Men on Horseback

By David A. Bell

After the Second Punic War had ended the two giants who’d faced off in that epic conflict, Hannibal and Publius Cornelius Scipio (later Africanus) quickly fell back to earth. We might think of them as the original men on horseback: figures who were great military leaders, saviours of their nation, and semi-divine (contemporary propaganda had them both descended directly from gods). But backlash was inevitable, and not I think in response to their ambition. It was more a case of political checks and balances.

Hannibal was essentially banished from Carthage and scrambled around as a general-for-hire in some losing causes before killing himself in Bithynia as the Romans were closing in. Scipio, who also took the route of exile, may have killed himself as well, though all we know for sure is that he died embittered at the ingratitude of Rome.

In Men on Horseback historian David Bell isn’t as interested in these ancient types, focusing on the peculiarly modern traits of the charismatic leader. Still, it’s worth remembering that these people have been with us for a while, often coming to the same end.

Bell identifies the Age of Revolution (the period at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries) as a great seed time for men on horseback. Most of his book consists of pocket bios and analysis of the careers of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, and Simón Bolivar. When these national heroes arose is an integral part of the story, as there was a lot more to their rise to power than just their horsemanship.

In fact, I think this is the most important question that Men on Horseback addresses. To what extent were these men self-made, and to what extent were they the product of a particular cultural and political environment? Is charisma “primarily an exceptional, magnetic quality possessed by individuals or, rather, something projected onto them by their followers, which is to say, a fiction invented to serve a social and political purpose”?

Of course the only answer is that it’s a bit of both. In so far as such a book as this has application to our own time, however, I think its interest is all on the side of the matrix of factors that contribute to or enable the rise of the charismatic leader. These, in turn, are broadly cultural: “The ability to appear charismatic depends not only on the individual in question but on which traits are likely to elicit such beliefs and feelings within a particular community. In other words, it is a question not just of psychology but of culture.” The charismatic leader is what his age demands, and if he did not exist it would become necessary to invent him.

At least that was the case in the eighteenth century. With Washington, for example, “Americans were desperate for a ‘great man’ and convinced themselves – for the moment without much evidence – that they had found him in the physically dazzling Washington.” Napoleon had to save his revolution, while Loverture and Bolivar had to lead theirs.

People cry out for a leader and in doing so invest him with supernatural gifts. The problem is that celebrity has gone on to become such a debased coinage. Though he is never mentioned by name, the dark shadow hanging over Bell’s book is Donald Trump. The case of Trump, however, highlights what may be the biggest transformation the concept of charisma has undergone in our time.

Put simply, Donald Trump is a mere celebrity, meaning his fame is divorced from any personal accomplishments. One doubts he can ride a horse as well as a Kardashian, much less a Bolivar. While the great men Bell describes each had their shortcomings, they were at the very least effective military leaders and capable politicians. Trump went bankrupt trying to run a casino, and even his speeches and rallies are dull and incoherent. As with many contemporary populist leaders he is less a strong man than a buffoon, his fame a product of playing a comic character on a reality show.

How far then can Bell’s project of “writing charisma into history” be taken in a media/political environment where the manufacture of charisma has outstripped any relation to individual achievement? Charisma, Bell concludes, “is an integral, inescapable part of modern political life – democracy’s shadow self.” But like democracy itself it has become a force to be constructed and stage-managed. Today’s strong men aren’t the real thing any more than today’s democracy is representative or responsive, but the would-be charismatic can still play a man on horseback on TV. “Surely the fabrication of charisma requires more than propaganda,” Bell writes. Perhaps this can be asserted with regard to North Korea, the example Bell cites, but North Korea is a country closer to the Stone Age than the eighteenth century. It’s a principle that no longer holds true for our own marvelous land of Oz.

Review first published online August 11, 2020.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight
Sarah Kendzior

I appreciate Sarah Kendzior’s anger at the corruption and criminality of the Trump regime, as well as her perspective both as a Midwesterner (living in St. Louis, Missouri) and an expert on modern forms of autocracy. This broadside follow-up to The View from Flyover Country, however, doesn’t add much but passion and rhetoric to the bill of complaint against Trump, as well as a lot of self-congratulatory pats on the back for calling the 2016 election.

Much of Kendzior’s analysis seems accurate. The Republican mission is to “strip America for its parts” (she repeats this formulation several times), setting up a one-party state oligarchy along the lines of Russia or China. The Trump administration “is a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government,” or, when Kendzior is really wound up, “a white supremacist kleptocracy linked to a transnational crime syndicate, using digital media to manipulate reality and destroy privacy, led by a sociopathic nuke-fetishist, backed by apocalyptic fanatics preying on the weakest and most vulnerable as feckless and complicit officials fail to protect them.”

That such an assessment is more true than false is damning enough. But Hiding in Plain Sight is not a work of investigative reportage so much as an opinion piece. “As I write this in mid-2019, white supremacist movements are moving into mainstream Canadian politics while the country wrestles with financial corruption similar to that which weakened the US and UK economies before our respective collapses.” No notes are provided supporting this so I’m not sure what specifically is being referred to. I don’t think Canada is immune to anti-democratic politics, but I didn’t come away from this feeling newly or well informed.

Perhaps Kendzior thinks this is all obvious. Trump’s crimes and lies are, after all, well documented and “in plain sight.” But their public recitation can still serve some purpose. The biggest lies may be countered by a bigger truth.

Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette
Michael Isikoff and David Corn

Looking back, “collusion” wasn’t just a fair assessment but probably the best word to describe what was going on. It was cooperation, it was kept secret, and it involved behaviour that was found to be illegal.

Was Trump himself even aware of this though? Among the excuses put forward by his defenders would be the plausible idea that he was too stupid to collude with the Russians. That ignorance, however, would make him of some value as an asset. Carter Page, working with Team Trump, would be described by a Russian intelligence officer as a mere “idiot” who “wants to make a lot of money.” These were exactly the kind of people you want to cultivate.

None of this made any difference in the election. Voters’ minds were already made up. They thought Trump a joke but they hated Hillary, and it was hard to keep the different issues relating to e-mails separate in their heads.

Finally, is this still an issue? Just as much as in 2016. Though I suspect, given all of the subsequent enormities, it registers even less.

Just How Stupid Are We?

By Rick Shenkman

The year was 2009, which means I’m discussing the paperback edition of this book, with its epilogue concerning the election of Barack Obama. Should 2008 have made us feel better? Rick Shenkman thinks not. Obama simply presented better than John McCain. “Everywhere he went he drew enormous crowds who seemed attracted as much by the spectacle as by anything else. What most people in attendance at his events seemed to crave was an emotional experience.” Now that sounds familiar.

In hindsight, the degeneration Shenkman describes here was not going into reverse but was in fact getting worse. He began writing the book because “many wanted to know how such a thing as [George W. Bush’s] election to the highest office in the land had come to pass.” Only the name has changed, while the astonishment has increased.

The question Shenkman addresses in his title is a controversial one. Intelligence takes many different forms, and I’m always wary of those who limit it to people who read a lot of books. What Shenkman means by it though is an understanding of basic civics, of being smart enough, or knowing enough, to be able to cast an informed vote. Questioning the wisdom of The People is sacrilege in America, but Shenkman doesn’t shy away from his conclusion that the greater involvement of “the masses” in politics has been a net minus. “We have put our fate in the hands of The People, the same folks who by and large (1) find politics boring and (2) are ignorant and irrational about public affairs.” No cheerleader of democracy he.

Even the media, those Chomskyan master manipulators, are let off the hook, as they merely cater to the appetites of Alexander Hamilton’s “great beast.” “Just as a people get the government they deserve, they also get the media they deserve.”

As Shenkman observes, several times, such a stance is pretty much taboo in America, or really any democracy, but it does draw attention to what is a perennial problem: the call for The People (the capitals are his) to perform a civic duty they are mostly uninterested in and almost entirely unequipped for.

But this was, as I’ve said, 2009. Was there no sign of hope?

For those who live on hope — and don’t we all — several developments of the last decade or so are promising.

I find the Internet promising

I find blogging promising.

Where they may lead is anybody’s guess. But one can hope that they will give the intelligent the tools needed to take political campaigns to a higher level rather than merely empowering, as sometimes currently seems the case, nitwits, extremists, and the obnoxious.

Well, blogging is dead and we know where the promise of the Internet led. I don’t think the question of how stupid we are is as concerning now as how stupid we’re going to get.

Review first published online June 22, 2020.

The Empire Must Die

The Empire Must Die
Mikhail Zygar

The centenary of the Russian Revolution led to a spate of books dealing with what Mikhail Zygar here describes as “an event on a planetary scale . . . the biggest manmade catastrophe in history.”

I don’t know if The Empire Must Die adds much to what was already known, but it’s told in an immediate, journalistic style that certainly freshens things up. The short sections read like present-tense dispatches from the various political fronts, an approach that underlines the contingency of these events. All of which leads to one of Zygar’s main conclusions:

The tragic culmination was in no way the only possible outcome. The idea of preordained karma — that it was the Russian people’s destiny — is currently in vogue in Russia. I hope that this book will cast doubt on that theory. Nothing is known in advance, nothing is 100 percent predetermined. History is one long blunder. The protagonists of this book are forever making plans and predictions, acting on the basis of what always seem to them to be careful calculation. But they almost always delude themselves.

This is the case with most revolutions. They rarely, if ever, have the results intended. When the wheel spins nobody knows where it’s going to stop.

An Oresteia

An Oresteia
Anne Carson

Is Aeschylus especially difficult to translate? Anne Carson’s version of Agamemnon is the best I’ve read, but that’s a relative judgment. I find the long-standard Richmond Lattimore translation, whatever its claims to accuracy, to be absolutely unreadable. And the other versions I’ve looked at haven’t been much better. Carson is the clear winner, though there are places, in particular Cassandra’s wails of woe, that I’m guessing need to be experienced in performance.

In making Agamemnon and the other plays used to put together this Oresteia (Electra by Sophocles and Orestes by Euripides) sound more natural, even colloquial, we also get a new slant on the plays. Carson’s Orestes in particular reads a bit like an ancient Rebel Without a Cause. And surprisingly it works.

American Breakdown

American Breakdown
David Bromwich

Most books on political issues have a short shelf life, but those dealing with the presidency of Donald Trump, who breaks news with every tweet, are quicker to expire than most. So of course some of David Bromwich’s judgements haven’t aged well in the two or three years since they first appeared in various publications. I had to smile, for example, at his description of Lindsey Graham as “among Trump’s most strident critics in the Republican Party.” And wince at how “It now [March 2019] seems likely that Mueller will produce overwhelming evidence of money laundering, as well as tax, business, and bank fraud.” I’m sure such evidence exists, but Mueller wasn’t looking for it.

Other, more general observations have fared better. Trump and indeed the Republican Party’s oligarch envy. Their cultivation of hate. A base defined more by its cynicism than its credulity. The naivety of the Democratic establishment (though I think many of us were just as guilty of this).

But what I find most depressing about the speed of the news cycle in the Trump Era is that, in hindsight, no immediate negative impression he’s made has had to be corrected. Instead, whatever conclusions arrived at based on the evidence at any particular time have had, inevitably, soon to be adjusted downward. Because this is how Trump’s manufacture of outrage works, as he’s forced into having to outdo himself in order to get his fix of being the center of attention and having people talk about him. And still Trump has always been worse than advertised, with always something worse to come.

Heinrich Himmler

By Peter Longerich

In the lives of the leading figures of the Nazi establishment there’s often a large gap between an individual and their historical significance. In his biography of Goebbels, Peter Longerich could make something out of this, using it to gain a greater psychological insight into his subject. In this equally massive biography of Himmler it’s more of a problem.

For Longerich, Himmler’s private life was absorbed by his public persona. The SS was in many ways a product of Himmler’s own inhibited personality, but at the same time it came to define him. You couldn’t separate the man from the uniform. “Gradually the personality and the office became one.”

This is, then, very much a professional biography. About Himmler’s inner life Longerich remains circumspect. But was there all that much to say? I don’t think Longerich had access to the cache of letters between Himmler and his wife that formed the basis for the documentary The Decent One, but then I don’t see where they would have changed anything in his assessment. Himmler was a conservative prig, though bitter enough to succumb to fringe fantasies of mystical and racist claptrap, perhaps as a way of making up for his own inadequacies. It’s hard to see what it was he was any good at, or what he would have made of his life without the Nazi party.

Unfortunately, this makes Longerich’s book a hard slog, at times little more than a detailed calendar of Himmler’s various official functions. Things are made worse by the fact that Longerich, at least in translation, is an even duller writer than Ian Kershaw. There are interesting historical tidbits thrown up, and it’s no doubt a reliable resource, but this is a book that’s hard to read from cover to cover and it doesn’t tell us much more about its subject than we already knew.

Review first published online May 24, 2020.

The View from Flyover Country

By Sarah Kendzior

Meeting the 18th president of the United States was an experience that forced Henry Adams to reconsider much of the prevailing scientific thought of his day:

That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called—and should actually and truly be—the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

Imagining what Adams would think of the presidency of Donald Trump is too depressing to want to consider. But we may take Trump’s ascendancy to the highest office in the land as making ludicrous many of our own intellectual shibboleths. Foremost among these is the notion of modern society being a meritocracy. Would you refute America as meritocracy? One might kick at Trump as Samuel Johnson did a rock and declare “I refute it thus!”

Or, as Sarah Kendzior puts it, “Over the past few decades, the U.S. has turned into a country where the circumstances into which you are born increasingly determine who you can become.” Those circumstances are primarily one’s socioeconomic status, but also relate to race, gender, and the year of one’s birth. The much maligned Millennials, to take Kendzior’s own cohort, are the “screwed generation.” It’s not a judgment I would argue against. I feel sorry for these people. They live, as Kendzior puts it in a nice image, “in the tunnel at the end of the light.”

Many of the essays in The View from Flyover Country deal with the job situation in the media and academia, being the two sectors of the economy that Kendzior is most personally invested in (she is a columnist with a Ph.D.). I would have liked a broader analysis, but you have to write what you know. As it stands, her conclusion that “In multiple professions, workers are performing nearly identical tasks for radically different salaries” is limited, though the principle does have some purchase outside journalism and education.

Meritocracy is, largely, a myth. Privilege is leveraged to maintain itself in all walks of life. The current social structure is based on luck and then multiplied through the so-called Matthew effect (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”) As inequality deepens this will only become more obvious and more of a problem. The process of de-evolution from Washington to Trump is just the beginning.

“The first step to topping a meritocracy is recognizing that it is not a meritocracy.” From there, however, any correction will probably require far more radical steps than we can currently imagine. In the wake of Trump and the Covid-19 crisis most people want a return to normal. It is essential, Kendzior reminds us, “we remember that ‘normal’ is how we got here.”

Review first published online May 7, 2020.

I Am Dynamite!

By Sue Prideaux

I like it when I learn something from a book, and I learned quite a bit from I Am Dynamite!, Sue Prideaux’s biography of Friedrich Nietzsche. That said, I’m sure this was mostly because I’d never read a biography of Nietzsche before but had gotten by on the sketches that came with introductions to his work or discussions of his philosophy. Add to this the layers of myth that have always surrounded the man, constantly in need of being cut away, and Prideaux’s book made a real difference in my understanding of the man.

For example: I’d always known that Nietzsche was “sickly,” but this really doesn’t cover the half of it. His eyesight was very poor (in fact he was nearly blind) and a sensitivity to light gave him debilitating headaches while requiring the wearing of sunglasses most of the time. He also suffered from hemorrhoids, migraines, and digestive disorders (his bowels further wrecked by the medicine of the day). I also knew he’d had an accident involving a horse that restricted his army service but wasn’t aware of its severity. What happened is that he speared himself on the pommel of his saddle, resulting in a chest wound so deep he could see bone. In later life he would claim “200 days of torment a year” from various afflictions. Is it any wonder his philosophy would be so concerned with the health of the individual?

Another eye-opener had to do with influences. I knew, from Will Durant, that Nietzsche was “the child of Darwin and the brother of Bismarck.” And his borrowings from Schopenhauer are obvious and have been much analysed. What I was surprised by was just how much Wagner’s romantic musings on the Dionysian had contributed to The Birth of Tragedy, and how much Paul Rée contributed to Nietzsche’s aphoristic style and the idea of there being a genealogy of morals. How much of Nietzsche’s impact was the result of his originality, and how much due to his simply pursuing current ideas into the red zone of shock and discomfort?

On a more mundane level, I had thought typewriters were a slightly older invention. But it was only in 1882 that Nietzsche took possession of an early prototype (a Hansen’s Writing Ball). Apparently it was damaged in transit and never worked as it should, though with Nietzsche’s eyesight it might not have been of much use anyway. Which was, perhaps, for the best. “Our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts,” he was led to observe. Truly a thought ahead of its time.

Was Nietzsche’s a life of disappointments, or did he not know what he wanted? Somehow — it really was a lucky break — he became close friends with his idol Wagner. Then they fell out. He got a job as a tenured professor at the age of 24, without even having completed his doctorate, but hated the job and committed professional suicide by writing entirely un-academic books. He pursued Lou Salomé, perhaps romantically, but I think we feel relief that things never went any further.

Was he learning something from all of this? Surely something not only about the vanity of human wishes but their perversity.

Review first published online May 2, 2020.