The Decentralists

Episode 5: Dr. Wade Davis, Rock & Roll Anthropologist

December 10, 2020 Mike Cholod, Henry Karpus & Chris Trottier
The Decentralists
Episode 5: Dr. Wade Davis, Rock & Roll Anthropologist
Show Notes Transcript

What’s happening to our civilization? Anthropologist Wade Davis asks this question often. Professor Davis is the B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk, at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia—as well as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.

Named by National Geographic as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, Professor Davis has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” In an era of unprecedented technological advancement, we asked Professor Davis how social media is affecting society at large.

For the first time in history, most of humanity—informed by technology—has come together to fight a pandemic. Yet, America, long a bastion of superpower, finds itself laid low by COVID.

What role does social media play in the collapse of American society? 

How do we fix social media?

Will the chaos of the U.S. Presidential election, the division amongst citizens, and the disastrous response to COVID be the last dying gasps of “The American Empire”?

Can America be saved?

Join us as Wade Davis shares his insights!

Henry: Hey everyone. It’s Henry, Mike and Chris of The Decentralists and we are absolutely thrilled to have a very special guest with us today. None other than Wade Davis, the rock and roll anthropologist. Love it. Wade is actually B.C Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, and Explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. Named by national geographic as one of the explorers for the millennium, he has been described as a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity. 


In recent years, his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea Australia, Columbia, Vanuatu, Mongolia, and the high Arctic of Nunavut and Greenland. An ethnographer writer, photographer and filmmaker Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his doctorate in ethnobotany all from Harvard University. Now, mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Andes and Amazon as a plant Explorer living among 15 indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations, while making some 6,000 botanical collections. 


Now his work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies. Actually, an assignment that led him to writing passage of darkness and the serpent and the rainbow, an international bestseller later released by universal as a motion picture. His latest book is an incredible story of Columbia entitled Magdalena River of Dreams. Wade, welcome to The Decentralists.


Wade:            Thank you Henry so much for having me that glowing introduction.


Henry: It’s all true. At least that’s what we’ve read. We’re pretty impressed and considering your background Wade. It’s one of the reasons we’re so excited to talk to you.


Mike: Absolutely, Wade. I must say it’s not hard to give you a glowing reference. The three of us, we need all the help we can get. So, we’re hoping to get a little bit of glow off of your halo here on this episode of The Decentralista and it’s an honor to chat with you today.


Wade:            Thanks very much.


Henry: We’ve been throwing around a question to start the chat, and it’s kind of a funny one. Most people envision scholars in dusty basement offices with their heads down while reading and publishing dry papers in academic journals, how did you become what we call a rock star anthropologists and ethnobotanist?


Wade:            Well, I would never call myself a rock star or anything, but, you know, in all seriousness, you know, I was very fortunate to have two extraordinary mentors at Harvard. One course was Richard Evans Schultes who was the legendary botanical explorer. You know, the man for whom mountains have been named in South America. A guy sparked the psychedelic era with his discovery of the magic mushrooms in Mexico in 1938, and he was also one of the very first botanist even before the conservation biology movement to actually herald the wonder of the Amazon, but also to speak of its peril, and of course the fact that those who knew it best were under threat, the indigenous people, and so even though he was not really political in a sense, and he was not really a conservation per se, he was unique in saying the voices of the indigenous people deserve to be heard. 


Their knowledge is, you know, makes that of a Harvard trained taxonomists pale in comparison and in anthropology, I had an incredible mentor, David Maybury-Lewis, who was probably one of the great Americanists he had lived with groups in the central Brazil, but he always felt that anthropology had an activist heart to it. He founded Cultural Survival. You know, he introduced me to Franz Boas and of course it was Franz Boas who really shattered the European mind by saying that, you know the world in which you were born was just one model of reality, and these other peoples aren’t failed attempts to being us. 


You know, every culture is a unique answer to the finding question of what does it mean to be human and alive, and he never separated anthropology from activism, and of course, Ruth Benedict, who was a great student of Franz Boas famously said that the whole purpose of anthropology was to make the world safe for human differences. The lesson of anthropology is that every culture has got something to say and needs deserves to be heard. Now, it’s interesting when I was a graduate student in the late seventies, there was in fact, a chasm between the biologists and the anthropologists whereby the biologists were sort of you know, viewing people as a problem, indigenous people included, and of course, anthropologists couldn’t abide what they saw as a sort of misanthropic elitism omen of these naturalists.


Henry: Right.


Mike: Right.


Wade:            There was an amazing night at Harvard and the Dalai Lama had made his first trip ever to America, and his last stop on that tour was to give a talk at Harvard and that very night kitty corner a different hall, the legendary biologist Ed Wilson was introducing a man called Norman Meyers from Kenya who had just written a book called The Sinking Arc, which was one of the very first books to draw attention to the looming, what we now call the biodiversity crisis, and naturally all the kids and all the faculty were across the way to listen to His Holiness, right, and Ed Wilson literally, and he would have regret these words to this day because he’s one of the kindest most wise and most extraordinary scholars of his era, but he introduced Norman Meyers in apologizing for the sparse audience. He said, and I quote, if even Harvard students can’t get their priorities, right, and they’d rather be across the way, listening to that religious kook, you know how far we’ve got to go to educate the public at large, and that distilled the whole problem then.


Henry: Right.


Wade:            I probably was the only student that night running back and forth between the two talks, and of course, Ed would be the first to regret those words, but it reflected that chasm that existed, and the amazing thing though, is that it’s actually science and genetics that have come to the fore since then to prove the truth of the intuitions of the anthropology. I mean, what anthropology has always tried to say is, you know, manners don’t make the men, men and women invent the manners. Race, isn’t biological, it’s a social construct. You know, the other peoples of the world are just, you know, unique answers to this fundamental question. 


What does it mean to be human and alive, and now the amazing thing is the studies of the human genome have left no doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum. Race is a fiction. We’re all cut from the same genetic cloth [inaudible 07:13] walked out of Africa, but here’s the important thing. If you accept that scientific truth, it means that all human populations, by definition, it makes sense share the same basic genius, the same human potential, and critically how that potential is expressed is simply a matter of choice. We have celebrated in our tradition, technological wizardry, but the Aboriginal people of Australia have focused on unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth. It’s just a matter of choice. 


At all Victorian idea that there was this hierarchy of culture, you know, that went from the savage to the barbarian, to the civilized of the strand of London, with you know, European society at the apex of the pyramid its slope down to the so-called primitives of the world has been absolutely debunked by modern science and shown to be as much an artifact of the 19th century as distant from our lives and as irrelevant to our lives there’s a notion that clergymen had then that the earth was just 6,000 years old. 


Ironically, given that history with Ed Wilson and the Dalai Lama science has come to the fore to prove the actual truth of Boas’s extraordinary revelation about cultural relativism, and you know, because I came out of that background and, you know, I was living in a world where the rain forest were being destroyed at a tremendous rate, and people didn’t even know it then Henry. I mean, you know, you can’t imagine back in 1974, when I first went off as an accolade of Schultes as a botanical Explorer to the Amazon, I could have told one in a thousand North Americans I’m going to the Amazon, and I might, as well said, I’m going down, you know, to the beach. I mean, it didn’t even register.


Henry: Right.


Wade:            So I’d seen the destruction in the Amazon, and I’d also seen the impact on cultural diversity, and it became so clear to me long before these revelations from genetics that the same forces causing the erosion of cultural diversity were impacting, of course, the wonder biological diversity, and because those issues seem so acute to me, I felt it was almost morally reprehensible to simply confine our knowledge within the ivory tower and the silos of the Academy, and I had a calling to be kind of a public scholar, you know, I wanted to share the stories of what I knew, and in the end, that kind of led me into a path less of the academic than as a storyteller. You know, I always described myself more as a storyteller than an academic. Of course, I had the academic training. Of course, each of my books is the equivalent of, in some cases, several PhDs. So, I have the academic rigor, but the challenge that I embraced and felt was so important was to bring the stories of culture to the world.


Henry: Okay, and activism as well as part and parcel of it.


Wade:            Part and parcel from the beginning.


Mike:            Right. So, so wait, let me jump in here. I want to talk about this a little bit. So, you know, I’m seeing Indiana Jones and I’m seeing you know, the other guy, the other professor colleague of his. You’ll probably look great in a Stetson hat and can wield a mean whip, but I think that the idea of taking academic knowledge and kind of vision and turning it into something that is digestible, right by the average person is one thing, and it’s incredible because it expands the knowledge base of the, you know, let’s say John Q public or Jane Q public, and so one of the things that I want to kind of talk a little bit about is you mentioned, what I love about, you know, I’ve read two of the books, I’ve read the Magdalena, and I read Into the Wild.


Henry: Silence. Into the silence.



Mike: Into the Silence, sorry, and so what I really liked about them is how you weave in this, how there’s this continuity between people and environment and biology and science and attitudes and all of these things, and so what I want to kind of ask you is, I really think it’s interesting that you talk a lot about Aboriginal cultures and their relationship to activism. You know, I find that it’s also interesting that, what role do you think that we played in making these Aboriginal people? By we, I mean, you know, the, kind of the inheritors of the colonial you know, kind of system, whether it was England or France in North America, or Spain and Portugal and South America. What role do you think we played into turning these Aboriginal and indigenous people into activists?


Wade:            You know, every culture is myopic faithful to their own interpretation of reality. I mean, we have that in the Greek language whereby the word barbarian is derived from Barbara one who babbles, if you didn’t speak Greek, you didn’t exist. The 500 years before Christ when Hurghada just came back from Persia and have the audacity and Athens to say, there was something kind of interesting going on over there, [inaudible 12:23] wanted the advantage for favoring the world of the savages. You know, so we’ve had this kind of, this has been the curse of humanity since the dawn of awareness, and we forget that every culture of course, is a product of its own history. So, in terms of the European tradition, we have to remember that the seminal impulse of the Renaissance was to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of absolute faith. 


It was to break the back of the church and to liberate the individual from the collective, which is sort of the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom, and so when Descartes comes along and says that all that exists is mind and matter in kind of a single phrase, you de-animated the world until science made a housecleaning of belief, and the idea that the flight of a bird could have meaning was ridiculed, and as we throw out myth, magic, mysticism, we also threw out metaphor, and that was unfortunate because metaphor in fact is what creates relationships, pretty most cultures and the world, you know, in our tradition, we de-animated the world in the world became a stage set upon which only the human drama unfolded.


Henry: Right.


Wade:            You know, plants and animals were propped on the theater, and because of the success of that worldview, which of course gave us the objectivity to create the scientific method, to invent technology, to put a man on the moon, to create allopathic medicine, naturally that worldview with its charisma has become very dominant, but the triumph of secular materialism, which has become kind of the concede of modernity shouldn’t imply by its ubiquity and dominance that it’s the norm. It’s actually the exception, and it’s been, it’s something that has been in, you know in our tradition, but if you will look around the world, most societies don’t have a kind of extractive model of interactions, for example, with the environment, but rather a notion of reciprocity, some basic iteration of the earth owes its bounty to people, people in turn owe their fidelity to the earth, and that creates a kind of a dynamic that has very different consequences. 


So, for example, if I’m raised as a Canadian to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock, ready to be mined, I’m going to have a different relationship to that mountain than my godchildren in Peru raised to believe that a mountain is an Apu deity that will direct their destiny. If I’m raised as I was in British Columbia to believe that our forest existed to be cut. I mean, that was the foundation of the ideology of scientist and forest.


Henry: Yeah. Right.


Wade:            You know, then that makes me different than the Kwakwaka’wakw raised to believe that those forest to the abode of spirits to be embraced in the hamatsa at initiation. Again, it’s not about who’s right, and who’s wrong. It’s how the belief system has consequences in terms of the ecological footprint of the particular culture, and so when we look at something like climate change, Henry you know, climate change may have become humanity’s problem, but humanity didn’t cause the problem it was caused by this narrow subset of humanity the Western European tradition and all its manifestations around the world that for 300 years has consumed the ancient sunlight of the world, and what we find ironically, is that indigenous people who played no role in that, in the creation of that dilemma are both suffering the consequences more dramatic, and in terms of references of their own way of thinking, they’re doing more to try to tackle the problem than we are. 


So, this rather poignant so, you know, you mentioned that, you know, the two books Into the Silence, right. You know what I mean? The two books you mentioned and Magdalena kind of suggest how I ended up writing all these books. I’ve written now 23 books and, you know, Into the Silence to give you an idea of that, that took 12 years to write that book. I bought 600 books, 57 archives. I mean, that book is the work of multiple PhDs, and yet again, the story that I wanted to tell was driven by my passion that I didn’t want what my grandfather had gone through to be forgotten. 


The grandfather I never knew, right. Wanted the world to know that this extraordinary generation of men you know, men of discretion and decorum, who weren’t prepared to litter the world with themselves, or yield their feelings to analysis. I’m talking about that world war one generation who were so confident in their masculinity, that they could speak about love between men, without shame, you know, kept butterflies in the Dawn for the British Museum. Paint watercolors before lunch, discuss Shelley and Keats over lunch, and still be prepared to assault the German lines or in the case of the men of Everest, the flank, the greatest mountain in the world by dusk, they were a kind of man we’ll never know again, and yet it’s amazing to think that they were our grandfathers and that’s a story I wanted to tell.


Mike:            Wow, that’s fantastic.


Chris:            That’s a great story, Wade. You know, basically resetting the narratives.


Wade:            Let me just tell you something about anthropology for sec that’s very interesting. When 9-11 happened, Chris, Mike and Henry, I was in Washington living just up the street, across the street was a national cathedral, one of the potential targets, and down the street a month after the American Anthropological Association arrived for their annual convention, 4,000 anthropologists in town, in the wake of the biggest story of culture they, or the United States would ever face, and that gathering earned a single line in the gossip section of the newspaper. The entry said, The Nutcases Are Back in Town. I don’t know who is more remiss the government for not listening to the one profession that could answer that question on the lips then of every American. Why do they hate it?


Henry: Yeah. Why?


Mike:            Exactly.


Wade:            Or the profession itself for not having the wherewithal to reach outside of its own secret society to address the nation at large, and that was kind of the hole into which anthropology had allowed itself to fall, but anthropology voice has never been stronger. Think about this. Let’s just do a thought experiment, go back to those men I just spoke about born in the Edwardian age and who went through the crucible of the first world war. Think of their, certitudes think of what they believed about the nature of race, about the role of women, the role of men, criminals, homosexuals, whatever, not one of their certitudes would any of us today agree with, in fact many things that they thought we’d find to be morally reprehensible. 


Now, we say that as women have gone from the kitchen to the boardroom and people of color from the woodshed to the white house and gay people from the closet to the altar, we see those things as sort of social movements, right. That that’s how we got to think new ways, but no, at some point somebody had to challenge and shatter those Edwardian certitudes and the people that did it were the anthropologists who gathered around Franz Boas. They’re the ones who said that race was an absolute fiction. They’re the ones who said that a family could be one man and two women, two women, and one man or any configuration, as long as there is love in the household. 


They’re the ones who said the world that you live in is just one model of reality. The other peoples aren’t failed, and the point in saying that they put themselves at risk. They were hounded by the FBI. They were denied academic positions, but they absolutely sparked modernity and modern thought as we know it, and these were the heroes of the 20th century, long forgotten, and in fact, that’s why Franz Boas ranked with Darwin and Einstein and Freud as the four great pillars of intellectual thought of our lives, and yet always anthropology in good measure, I think because of its own self-absorption failed to kind of acknowledge or even live up to that extraordinary legacy. 


Henry: Wow, exactly.


Chris:            So, wait, I’d like to circle back for a moment here, right? Just as background, one of the things I was taught in school and high school specifically was that American style democracy came from Greece, specifically Athens. I later learned that that was a lie, that the American constitution was actually based upon the Iroquois Confederacy Constitution, but with two substantial differences. The first difference was that in the Iroquois Constitution, women had the vote, which women didn’t earn until the 20th century, and the other difference was, is that in the Iroquois Constitution, leaders had to think about the consequences of their choices down to at least the fifth generation. Now, the question I have for you, Wade, is if we were taught these lessons in school, right, how different do you think our society would have been?


Wade:            Well, you know, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Chris, but I mean, a little bit of what you just said is sort of hippie ethnography, you know, I mean, there’s no question that the precedent of the Iroquois was noticed and acknowledged but absolutely the founders of the US Constitution the writers of The Declaration of Independence were absolutely equally influenced by Locke and you know, philosophers of the enlightenment, which, you know, it was a mixed bag. I mean, it was such a complex thing. 


I mean, one of the real, I think issue was that every European colonial authority had a different kind of take on its possessions and that had direct consequences for the first peoples of the land. In other words, you know, it’s an important point that in Canada, for example, as John Ralston Saul suggests, you know, we were not a settler society. You know, we were a mercantile society, the French were interested in the Beaver pelt, and eventually it was the [inaudible 23:11] that drove the economy and the settlement and exploration of Canada, and as he says, we weren’t always nice to the first nations, but we didn’t deliberately set out to slaughter them. In many cases, again John says we married them in doing so we moved up in the world and he even sees some of the roots of sort of the overall comfort that we have in Canada with multiculturalism and consilience.


Mike: Right.


Wade:            The fact that half the people in Toronto were born outside of Canada, and that’s not seen as a problem by us, but as he traces that in some part to those early days of settlement -- of not settlement, but of mercantile zeal.


Henry: Wow.


Wade:            Now the Spaniards by contrast were extracted from the start. I mean, one of the reasons that Simón Bolivar had such a hatred of Spain, is that Spain never ceased to do anything, but squeeze every drop of wealth it could out of any possession, it held. You can’t believe the restrictions, for example, that were placed on people of Spanish blood born in the new world. They couldn’t have a printing press. They couldn’t grow grapes. They couldn’t have olives. They couldn’t do any number of things.


Henry: What?


Wade:            Yes. I mean, what sparked the Bolivarian Revolution, which I write about a lot in the book Magdalena, was it just the visceral hatred of the local Creole elite who by the 18th century were denied all rights squeeze for taxes, but not even allowed to generate local economy. I mean, it was all almost barbarically controlled by the Spanish crown, and that’s what really created the hatred that led to a revolution in which Bolivar, unlike Washington, didn’t liberate a few colonies along Atlantic shore, but liberated an entire continent, you know, riding 75,000 miles inspired by the maps of the legendary Nashville’s Alexander Von Humboldt, but in the United States was a third scenario, in which the people that came here came as settlers, they came over, some might say for religious freedom, others would say to practice their own breeds of religious intolerance, but there was no question that the English settling of what became the United States was a settler society and they had to create this sort of myth of its emptiness, you know [inaudible 2:47], I mean, an empty land, and then they proceeded to empty it, you know, and so open savage warfare on indigenous people was from the start part of the of the American experience. 


You know, in the wake of the civil war, for example, in 1871, Buffalo outnumbered people in North America in that year, you could see herds covering grazing areas, the size of the state of Rhode Island. From the height of their populations, the reduction to a zoological curiosity was not like over a hundred years of the advance of the American frontier. It occurred over seven years in which the US cavalry under Philip Sheridan explicitly set out to destroy the food and the commissary of the indigenous people, and when the last of the Buffalo was gone, and when the last of the indigenous chiefs was reduced to servitude in reservations, he recommended to the US Congress that a commemorative metal would have on the one side of it, a dead Buffalo and on the other side of dead Indian.


Henry: Wow.


Wade:            This gave rise to the American notion of the National Park. You know, I did an IMAX film in the grand Canyon with my old buddy Bobby Kennedy, and we had a great character in our film who was having soup pie, and she was a lovely, Shona [inaudible 27:09] was her name, and she told me a story from the lifetime of her great grandmother, where the grandmother the base of Bright Angel Fall had been tilling her corn field when a big fat guy with a kind of a strange hat came walking up, introduced himself as the owner of the park and ordered her out of his park, and that was Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt had a visceral hatred of native people. He called them a plague, a pathogen, an infection to remove be removed from the body of America. 


John Muir, the great hero of the conservation movement hated native people, his words to describe he met at Yosemite made Roosevelt’s comments tame in comparison, and so, in fact, the whole idea of the invention of the National Park is a kind of a cathedral to preserve given that so much of the landscape was being destroyed by the industrialization of the 19th century emerged as a kind of a secular church, but critically that wilderness had to be free of people. It had to be empty and national park, you didn’t have human activity, and so the first thing that you had to do is get rid of the indigenous people who had lived in that land for all of their tribal memory.


Henry: Wow.


Mike:            Right. Okay. So, you know, on this idea of weight of cultural focus you know, I remember hearing the quote, but I can’t remember who said it, but the quote was that the greatest export of the United States is their culture. You know, this is wrapped around this whole idea that when you go to the movie theater in most of the world, and this is changing, but in most of the world, you’re watching American movies, you’re watching American source television, right, and so, you know, this worldview that came out of, or comes out of the United States starts spreading as a blanket over the world. 


One of the other reasons why we called you a rock and roll anthropologist, because you did a recent article in the rolling stone on how the COVID pandemic is kind of starting to show or presage a decline of the American empire. Is it over, I mean, is this cultural homogenization like kind of stopping because you’re now seeing Bollywood and China and other countries developing.


Wade:            I mean, I think both China and Bollywood make more films than anyone does in LA anymore, but no, I mean first of all, you know, every kingdom is born to die. Every empire does not anticipate its end. I mean the 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to the Spanish, the 17th to the Dutch, the 18th to the French, the 19th to the British, the British empire reached its greatest physical extent as late as 1935, but we know that the empire was in decline by the diamonds, you believe in terms of industrial dominance, and it was bled white and bankrupt by the first world war, and we forget that in 1940, the United States by contrast was a demilitarized society. In 1940 Bulgaria and Portugal, even as Europe was a flame with the beginning of Hitler’s war. Both those countries had bigger armies than the United States.


Mike:            Incredible. Right.



Wade:            The United States then within three years had 18 million people serving in uniform and in answering Roosevelt’s call to become the arsenal of democracy. It did something that’s never happened in human history. It transformed itself in such a way that to give you an idea of the industrial might for every five pounds of equipment, the Japanese Empire of The Sun got per capita to a frontline soldier in the Pacific war, America got two tons. You know, we produced liberties groups by the hour. B-24’s with 1.5 million parts of the Will run Ford plant by the hour. We produced at the Chrysler’s Detroit arsenal, more tanks than the German built in the entire third Reich. You know, we made so much industrial output that without even thinking, we could send half a million trucks to Russia, half a million Jeeps to Russia, a million miles of wiring to Russia.


Mike:            Right.


Wade:            You know, 35 million uniforms and the Russian armies dripping in their own blood marched into Germany on boots made in Pittsburgh, 15 million pairs altogether, and this economic dominance in the wake of the war with Europe and Asia prostrate America untouched gave it incredible dominance, 4 percent of the population generating half the world’s economy, and that made for a certain kind of truce between labor and capital. Capital that gave this incredible birth to the working middle class, whereby a man with limited education could look forward to a good job, a union job that would buy him a house, buy him a car, support a family, and that you could look forward to his kids going into that work in his wake, right?


Mike:            Right.


Wade:            That social contract was eroded by globalization over two generations and any working men and women could see that globalization for all its fanfare was just capital on the prowl search of cheaper sources of labor and as the factory jobs disappeared so did the foundations in a sense of community as the country celebrated the individual with iconic intensity, we gained great freedom and mobility, but the family started to fall apart. Divorce rates soared. We pumped away all of our grandparents to retirement homes. Only 6 percent of American homes have grandparents beneath the same roof as grandchildren. 


Those grandchildren spend by the age of 18, two to three years, passively watching video screens of one sort or another contributing to an obesity epidemic. So severe is considered a natural crisis by the joint chiefs of staff. You know, we celebrated work with such intensity that the average American fathers spends 20 minutes a day in direct contact with a child. Americans consume two thirds of the world, any psychotic drugs and the greatest source of mortality now for those under 50 is opioid addiction. In other words, what I was trying to say is, and meanwhile, of course the country that went into the war demilitarized never stood down. 


We still to this day have soldiers in 150 countries. We spent 6 trillion dollars on military adventures, at least since 2001, and during those years we’ve never been at peace. China’s never been at war. They’ve built their infrastructure pouring more cement every three years than the Americans did in the 20th century, and so meanwhile the discrepancies of wealth have become almost grotesque. In the 1950s, the economy with no golden era, if you were black, if you’re homosexual, if you’re a woman, but in terms of economics, the country was more like Denmark than the nation of today. Marginal tax rates on the wealthy were 91 percent. The average CEO would make maybe 20 times as much as white collared staffer in his employ. 


Today, that discrepancy would be 4 to 500 times the top 1 percent of Americans control 30 trillion dollars of assets. The lower half of the American population has more debt than assets. The three richest Americans control more wealth than the poorest 160 million, and so you’ve got this society that looks in the mirror and sees what it once was perhaps, but not what it is today, and so when you have it’s almost like the idea of community, even society itself has been lost. Everybody has to fight for everything, no one deserves anything. Their sense of social solidarity has been sacrificed, and we see that when, you know, people flock to the beaches or the conventions defying the mask and the social distancing, they think they’re being courageous, but they’re actually displaying the weakness of the people who lack the stoicism to endure the pandemic or the fortitude to defeat it.


Mike:            Right.


Wade:            Greatest signs of decadence are the fact that personal freedom has come to me and the personal right to own your own arsenal. Something that trumps even the safety of children who get killed in the schools by the score. You know, on D-Day 1944, 4,414 allied soldiers were killed well by April of 2019. In that one year alone in those months, more Americans died than that simply by shooting each other. You know, we build walls around across the Mexican border define the very myth of America, welcoming the huddled masses and myths aren’t just stories. 


They’re moral charters, they’re aspirational, and so when you build a wall, you’re not only indulging in idiocy economically, and folly politically, it’s an act of treason because your treason is not just when you trade state secrets to an enemy, it’s when you betray the heart and soul and essence of who you are as a country, and decadence in a democracy occurs when people fully in possession of the facts choose to use their pressured, vote, to elect a buffoon of a president who recommends the use of disinfectants to treat a disease that intellectually he’s not capable of understanding, you know, a grifter with a backbone of a bully, a bone spur hero who avoided war at all costs, even as he claims his you know, flag wrapped chauvinistic Kent, and when people decide to vote for someone using their precious ballot to vote someone who they know has no credentials for the job, whose only credential is his willingness to indulge their grievances target their enemies, real and imagined that is what Oscar Wilde meant when he said that the United States was the only country to go through birth to decadence, without passing through civilization. When Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, and he replied, I think that would be a good idea.


Henry: Yeah, totally. You know, wait, let me ask you this. I think one of the things, so it’s interesting, you know, you talk about how they were almost able to turn on a dime, you know, faced with you know, this reality that became the war after, especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.


Wade:            Yeah, but the problem is you see with there, they had exactly that, that was what brought...


Henry: Common enemy.


Wade:            A common enemy, a common purpose. I mean, it wasn’t a trivial purpose. I mean, when I, you know, Henry, when I wrote that piece for Rolling Stone it was not any attempt to be critical of the United States. It was a love letter. I was holding a mirror to a country I adore because the only way in an intervention you can help out is to reveal to the loved one, how far they have fallen, and that’s the first step on the path of rehabilitation. 


I mean, right now you have a situation in the United States where again, because of the democratization of opinion, and you remember that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great Senator said, you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts, but now facts have become mutable, right, and social media has allowed the truth to be relative, which is a very dangerous situation, and because of that, you have two different realities living side by side. I mean, you know, the vast majority, and unfortunately it does cleave to a great measure around race. I mean, 57 percent of white Americans elected Trump after four years of his behavior. 


Definitely 4 million Americans, 8 million, more than in 2016, cast their ballot for this individual, and so, you know, and the vast majority of those who did you know, get all of their news from Fox, and they really believe that Trump did a great job with the pandemic. They really believe that there’s a conspiracy. I mean, the scariest thing about America today is that all the polls suggests that both the blues and the reds, if you will, or the Biden and the Trump or whatever you want to divide that chasm they both feel that if the other side is a sin, that it will mean the end of America. So, this is such a different situation from December 8th, 1941, when the country rallied as it did, and the real question before the American people. You’re quite right. I mean, America has never been a perfect place.


Henry: Sure.


Wade:            I mean, it’s always been the best and worst of all things, and it’s always managed to swing between extremes. You know, it is after all the country in the sense that with the new deal invented social democracy, but it’s got a big, big hill to climb at this point in time.


Henry: So, wait, why at this point from a, let’s say from whether it’s just a, you know, an observer’s perspective or an anthropological perspective.


Wade:            You know, one of the things that I find interesting is that what you, what you now see with people that are, you know, you have this technology and, you know, let’s say, you know, the most obvious and most let’s say commercial grade version of it right now, which is the internet in the form of social media. Had the promise, not that long ago, you know, when I started using, you know, the internet back in the eighties, or, you know, when you started dialing in and modems and CompuServe and things like this, it had this promise of uniting people to be able to kind of share information, right? 


Whether it was scientists or students, or whatever, with people from all over the world and figure out, you know, kind of how we could come together to come up with better ideas than we did in the past, because we could physically kind of interact and in a very short period of time, we’ve now turned that world of kind of enlightened dialogue and intellectual freedom into a zero sum game where it’s just people piling soap boxes on top of each other to see who can yell loudest. I mean, part of it is, I mean, I, you know, John Perry Barlow who founded The Electronic Frontier Foundation or whatever it was called, you know, lyricist for the dead, he represented this moment of great hope for the internet, and the internet still is an extraordinary research tool. It’s also a fantastic way for indigenous people, for example, to communicate with each other, to feel less alone, there’s still a positive ways that the internet is inspiring our lives. I mean, can you imagine going through this COVID lockdown without zoom, it would be very difficult.


Henry: Exactly. Correct.


Wade:            We have to keep things in perspective, but that said the real turning point is when these major enterprises, the search engines in particular, Google, Yahoo then of course the social media networking groups space and Facebook, it all came down to the fact that they had to find a way to monetize their operations, and they’d raised on the promise of the future enormous amounts of venture capital, and they had to find a way to rationalize that and they settled in advertising, and the minute they settled on advertising, the whole paradigm shifted because as you well know, I mean, the way that advertising works is number of eyes across a site, and the platforms couldn’t care less about what it is that draws those eyes. 


The more eyes is all they care about. The revenue models based on that, and so you have not only, you know, no control of what’s put up the more incendiary and dramatic the material the more eyes you will attract, and then on top of everything, you get the fact that, as a social dilemma film reveals and is certainly Zuboff’s, fantastic books, Surveillance Capitalism reveals, our data is being is their currency. We are being mined at all moments that we are online, including right now for information that will facilitate without our permission, their profitability and this is just the way it operates, and so the entire promise of the internet, the idealistic idea that you suggested has obviously been compromised by the financial opportunities and the financial imperatives. These huge companies have embraced with great delight. I mean, that’s what made them the dominant force that they are in the world.


Henry: So, wait, let me ask you a question. How do you fix it? You’ve got a unique perspective, right? You’ve you’re used to looking at these from a population level. Okay. How do we get it back to the point where people are nice to each other again?


Wade:            Well, I don’t know if you’ll ever get people nice to each other, but there’re certain clear forces that have, if not caused accentuated the chasm, media, for example right. You know, when Reagan destroyed or removed the Fairness Doctrine, the Fairness Doctrine was in place from the early days of radio when it was questioned as to, yes, you could own a private radio station, but the airways were public, and because of that, you were going to use the airways you had to provide balanced coverage of whatever, you couldn’t just get on and indulge demagoguery.


Henry: Right.


Wade:            It was the Fairnes Doctrine that made Walter Cronkite for generations, the most trusted man in America.


Henry: Yeah.


Wade:            When Reagan removed the foreign, the Fairness Doctrine, that’s what birth, right-wing talk radio. Now the left, try to do it with Air America, but the left for all of its own challenges in terms of what culture and it’s sort of, you know, weeping political correctness at times. It doesn’t do demagoguery very well, but the right wing certainly does, and Fox news could only exist in an atmosphere of open freedom to say, whatever the hell you want with, with not even the slightest moral, let alone ethical restraint, the meaning of the truth or the purpose of your report and so on, and so, that returning the Fairness Doctrine, which probably won’t ever happen, but that would be essential in terms of the internet. There just simply has to be some kind of monitoring and policing of the internet without censoring the internet that something is done to prevent the dissemination of these complete phantasmagoric of conspiracy ideas that you just can’t imagine that they achieve any kind of currency, but they do.


Henry: Right.


Wade:            So how do you deal with that? I mean, how do you deal with pornography, for example? I mean, you know, it’s a fascinating thing to realize, not just how ubiquitous pornography is on the web, but how banal it’s become. I mean, you know, in the days of my youth, if a young boy got hold of a Playboy Magazine or a pin up from Playboy Magazine, it was wildly erotic.


Henry: It was fantastic.


Wade:            Fantastic thing, right? Like my God.


Henry: Absolutely.


Wade:            I remember, I was the age of nine, I think I’ve somehow found a Playboy Magazine and pinned up a centerfold on the wall of my house, my room at home, my mother walked in and I’ve never seen her, so epileptic.


Henry: Totally. Amazing, the hiding places you could find back in those days.


Wade:            The thing is that, you know, now...


Henry: It’s just free and open for everybody.


Wade:            You know, and again, you know, it’s defining even sexual practices and expectations and norms for young people.


Henry: Right.


Wade:            There’s something so brutally, but now about pornography, where it’s ability to titillate is a diminishing return, more and more violence, sick, you know, anyways, I mean, so the society has to ask itself at what point is freedom compromised by control, and at what point is the wellbeing of the young. I mean, it’s a minefield, but something’s got to be done.


Henry: In an environment where you’ve got to your point earlier. I mean, we there’s roughly the election was almost too close to call, right? The last election and there’s people out there who still won’t call it, including Donald Trump, but, you know, in that type of a world, a political solution seems almost impossible. So, is it something where there’s an opportunity for people themselves, whether it’s out of a need to find an echo chamber or, you know, to find a need to live in a better world where they can maybe try to make a difference at an individual level and that’ll ripple across society?


Wade:            Yeah. I mean, politicians follow, they never lead. So, we shouldn’t look to politicians for a social transformation. I mean, no politician was prepared for what happened to the transformation in the lives of women. I mean, certain things happen, Roe vs. Wade obviously, and other laws and stuff, you know black and white marriage was illegal in the country until the United States called 1967, you know, but one of the exciting things that came out of this recent election was drug laws being challenged. Right, now the war on drugs is the greatest folly in the history of public policy, a trillion dollars over 50 or more years, and today there are more people using worst drugs and worse ways and more places than ever before because of the war on drugs. There are more Americans with criminal arrest records than there are Americans with college degrees.


Henry: Oh my god.


Wade:            The war on drugs began as a pure political maneuver by Nixon. He had no interest in curtailing drug use. He could care less. He wanted to cleave off the college students and the hippies and the blacks from what he saw as his silent majority and the way he did that was demonizing drugs and their use of drugs that came out with [inaudible 50:44] Littman’s memoirs, and that war on drugs has only, which gets back finally to my book Magdalena, which tells the story of Columbia through the kind of biography of the river that gave it life. 


You know, the Mississippi of Columbia, if you will, and one of the reasons I wrote this book is, well, I am an honorary Colombian citizen. I have great affection and love for the country, but I felt it was just so wrong that the country continued to get reduced to caricature. When in fact, the cause of its agonies has always been the consumption of cocaine, not really the production of cocaine.


Henry: All over the world.


Wade:            Most Colombians have never seen let alone used cocaine. In the last year of before the Peace Agreement in 2016, the leftist FARC guerrillas were down to 6,000 cadre mostly kids in search of a meal, and yet that year through extortion and drug trafficking, the FARC made 600 million US dollars. Well, if you give me the Shaughnessy Boys Scouts, I can wreak havoc in British Columbia.


Henry: Right.


Wade:            220,000 dead, 7 million displaced, 100,000 missing, and yet in a country of 50 million, the combatants never numbered more than 200,000. The vast majority of Colombians have been innocent victims of a war that would not have lasted a day. Had it not been for America’s consumption of cocaine, how would the United States feel about its war on drugs, if Canada, for example, had patterns of drug consumption across the country, laws that only made possible the black market oversight of those laws that did nothing to curb the trade such as 85 million Americans before us to flee their homes. 


Well, that’s what happened in Colombia, and yet through all those years, Columbia has maintained its social democracy. It’s democracy, it’s civil society, greened its cities, created millions of acres of national parks, sought restitution with indigenous people and paved the way for kind of a cultural and economic Renaissance, unlike anything ever seen in the Americas. As two generations of young kids, educated abroad, forced to flee their country are returning with skillsets in every conceivable endeavor. 


Everybody, you know, who’s ever used cocaine, everybody ever sold cocaine, every government who’s ever prohibited use of cocaine, every government has done nothing to curtail its distribution has the blood of Colombian people on their hands, and Columbia is not a land of violence and drugs. It’s a land of sort of [inaudible 53:30] his love and colors that has managed to survive because it’s the most bountiful place on the planet. The richest geography, the greatest biodiversity, the greatest number of species of birds. I mean, it’s simply the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world. There’s no place in Columbia more than a day removed from every own ecological niche to be found on planet earth, so.


Henry: Wow. One of the things I think you may be saying is if Columbia can get out of the position they were in, there may be even some hope for us.


Wade:            Let’s hope so. You know, I mean, generally what happens when there’s civil strife in any country, it’s never really military resolution or political resolution, generally when the people themselves sort of say enough.


Henry: Yeah.


Wade:            That certainly happened in Ireland. It’s what’s happened in Colombia, and I think we have to remember that in America. There is no question that the most of the noise is made by extremists on left and right. You know you know, whether it’s a sort of the reflects of disdain when census from CNN or the simple nonsense from Fox News. I mean, most people one hopes are more focused on the day-to-day challenges of their own lives, but I think that the COVID crisis ought to send a message to Americans, there’s a reason that their response has been so poor. 


The reason that Canada’s response comparatively has been so good, and that’s because we still believe in our institutions, our healthcare system in particular, which is not perfect, but its flaws are part of its design in the sense that it’s focused on the wellbeing of the collective, not the individual and certainly not the private investor who’ve used every hospital bed as if it’s a rental property.


Henry: Right? Exactly.


Wade:            We still feel in Canada that the wealth of a nation is not the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but the strength of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that link all of us in common purpose. You know, you would never have a Canadian running against Ottawa as if Ottawa’s an evil place. I mean, that’s kind of psychotic act of a delusion given that Ottawa is the best of ourselves. I mean, it’s a government that is a source of our stability in a crisis like this. You know, I’ll close with an analogy or an allegory, you know, on the day that the United States in July 30th of the summer, when they came close to 60,000 cases, which would then was huge number.


Henry: Yeah, that’s over 200,000.



Wade:            Right now, it’s dwarf, but that same day in all of the hospitals of British Columbia, metropolitan population, Asian city up the road from Seattle, where the pandemic landed North America, dozens of flights coming in from China, in all of our hospitals that day had five cases and what was going on? Well, in part, we responded to our healthcare authorities, we respected science. 


We never saw this disease in a political sense, and you know, that’s part of our social solidarity now consider when you get your groceries at a safe way in Canada, you know, when you do it in the States, there’s a kind of chasm, economic, educational, racial class between you and the check-out person, difficult to bridge, and in Canada, you don’t feel that, and it’s because you know that the clerk may not have your education or may have more education or more affluence or less affluence, but you’re all part of a common community, and you know that she or he is getting a decent wage because of the unions, and you also know that if their kids and your kids probably go to the same public school, neighborhood public school.


Henry: Exactly.


Mike:            Right.


Wade:            That aren’t courted by as in the States, by property taxes that favor the children of the wealthy, but by block grants from the state that gives equal access to all children, and you know that if they get sick or their children get sick, they get the same medical care...


Mike:            In the same hospital bed beside your kids.


Wade:            Those three strands woven together become the fabric of Canadian social democracy. Americans don’t understand that healthcare has got nothing to do with health. It’s got nothing to do with medicine. It’s all about social solidarity. It’s about saying everybody counts. Now, let me just finish with one wonderful story. When my mother was 85, she got a headache living alone in the apartment in Victoria. By two o’clock she was being prepped by neurosurgery by four o’clock her life had been saved by an immigrant, a brilliant Indo-Canadian neurosurgeon and when my sister and I got to the ICU we saw the beside her in adjacent bed was a young girl from Manitoba, surrounded by her Mennonite family and had the same ailment, same salvation, same surgeon, same day.


Henry: Wow. 


Wade:            My sister and I were thinking, you know, this is interesting. We could have paid for this. My sister’s a lawyer. I’ve done well, but this girl and her family might’ve faced a choice between her wellbeing and the financial health of the family, and we say in Canada that that’s not a choice that any citizen or any families should have to make in a civilized society, and at that time, The Empress Hotel, the best hotel in Victoria had a policy that any Canadian family member with a family member in the ICU at any hospital in Victoria, got a free room for the night.


Henry: Wow.

Wade:            So, the families, we all came together and we all poured back in our rented cars back down to the hotel, and we all gathered in the old Bengal lounge.


Henry: Oh, yeah.


Wade:            The Mennonites don’t drink, so I bought them tea or whatever they wanted. My sister had a glass of wine. I had a beer, and then Henry, we did a toast and we didn’t toast our loved ones who had survived the day much as they were in our hearts. We didn’t even toast this brilliant surgeon who he’d graced our lives by saving our loved ones, and he’d come all that way from India to be of this place, to become a Canadian, but we did toast our country because it was our country that had made this moment possible. 


Two families coming together from absolutely opposite ends of the spectrum, politically, economically, religiously, geographically, and yet there we were as one united by the grace of our country that had made that possible. They weren’t strangers to us because they were Mennonites or because they lived on a farm in Manitoba or because they voted for the conservative party and we might’ve voted for the liberals.


Henry: Right.


Wade:            Or because they were struggling to pay for that wheat crop, and we were doing so well or whatever. No, we were one and that is our muted Canadian patriotism. It’s not about flag rep chauvinistic Kent. It’s about the quiet understanding that we live in a land of consilience that for most of our history, there were more lakes and people that the way to the North hovers in the imagination and defines the essence of our soul that we have to get along, and when you say to someone who bumps into you in the street, I’m sorry, you’re not really apologizing because in Canada, the phrase, I’m sorry is not an apology. It’s a mantra. It’s saying I didn’t want to have my day interrupted by your knock. You certainly didn’t want to embarrass yourself by knocking me, but it’s okay because we live in a place where we get along. So, I’m sorry that this happened to both of us.


Chris:            Exactly.


Henry: That’s brilliant. Wade, brilliant.


Mike:            That is brilliant. The world needs a little more Canada way.


Wade:            I’d like to think so.


Henry: Wow. Wade, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. That was a beautiful story.


Mike:            Thanks Wade.


Chris:            Thanks very much.