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Truth, Justice, and Podcasts For the Holidays

Need to get away from the annoying aunt? Here’s some suggested reading, listening and viewing.

December 22, 2014

A few weeks ago I was freaking out when I realized that Serial would come to an end before Christmas vacation. You see I had been thinking: there is no better way to deal with family than to throw on some earphones and tell them that I need a few hours off to contemplate crime, punishment, and the meaning of truth and justice in America. Say that and they’ll have to leave me alone as requested. But Serial is over. What now?

If you’ve been feeling the same anxiety, I am here to help. Because my panic set me off on a hunt for podcasts, documentaries, and books to help me make it through the next few weeks.

Sorry Mom, I Need to Figure Out This Immigration Thing

Serial revived radio’s power to tell stories through its deep dive into one reporter’s quest for the truth about a 15-year-old murder. But I think the sprawling story of immigration has been equally well served on radio podcasts. Some of the best segments I’ve heard have been about immigration.

A quartet of This American Life pieces from the last few years lays out a panoply of immigration stories.

“Flight Simulation,” in Episode 520, tells the story of a mock illegal border crossing run for middle class Mexicans there for a little role play. Some of the participants attend as part of a corporate team building exercise. They are maybe not entirely ready for the mock execution carried out mid crossing by a murderous drug cartel. (Available on iTunes). 

For many of us, the US Border Patrol’s stops and searches are just an abstraction—the subject of interesting constitutional questions. Episode 540 “The Border Between America and America” explores the fascinating world of border checkpoints. For thousands of people, the stops are a part of every day life. Many of these people are engaged in a remarkable day in, day out contest of wills with the Border Patrol agents. They refuse to comply with the agents. This is some real world constitutional law. (Available on iTunes).

Another group of people are waging their own tug of war with American law enforcement. But the stakes are much, much higher. In Episode 498, “Breaking the Ice,” young, undocumented immigrants intentionally get arrested and put into detention facilities. (Available on iTunes).

Meanwhile in Alabama, the state passed a draconian anti-immigration law. The state decided to make “self-deportation” a real thing. In Episode 456, “Alien Experiment” tells the chilling story. (Available on iTunes).

Further to the north, on the Canadian border, an On The Media producer had her own encounter with Border Patrol. When Sarah Abdurrahman went to Canada for a wedding last year, she had no idea how hard it would be to get home. She, her family, and friends were unaccountably detained for hours at the border. She tells her tale in “My Detainment Story or: How I learned to Stop Feeling Safe in My Own Country and Hate Border Agents” and details the virtually unfettered and unaccountable power of those agents.

Back in the Southwest, State of the Re:Union’s episode “The Southwestern Range” recounts two sides of the immigration story. It describes the disruptive impact of illegal immigration on one group of Arizona ranchers, leading up to a murder. It closes with the decade-long effort by one former Army special ops soldier to stop migrant deaths on the border by providing water on the immigration route.

Sorry Mom, I’m Thinking of Going to Cuba

In my experience, books are only so good at waving off the family. Nevertheless, kick off your Cuba gambit by studiously opening Selected Writings by José Martí. When President Obama announced his initiative to normalize relations with Cuba, he thanked one person, Pope Francis, and quoted one person, Martí: “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.”

Martí died in Cuba a mere five weeks after returning to his homeland to fight in its war for independence from Span. He had lived in exile for many years in New York, earning a living as a journalist. He was an eloquent, lyrical, joyful, passionate writer, capable of veering between poetic descriptions of every day life and impassioned denunciations of injustice. In his mid-1880s essay on Coney Island, he contemplated the riotous, voracious American crowds on the boardwalk and compared them to exiled Cubans: “These people eat quantity; we, class.”

Then you’ll need to fast forward more than a century to get to our current pass in US-Cuba relations. In a case of either perfect timing or tragically too early, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana came out in mid-October. The book explores the last five decades of complex and furtive diplomatic interactions between the American and Cuban governments. The authors missed reporting on this week’s developments, but their book is still on my holiday wish list.

When a book no longer protects you from having to talk to your nosy great-aunt, think about streaming some wonderful documentaries about Cuba and about America’s Caribbean and Mexican adventures. Two one-hour PBS documentaries will set you on the right path. Part Two of the six-part series on Latino-Americans, “Empire of Dreams,” briskly recounts the United States’ role in the Cuban war of independence, its acquisition of Puerto Rico, and reaction to the Mexican Revolution. Finally, Professor Henry Louis Gates delves deep into Cuba and its slave history to understand its culture in “Cuba: The Next Revolution.”

Sorry Mom, I’m Completely Engrossed by How the Port of Los Angeles Works (and the Roman Empire Too)

If you can’t get enough of Serial’s serialized story telling, I’ll see its twelve episodes and raise you 179 episodes. You still need to put off that pesky great-aunt? The History of Rome is hours and hours and hours of engrossing stories, from Aeneas to Cicero, Julian to Theodosius. There’s a reason we are still talking about Ceasar and the end of the Roman Republic. This podcast is startlingly accessible and relevant to anyone who is interested in politics.

The Port of Los Angeles is a long way from Ostia. And KCRW’s Cargoland is a hint at where serialized podcasting may go. In five episodes so far, the podcast explores how the Port of Los Angeles works. And while this might seem like a strange topic to devote your vacation time to, it tells interesting and frequently offbeat human stories about jobs, innovation and commerce set in a location very few of us will ever visit.

Happy holidays!

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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(Photo: Flickr/MortenWulff)