We Should Have Seen It Coming

WE SHOULD HAVE SEEN IT COMING
By Gerald F. Seib

Over the past few years I’ve reviewed many books on the Trump phenomenon. Gerald Seib’s falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, but it does address, squarely, two of the questions that I find most interesting about the whole sorry episode: (1) to what extent was Trump the logical extension if not endpoint of a political movement that began with Reagan?, and (2) what does the label “conservative” mean today? The questions are related, in that Trump may be seen as carrying forward a broader conservative project and/or breaking with it.

Seib’s title makes clear the continuity: the populism of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, the outrage of the Tea Party movement, and the distrust, to put it mildly, of the media were all clear signposts for where the Republican Party was heading (Seib’s escape from a Reagan rally after a colleague warns that they are about to be lynched by the crowd made me think of the stories Katy Tur had to tell in her account of the 2016 Trump campaign Unbelievable). At the same time, Seib also makes it clear that going down this path was as revolutionary in its way as Reagan’s transformation of the political landscape. The Trumpistas were no longer Reagan Republicans but something else entirely.

Are they still conservative though? One gets the sense that Seib, along with his go-to guide in such matters George Will, would like to preserve a core meaning for the word. All too often, however, Seib has to add qualifiers to make it clear what it was Trump was moving away from, if not outright rejecting. Traditional conservatism, for example, or classic or principled conservatism were kaput. And then there are the familiar sub-species of conservatism, now so removed from one another as to be barely on speaking terms: fiscal or economic conservatism, cultural conservatism, and neoconservatism. George W. Bush would try to brand his administration as practicing compassionate conservatism, and Seib takes the story up to a 2019 conference and the efforts to write a manifesto for a new form of “national conservatism” (which is apparently just as terrible as it sounds, being the response to a “real political world . . . of competing tribes and nations”).

After wading through just a brief history of these years one could be forgiven for thinking that the word “conservative” had become detached from all meaning. I wouldn’t disagree. I think there is, however, at least one bedrock principle that has followed through from Reagan to Trump intact. This is the distrust of government, which blossomed over time into a full-blown and largely unreasoning hatred.

The reason I think this has held constant over the decades is that it serves a practical end. The dismantling of government undertaken by the Republican “wrecking crew” has a purpose, which is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy (targeting taxes on capital gains, estate, dividends) are what Republican donors are paying for, and that’s what they’ve gotten. We might call this Koch conservatism (Seib seems to prefer to call it libertarianism, and I don’t recall his using the term “neoliberalism” once, though it’s a label even George Will approves of). Everything else has been window dressing. Fiscal responsibility, democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution, family values . . . all of this was a joke to be taken as seriously as infrastructure week and having Mexico pay for a wall. Seib wants to add to the conservative checklist items like free markets, being pro-immigration, and some kind of commitment to altruistic foreign involvement, but these had no more purchase under Trump than they really did for anyone post-Reagan. In fact, I’m not sure what he means by a conservative foreign policy. Promotion of democracy? Human rights? It’s hard to say. In any event, Trump wasn’t even going to pay lip service to such nonsense.

Of course government has continued to grow. In a complex, modern bureaucratic state that is inevitable. Someone has to deal with crises that come along, like the 2008 mortgage meltdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are also inevitable exceptions to the program of slash and burn, most notably a defence industry that needs to be serviced in times of both war and peace. But conservative ideology has stayed true to the basic game plan of privatization, getting rid of government regulation, and lowering taxes on the rich. All of which has had the intended effect of widening inequality.

What Trump did, then, wasn’t so much a break with tradition as a break with decorum. He gave the game away. A wholly unprincipled individual himself, he mocked the whole idea of governing by principle. What that left was a cash grab and a drive to, in Sarah Kendzior’s phrase, “strip American for its parts.” To say that people should have seen this coming isn’t quite correct. They should have seen that this is what was always going on.

Notes:
Review first published online April 19, 2021.

Hatchet Job

HATCHET JOB
By Mark Kermode

The title is catchy, but a bit misleading. British film critic Mark Kermode has mellowed over the years, even to the point where he’s wondering if, at mid-life, it’s been all a waste of time. After a preface that introduces (yet again) the enduring appeal of the negative review, he turns to other subjects. He’s not here to tell us how he hated, hated, hated, someone’s movie but to offer up more wide-ranging observations.

Still, the role of the critic in the twenty-first century media ecosystem is his main theme, and part of that forces him to address the misperception that critics are snobbish axe-men, abusing their privileged positions of trust and power. That may have been the case once, but the mighty have fallen. Film reviewers are now more ignored than despised (perhaps no consolation) and have made peace with the new economy and its entertainment-industrial complex.

In a hatchet job it’s usual to begin with some good news first before, in Gore Vidal’s phrase, donning the executioner’s hood. But since I liked Hatchet Job, and Mark Kermode’s writing in general, I’ll start with the fact that I don’t share any of Kermode’s taste in movies. I’m glad that he still thinks The Exorcist the greatest movie ever made, and that he bawled like a baby on his most recent re-watch of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but at the end of the day I think we like very different things, for different reasons. I’m never going to find David Cronenberg’s Crash “brilliant” or “a near-perfect movie,” not because I find it shocking of offensive but because it’s dull. But, in a book like this, that doesn’t matter. I don’t agree with many of Pauline Kael’s critical judgements either, but still like to read her.

Kermode is very easy to read. Chances are, if you’re interested in this book, that you’ve heard him on the radio or a podcast. That’s what the book sounds like: listening to Kermode talk. The voice is well-informed, enthusiastic, self-deprecating, and digressive to a degree that can be excessive (he’ll stretch an anecdote so that it becomes the connecting thread for an entire chapter). Along the way there are numerous asides that had me nodding my head. Here are a few as a sample:

the idea that all the good movies were made in the very recent past ignores the fact that the real heyday of cinema (in terms of popularity) came in the thirties and forties; to all intents and purposes we are now merely sifting through the wreckage of an art form whose popular supremacy has long been superseded by the advent of television, video-games, and the Internet.

. . .

the longer I do this job, the more I wonder how you can ever know what you actually think of a film, so influential are the circumstances under which you first saw it, and the subsequent opportunities you may or may not have to re-evaluate your first response.

. . .

all movies take a lot of effort to make, even the really rotten ones
So is this what the future of film journalism looks like? Reviewing a bogus script for an unfinished film under the catch-all cloak of completest fandom? Back in the sixties, high-profile critics feared for their jobs and beat themselves up in public for the crime of reviewing a movie they had watched from start to finish but perhaps misjudged in their haste to file copy. Now they stand proudly by reviews of films they haven’t even seen – because they haven’t been made yet – and everyone stands back and applauds.

. . .

Film-makers bleat on all the time about how awful critics are who slag off their work, but no one ever addresses the character-building power of surviving a full-on critical tsunami, or the equally corrosive effect of basking too long in the radioactive sunlight of universal praise.

I found myself agreeing with all of this, in part because I’ve said similar things over the years, most often about book reviewing. That said, I did have a lot of trouble with a couple of the major points that Hatchet Job is organized around.

The first of these has to do with anonymous reviewing on the Internet. “When it comes to critics,” Kermode writes, “I want to know who they are, what they know, where they come from, and what they have to lose.” This last point is the important one. Kermode lays it down as a rule that a critic must stake their reputation on every review they write: “criticism without risk to the critic has no value whatsoever . . . an opinion is only worth as much as its author has to lose: their good name; their reputation; their audience; their job.” It is only this “element of risk” that gives reviews “whatever validity they possess.”

I have two really big problems with this. In the first place, I don’t think it’s true. At least in theory, why shouldn’t an anonymous review be just as perceptive, informative, fair-minded, entertaining, and correct as one written by someone we know? As a general principle I think you should stand behind what you write, but it’s not essential. And why should anyone care where a critic comes from, or “what they know” beyond what is reflected in what they’ve written?

The other problem I have with the risk principle is that it addresses an issue that I don’t see as being much of a problem. Most film bloggers and online critics, at least of any repute, write under their own name, or if they use a pseudonym are easily identified (that is, they don’t try to conceal who they are). Sure there are people who practice a form of drive-by hatchetry online, hiding behind false avatars and funny nicknames, but they’re trolls, not critics. Anonymous posters and posers don’t seem like a big enough danger to bother spending so much time on, and Kermode builds them up into the book’s primary bogeyman.

The second point I found myself disagreeing with has to do with the shift from print to digital reviewing. The death of Roger Ebert is invoked several times as the end of an era in film criticism, and while Kermode feels some sadness at its (the era’s) passing he is enthusiastic at the fact that “like it or not, we’re all bloggers now.” Yes, print is dying but that “does not mean that film criticism as an art form needs to die out, dumb down, or otherwise disintegrate.” While it’s harder for writers to make money, “this is a temporary state of affairs.” Things will get better, and “quality will out, whether in print, broadcast, or Internet publication.”

This was written in 2013 and I wonder if Kermode still believes it. Much has changed since he observed that the world had changed. Does anyone still know, or care, who Harry Knowles is, or was?

It’s true that film reviews have proliferated online, and that some of them have a far greater reach, immediacy, and readership than was ever possible in print, but the money hasn’t followed. And while I’m impressed at the work some sites have done, I don’t think it’s true that “quality will out.” The top film review sites in terms of traffic are often the most superficial and juvenile. Can film criticism, and indeed in-depth film scholarship, continue as the preserve of dedicated amateurs? We’re going to find out.

A bigger issue, as I see it, is the sheer number of film reviews and other material appearing online. I think this is less a sign of health (as Kermode interprets it) than it is of a metastasizing condition. The problem isn’t anonymous reviews but the amount of material out there, with thousands of reviews available almost immediately upon a film’s release, all of them saying nearly the same things. What this then leads to is the rise of the aggregate score: an average taken of these many thousands of reviews that then becomes an official score on IMDb, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, or Metacritic. Enter the hive mind, where voices originally identified with a particular critic become anonymous, simple data points stuck on a graph. Volume will out.

Notes:
Review first published online April 13, 2021. For my thoughts on Kermode’s The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex see here.

A Promised Land

A PROMISED LAND
By Barack Obama

Former U.S. president Barack Obama wants you to know that he still believes in America.

Believing in America, he also believes in such patriotic American staples as democracy, opportunity, good government, and the rule of the law.

You can expect platitudes from a politician, but in the case of the first volume of Obama’s White House memoirs, A Promised Land, they come with a greater sense of urgency. Not just because he was succeeded by someone openly opposed to all of those core beliefs and values, someone enabled by a Republican wrecking crew whose sole political purpose has become the dismantling of the state, but because across the world there is a growing public disillusionment with democracy, putting that form of government at real risk.

As you should also expect from a book like this, Obama is very much concerned with presenting his legacy in the best possible light. What this means is that while admitting he often fell short in achieving his goals when it came to fighting the good fight against obstructionist Republicans for things like healthcare reform and environmental protection, this was largely due to the real limits his power had in “the world as it is.”

Time and again, but especially when faced with falling poll numbers, he upbraids himself for becoming “trapped in my own high-mindedness” and not being able to communicate just how good a job he was really doing. “We’re on the right side of this stuff,” he complains to his closest political confidant David Axelrod while working on the Affordable Care Act. “We just have to explain it better to voters.”

But this doesn’t sound right. Obama was a brilliant communicator. The problem he faced was an electorate that had self-selected into different realities. This is brought home to him by the resiliency of the “birther” claims about his not being born in the United States. That so many people (still) believe this canard is not due to any failure in communication. The birthers believe in alternative facts.

As the author of two previous memoirs, Obama is a practised, observant writer with an important story to tell. One thing you should not expect, however, are any great revelations, inside scoops, or dramatic fireworks. “No-drama Obama” doesn’t roll that way. Still, you don’t have to read far between the lines to pick up what he really thinks of some of the personalities he had to deal with. One can tell that while in office he had genuine respect for German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, but thought French president Nicolas Sarkozy a lightweight and Senator Lindsay Graham a weasel.

Stephen Harper, by the way, is only mentioned once in passing. This country did not seem to occupy much, if any, of Obama’s attention.

The story concludes here with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and the figure of Donald Trump as a sinister shadow waiting in the wings, trafficking in a currency of spectacle and conspiracy theory that “seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day.” Obama says he could feel where this was going: “I knew that the passions he was tapping, the dark, alternative vision he was promoting and legitimizing, were something I’d likely be contending with for the remainder of my presidency.”
Whether in conscious response to this or not, Obama presents himself throughout as the anti-Trump: a family man, self-reflective, empathetic, thick-skinned, and in love with the work of being president while not caring for the pomp and pageantry a bit.

Most of all, however, he describes himself as a believer in “a hopeful, generous, courageous America, an America that was open to everyone.” At the end of the book, describing his address to a college graduation class, he realizes that as a young man “I’d seized on that idea and clung to it for dear life. For their sake more than mine, I badly wanted it to be true.”

He’d soon have plenty of reasons for doubt.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, November 17 2020.

Technological Slavery

TECHNOLOGICAL SLAVERY: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF THEODORE J. KACYNSKI
Ed. by David Skrbina

Theodore Kaczynski knows how a revolutionary manifesto is supposed to begin. You don’t beat around the bush. Just blast out a slogan that can be painted on a placard or embroidered on a flag. “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.” “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”

Kaczynski’s call for revolution has a familial resemblance to those of Rousseau and Marx in being directed at an oppressive political system, or more broadly a system of power, that has to be dismantled. For Rousseau it’s the social contract, for Marx capitalism, and for Kaczynski industrial civilization, technological society, or the industrial-technological or technoindustrial system (the adjectives industrial and technological are used interchangeably, as are civilization, society, and system).

The technoindustrial system does not serve human needs, but rather constitutes an autonomous source of power that forces humanity to serve it. This is something humans are not evolved to do, so we are required to adopt various coping mechanisms (drugs, etc.). Now, as with Marx’s dialectic, the collapse of the present system is inevitable. It’s going to happen eventually anyway, though perhaps only when it destroys the planet itself. But Kaczynski thinks we can and should move the process along by taking revolutionary action. Things are only going to get worse if we keep going down the road we’re on, so better to pull the Band-Aid off with one quick yank. Which is one of the reasons Kacynski is in prison for life (though the mail bombs, he confesses, were mainly just a way of getting attention for his manifesto).

Getting rid of technological society and then seeding the ground with salt (“the factories should be destroyed, technical books burned, etc.”), will of course be massively disruptive and painful, though the payoff is that we will become physically and psychologically healthier in the long term, and save the planet. Civilizational collapse, however, is not something many people not already living off the grid in a shack in the woods are likely to vote for. They are the Last Men, addicted to their lives of comfort and convenience, even when such an existence is making them sick and undermines their human dignity.

As with so many such diatribes the analysis of the problem is fairly persuasive. Much of modern life is oppressive and damaging to ourselves and the planet. Far less convincing is the solution, which is radical in its simplicity. Even if we don’t go all the way back to hunting and gathering, which is Kacynski’s preferred outcome or “social ideal,” we’ll return to living in small agricultural communities, sort of like medieval villages without the feudalism, or, if you can imagine such a thing, libertarian communes. (Kacynski is against collectives, which he associates with leftism and slave/victim morality —ressentiment leading to a corrupted will to power and ultimately totalitarianism.) It should come as no surprise, given his life choices, that he comes across in these pages as a more than mildly anti-social person.

Kacynski is aware, however, that revolutions never have predictable outcomes. He even offers this up as a principle of history. So whatever plans he has for a future society, if it can be called a “society” at all, are necessarily provisional. The present task is only to destroy. Sticking with the way things are now will only lead to further human de-evolution as we become adjusted and conformed to the new technological environment, “reduced to the status of domestic animal.” Generation by generation we will become weaker and duller, while living with less dignity and freedom. Eventually we will be replaced by machines. So even if the future is cloudy, “It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.”

Such a rallying cry may be interpreted as despairing at the present situation or hopeful of the future. Kacynski wants it to be hopeful, as “one of the indispensable psychological preconditions for revolution is that people should have hope. If there’s no hope, there will be no revolution.” My own feeling is that such a revolution would turn out a lot worse than expected, and the return to a state of nature more problematic. Should nature be our final guide for a healthy and moral life? I can’t bring myself to wholly equate the natural with the good.

The strength of Kacynski’s manifesto is its absolutism. He won’t abide any half measures. And given how he defines the problem he may be correct in insisting upon such a root-and-branch approach. I don’t see any other way to effect his proposed great leap backward. Tearing down the factories and burning the technical manuals, however, is unlikely to prevent the same process that built the present system from doing so again. This is evolution too. For better or for worse, it’s our nature.

Notes:
Review first published online March 30, 2021.

American Serial Killers

AMERICAN SERIAL KILLERS: THE EPIDEMIC YEARS 1950 – 2000
By Peter Vronsky

Most true crime books are timely, flexed-out reportage, cashing in on the notoriety of a headline-grabbing trial and doing little to advance public understanding beyond what you’d get reading the news. Survey books give a bit more perspective, but often don’t provide more than capsule accounts of the most celebrated bloodletters and badmen.

Peter Vronsky is one of the better workers in this busy field and in his several books on the subject he always gives the reader a bit more in the way of informed and original insight. Yes, this latest account of serial killers active in the United States in the back half of the twentieth century covers all of the greatest hits, as well as some curious “footnotes” (I was interested to learn that Harvey Murray Glatman, the Glamor Girl Slayer, was the first killer to photograph his victims, at least that we know of), but it’s precisely the fact that these years constituted such a take-off, followed by a sharp drop around the turn of the millennium, that calls for investigation and analysis.

The numbers are remarkable. In the 1950s there were 72 reported serial killers in the U.S. In the 1960s, 217, in the ‘70s 605, in the ‘80s 768, and in the ‘90s 669. But then a trailing off, with 371 in the 2000s and 117 in the 2010s.

There’s more to the story than just these statistics. Anyone who reads much in this area will know that these same epidemic years (1970-2000) didn’t just produce a greater number of serial killers but all of the names that are still most recognized today: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Richard Ramirez (the Night Strangler), Jeffrey Dahmer, and many others known almost exclusively by their nicknames: the Hillside Strangler, the BTK Killer, the Green River Killer et al. But since Dahmer, what killers have caught the public’s imagination and the media’s eye in the same way? Vronsky lists off eighteen of the more prominent, only to say “If you haven’t heard of them, you are not the only one. Some didn’t even have monikers.” I count myself among the ignorant, pulling a blank on all eighteen.

Have serial killers changed? Has the way we cover them changed? Or are we just not as interested as we used to be? And what conditions – social, political, economic, cultural – gave rise to the epidemic in the first place? These are interesting questions, even if no conclusive answers are available.
On the question of what gave rise to the epidemic Vronksy suggests the after-effects of military service in brutal wars by a parental generation and the influence of crime magazines in making sexual violence an accessible fetish. Borrowing on a term used by anthropologist Simon Harrison, Vronsky sees these as being two elements in a Satanic cultural mix (diabolus in cultura) that combined around mid-century into the perfect breeding ground for the later serial killer explosion.

I would have preferred it if Vronsky had not leaned so heavily on the particular root sources he identifies, but he doesn’t present his case with a lot of wiggle room:

The baby-boom generation of future serial killers was a nest of two thousand sick baby snakes, drinking their fathers’ traumas, their mothers’ neuroses, and sucking up the culture of rape and murder sold to them at the supermarket magazine rack, on TV and movies, and getting stepped on by bullies and rapists and life itself. That’s how a surge of serial killers will be formed, simple and easy. You don’t need a psych degree or a complex theory to figure it out; just peruse a men’s adventure or true-detective magazine from the 1960s and ask your granddad, if he’s still around, what he witnessed in the “last good war.”

This is a thesis Vronsky previously put forward in another serial-killer book, Sons of Cain, but while the specific connections he makes (parental traumas passed down to the next generation plus “rape culture” magazines) aren’t imaginary or wholly speculative, they still strike me as incidental. Most Boomers were spoiled rather than abused, and the mix of sex and violence in the media today are more advanced than anything in the primitive “sweats.” A counter-argument though might be made (indeed has been made) that today we’ve become inured to porn, or that Internet porn in particular has become a kind of mellowing drug for people with violent dispositions. Meaning that the serial killer epidemic might have been a kind of social trauma that we collectively had to go through in order to arrive at our current narcotized, surveillance state.

In any event, while I appreciate the boldness of the argument I think it’s also hard to generalize. Serial killers are a mixed bag. Much is made here of Ted Bundy’s iconic status as the epidemic’s poster boy, the one who would “define for us the new postmodern serial killer.” But Bundy himself strikes me as being highly atypical in most ways.

We are left to wonder whether the serial killer epidemic of 1970 – 2000 will be repeated. Are such phenomena cyclical, or was this a one-off? It’s a pressing question, as Vronsky is concerned at the potential fallout from such crises as the 2008 subprime meltdown, the war on terror, and the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are looking into the abyss of a new American Noir like the one in the 1940s but worse.” I’d agree that the potential is there, as we’ve already seen political and economic institutions straining and beginning to crack. I see the same dark moon rising that Vronsky does, but whether it will produce more of the sorts of lunatics described in these pages is harder to say. It seems to me likely that the same percentage of people carry within them these violent impulses, and if serial killers are opportunists I would expect them to become more active as the sort of opportunities created by, for example, social breakdown arise. Things tend to fall apart all at once, from the personal to the political.

Notes:
Review first published online March 23, 2021.

The Uninhabitable Earth

THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: LIFE AFTER WARMING
By David Wallace-Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth reads very much like what it is: a magazine article that took off (or went viral, as magazine articles now do) that was then expanded to book length. Meaning that despite its timeliness and urgency it also wanders from point to point while becoming repetitive, which has the unfortunate effect of watering down some of its message.

The overarching point is announced in the first sentence: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” This is probably true, and I say “probably” only because I register as a “temperamental declinist” and so what I think is already pretty bad. The set of conditions — social, technological, economic, political — that have given rise to global climate change are all still very much in the driver’s seat. There seems little interest, at least among the class of those with the power to do much, to change the way we live now, and even if we did somehow manage such a transformation many of the consequences of our industrial, mass-production/mass-consumption economy (a historical blip in the grand scheme of things) are now baked into the system anyway.

In all of this there is nothing new, at least if you’ve been keeping even slightly informed about what’s been going on. Wallace-Wells isn’t providing any original analysis as he’s a journalist and not a scientist or environmentalist. He does, however, highlight the various main areas of concern moving forward, like extreme weather events, extinctions, rising ocean levels, refugee crises, and the spread of infectious disease. More broadly, he wonders what will happen when we step outside the environmental window that our species has evolved within thus far. If, as I think is true, “the wheels of all communities are greased by abundance; baked by deprivation, they stall and crack,” then how will we respond when that cracking occurs?

Little time is spent on potential solutions or fixes, perhaps because Wallace-Wells doesn’t put a lot of stock in them. Nor do I. Instead, he speculates on ways we may have to adapt in order to cope. These range from the withdrawal to virtual worlds (a preferred environment that gives us the illusion of control) to the development of new moral systems. In any event, “we know enough to see, even now, that the new world we are stepping into will be so alien from our own, it might as well be another planet entirely.” And that’s not just a comment on the physical or natural environment. In the way we live, work, eat, and relate to one another our children will become aliens too.

Notes:
Review first published online March 11, 2021.

Twilight of the Elites

TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: AMERICA AFTER MERITOCRACY
By Christopher Hayes

In Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, after the fallen angels have built their palace of Pandemonium, Satan takes his magnificent place at their head:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Show’rs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais’d
To that bad eminence.

As a student I remember some time spent in discussion of what sort of merit Satan possessed to have risen to that bad eminence. Would it not have been bad merit? And what would that be?

This is a point that’s often recurred to me when considering the meritocracy, a word I always feel like putting in quotation marks because I don’t know how merit is being defined or what value is being placed on it.
In most respects I think what qualifies as merit is only what makes the most money. As such, there are a number of problems with it. In the first place, it has no moral basis. In this sense Pandemonium is a meritocracy. If Satan had been a professional athlete, can we doubt he’d have been taking performance enhancing drugs? And who would or could accuse him of doing anything wrong? Gaming the system is itself part of the game. Then there is the matter of what happens when incentives and compensation are out of whack. One can blame elites for the collapse of Enron or the 2008 financial crisis, but the people in charge were just competing for the showrooms of beautiful prizes to be won by those with the greatest merit. Meaning the best ability to play a particular game. And finally there is the matter of inheritance. The merit in a meritocracy is the possession of a single generation, but given how systems of social and economic inequality lock in, “merit” can, and indeed usually does, become nothing more than a class signifier.

In short, a meritocracy, like any oligarchy, can only be expected to get worse over time. As Lewis Lapham put it:

oligarchies bear an unhappy resemblance to cheese, and over time even the best of them turn rancid. The government might delay the procedure by making as difficult as possible the concentrations of wealth that inevitably fall to the lot of individuals equipped with financial talent, military genius, or noble birth – but not even the strictest tax or sumptuary laws can nullify the logic of compound interest or postpone indefinitely the triumph of vanity. Sooner or later the men become pigs. An oligarchy the might once have aspired to an ideal of wisdom or virtue gradually acquires the character of what Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool” – a man, or class of men, so bewildered by their faith in money that they “therefore imagine there is nothing it cannot buy.” Once the oligarchy has been made stupid with insolence and greed, it’s only a matter of time – maybe two or three decades, never more than three or four generations – before the government reformulates itself under a new row of statues and a new set of glorious truths.

Regulatory capture is the name given to this last part of the process. The larger transformation, or decline, of the oligarchy or meritocracy into an elite clique of locked-in privilege is what Christopher Hayes describes in his book:

extreme inequality of the particular kind that we have produces its own particular kind of elite pathology: it makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt than those in a more egalitarian social order would. This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production has revealed: As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elite.

The function served by the language of meritocracy is nothing new. Observing the vogue for social Darwnism in the late nineteenth century, a time of booming economic growth and terrible inequality, John Kenneth Galbraith noted how well its American gospel “fitted the needs of American capitalism”:

The rich man was the innocent beneficiary of his own superiority. To the enjoyment of wealth was added the almost equal enjoyment which came with the knowledge that one had it because one was better.

And so the gospel of meritocracy. These are stories elites like to tell themselves.

Hayes does a good job covering the ground and explaining how the practice of meritocracy got into trouble in the 2010s, or what he calls “the fail decade.” Time and again elites were shown to be corrupt, self-serving, incompetent, and dangerous to the rest of society. But did all of this mean that they were no longer a meritocracy? Again one has to ask what their merit was supposed to consist of. If it was only something to advance themselves economically then none of the charges that Hayes brings against it matter. The elites were operating precisely as they should in getting rich and increasing their power by any means necessary. If their objective failures led to a “crisis of authority” during these years, that would only benefit them as well. There’s a lot of money to be made in the ruin of a country.

Notes:
Review first published online February 7, 2021. A little point that stuck out while reading: in his discussion of political consensus Hayes observes that “over the last several decades, partisan affiliation has generally weakened, with a large percentage of voters identifying as independents or moving back and forth between designations.” I was under the impression that the exact opposite was happening, a process of polarization analysed in such books as Ronald Brownstein’s The Second Civil War and Steve Kornacki’s The Red and the Blue. Unfortunately, Hayes doesn’t provide any source for the weakening of party affiliation he sees.

Reaganland

REAGANLAND
By Rick Perlstein

Reaganland is the final volume of Rick Perlstein’s chronicle tetralogy on the rise of the modern American right, or New Right as I think it is more properly styled. The previous books were Before the Storm, Nixonland, and The Invisible Bridge, and as time went on they became even more exhaustively immersive, to the point where I can see why Perlstein felt he couldn’t go on. But the question he leaves us with is if there would be any point in continuing the story further. To put it another way, with the election of Reagan, was our present course set?

Reagan really did mark a revolution in the GOP, which was no longer the Republican Party of Eisenhower or even of Nixon and Ford. As Paul Weyrich, one of the architects of the New Right, put it, the movement was not meant to be conservative but radical, involving a total restructuring of the political and social order. The winners in this restructuring would be the newly class-conscious financial and business elites, a group Kurt Andersen dubbed “evil geniuses” and Perlstein “boardroom Jacobins.” The basic ideology would be neoliberal, which is to say opposed to government in nearly all its forms with a kind of religious intensity. Perlstein even renders a sermon delivered by James Robison in all its full exclamatory glory, wherein “God’s Angry Man” condemns government as “a confiscator! And a consumer! And a disperser of your wealth. It! Produces! Nothing! And it functions best when it functions least!”

That sort of rhetoric is still with us, and indeed the question Reaganland leaves us with is how much of a through line can be drawn from Reagan to Trump. What later came to fruition was present at the end of the ‘70s in Robison’s outraged tirade of bottomless anger and grievance. Then there was the politicization of social issues (something Reagan was early to recognize the value of), the branding of “Make America Great Again,” the racism inherent in the Republican “Southern strategy,” the blithe indifference to facts or the truth, all of this would be dialed up in the years to come but it was nascent in everything Perlstein describes. The capstone was Fox News and social media as a way to make people even angrier, so that forty years later mobs would be storming the capital.

Reagan, like Trump, would be a figure drawn from the glamorous world of show business, while Carter could only play a sort of Beverly Hillbilly, sermonizing not on the evil of government but about public sacrifice. Is there a dirtier word in modern American culture? Carter did not understand yet that, as a later president would put it, the American way of life is nonnegotiable.

Essential reading then, for a deeper understanding of today’s politics. Perlstein’s eye for the telling detail and anecdote is exquisite, and the amount of material he has trawled through is truly impressive. He must have lived in a library for years My only complaint would be that I have never seen a book, at least from a major press, with this many typos in it. Was it rushed into print? Perhaps it was, being published during the run-up to the 2020 election that saw the dismissal of Trump. As events have shown, however, the New Right is continuing on the same trajectory even post-election, and the U.S. is still very much Trumpland. America’s rightward turn is describing a long arc indeed.

Notes:
Review first published online January 30, 2021.

Evil Geniuses

Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America
Kurt Andersen

I don’t know why Kurt Andersen keeps going on about nostalgia. He talked about it a lot in his previous book, Fantasyland, and does so again in Evil Geniuses, though in both cases it has only a tangential relation to the political and cultural phenomena that are his subject. Here, for example, nostalgia is simply a “comorbidity” of the redesigning of the American economy by big business, leading to deepening social inequality as the culture fails to renew itself and simply retrenches. It is a feeling, and political technique, that’s characteristic of our time, but finally ambiguous and hard to pin down.

The point being made here is fairly simple. Since the 1960s, and it’s a force that has only been picking up steam, there has been a “quite deliberate reengineering of our economy and society . . . by a highly rational confederacy of the rich, the right, and big business.” Because why wouldn’t they? It was a plan that took no great genius either to figure our or execute. Indeed, the economic theory part was a joke. What enabled it though was infighting among the left while the economic right only had their “one big, simple idea — do everything possible to let the rich stay rich and get richer.” I seem to remember Gore Vidal making the same observation many years ago. By now we’ve seen where the political philosophy that “government is bad” (morphing into “democracy is bad”) takes us, and it’s not the capitalist utopia of Galt’s Gulch.

Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy
Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum adds quite a lot in this little book to the vast literature trying to understand the Trump phenomenon and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism elsewhere in the West (in addition to the U.S. she also looks at developments in Britain, Poland, and Hungary).

I wonder, however, if we might say something in defence of the Trump voter. To be sure, the authoritarian personality is not very congenial, and the rage and resentment that fueled the rise of would-be strong men can get pretty ugly. As Applebaum notes, the new right “is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.” Including, most broadly, democracy and the rule of law.

But they have their reasons. For what has become the politics of grievance, some of the grievances are legitimate. It is a rigged system (in championing merit and competition Applebaum doesn’t appreciate how diminished a role these now play in the economy). The media is biased, albeit more in ways that favour their own penchant for alternative facts and divisiveness. Democratic politics has become unresponsive and unrepresentative, its only business being the servicing of elite interests. The irony is that the right-wing response to this dysfunction has been to “destroy what exists” by voting for even more corruption in government, and following media that only traffic in the most outrageous lies.

As for Trump, the person who hates everything became the perfect vehicle for the hate of so many. As that hate grows, there is sure to be someone to take his place.