Author: Ayan Marwaha

Podcast – Isolation, Connection and everything in between

Hi everyone! We are making our last post of the semester to present our final podcast. We loved the idea of having a final project that involved us having conversations about the texts we read during the semester. We narrowed down on a theme, and tried to explore it (and a little bit extra) as much as we could.

Hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it. Let us know what you think!

Give it a listen!

Linh, Yaman and Ayan


Angels in America is a period piece. Kushner bridges fact and fiction in a story set in 1980s America. One of the key pillars of that bridge is big gun prosecutor Roy Cohn. He is the only major character in the play explicitly based on a real life person.

“Have you no sense of decency?”

Louis berates Joe for lying to him, and repeatedly asks if he knew who said that. Joe’s oblivion is convincingly shocking for Louis. This was one of the turning points of American politics in the 1950’s.

It’s worth exploring some of the background behind Roy Cohn, who he was, and how he is relevant even today, decades after his death

It all began with the rise of Communism across the world. There was a growing body of communists in the US, who also supported the USSR. Anti-Soviet rhetoric was heralding the Cold War. In order to protect the American ideals of liberty and democracy against the oppressive regime of the Soviets, many Americans created an oppressive regime that attacked the American ideals of liberty and democracy.

The man who would come to lend his name to this period in America’s history was Joseph McCarthy. He was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who made a name for himself by attacking anyone and everyone under the guise of purging the US of communists. This “McCarthyism” manifested itself in the widespread fear of even an accusation of being a communist.

A brief overview of McCarthyism and its consequences

Roy Cohn would be chief counsel to McCarthy in the Army vs. McCarthy hearings. These came at the height of McCarthy’s influence, when he even got into a tussle with the US Army about it’s security. During this trial, this famous sentence was used by the army’s lawyer Joseph Welch. This would be the point which determined McCarthy’s downfall, losing him popularity nearly overnight.

Roy Cohn was also famous for his trial of the Rosenberg case, where he prosecuted suspected Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was publicly proud of his role in getting them the death penalty, as is also referenced in the play.

What isn’t referenced in the play though, is who Roy Cohn mentored. It was none other than Donald Trump, back when he was a real estate mogul in New York City. They met at a club in New York City in 1973, and hit it off. Cohn would become Trump’s lawyer through thick and thin. His aggressive approach was what Trump loved, and that is what Trump learnt.

Roy Cohn and Donald Trump
Roy Cohn and Trump giving a news conference declaring a lawsuit on the NFL

According to a Washington Post article,

“Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.”

Anyone living today who reads this will agree that that has been Trump’s mantra all along. He comes on aggressive, attacks everyone, and never backs down from his claims. Cohn was also the one who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, who became one of Trump’s campaign advisors in his successful bid for presidency.

Cohn became so important to Trump, that birthed a catchphrase for sticky situations: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In real life, just like in the play, Roy Cohn maintained until the end that he had “liver cancer”. He was disbarred as a lawyer shortly before he died, and maintained his disgust for homosexuality in his political beliefs. As his friend Roger Stone said:

“Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”

Roy Cohn, in his short life of 59 years, left a lasting impact on the legacy of America through Donald Trump. Even in death, he had the power to turn the country upside down.

Freedom, Chains and Dreams

If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want to do today?

For the people in Ding village this wasn’t just a hypothetical question, this was their reality. The fevered, as they lived in the village school, striving to make their last days full of happiness. We see many of them looking for ways to fulfil their lifelong desires and to tie up loose ends. We see Ma Xianglin holding on for a few more days by fulfilling his desire to put on a concert for the entire village. We also see Li Sanren looking around desperately for his precious village seal that was taken away from him in his last days. The fevered went running around to find their coffins, and when they did, they were so happy they almost forgot about the fever that had been inflicted upon them.

‘A lot of us have died already. I cheat death every day … what do I care if I get caught cheating with someone else’s wife?’

From Severance to The Plague, getting sick incapacitates people, prevents them from living their life to the fullest. But in Dream of Ding Village, it also sets people free. It gives freedom from the future. When Ding Liang and LingLing are isolated from their families, they are free to be with each other and enjoy themselves free of societal expectations. Ding Liang, even on being caught with LingLing, doesn’t seem to be ashamed of himself. Ding Yuijin and Jia Genzhu are aggressive in claiming authority over the village for themselves and living their best life. In the text, as leadership moves from Grandpa to the two of them, so the town seems to free itself of the future. People stop putting up scrolls to remember the dead. They take away everything from the school, meant for future generations, and use it for themselves. For want of more coffins and exquisite furniture, all the trees disappear overnight. The town truly lives like there would be no tomorrow. We want to bring up a relevant question here from an old conveners’ post: Do people have the right to neglect the future if they know they will not be in it?

On the flipside, however, there are horrors and realities that cannot be escaped. The act of all the fevered in Ding Village moving to Grandpa’s (quarantine) school is reminiscent of the “escapes” we have seen in our earlier readings. For example, the Brigata in Boccaccio’s Decameron who live in a plague-free utopia outside the infested city, and the survivors in Severance living inside a mall to start a new society after Shen Fever has wiped out the rest of the world. While these characters are the survivors of their plagues, the fevered school residents are actually the ones who have a guaranteed death coming for them soon. However, as they all try to make a fresh start with their “escapes”, eventually all of them are plagued by their pasts and human desires. So while the school-life for the fevered is described as “paradise” in its initial days, the illusion breaks with occurrence of theft, greed, and power struggles – all caused due to the sick wanting to connect to their past lives and desires. In Severance, Bob’s desire to live in his own childhood haunt also leads to his death and disbanding of the survivor group. This begs the question that with the plague or AIDS or COVID-19 destroying our normalcy, can we ever forget our past lives and desires to make a fresh start? Or is it just a utopian ideal, ready to be shattered at one reminder of the past? Will you still take care of sanitizing your hands after going out as diligently as now if we told you that COVID-19 is over?

Rural tourism brings prosperity to Xihe village, Henan province -
A village in the Henan province in China
Source: China Daily

Let’s take a step back and think about an important detail in the frame of the story that deserves some reflection. The narrator of the novel is a 12-year-old boy, the son of a blood kingpin. He seems to be the only dead character in the novel who did not die of the fever. Because of it, but not from it. He is a ghost, haunted by his father’s sins. Is his purpose now to narrate the horrors that his family brought about? What does his role, and the events that happen to Grandpa due to his sons, say about family? Are we bound to our families no matter how far apart we try to be?

While we are looking at the frame, it is meaningful to delve deeper into the three dreams in Volume 1. It refers to the story of Joseph in Genesis of the bible. Joseph, who was found to be an interpreter of dreams, and was summoned by the Pharaoh to interpret his disturbing dreams. Joseph informs the Pharaoh that his dreams imply that his kingdom would have a long period of prosperity followed by a period of famine and destruction.

The cupbearers dream

Ding Village seems to have followed in the footsteps of Egypt. They have a period of prosperity brought on by the selling blood followed by a devastating period of death. At first we were unsure of the purpose of these dreams appearing in the first volume but by reading more and more we can see the similarities between the two communities. The Cupbearer’s Dream comes to the forefront when Grandma comperes the blood bags to plump red grapes:

“Throughout the village, blood-filled plastic tubing hung like vines, and bottles of plasma like plump red grapes.”

Grandpa, like Pharaoh, has the remarkable ability to foresee reality in his dreams. However, he was not able to stop many of the tragedies that fell upon the village. If only he could dream what could have been rather than what was.

The Dream of Ding Village is one that many can relate to. It is a dream to rise above, and to fulfil the heart’s desires. Amongst the chaos and tragedy, however, Ding Village chronicles a collapse of integrity, respect, honour, and the value of a human life.

The name’s Bond. Liberty Bond

Pale Horse Pale Rider is a story set in World War 1, and we see a lot of elements from the era become everyday realities for Miranda, our protagonist. One of those are the Liberty Bonds, which salesmen keep hounding her for, and she wonders what use her 50 dollars could be for the country. 

War is a military effort. It is an economic effort. It is a political effort. The Liberty Bonds were a way of making it a public effort too. It is quite interesting to delve a bit deeper into Liberty Bonds, to understand what they were and how useful they ended up being.

An explainer on how bonds work

Bonds provide a regular cash flow (in the form of interest payments), and can be very safe investments depending on the issuer. US Treasury bonds today are considered the safest asset in the world (i.e. the government will never default). The government’s reputation was very important in establishing credibility for people to buy Liberty Bonds.

A war is, beyond the display of military firepower, a stress test for the economy as well. Great war efforts need an economy that will support them. The “war economy” is the result of changes a country makes to alter its production capabilities. This means reorganising factories and mobilising extra labour (on account of increases in required production, and drafting of able-bodied soldiers).

However, a vital cog in this machine is how all of this is funded. When automobile companies produced vehicles for the US military, they called it their patriotic duty, but they still had to get paid for it. Who would pay, and how?

During World War 1, the US Government had 3 options: printing money, taxation, and borrowing. While printing money sounds like an easy fix, it actually means facing the risk of inflation in the economy, which wasn’t an exciting prospect in the middle of a war. 

Both taxation and borrowing were on the table, but having only one of them wasn’t the right option. Taxation meant that the US Government could conveniently pick the tax rate and collect a certain amount of revenue for the war. However, in an uncertain situation, it was not known how much the war would cost, and regularly increasing taxes was not something any government would be keen on.

Hence, Liberty Bonds were introduced as a way to raise an extra amount of money to fund the effort. They were supposed to be effective because of their high interest rates and the sense of patriotism one was supposed to get from buying one. It was targeted at households and individual investors, to introduce them to financial securities.

The Committee for Public Information, a propaganda office that was established to mobilise public opinion, took care of building a campaign around the bonds. 

Uncle Sam asking for the $$$

The effort was unprecedented

Here is a quote from an article by the Federal Reserve:

The loan drives were the subject of the greatest advertising effort ever conducted. The first drive in May 1917 used 11,000 billboards and streetcar ads in 3,200 cities, all donated. During the second drive, 60,000 women were recruited to sell bonds. This volunteer army stationed women at factory gates to distribute seven million fliers on Liberty Day. The mail-order houses of Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck mailed two million information sheets to farm women. “Enthusiastic” librarians inserted four-and-one-half million Liberty Loan reminder cards in public library books in 1,500 libraries. Celebrities were recruited. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, certainly among the most famous personalities in America, toured the country holding bond rallies attended by thousands.”

It did not go unrewarded. Approximately 20 million individuals purchased bonds, and they funded two-thirds of the expenses of the war (the rest funded through taxation).

Fueled by this success, the US Government also continued issuing War bonds during World War 2 (along with other governments involved in the War). Fortunately we have not seen any more world wars. However, the US government remains the most important player in the Bond market. Most financial investors looking to hold a balanced portfolio (i.e. distributing their eggs across baskets) hold about 40% of their investments in bonds (both government and corporate). US Government bonds are currently the safest investments on earth. 

Coming closer to the present, in the “war against COVID”, it’s the public that needs money, not the government. So the Federal Reserve actually bought bonds in the market, as a way to ease the economic pressure in the market.

Bonds are a reliable, frequently used tool in the arsenal of central banks around the world. Liberty or not, bonds have affected the day-to-day life of billions of people around the world, directly and indirectly.

P.S. – who can say no to Captain America?