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2024-04-25
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The History of Freedom w/Lea Ypi: Liberation Movements

In our final episode David and Lea discuss liberation movements, from post-colonial liberation to women?s liberation, gay liberation and animal liberation. What, if anything, do these movements have in common? Is liberation about equality or is it about difference? And who needs liberating next ? children?


You can hear our bonus episodes for this series by signing up to PPF+ www.ppfideas.com In the first bonus episode ? available now ? David and Lea answer listeners? questions about AI, technology, online surveillance and brains-in-a-vat: what happens to freedom if we?re living in a computer simulation?


Coming next our brand new series: The History of Bad Ideas, beginning with Adam Rutherford on eugenics.


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2024-04-21
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The History of Freedom w/Lea Ypi: Existentialism and Psychoanalysis

In the penultimate episode in this series David and Lea discuss two twentieth-century philosophies of freedom and the human psyche. What can existentialism teach us about the nature of free choice under conditions of despair? Is there any escape from bad faith? And what can individuals ? or even entire societies ? learn about their freedom from being put on the couch?


Sign up to PPF+ to get two bonus episodes to accompany this and all future series along with ad-free listening: www.ppfideas.com


Coming next on the History of Freedom: Liberation Movements


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2024-04-18
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The History of Freedom w/Lea Ypi: Anarchism and Nihilism

In our series about different ideas of freedom David and Lea have reached anarchism and nihilism. What is the positive vision of human freedom behind the anarchist rejection of the established order? What can nineteenth-century anarchists teach us about freedom in the twenty-first century? And if nihilists are against everything, what are they for?


Sign up to PPF+ to get ad-free listening and two bonus episodes a month ? just go to ppfideas.com


Coming up next: David and Lea discuss existentialism and psychoanalysis.


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2024-04-14
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The History of Freedom w/Lea Ypi: What is the Free Market?

In the latest episode of our series about different ideas of freedom David and Lea explore what makes the free market free ? and where it fails. How does buying and selling stuff advance human freedom? What does the free market free us from? And is it really possible to be free in a world dominated by credit and debt? 


Sign up now for PPF+ to get bonus episodes and ad-free listening www.ppfideas.com


Next on the History of Freedom: Anarchism and Nihilism


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2024-04-11
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The History of Freedom w/Lea Ypi: Kant, Enlightenment and Peace

In this episode in our series about ideas of freedom David and Lea explore Immanuel Kant?s vision of rational freedom and perpetual peace. Why was Kant so sure that human reason would produce enlightened progress? Was he right? What are the obstacles likely to derail the advance of peace, then and now? How well do his arguments about free speech and free expression hold up in the age of the internet?


Sign up now for PPF+ to get bonus episodes and ad-free listening www.ppfideas.com


Coming up next on the History of Freedom: How Free is the Free Market?


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2024-04-07
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The History of Freedom w/ Lea Ypi: Machiavelli and Political Liberty

History of Freedom w/ Lea Ypi: Machiavelli and Political Liberty

For the third episode in our series about ideas of freedom David and Lea discuss Machiavelli, republicanism and what it means to live in a free state. What are the institutions that can protect people from domination and exploitation? How can political elites be held to account? Where are human beings most likely to find themselves at the mercy of others ? and what can be done to help them escape?


Sign up now for PPF+ to get bonus episodes and ad-free listening www.ppfideas.com


Coming up next on the History of Freedom: Kant, Enlightenment and Peace


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2024-04-04
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The History of Freedom w/Lea Ypi: The Ancients - Socrates, Seneca & Jesus

In episode two of our new series David and Lea explore some ancient ideas of freedom and ask what they mean today. What can Socrates teach us about the nature of free inquiry and the pitfalls of democratic freedom? Is Stoicism a guide to emancipation from desire or an exercise in selfishness? And how did Christianity upend the notion of freedom by annexing it to ideas of salvation and love? A conversation about dissent, self-knowledge and faith.


Sign up now for PPF+ to get ad-free listening and bonus episodes to accompany this and all future series. Just follow the top link https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Coming next on the History of Freedom: Machiavelli, republicanism and what it means to live in a free state, then and now.


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2024-03-31
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The History of Freedom w/Lea Ypi: Why Does It Matter?

In the first episode of our new series about the history of freedom, David and Lea discuss what the idea means to them and why it matters so much. What did freedom mean to Lea growing up in communist Albania? Is it possible to know true freedom without also having experienced oppression? And how is being free different from being lucky?


Subscribe now to PPF+ to get bonus episodes and ad-free listening for this and all future series. Just go to www.ppfideas.com.


Coming up next on the History of Freedom: The Ancients ? Socrates, Seneca & Jesus.


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2024-03-28
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Introducing PPF+

Sign up now for bonus episodes and ad-free listening ? and help support the podcast.


 www.ppfideas.com


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2024-03-27
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American Elections: 2008

For our final episode in this series, David and Gary discuss the election of 2008, which saw Barack Obama?s extraordinary ascent to the presidency. How did he outthink and outmanoeuvre Hilary Clinton? What role did the financial crisis play in his path to the White House? And was it really the vice-presidential candidates in this election who pointed the way to America?s political future?


To sign up for our free fortnightly newsletter to accompany this and future series, just click on the top link in our Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Coming next: our new series ? The History of Freedom with Lea Ypi. Plus news of how you can sign up to PPF Plus to get bonus episodes and ad-free listening.


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2024-03-24
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American Elections: 1980

Our series on the Ideas Behind American Elections has reached 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. David and Gary discuss whether Jimmy Carter was always doomed, what made Reaganomics different and how Reagan succeeded in being an optimist and a scaremonger at the same time. Did this election really inaugurate a new era in American politics ? and if so, are we still living in it?


To sign up for our free fortnightly newsletter to accompany this and future series, just click on the top link in our Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Coming up: 2008 and the election of Barack Obama


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2024-03-21
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American Elections: 1936

The election of 1936 saw FDR re-elected in a landslide. It was also an election in which fundamental questions about the future direction of America were at stake. David and Gary discuss what made it a turning point for American democracy and ultimately for the wider world. Could the power of the Supreme Court be tamed? What was the true nature of economic freedom? And what threatened the New Deal - dissent at home or looming dangers abroad?


To sign up for our free fortnightly newsletter to accompany this and future series, just click on the top link in our Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Coming up: The election of 1980 and the arrival of Reaganomics.


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2024-03-17
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American Elections: 1912

We?ve reached the twentieth century and today?s episode is about the decisive election of 1912. David and Gary discuss the year when the Republicans split, the Democrats recaptured the White House after an absence of twenty years, and American politics shifted decisively towards progressivism. Who were the real progressives? What was Theodore Roosevelt trying to achieve in setting up a new party? How did Woodrow Wilson mange to win the nomination and the presidency? And was this the election that saw the dawn of a new environmental politics? 


To sign up for our free fortnightly newsletter to accompany this and future series, just click on the top link in our Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Coming up: How the election of 1936 sealed the New Deal.


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2024-03-14
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American Elections: 1896

This episode in our series on the Ideas Behind American Elections looks at 1896, when a single speech nearly upended American politics. The speech was William Jennings Bryan?s ?Cross of Gold? address at the Democratic Party convention, which won him the nomination. How did a 36-year old outsider from Nebraska get so close to reaching the White House? What made the issue of silver coinage the driving force behind American populism? And why was 1896 the template for a new kind of campaigning, in which the power of oratory had to square off against the power of money?


To sign up for our free fortnightly newsletter to accompany this and future series, just click on the top link in our Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Next time: 1912 and the great Republican split


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2024-03-10
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American Elections: 1860

In the third episode in our series on the Ideas Behind American Elections David and Gary talk about what was maybe the most significant election of all: 1860, when Lincoln became president and the country careened into civil war. How did the newly formed Republican Party break the stranglehold of the established parties? Why could the South neither unite against it nor accept its victory? What enabled Lincoln to wrestle the Republican nomination at the party's convention in Chicago and what might have happened if he had failed?


To sign up for our free fortnightly newsletter to accompany this and future series, just click on the top link in our Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Coming up: 1896 and the populist revolt


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2024-03-07
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American Elections: 1828

For the second episode in our new series on the Ideas Behind American Elections, David and Gary discuss 1828: the first great populist election, which saw the arrival of Andrew Jackson and a new style of politics in the White House. What made Jackson different from his predecessors? How did this election reinvent the American party system? And why were Jackson's arguments with Vice-President John Calhoun about economic tariffs so toxic that they brought the country close to civil war?


To sign up for our free fortnightly newsletter to accompany this and future series, just click on the top link in our Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Coming up next: the Election of 1860 and Abraham Lincoln


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2024-03-03
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American Elections: 1800

In the first episode of our new series on the Ideas Behind American Elections, David and historian Gary Gerstle explore the presidential contest of 1800: scurrilous, complicated, game changing. How did it help create the American party system? Was it really democratic? What would have happened if Aaron Burr had won? Plus, just how accurate is the depiction of the election in Hamilton the musical?


PLUS sign up now for the new PPF newsletter. A free, fortnightly guide to recent episodes, jam-packed with further reading, more to watch and listen to, plus extras from David. Starting with the Great Political Fictions.


To get the newsletter just click on the top link in our Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/ppfideas


Next week on the Ideas Behind American Elections: 1828.


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2024-02-29
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Q & A: Shakespeare, Gulliver and Trump

In an extra episode this week David answers your questions about the most recent series of the History of Ideas - in particular about the political lessons of Gulliver?s Travels, for its own time and for our own. Plus, how is Trump like - and not like - Coriolanus, and where are the female authors for this series? (A: they?re coming!)


Starting in our regular slot next week, PPF moves to two episodes a week as we launch our new series on the Ideas Behind American Elections with Gary Gerstle - beginning with the election of 1800: Adams v Jefferson v Hamilton v Burr.


We will also be letting you know how to sign up to our free fortnightly newsletter - coming soon!


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2024-02-25
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History of Ideas: Fathers and Sons

This week?s Great Political Fiction is Ivan Turgenev?s Fathers and Sons (1862), the definitive novel about the politics ? and emotions ? of intergenerational conflict. How did Turgenev manage to write a wistful novel about nihilism? What made Russian politics in the early 1860s so chock-full of frustration? Why did Turgenev?s book infuriate his contemporaries ? including Dostoyevsky?


More from the LRB:

Pankaj Mishra on the disillusionment of Alexander Herzen 

'"Emancipation", he concluded, "has finally proved to be as insolvent as redemption".'

Julian Barnes on Turgenev and Flaubert 

?When the two of them meet, they are already presenting themselves as elderly men in their early forties (Turgenev asserts that after 40 the basis of life is renunciation).?


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2024-02-22
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History of Ideas: Mary Stuart

This week?s Great Political Fiction is Friedrich Schiller?s monumental play Mary Stuart (1800), which lays bare the impossible choices faced by two queens ? Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots ? in a world of men. Schiller imagines a meeting between them that never took place and unpicks its fearsome consequences. Why does it do such damage to them both? How does the powerless Mary maintain her hold over the imperious Elizabeth? Who suffers most in the end and what is that suffering really worth?

Next week: Turgenev?s Fathers and Sons (1862)

Coming up: The Ideas Behind American Elections ? a twice-weekly series running throughout March with Gary Gerstle, looking at 8 American presidential elections from 1800 to 2008 and exploring the ideas that shaped them and helped to shape the world.

Coming soon: sign up to the PPFIdeas newsletter!


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2024-02-15
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History of Ideas: Gulliver?s Travels

This week?s episode on the great political fictions is about Jonathan Swift?s Gulliver?s Travels (1726) ? part adventure story, part satire of early-eighteenth-century party politics, but above all a coruscating reflection on the failures of human perspective and self-knowledge. Why do we find it so hard to see ourselves for who we really are? What makes us so vulnerable to mindless feuds and wild conspiracy theories? And what could we learn from the talking horses?


More from the LRB:

Clare Bucknell on Swift the satirist

?Swift?s satire was fabulous as well as honest, a distorting magnifying glass as well as a mirror.?

Terry Eagleton on Swift?s double standards

?Swift and Montaigne are outraged by colonial brutality while being deep-dyed authoritarians themselves.?


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2024-02-08
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History of Ideas: Coriolanus

In the first episode of our new series on the great political fictions, David talks about Shakespeare?s Coriolanus (1608-9), the last of his tragedies and perhaps his most politically contentious play. Why has Coriolanus been subject to so many wildly different political interpretations? Is pride really the tragic flaw of the military monster at its heart? What does it say about the struggle between elite power and popular resistance and about the limits of political argument?

More from the LRB:

Colin Burrow on Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus 

Michael Wood on Coriolanus in the Hunger Games


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2024-02-01
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The End of Enlightenment

This week David talks to Richard Whatmore and Lea Ypi about what caused the loss of faith in the idea of Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century and the parallels with our loss of faith today. Why did hopes for a better, more rational world start to seem like wishful thinking? How was Britain implicated in the demise of Enlightenment ideals? And what might have happened if there had been no French Revolution?


Richard Whatmore?s The End of Enlightenment is available now 


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2024-01-25
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Rory Stewart: What Does it Mean to be a 21st-Century Tory?

This week David talks to Rory Stewart about his life in politics and the history of the ideas behind his political philosophy. What does it mean to be a Tory in the twenty-first century? When and how did the Conservative party get taken over by Whigs? Where ? if anywhere ? can independents find a home in contemporary British democracy? A conversation about the many different forces that shape our politics, from Gulliver?s Travels to Liz Truss. 


Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart is published by Penguin Books


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2024-01-18
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The End of the UK?

This week David talks to the political scientist Mike Kenny about the possible fate of the United Kingdom. What makes the UK such an unusual political arrangement? How has it managed to hold together through war, economic decline, Brexit, Covid? What still threatens to break it apart?


Mike Kenny?s new book is Fractured Union: Politics, Sovereignty and the Fight to Save the UK


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2024-01-11
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History of Ideas 12: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Episode 12 in our series on the great essays is about Ta-Nehisi Coates?s ?The Case for Reparations?, published in the Atlantic in 2014. Black American life has been marked by injustice from the beginning: this essay explores what can ? and what can?t ? be done to remedy it, from slavery to the housing market, from Mississippi to Chicago. Plus, what has this story got to do with the origins of the state of Israel?


Read the original essay here.


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2024-01-05
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History of Ideas 11: Umberto Eco

Episode 11 in our series on the great essays explores Umberto Eco?s ?Thoughts on Wikileaks? (2010). Eco writes about what makes a true scandal, what are real secrets, and what it would mean to expose the hidden workings of power. It is an essay that connects digital technology, medieval mystery and Dan Brown. Plus David talks about the hidden meaning of Julian Assange.


More from the LRB:

Andrew O?Hagan on Julian Assange

?I?d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear.?

Frank Kermode on the Name of the Rose

?This novel has so much in it that differs from any known kind of detective story that we must look to Eco?s pre-semiotic career for help.?

Jenny Diski on Eco and ugliness

?The breadth of Eco?s search spreads out to include disgust, horror, fear, obscenity, misogyny, perversity, bigotry, social exclusiveness, repression, inexplicability, evil, deformation, degradation, heterogeneity.?


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2024-01-04
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History of Ideas 10: David Foster Wallace

Episode 10 in our series on the great essays is about David Foster Wallace?s ?Up, Simba!?, which describes his experiences following the doomed campaign of John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Wallace believed that McCain?s distinctive political style revealed some hard truths about American democracy. Was he right? What did he miss? And how do those truths look now in the age of Trump?


More on David Foster Wallace from the LRB:

Jenny Turner on Wallace and his moment

?The risk Wallace takes is to guess he is not the only "obscenely well-educated", curiously lost and empty white boy out there; that his sadness is also the experience of a whole historical moment.?

Patricia Lockwood on Wallace and his influence

?It was the essayists who were left to cope with his almost radioactive influence. He produced a great deal of excellent writing, the majority of it not his own.?

Dale Peck?s notorious takedown of Infinite Jest

?If nothing else, the success of Infinite Jest is proof that the Great American Hype machine can still work wonders.?


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2024-01-03
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History of Ideas 9: Joan Didion

Episode 9 in our series on the great essays is about Joan Didion's 'The White Album' (1979), her haunting, impressionistic account of the fracturing of America in the late 1960s. From Jim Morrison to the Manson murders, Didion offers a series of snapshots of a society coming apart in ways no one seemed to understand. But what was true, what was imagined, and where did the real sickness lie?


More on Joan Didion from the LRB archive:

Thomas Powers on Didion and California:

'The thing that California taught her to fear most was snakes, especially rattlesnakes...This gets close to Didion's core anxiety: watching for something that could be anywhere, was easily overlooked, could kill you or a child playing in the garden ? just like that.'

Mary-Kay Wilmers on Didion and memory:

'Reassurance is something Didion doesn't need. She is talking to herself, weighing up the past, going over old stories, keeping herself company. Staging herself.'

Martin Amis on Didion's style:

'The Californian emptiness arrives and Miss Didion attempts to evolve a style, or manner, to answer to it. Here comes divorces, breakdowns, suicide bids, spliced-up paragraphs, 40-word chapters and italicised wedges of prose that used to be called "fractured".'

Patricia Lockwood on reading Didion now:

'To revisit Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album is to read an old up-to-the-minute relevance renewed. Inside these essays the coming revolution feels neither terrifying nor exhilarating but familiar ? if you are a reader of Joan Didion, you have been studying it all your life.'


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2024-01-02
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History of Ideas 8: Susan Sontag

Episode 8 in our history of the great essays is about Susan Sontag?s ?Against Interpretation? (1963). What was interpretation and why was Sontag so against it? David explores how an argument about art, criticism and the avant-garde can be applied to contemporary politics and can even explain the monstrous appeal of Donald Trump.


Sontag in the LRB:

Terry Castle on Sontag and friendship 

?At its best, our relationship was rather like the one between Dame Edna and her feeble sidekick Madge ? or possibly Stalin and Malenkov.?

James Wolcott on Sontag and polemics

?The upside of Sontag?s downside was that her ire was generated by the same power supply that electrified her battle for principles that others only espoused.?

Mark Grief on Sontag and identity

?One of the most appealing things about Susan Sontag was that she didn?t ask to be liked. Sontag?s persona was not personal. It was superior.?

Joanna Biggs on Sontag and Paris

?Paris let her say no to an academic life, but not to a life of ideas. The best thinking was done in cafes, or in bed, or at the movies, not in libraries.?


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2024-01-01
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History of Ideas 7: James Baldwin

Episode 7 in our series on the great essays is about James Baldwin?s ?Notes of a Native Son? (1955), an essay that combines autobiography with a searing indictment of America?s racial politics. At its heart it tells the story of Baldwin?s relationship with his father, but it is also about fear, cruelty, violence and the terrible compromises of a country at war. What happens when North and South collide?


More on Baldwin from the LRB:

Michael Wood on Baldwin and power 

?James Baldwin?s thinking recalls Virginia Woolf?s view of the way that women have been used as mirrors by men.?

Colm Toibin on reading Baldwin

?James Baldwin?s legacy is both powerful and fluid, allowing it to fit whatever category each reader requires, allowing it to influence each reader in a way that tells us as much about the reader as it does about Baldwin.?


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2023-12-31
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History of Ideas 6: Simone Weil

Episode 6 in our series on the great essays is about Simone Weil?s ?Human Personality? (1943). Written shortly before her death aged just 34, it is an uncompromising repudiation of the building blocks of modern life: democracy, rights, personal identity, scientific progress ? all these are rejected. What does Weil have to put in their place? The answer is radical and surprising.


Read ?Human Personality? here

For more on Weil from the LRB archive:

Toril Moi on living like Weil 

?If we take Weil as seriously as she took herself, our nice lives will fall apart.?

Alan Bennett on Kafka and Weil

?Many parents, one imagines, would echo the words of Madame Weil, the mother of Simone Weil, a child every bit as trying as Kafka must have been. Questioned about her pride in the posthumous fame of her ascetic daughter, Madame Weil said: ?Oh! How much I would have preferred her to be happy.?? 


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2023-12-30
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History of Ideas 5: George Orwell

Episode 5 in our series on the great essays is about George Orwell. His wartime essay ?The Lion and the Unicorn? (1941) is about what it does ? and doesn?t ? mean to be English. How did the English manage to resist fascism? How are the English going to defeat fascism? These were two different questions with two very different answers: hypocrisy and socialism. David takes the story from there to Brexit and back again.


For more on Orwell from the LRB:

Samuel Hynes on Orwell and politics

?He was not, in fact, really a political thinker at all: he had no ideology, he proposed no plan of political action, and he was never able to relate himself comfortably to any political party.?

Julian Symons on Orwell and fame

?If George Orwell had died in 1939 he would be recorded in literary histories of the period as an interesting maverick who wrote some not very successful novels.?

Terry Eagleton on Orwell and experience

?Orwell detested those, mostly on the left, who theorised about situations without having experienced them, a common empiricist prejudice. There is no need to have your legs chopped off to sympathise with the legless.?

More from the History of Ideas:

Judith Shklar on Hypocrisy


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2023-12-29
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History of Ideas 4: Virginia Woolf

Episode 4 in our series on the great essays is about Virginia Woolf?s masterpiece ?A Room of One?s Own? (1929). David discusses how an essay on the conditions for women writing fiction ends up being about so much else besides: anger, power, sex, modernity, independence and transcendence. And how, despite all that, it still manages to be as fresh and funny as anything written since.


Read more on Virginia Woolf in the LRB:

Jacqueline Rose on Woolf and madness

?It is, one might say, a central paradox of modern family life that its members are required to mould themselves in each other?s image and yet to know, as separate individuals or egos, exactly who they are.?

Gillian Beer on Woolf and reality

?The ?real world? for Virginia Woolf was not solely the liberal humanist world of personal and social relationships: it was the hauntingly difficult world of Einsteinian physics and Wittgenstein?s private languages.?

Rosemary Hill on Woolf and domesticity

?Woolf, who had once found it humiliating to do her own shopping, spent the last morning of her life dusting with Louie, before she put her duster down and went to drown herself.?

John Bayley on Woolf and writing

?For Virginia Woolf wish-fulfilment was in words themselves, that protected her from herself and from society.?

Listen to David?s History of Ideas episode about Max Weber?s ?The Profession and Vocation of Politics?.


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2023-12-28
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History of Ideas 3: Thoreau

Episode three in our series about the great political essays is about Thoreau?s ?Civil Disobedience? (1849), a ringing call to resistance against democratic idiocy. Thoreau wanted to resist slavery and unjust wars. How can one citizen turn the tide against majority opinion? Was Thoreau a visionary or a hypocrite? And what do his arguments say about environmental civil disobedience today?

Read Thoreau?s essay here


From the LRB:

Paul Laity on Thoreau and self-sufficiency

Jeremy Harding on XR and civil disobedience 


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2023-12-27
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History of Ideas 2: Hume

Episode two in our series on the great essays is about David Hume. How can eighteenth-century arguments about the national debt help make sense of American politics today? When does public borrowing become a recipe for national disaster? Who is really in charge of the public finances: the government or the bankers, Washington, D.C. or Wall Street? And what has all this got to do with Hume?s arguments for the morality of suicide?

Read Hume?s original essay ?Of Public Credit? here.

For more on Hume from the archive of the LRB:

Jonathan Rée on Hume?s voracious appetites: ??The Corpulence of his whole person was better fitted to communicate the Idea of the Turtle-Eating Alderman than of a refined Philosopher,? as a friend put it.?

Fara Dabhoiwala on Hume and mockery: ?David Hume often resorted to ridicule to undermine hypocrisy or superstition, even if he doubted its capacity to settle controversial questions, arguing that mockery was as likely to distort as to reveal the truth.?

John Dunn on Hume and us: ?Hume is in some ways so very modern . . . But just because he is in some ways so close to us, it is easy to lose the sense that in many others his beliefs and experiences stand at some little distance from our own.?


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2023-12-26
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History of Ideas 1: Montaigne

Episode one in our series on the great essays is about Montaigne, the man who invented a whole new way of writing and being read. From the fear of death to the joys of life, from the perils of atheism to the pitfalls of faith, from sex to religion and back again, Montaigne wrote the book of himself, which was also a guide to what it means to be human. Elephants, civil war, gout, cosmology, torture, tennis balls, disease, diets, and politics too: all life is here.

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2023-12-25
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History of Ideas Q&A

For our last episode before Christmas David answers some of your questions about the History of Ideas series ? What would Dickens have made of Trump? How would reparations work? Which essays are missing from the list? 

Coming up: the whole series on the great essays, one a day, every day, starting on Christmas Day.


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2023-12-21
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The Art of the Essay

As we wrap up our History of Ideas series David discusses what makes a great essay and whether the best contemporary writing is as good as what went before. The answer is yes, as shown by Jiayang Fan?s brilliant 2020 essay ?How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda?. David explores why this is such a remarkable example of what can be done with the form and why the art of the essay is alive and well.


Read Jiayang Fan?s essay here


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2023-12-14
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Something?s Got to Give

This week David talks to the economists Dieter Helm and Diane Coyle about the challenges of building sustainability into the way we live now. Why is GDP such a poor guide to long-term economic well-being? How can we stop squandering future resources?  What should the next Labour government do to create a sustainable economy ? and what will happen if they don?t?


Dieter Helm?s new book is available to download for free here

Read the Bennett Institute report on Universal Basic Infrastructure here


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2023-12-07
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Democracy Q&A w/ Lea Ypi

This week David and Lea answer your questions about democracy. When does democratic freedom shade over into anarchy? What?s the connection between democracy and human rights? Do the voters choose the government or does the government choose the voters? Plus: what makes Lea an optimist about socialism?

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2023-11-30
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History of Ideas: Ta-Nehisi Coates

In the penultimate episode in our series on the great essays, David talks about Ta-Nehisi Coates?s ?The Case for Reparations?, published in the Atlantic in 2014. Black American life has been marked by injustice from the beginning: this essay explores what can ? and what can?t ? be done to remedy it, from slavery to the housing market, from Mississippi to Chicago. Plus, what has this story got to do with the origins of the state of Israel?


Read the original essay here.


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2023-11-23
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Democracy vs Nationalism w/ Lea Ypi

In the latest instalment of David?s ongoing conversation with Lea Ypi about the past, present and future of democracy they discuss whether democratic politics can ever break free from the stranglehold of the nation-state. When and why did nationalism take such a strong grip of the idea of democracy? What are the international or cosmopolitan alternatives? And can a democracy police its borders without having actual borders or actual police?


Listen to the previous episodes in this series here.


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2023-11-16
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