Did Jesus Exist?

Did Jesus Exist?
Bart Ehrman

The evidence for the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t overwhelming or incontrovertible, though all things considered it’s pretty good. I’m not a religious person myself, but it seems to me almost certain that Jesus was a real person who lived and died at the beginning of the first century CE. And indeed this is a point that has never been much in question. As Bart Ehrman writes, “Every single source that mentions Jesus up until the eighteenth century assumed that he actually existed.” But then some fringe characters began suggesting Jesus might have been made up, a point of view adopted, for various not always complementary reasons, by today’s “mythicists.”

In this timely book Ehrman puts forward the case for believing in Jesus the man (his status as divinity or son of God lying outside the remit of a historian). I say timely because in the twenty-first century the mythicists have been enjoying a resurgence, largely online. While admitting that their position “is interesting historically and phenomenologically, as part of a wider skepticism that has infiltrated parts of the thinking world . . . that deserves a clearheaded sociological analysis in its own right,” this is another direction Ehrman avoids going in. I think that’s probably wise, but it’s still something readers will find hard not to speculate on.

What is there about our own post-truth, Internet-sourced, anti-expertise knowledge ecosystem that leads to the flourishing of so many crank theories? As I began by noting, the proof of Jesus’s existence isn’t so great that it’s irrefutable, and I even found myself resisting some of the points Ehrman makes here. So I get being skeptical of the traditional story. What I don’t understand is why the mythicists believe what they believe. The road of doubt doesn’t necessarily lead to the house of conspiracy. Or at least it shouldn’t.

Chronicles of a Liquid Society

Chronicles of a Liquid Society
Umberto Eco

I’m not being disparaging in saying that this collection of columns by Umberto Eco made me think of the late intellectual as a blogger. He had no remit from the weekly magazine L’Espresso aside from writing on whatever came into his head, so the resulting articles “are by definition an expression of my personal interests, curiosity, and preferences.” These range widely – from religion, race, and technology to comic books – and the essays have a tendency to be more provocative and stimulating than profound, but then Eco’s subject matter is the flotsam and jetsam of a liquid society.

Liquid because it has lost a sense of moral cohesion, social homogeneity, and intellectual guideposts. Postmodernism’s rejection of grand narratives is said to have initiated this breakdown, but I’ve never believed in this critical mythology, which strikes me as only academic dilettantism. Grand narratives have never gone out of style, and in fact are probably more important and influential today than ever.

I’m not even sure Eco would disagree with this, as the pieces here feel less like someone testing the waters and more like mineral samples chipped from the rock-face of our dominant contemporary ideologies. Which makes them all the more worth reflecting on, as our culture continues not to dissolve but to petrify.

The Lost Decade

THE LOST DECADE 2010 – 2020
By Polly Toynbee and David Walker

Given the horrors of the last ten years and the “rightward lurch” toward authoritarianism in Western countries, it’s easy to forget the opportunity costs. Nothing, like something, happens anywhere, as Philip Larkin once observed.

So while all the bad somethings marched on – the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law being the chief examples – the nothings piled up too. Nothing done to address the threat of climate change. No attempt to repair crumbling infrastructure. No growth in wages (what led the Bank of England to call this a “lost decade” in the UK). Problems that were already going to be difficult to deal with were on the way to becoming irremediable given the level of social and economic breakdown.

This political survey of the second decade of the twenty-first century in Britain manages to cover most of the bad things that happened as well as the good things that didn’t. Strictly in terms of politics these years were marked by a Tory ascendancy, and an increasingly radical one at that. The hard-right turn of the Tories is likened to what happened with the Russian Revolution from 1905 to 1917, and the French Revolution going from the Girondins to the Jacobins. It’s hard to feel good about such historical comparisons.

But why did this happen? As is the case with any dramatic social transformation we have to look at both long-term and more proximate causes, and a quest to find any single explanation will likely come up short. For Brexit as for the election of Trump we can point fingers everywhere. Bad times (“austerity” in Britain) often lead to bad politics.

“Brexit is polymorphous; it’s simultaneously about England and the UK, about the UK and Europe; about attitudes, instincts, sensibilities, places, races, self-image, reputation; about institutions, not just parliament. It’s a long list.” Given all this, it’s little surprise that Brexit itself was a mess of contradictions: little England nationalism allied with free-trade libertarianism. Though one supposes that the nationalism was for the plebs while libertarianism, as always, was something only to be enjoyed by those at the top.

Still, if I had to single out just a couple of causes for Britain’s malaise (not so different from our own in North America), I’d settle on the following.

In the first place: voter passivity. In their interviews, Toynbee and Walker express some surprise at voters who had little knowledge or even curiosity about what was happening. Given a chance to initiate fair voting reforms in 2011, voters stayed home: only two out of five showed up, and 68% of those plumped for the status quo. This apathy – product of a general sense of personal well-being (politically, not always a good thing) – allowed the energized base of the right to set the course. Yes, the best lack all conviction and the worst really are full of passionate intensity.

The second point that I think is worth flagging is the generational divide. I’m reluctant to bash the Boomers more than I have already, but if the shoe fits then they should wear it. Whatever one thinks of how things have turned out, this is very much the world the Boomers made, and one they continue to dominate politically and economically. In the Brexit vote “victory was swung by Tory voters . . . who were relatively prosperous. And older. Age tipped the outcome everywhere: retired people in strongly pro-remain London backed leave in similar proportions to the retired of Yorkshire, the north-west and Wales.” Next up, the 2017 election “was the first where age was a stronger predictor of voting intention than social class.”

There’s more to this than the relatively recent (Boomer-driven) development that has seen seniors become an economic elite, or at least better-off, on average, than any other age demographic. Older people are also the most resistant to change. As has often been remarked, we usually get more conservative as we get older, and harken back to imagined good ol’ days when Britain or America were great. Privilege then becomes a double-edged sword.

Older people were some of the most satisfied according to the well-being scores – yet also the most dissatisfied, if their voting patterns said anything about their emotional state. In the UK, life satisfaction now reached its peak between the ages of seventy and seventy-four. The “old” felt life was most worthwhile, as indeed it certainly was for most of them, economically. Odd, though, that the group most regretting lost Britishness were, on these measures, personally today’s happiest.

Why did the most spoiled generation in the history of civilization (remember that this is a Western phenomenon) turn out like this? In large part, I think, precisely because they were so spoiled. Neoliberalism wasn’t a reaction against the counterculture of the 1960s but its natural fruition. Having been given the world, what could the Boomers want but more? Alas, “To age is to crumble” (Toynbee and Walker are talking about infrastructure here). The response to that inevitable fate has been bitterness and rage. The mess that’s left will be for someone else to clean up.

Notes:
Review first published online July 18, 2022.

Arguing with Zombies

ARGUING WITH ZOMBIES: ECONOMICS, POLITICS, AND THE FIGHT FOR A BETTER FUTURE
By Paul Krugman

One thing that becomes clearer as you get older is that there’s no point in arguing with some people. Unless it’s a subject they truly have no interest in whatsoever, their minds are usually made up.

This is especially the case if it’s a matter they feel some personal investment in. The mindset then becomes like that of a cult. Think of fandom, in the realm of the cult of celebrity. Or, in the field of ideas, true believers in the cybertopia being fashioned by the digital revolution, or acolytes of the neoliberal ideology that free markets create the best of all possible worlds when set free from all government regulation. To hold such truths to be self-evident, natural, ineluctable laws, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is to mark oneself as one of the elect.

For Paul Krugman it is the neoliberal faith, specifically that cutting taxes on the wealthy will inevitably result in greater economic growth and prosperity (what is now the sole remaining policy plank of the Republican Party), is a “zombie” or “cockroach” idea. Indeed, it is the “ultimate zombie” idea, one that has been shambling about now for well over a century. And this despite the fact that it has been tested repeatedly over the past fifty years and been proven false.

What adds to the pointlessness of arguing with zombies is the fact that we inhabit a cheerfully post-truth, post-fact media ecosystem, largely operated by the very groups who stand to profit most from the dissemination of such toxic ideas. “We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence is that it’s wrong.”

Given this state of affairs, you have to wonder why Krugman even bothers. As I started off by saying, there’s little point arguing with true believers about these matters. One of the better pieces included here is an analysis of the dangers of widening economic inequality, and a dismantling of the various right-wing arguments (more zombie ideas) defending this growing gap. It’s the oldest essay in the book, first published in 1992. Since then the situation Krugman describes has only gotten worse, while the same “conservative” (in reality, radical redistributionist) arguments in its defence continue to be made.

One can’t be pessimistic enough about where all this is headed. In 2014, writing on the sharp rightward turn of the Republican Party into a kind of fever swamp of mass insanity, Krugman signs off thusly: “An ugly political scene is about to get even uglier.”

It certainly did, and quickly. Is it even possible to imagine when things will start getting better?

Notes:
Review first published online July 11, 2022. One point I wish Krugman had expanded on is how zombie ideas are manufactured and propagated. In think-tanks and through right-wing media, yes, but some further examination would have been helpful. We can blame “the rich” (as in “Why do Republicans adhere to a tax theory that has no support from nonpartisan economists and is refuted by all available data? Well, ask who benefits from low taxes on the rich, and it’s obvious.”) but I’d like him to name names, and give some numbers (they exist) on just how much the rich and the powerful profit from peddling their ideological snake oil. They spend an incredible amount on lobbying and media manipulation, but the return on their investment is even more amazing and should be more reported on.

Wildland

WILDLAND: THE MAKING OF AMERICA’S FURY
By Evan Osnos

I’ve written before about how the dominant political emotion of our age is anger, a point brought home just by looking at a list of some of the titles I’ve reviewed: Gavin Esler’s The United States of Anger, Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage, Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, and even the second book of Bob Woodward’s trilogy on the Trump presidency, Rage.

In Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury Evan Osnos tries to come to grips with this same phenomenon. For the most part, his diagnosis runs along what have now become clearly established lines, with the fuel for America’s fury being provided by the decades-long growth in economic and social inequality. As the sociologist Nicholas Christakis has found, inequality is a social cancer, one that has “subverted group cohesion, making people less cooperative, less friendly, and ultimately less able to work together.” Government is no longer able to offer a solution, as one of America’s two effective parties (and in any first-past-the-post electoral system there can only be two effective parties) has now defined itself as at war with the very concept of using federal power for any other purpose than deepening inequality. This becomes a vicious circle. The wrecking crew destroys government, leading to more people blaming government for being ineffective.

The public has given up. Shuttling between Clarksburg, West Virginia and the South Side of Chicago, Osnos picks up on “a sensation that was calcifying in America’s political culture – a feeling of being trapped by an undertow of economics and history, of being ill-served by institutions, of being estranged from a political machinery that was refined, above all, to serve itself.” Government had become identified with the dreaded elites, while being unresponsive to and unrepresentative of the people.

The larger fact was that, year by year, the West Virginia public was losing faith in politics at all. In 1960, more than 75 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots – almost 14 percent more than the national average. By 2012, West Virginia’s turnout had sunk to 46.3 percent, the second-lowest level in America. Over the decades, the compounding effects of political cynicism and influence had broken public faith in government.

I mentioned Clarksburg and Chicago as two of Osnos’s ports of entry into America’s Wildlands (a term firefighters use to describe dried-out terrain that provides perfect tinder for forest fires). The third place he goes to is Greenwich, Connecticut. This last is a place not like the others, being the sort of Emerald City where the economy’s winners (principally hedge-fund managers and people working in finance) have built their fortress-style McMansions. But though living in another world, the citizens of Greenwich are part of the same story:

As Americans reckoned with the origins of our political moment – the Trump years, the fraying of a common purpose – we tended to focus on the effects of despair among members of the working class who felt besieged by technology, globalization, immigration, and trade. But that ignored the effects of seclusion among members of the governing class, who helped disfigure our political character by thrusting absolutists into positions of power and then ignoring their violence – all while enfeebling the basic functions of the state. They had secured their control over the levers of democracy but disowned the consequences of its deterioration. They had receded behind gracious walls.

The point Osnos is making is that while on the most visible level inequality favours the few at the expense of the many, in fact it’s bad for everybody. I think this is right, and the effects are probably even worse for the ruling class, at least in moral terms. That said, where would you want to live, Greenwich or Clarksburg?

There is also a warning implicit in the metaphor of the wildfire, which will burn everything down when it’s lit. This idea of a wildfire suggests political revolution, and it may well be that we’ll look back upon the Trump years, culminating in the assault on the Capitol buildings, as a kind of revolution. I dislike revolutions though, preferring the natural evolution of political systems as they adapt to deal with emerging changes and crises. The problem with revolutions is they have a bad habit of spinning off in directions no one anticipated or desired.

But what is to be done? I quoted Osnos earlier talking about America’s “calcifying” political culture. This is a word that brought to mind Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, which saw America as sclerotic and sterile. In short: old. This is no longer the America of Paine and Emerson, issuing radical calls to make the world new. Instead it’s an America of affluent retirees, where the average age of a Senator is 63 and the last presidential election was between two men over the age of 70 who were both in pretty obvious mental decline. The greatest threat to such a governing class is change, any change. As Osnos observes, by 2020

Money and concerted obstruction [in Washington] were damning the natural routes of political evolution. This was easy to overlook because it was less a matter of what was happening than what was not happening. Historically, Americans had maintained the fitness of democracy by amending the Constitution, on average, at least once a decade. But that pace had stalled for half a century. Other than a minor amendment in 1992, to raise congressional salaries, the last major change to the Constitution was in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to eighteen. Despite campaigns for the Equal Rights Amendment, to prevent gender discrimination, and for reforming the Electoral College, Americans had entered the longest stretch without a substantive amendment since before the Civil War. The sclerosis extended to the inhabitants themselves. The Senate was the oldest in history, including eight octogenarians, nearly twice the number who had ever served at one time.

Canada is in no better shape. We seemingly can do nothing to make any changes to our dysfunctional electoral system, or reform our Senate, a body that serves no purpose whatsoever. So instead we lurch from crisis to crisis, while our politics, shaped by the first-past-the-post system become ever more polarized.

Wildland is a well-written and insightful book of on-the-ground reporting. It also gives me no hope for the future. If we can’t choose to change, and direct that change, then change will eventually be thrust upon us. And we aren’t going to like that one bit.

Notes:
Review first published online April 25, 2022.

The Anatomy of Fascism

THE ANATOMY OF FASCISM
By Robert O. Paxton

Robert Paxton begins this authoritative account of fascism by calling it “the major political innovation of the twentieth century.” There’d been nothing like it before, and some would argue we haven’t seen anything like it since 1945.

Grounding fascism’s origins in the conditions specific to post-First World War European society may limit it somewhat, but I think fairly so. In his penultimate chapter on fascism as it has appeared in “Other Times, Other Places,” what Paxton shows is how the movement’s twin ur-types (Italian Fascism and German Nazism) now only provide a toolkit for contemporary authoritarians. But to the question of “Can it happen here?” (meaning the West, and more specifically America) he provides a monitory send-off (and remember, this is 2004):

The well-known warning signals – extreme nationalist propaganda and hate crimes – are important but insufficient. Knowing what we do about the fascist cycle, we can find more ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery. Fascists are close to power when conservatives begin to borrow their techniques, appeal to their “mobilizing passions,” and try to co-opt the fascist following.

There is nothing unique to fascism in this. The great political –isms have all gone the same way, evolving into new forms. Communist China has little to do with anything anyone in the nineteenth, or even much of the twentieth century would recognize as communist. Populism has had its meaning hijacked by its enemies, a process recently described by Thomas Frank in his book The People, No. It’s almost impossible to say where liberalism lines up today, whether it be something progressive or neoliberal or libertarian.

I use the word evolve to describe this transformation, as the great –isms have adapted to a changing political environment while converging in their development into a new species of political power: a global caste of tech-enabled kleptocrats without any political ideology beyond self-enrichment. In this they may be seen as representing what will turn out to be the major political innovation of the twenty-first century.

But the new authoritarians aren’t entirely new. As Ronald Syme put it in his classic work on the end of the Roman Republic: “In all ages, whatever the form and nature of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade.” Today’s ruling elites constitute a more cynical and, perhaps paradoxically, less politically engaged class than previous historical examples, but they are no less dangerous (even if less militaristic) or efficient in their capture of state resources. They have learned to take advantage of new opportunities and public anxieties, from immigration and economic disruption to increasing inequality, political polarization, and the baneful effects of social media. Fascism, in brief, is no longer the threat it was but only because it has mutated into something that authoritarians have found works better for them.

Notes:
Review first published online April 18, 2022.

The Decadent Society and On Decline

THE DECADENT SOCIETY: HOW WE BECAME VICTIMS OF OUR OWN SUCCESS
By Ross Douthat

ON DECLINE: STAGNATION, NOSTALGIA, AND WHY EVERY YEAR IS THE WORST ONE EVER
By Andrew Potter

It’s ironic that the age of postmodernism – broadly, the back half of the twentieth century – among whose foundational beliefs is the invalidity of historical meta-narratives, has itself been characterized by many historians as representing one of the clearest, and certainly most recent, examples we have of such a meta-narrative in operation.

What I’m referring to is the myth of a decline from a golden age. The golden age in this context refers to what Eric Hobsbawm, in his magisterial history of the twentieth century Age of Extremes, more specifically called the golden age of capitalism, and which ran from roughly the early 1950s to the early 1970s. During this period Western economies boomed, there was rapid technological progress, internal improvements were the order of the day, and societies became more egalitarian.

The 1970s saw a swing away from all this, a turn often seen as triggered by the oil shock and identified as a hard turn to the political right and the neoliberal agenda of leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Wages stagnated. Economic inequality grew. Environmental issues like pollution, extinction, and global climate change went from being persistent and intractable to lost causes. Even life expectancies began to decline for the first time since we started recording them.

Scientists began talking about “peak science,” that from now on we were going to spend more and more time, money, and effort to learn less and less, while in the cultural field commentators began to take note of the triumph of nostalgia. “As it evolves into the dominant mood of the twenty-first century,” Andrew Potter writes, “nostalgia culture has just become the culture, one where consumer crazes and social media shivers amount to little more than the context-free curation of the past.”

I’ve written a lot about this point myself in regard to Canada’s fetishizing of a golden age of CanLit, but it’s a phenomenon that’s widely attested elsewhere. Kurt Andersen, perhaps the first person to sound the alarm on the nostalgia cult, is fixated on the subject in his book Fantasyland. In Hatchet Job the film critic Mark Kermode makes the argument that movies peaked in terms of their popularity as far back as the 1930s and ‘40s and that “to all intents and purposes we are now merely sifting through the wreckage of an art form whose popular supremacy has long been superseded.” That’s true, and what’s more to the point, how many of our biggest movies today are remakes, reboots, and legacy intellectual properties going on fifty years-old that have now been turned into franchises? Quite a lot of them.

Music? As recently reported by Ted Gioia, old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, and it’s a trend that’s worsening: “The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago.” I was struck by this most recently when listening in to a neighbour’s house party and hearing nothing but songs from the 1980s. What, I wondered, has happened to today’s kids, to be so much in love with the music of their parents, or even grandparents? But maybe the kids were alright. Perhaps the question I should have been asking is what had happened to their music.

How can one live in such a social, political, and cultural moment and not start to think about stagnation and decline? Ross Douthat and Andrew Potter are two writers whose thoughts have turned in that direction, and in The Decadent Society and On Decline they present very similar takes on the problem. From their analysis only dismal conclusions can be drawn.
Though it’s much shorter (it’s part of the Biblioasis series of Field Notes), On Decline strikes me as having the firmest grip on what’s going on. Front and center is the historical myth of boom and bust, golden age and fall. For Potter, as for many observers of the period, the golden age wasn’t an example of the inevitability of progress so much as a historical blip brought about largely by a wealth of easily exploited energy resources. In the post-WW2 period we hadn’t advanced to some higher state of civilization but only won a lottery:

Our mistake was believing that the world had figured things out in a way that was more or less stable and permanent. It turns out that this period of stability and growth was temporary. Progress itself was something that fed off a massive one-time windfall we gained access to in the nineteenth century. We didn’t climb a ladder, we stumbled into a buffet. We’ve been feasting off that buffet for a few centuries now. Unfortunately, it looks like the party is coming to an end.

Having gorged ourselves at this buffet, or sucked dry what Potter elsewhere calls the post-WW2 “oasis” of low-hanging fruit, we are now coming up against the hard limits of growth. Douthat likens what’s happening to the frontier thesis of the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, which saw the American West as giving rise to a spirit of democracy and egalitarianism in that country. In turn, the frontier’s closing (dated 1890) could be taken as marking a high tide in these values. Douthat thinks this “can be usefully applied to the entire modern project” because “bedrock assumptions” like perpetual progress can now be seen as having been based upon our expansion into new worlds that no longer exist. There’s no more free land, or free lunch.

Another analogy I had brought to mind was that put forward by Pierre Berton in his book 1967: Canada’s Turning Point. Why, Berton wondered, looking back thirty years later, were we so nostalgic for the Centennial?

By a number of measurements we are a great deal better off today than we were thirty years ago. We are healthier and we are wealthier than we were in 1967. The real net worth of the average Canadian is almost double what it was back then. Babies born today can expect to live longer – six years more than the centennial crop of babies. The death rate for infants has dropped from twenty-two per thousand to six. Far fewer mothers die in childbirth. And, as far as minority groups are concerned, we live in a much more tolerant society and one that is far less repressed.

Why, then, do we look back to 1967 as a golden year compared to 1997? If we are better off today, why all the hand wringing?

In answering that question Berton suggests various reasons, like the fear of the country splitting apart, but more broadly he draws a connection to an aging population. What happened from 1967 to 1997? The Boomers got old, and with their youth went their optimism and dreams for a golden future.

We were all high in 1967, like somebody who has just won the lottery. Expo taught us to go first class, and we reveled in the pride that inspired. In those days we felt secure as Canadians, confident enough to push for a better, freer life. We did not count the cost until the bills began to come in. The years that followed had some of the effects of a hangover after a binge.

The buffet, the oasis, winning the lottery, the drunken binge – they all work as metaphors. The point being that now the party’s over. The optimism, confidence, and sense of security enjoyed in the golden age is gone.

This is bad news because, as Ross Douthat argues, progress is a necessary fiction for modern societies. Indeed, he even goes further and equates the notion of progress with civilization itself. What happens when we stop believing in our very purpose?

The biggest effect this loss of faith has had so far is on our politics. A society that sees itself, correctly or not, as being stuck in a state of (terminal) decline will be first and foremost one that is, paradoxically, resistant to changing course. All change will be seen as change for the worse, or as losing everything in what is a zero-sum game (hence the current vogue for seeing every crisis as “existential”). A voter’s prime directive becomes holding on to one’s privileged lifestyle. The beneficiaries of the banquet/oasis/post-War party were the Boomers and, being old, they are the ones who now have the most to lose. What Douthat means by a decadent society is one that can be characterized more accurately as a society of retirees, with stagnation being synonymous with sclerosis and sterility (both being words that he uses). The whole world, to paraphrase Eliot, is our nursing home. Or, per Douthat:

we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, burrowing into cocoons from which no chrysalis is likely to emerge, growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens.

Those screens, in turn, are our invitation into more comforting virtual realities, the environment of Andersen’s fantasyland. True belief being no longer necessary for survival, we are cut free to believe anything we want in what Steven Pinker calls the tragedy of the belief commons. Here is Potter on the political endgame brought about by the closing of the Western mind as well as the political frontier:

It’s the simple fact of economic expansion that inclines people towards feelings of openness and toleration and that inspires trust in our democratic institutions. Just as the knowledge the pie will keep getting bigger makes people more generous in the divvying up of that pie, the sense that we can expect things to get even better – no matter where we currently are on the development curve – acts as a sort of bellows of fellow-feeling, making people more hopeful for the future and more generous-minded. More than anything else, the mere fact of growth is a signal that the future will be better than the past.

Unsurprisingly, the opposite holds during periods of stagnation, when zero-sum thinking kicks in. When the economy stops growing or even starts to shrink, people become fearful for the future, suspicious of immigrants and diversity in general, and distrustful of democracy. Stagnation breeds authoritarianism – that, of course, is one of the great lessons of the 1930s, as the Great Depression drove diverse, democratic populations toward nationalism and into the arms of fascist dictators. While there are no iron-clad laws of history, economic stagnation and the decline of liberal democracy are strongly linked.

Not a happy ending, but these are books about the end of the world as we knew it. Is that decline, or decadence, or something new that we can’t identify yet? I think the answer lies in our past, which gives me little hope for the future.

Notes:
Review first published online March 21, 2022.

On Fascism

On Fascism: Lessons from American History
Matthew C. MacWilliams

Fascism is a label that gets thrown around a lot, and while that has diminished some of its impact I think it still has some usefulness. For Matthew MacWilliams it basically means an authoritarian form of government brought about by a demagogue’s manipulation of the electorate’s fear. This fear is, in turn, directed toward a mostly racialized “other.” In the U.S. this means Native Americans, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Muslims, and any other readily identifiable groups.

MacWilliams draws on various recent polls on America’s authoritarian attitudes and concludes that his country is today facing a real threat to its ideals, particularly in relation to democracy and the rule of law. He provides a quick survey of some of the most significant lowlights of American history, but there’s little deep or connecting analysis showing how these ideas work together to constitute a clear and present danger.

“Broadsword Calling Danny Boy”

“Broadsword Calling Danny Boy”: Watching Where Eagles Dare
Geoff Dyer

Recent years have seen an explosion of monographs on famous (and some not-so-famous) movies, from standalones like Noah Isenberg on Casablanca, Sam Staggs on Sunset Boulevard, Sam Wasson on Chinatown, and W. K. Stratton on The Wild Bunch (these are all on the shelf beside me now) to whole series like the BFI and Soft Skull’s Deep Focus companions. “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” is a bit like one of these, and may also mark the mid-point of a trilogy of film books by Geoff Dyer, beginning with Zona (on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris) and with the possibility of a follow-up appreciation of John Boorman’s Point Blank teased at the end of this one.

I say this book is like the other books I mentioned, but it’s something quite a bit lighter: nothing scholarly about it but rather just a breezy running commentary on Where Eagles Dare, a 1968 WW2 action film that has gone on to achieve minor cult status, I think mainly for the sense of nostalgia it evokes among men of a certain age. I don’t think Dyer did much if any research into the film, instead choosing to get by with lots of smart talk and breathless run-on sentences. It’s a quick read – quicker than the movie even – and a lot of fun, but don’t be looking to get more out of it than you would re-watching Where Eagles Dare on late-night TV while half-awake. In addition to being irreverent (was Eastwood’s Lieutenant Schaffer fellating Richard Burton in the back of that sedan?) Dyer is also a deeply personal, impressionistic critic and frankly describes the book as yet another chapter in his autobiography. I thought that a welcome change of pace, but if you don’t care for such an approach you might want to take it as a warning.

Reign of Terror

REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP
By Spencer Ackerman

Most of the time, when people speak of American exceptionalism they mean it as something to be proud of, if not an outright boast. This positive brand of American exceptionalism refers to the sense of the United States as having a providential purpose and providing a light unto other nations.

There is, however, a darker side. This is what Spencer Ackerman explores in Reign of Terror. The light of nations is only an “exceptionalist euphuism that mask[s] a boundless, direful ambition.” What exceptionalism really refers to is the U.S. being an exception to moral and legal norms, which it feels free to enforce without having to follow. It refers to racial exceptionalism, of the kind that says white nationalist terrorism isn’t real terrorism and can’t be dealt with in the same way (the “foremost lesson of 9/11” would be “the terrorists were whomever you said they were”). And it refers to actions being free of consequences, the idea that jettisoning principle and the rule of law would all work out in the end and that the War on Terror would always be fought “over there” and have no impact on lives at home.

What Ackerman wants to underline is not only the falsity of this belief, but that counterterrorism may in fact be a case of the cure being worse than the disease. It would be the War on Terror that would pose the greatest threat to the fabric of American life, not terrorism itself. American exceptionalism, however, suggested a state of perpetual innocence: no loss, no consequences, no responsibility. Or, in the language of Trump: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

On the question of whether Trump marked a break with the past or a continuation or logical progression of a rightward political drift Ackerman comes down more on the side of the latter. Not just Republicans but the whole apparatus of the technocratic security state, the military-industrial-information complex, had its fruition in Trump. The so-called “Resistance” to Trump would cheer on the “Adults in the Room, without considering that an earlier set of adults, the adults they esteemed, had already prepared the room.” Trump only took the varnish of the good exceptionalism off. “You think our country’s so innocent?” he would ask, rhetorically. His “great insight was that the jingoistic politics of the War on Terror did not have to be tied to the War on Terror itself.” Instead, he could just plug directly into a racial “war of civilizations” and talk about destroying the Middle East in order to take its oil. Many people found this refreshing.

While there’s much to take note of here, I had the feeling that Reign of Terror was a bit rambling, covering a lot of ground but in need of greater focus. There were times when I thought a long essay might have done the trick. But something is added to the argument for there being a through-line or continuity in American foreign and domestic policy over the course of the last twenty years, contributing to a period of endless, often invisible wars that would “achieve neither peace nor victory, only prolonged violence.” A result that everyone would complain about, but which might have been the goal all along.

Notes:
Review first published online February 21, 2022.