“More Perfect,” Where “Radiolab” Meets the Supreme Court

The complexities of our national quest for a more perfect union—the
preamble phrase referenced in the title of “More Perfect,” the Supreme
Court-focussed podcast spinoff of WNYC’s popular long-running show
“Radiolab”—didn’t take long to become apparent in the show’s first
season, which came out last summer. The show is often subtly
astonishing. It’s both sobering in its thoughtful investigations of the
United States government’s unfairness to many of its own citizens and
quietly optimistic in its desire to make us understand. With brio,
liveliness, and impressive reporting, Season 1 explores the Supreme
Court’s role in justice and its opposite, in stories about cases
involving the death penalty, redistricting, anti-sodomy laws, race-based
jury selection, and beyond. Some cases it dives into are recent; others
are historical, with timely implications. Season 2, which began last
week, feels even more topical. “Last season, I feel like we were surfing
the tail of the wave in some way,” the show’s host, Jad Abumrad, told me
recently. This season, he said, “I feel like we’re really in the froth.”
Topics so far include Japanese-American internment, the legacy of Dred
Scott, gerrymandering, and, this week, the Second Amendment.

Season 2 opens with an episode about Korematsu v. United
States
, the case that
upheld President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order mandating the
internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during the Second
World War—a case that’s still on the books despite being a source of
national shame. (The parallels to the Trump era are clear; in a clip, we
hear a Trump supporter on Fox News citing Korematsu as a “precedent” that would “hold constitutional muster” for a Muslim registry.) The
episode features a stellar and sensitive re-creation of the story of
Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American who resisted internment. It begins
in the sixties, with a bit of “To Sir with Love,” and an account from
Korematsu’s daughter, Karen Korematsu, about listening to a fellow
high-school student give a book report about Japanese internment and the
Korematsu case. She is startled: she has never heard a word about it.
She asks her father about it that night, and he says that he did what he
thought was right and that “the government was wrong.” But he’s still in
so much pain that he can’t discuss it further.

Then the show takes us to 1941—some Big Band, some American joie de
vivre, and archival audio of Fred Korematsu telling his story. It’s a
beautiful day in the Bay Area, and he and his girlfriend, Ida, who is
white, are driving around, looking at views of the Golden Gate Bridge
and contemplating a picnic. Then they hear an announcement on the radio
about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, by Japan. Korematsu is twenty-one; he
has tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because of his
heritage. He returns to his parents’ house, next to their family
business, a garden center. His parents, proud Japanese-Americans, are
shocked, scared, and in despair. Authorities shine spotlights on their
garden center at night, and a guard watches them; soon, the family is
sent to an internment camp. Fred decides not to go—a decision that makes
history. Eventually, Korematsu is turned in by a shop clerk in his
neighborhood and sent to the holding facility where is family is. It’s a
racetrack. He finds his family living in a stable of a horse barn.

The story unfolds from there, with perfect emotional and historical
pitch. A lawyer from the A.C.L.U. takes Korematsu’s case. (“A.C.L.U.,
A.C.L.U.,” a robotic voice sings quietly.) At the camp, Korematsu’s
fellow Japanese-Americans are ambivalent, fearing that making waves will
invite retribution. “If you’re Fred at this point, it sounds lonelier
than you can imagine,” Abumrad says in the episode. Korematsu had grown
up saluting the flag and pledging allegiance; the Army hadn’t wanted
him; his girlfriend had abandoned him; his community was wary of him;
his case went to the Supreme Court, and he had lost.

Abumrad wants “More Perfect” to give listeners a portal to the past—and
into the Supreme Court. Part of this is achieved through some truly
incredible audio—Supreme Court testimony, archival recordings,
interviews with living subjects and experts—and part through innovative
sound design. Abumrad, who is forty-four, is a veteran radio journalist and
composer who won a MacArthur “genius” grant, in 2011, and who, in 2012,
produced and hosted a piece for WNYC about Wagner’s “Ring”
cycle
. He is known for his innovative and experimental sound design; his skills
are manifold and his zeal is unending. The sonic wizardry on “Radiolab”
can be sublime; at times, for my taste, it’s too much of a good thing,
distracting from rather than enhancing the narrative. This impulse feels
appealingly reined in on “More Perfect,” which tends to retain the
sophistication and innovation of “Radiolab” without going over the top.

The trippiest “Radiolab”-style effect comes in the show’s intro, which
we hear more of on Season 1 than we have so far on Season 2. It features
the musical sound of Alfred
Wong
,
who served as the Supreme Court marshal from 1976 to
1994,
saying, “Oyez, oyez, oyez”—the traditional opening call, meaning “Hear
ye,” in the court—enhanced by actual music. Abumrad has been to the
Supreme Court a couple of times, and the “oyez” is “this
beautiful ritualistic moment—a beautiful musical kind of chant,” he
said. “We’re working with a composer here who’s just a goddam genius,
Alex Overington,” Abumrad told me. Overington composed around the “oyez,”
and the result “feels like a kind of an invocation, like a shaman who is
standing at the portal of a dream world and he’s inviting you in,”
Abumrad said. “There’s some way in which that resets expectations. I
just love it as a pure musical object.”

Abumrad likes creating portals, especially with “empathic leaps” in the
show’s storytellin, which bridge the gap between journalism and
imagination, and between the listener and the ideas. I asked him what he
was going for with the sound of “More Perfect.” “I don’t want it to feel
like history,” he said. “I don’t want it to feel like law. I want it to
feel like a dream that keeps shifting and changing, so the music that
we’re trying to create has that sense of genres blending into one
another. The first sort of sound of the thing, it’s almost like dub
techno.” He laughed. “It has this kind of weird ‘Where am I?’ feeling,
you know? I want that to be an unstable aspect to all of it.”

A few years ago, “Radiolab,” which Abumrad created, in 2002, and
co-hosts, with Robert Krulwich, was “chugging along,” and he was getting
a little restless. “We’d done a string of stories that were all
interesting for their own reasons, but they started to feel similar, of
a piece,” he said. He wanted to shake things up. “I was having these
editorial tantrums where I’d be, like, ‘Damn it, we need to do sports!
” he said. One day, the Supreme Court released its docket, and, reading
it, he saw eleven potential stories. As an experiment, he asked the
staff members to make a couple of phone calls on a case and then report
back. “None of us had gone to law school or knew one thing about the
Supreme Court, which was sort of the fun of it,” he said. One staffer,
Tim Howard, chose a case
called Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. After Howard made his calls,
Abumrad said, “he just came back and was, like, ‘Fuck, this is really
interesting. At the center of this case, you have what seems like a
super-small, run-of-the-mill custody battle.’ ” (Adopted baby;
biological father wanting custody.) “But he was, like, ‘The fate of this
two-year-old girl is connected to massive questions about Native
American sovereignty in this country. And it’s connected to a history of
Native American kids being abducted off of reservations. Like, literally
abducted. And it’s connected to this law that we passed that people
are trying to challenge, and it’s somehow peripherally related to casino
interests,’ ” Abumrad said. “I was just, like, ‘Wait, what?’ As a
storyteller, it was one of those things you’re always searching for—the
Whitman-esque universe in a blade of grass. And he had found that in
this case.” The resulting
episode,
which came out on “Radiolab,” in 2013, and is featured again in Season 1
of “More Perfect,” is fascinating. As a listener, your perspective
shifts several times; your loyalties divide and become complicated. All
the while, your mind is reeling, yet again, about the long and ongoing
history of white supremacy in this country.

Abumrad was proud of the episode. And something about it stuck with him:
he realized that this universe-in-a-blade-of-grass quality was
“functionally what has to happen every time a case gets in front of
the Supreme Court,” he said. “A person, just getting their coat on,
walking out the door, runs smack into some large question. You have the
combination of the micro and the macro in one thing.” “Radiolab” did a
few Supreme Court stories over the years, including “60
Words
,” an hour-long, Peabody
Award-winning piece about the legal foundation for the war on terror.
Eventually, Abumrad felt that a show about the Supreme Court should be
its own thing, and he created “More Perfect” with WNYC Studios. He
produces it with a legal editor, Elie Mystal, and several
correspondents.

The results are wonderful and, if you’re a dedicated
public-radio-listening “Radiolab” fan, occasionally funny. Because “More
Perfect” is a podcast, it has new freedoms, both linguistic and
commercial. The language is more freewheeling; beyond that, there’s the
usual podcast-style advertising. Instead of earnest entreaties for
listener donations to public radio, we hear Abumrad’s reasonable voice
extolling the virtues of getting fifty per cent off on made-to-measure
premium suits.

Narratively, “More Perfect” takes the “Radiolab” approach: humility,
openness to learning. At times, listening to “Radiolab,” I’ve been
certain that Abumrad and Krulwich were exaggerating their naïveté for
our benefit—a kindness, to make us feel less like dopes, which I
appreciate but which can at times come off as a bit disingenuous.
Abumrad didn’t describe it this way. The narrative point of view on
“Radiolab,” he said, is “Oh, we’re just idiots trying to fumble our way
toward insight.” He went on, “We’re very up front with the audience
about what we know and what we don’t know. Very often, the audience
hears us asking stupid questions because, in the moment, we were
actually not smart enough to get to the good question.” On “More
Perfect,” he wanted to take the “same approach to the law, which was
‘O.K., Commerce Clause—what?’ ” I appreciate this, too—often, basic
questions don’t get explored in the middle of a traditional news piece.
“There is a layer of bridge-building that doesn’t happen in basic
Supreme Court journalism,” he said.

I told him that, though I understood the original Obamacare debate
had hinged on the Commerce Clause, and though I had even listened to
some of the trial arguments, I still felt ignorant about what the
Commerce Clause actually was. “Do you want to hear a secret?” he said.
“One of the things I whispered to myself when we were starting the show
was, ‘If we could explain the fucking Commerce Clause, in a way that’s
exciting, surprising, and visceral, and narrative, I would be a fucking
god.” He laughed. “That was sort of my inner monologue.” This season,
he said, they’re doing it. I look forward to Commerce Clause
enlightenment. They’re also producing in-depth segments about three of
the current Supreme Court Justices. In an upcoming episode about
Citizens United, Abumrad said, “we, like, literally actually go into
Anthony Kennedy’s brain. We sort of ‘Magic School Bus’-style go into his
mind.”

“More Perfect” provides valuable historical perspective on American
politics, justice, and governance at a time when we urgently need it.
It’s a useful complement to
Uncivil,”
the innovative Civil War podcast hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai
Kumanyika, which I wrote about last week; to “LBJ’s
War
,”
hosted by David Brown; and, for that matter, to Ken Burns and Lynn
Novick’s PBS series “The Vietnam
War
.”
They all serve as instructive reminders of the power of citizens in a
democracy. On “More Perfect,” Abumrad said, many of this season’s
stories are about cases in which the Supreme Court “got it wrong,” in
which it was not necessarily a force for positive change. “What do
people do in that case?” he asked. “Where do they find justice? One of
the things that really stuck with me from Season 1 is that the Court can
make its decisions, but if we, the people, don’t agree it doesn’t
matter, in some sense. The real law happens in our hearts and in our
souls. I like that tug-of-war between the abstract, ethereal quality of
law and that physical, gutsy, earthbound realm of where life is lived.
The two have to speak to each other, and they have to come into a kind
of synchrony.” Sometimes, the Court pulls us forward; sometimes, we pull
it, and the Court has to catch up.

“The story of Fred Korematsu, for me, is very much a story about the
story of so many Americans at this moment in time,” Abumrad said. These
Americans “are not sure whether America wants them and whether America
will allow them to stay and how they fit into the fabric of this land,
and yet are willing to fight for their place. On some deep level, that,
for me, is the most American thing to do, is to declare yourself. Fred
Korematsu, a guy who has been ostracized from all angles but still
fights—it’s in that fight that he becomes more American than any of us.”
Hear, hear.

Article source: Supreme Court

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