The Ruin of the Roman Empire

The Ruin of the Roman Empire
James J. O’Donnell

I like how the subtitle here is “A New History.” It’s such an old story you really have to throw that in. But is it all that new?

The main point O’Donnell wants to make is that Justinian was the author of Rome’s decline and fall with his program of “mad restorationism.” When Justinian came to power it was “arguably the last moment of genuinely ancient history when . . . the totality of what Rome created could still be thought of as one community.” When he died that world lay, if not in ruins, at least irremediably fractured. This, however, is not a wholly original thesis. Justinian has always had plenty of critics, even in his own day. O’Donnell’s own spin is to make Justinian out to be a Hamlet figure.

That’s an interesting analogy, and one of many O’Donnell indulges. Theoderic, for example, is likened to Othello, Theodahad “is a character straight out of Evelyn Waugh,” and Cassiodorus is Doctor Zhivago. You didn’t get as much of this in the Old Histories of the fall of Rome, and while some of it is interesting I felt it mostly to be a distraction from a narrative that didn’t have much new to say.

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Who Killed Canadian History?

Who Killed Canadian History?
J. L. Granatstein

J. L. Granatstein’s 1998 manifesto, completely revised 10 years later, is worth considering today in light of more recent developments. I think it’s fair to say that the health of Canadian history, measured by general public knowledge of the subject, hasn’t rebounded. If anything, the reports I’ve seen have it that things are getting worse, especially among young people. So do we need to re-arraign the usual suspects?

Universities are an easy target, and remain so. But it’s not just History departments; the Humanities in general are under pressure from forces not entirely under their control. Political correctness, which I considered a spent force in 1998, has revived with a vengeance, but I don’t think it registers with the broader public as much (about this, however, I could be very wrong). More than this, however, I think it’s the continuing fallout from the digital revolution that is hastening history’s demise. Twenty, perhaps even ten years ago, Granatstein could hold out hope that a new web-page might somehow make a difference. In his defence, that was the only bet to be made. We’ve all seen how things turned out.

The United States of Anger

THE UNITED STATES OF ANGER
By Gavin Esler

This shouldn’t happen. Timely books such as BBC reporter Gavin Esler’s survey of the political climate in America in the mid-1990s have an extremely limited shelf life. In most cases they are only slightly more enduring than the essays found in weekly magazines. So why return to Esler’s book now, over twenty years after it was published? In part, idle curiosity. But also to see how evident, or even obvious, the roots were of the calamities to come. Were we warned?

As I’ve argued before, the primary (and perhaps only) ideological constant shared by today’s political right is their hatred of government. Whether you’re a billionaire looking for tax breaks and deregulation, a libertarian with a hatred of the nanny state, or a survivalist eagerly anticipating the last days of civilization, the government has become not just an obstacle but a demonic adversary. This is the tie that binds together what Noam Chomsky calls the Republican party’s primary or real constituency (wealth and corporate power) with its popular or voting constituency (the rubes). It is also the force that unites the widespread anger, anxiety, and apathy Esler finds throughout his travels across the nation, the way “the US government is now routinely blamed by many of its citizens for every ill which befalls them.”

Esler begins his book with an anecdote of a woman vacationing in Florida who is told to address her complaints of an alligator in her backyard to a government official. “‘Pah,’ she exploded in disgust. ‘What good did government ever do anybody?’ The word ‘government’ was delivered like a swear-word.” The same observation is made when Esler travels to New Hampshire and meets another such figure:

Choo Choo Caron folds his arms across his chest and purses his lips angrily at the mere mention of the government in Washington. Like the woman tourist in Florida, and countless other taxpayers throughout this book, for Choo Choo “government” is almost a swear word.

The “red scare” of the Cold War had been replaced by the “fed scare” of the 1990s, and not just among the lunatic fringe. “The angriest Americans [that is, angry at the government] turn out to be neither poor nor uneducated nor from racial minorities. They are the white, well-educated middle-classes.”

The result of this is both the delegitimizing of government and the “search for a third party, an independent force of ‘anyone but a politician,’” to run for president. This has, Esler writes, “led voters into eccentric blind alleys,” throwing up figures like the billionaires Ross Perot and Steve Forbes and the television personality Pat Robertson. In the future, he prophesies, such faux-populist figures “will seek to bring about the collapse of one or other of the main political parties. Eventually they will succeed. A genuine third force will destroy either the Republicans or the Democrats.” Chalk one up for the forecaster.

Meanwhile, in the blue corner, we have Hillary Clinton. Esler: “The Clintons [note the plural] are despised by a vocal minority of the angriest Americans well beyond any failures of specific policies” or political successes. “It is difficult to think of a president in modern times who inspires quite as much personal loathing as Bill Clinton does. . . . He and his wife are symbols of the ‘Bad Generation’.”

This, I need to emphasize, was twenty years ago. Such feelings do not go away, especially when their objects remain prominently in the public eye. They ripen. Such was the politician who would want to run against the “third force” of Donald Trump.

Esler also had some ideas at the time as to what issues would come to dominate American politics. Immigration in the 1990s “had again joined the angriest issues dividing Americans from each other, as divisive as race relations and with an explosive potential to bring about serious political dislocation.” In a “malign scenario” he draws of a possible future he describes how “immigration will be the most notable scapegoat for ‘stealing American jobs’” and may fuel scaremongers “into demanding solutions along the protectionist and isolationist lines.” “The shock [of relative American decline] will quickly spill over into foreign policy, with the search for new enemies. The Chinese? The European Union? Mexico? Arabs?”

How about all of the above.

As noted, this is Esler’s malign scenario. He does, however, express confidence that, somehow, the centre will hold and America will not cease to be good and great. With hindsight, however, his darker imaginings have more purchase.

The malign scenario is, as its worst, very frightening indeed. America will come apart, increasingly divided on class and racial lines, staggering under a top-heavy bureaucracy, with an out-of-touch governing elite incapable of reform, buffeted by extremists, religious bigots and unscrupulous populists offering simplistic solutions to a shrinking middle class fearful of change.

Fear of change is, in fact, one of the likeliest guarantors of radical, disruptive change. A society can adapt and evolve or it can face revolution and collapse. In not choosing to make a choice a choice is made. Then apathy, as Esler shows, quickly turns to anger. Which will come too late.

Notes:
Review first published online May 21, 2019.

Songs for the Cold of Heart

SONGS FOR THE COLD OF HEART
By Eric Dupont

Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart (the Giller-shortlisted English translation by Peter McCambridge of the Quebec bestseller La fiancée americain) begins with a father telling a story to his three children. It’s the winter of 1958 and what makes the date significant is the fact that television hasn’t yet arrived in the town of Rivière-du-Loup, which means that the tall tales of Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne are still the best way to pass the time.

Songs for the Cold of Heart is a novel built out of such stories, beginning with that told by Papa Louis but then taking us much further afield. The way the narrative spreads through time and space is a leitmotif, as the act of storytelling (taking in all forms of gossip, rumour, and fabulation) is likened to the flow of lava or the contagion of smallpox. There’s no stopping the fiercely readable voice of this book once it gets going, no holding its incestuous proliferation of stories down.

Each of the stories, in turn, has a granularity of detail and willing waywardness that suggest a depth and familiarity that goes beyond the page. Then the bounds of realism also dissolve as supernatural characters and events are introduced or invented. Just as the narrative spreads out from Rivière-du-Loup so the particular and local events described take on a larger significance as the context for viewing them enlarges to take in whole swathes of the collective consciousness of the twentieth-century.

The usual label given to this sort of fiction is “magic realism,” and Dupont has been compared to the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his employment of the technique. However there have been a number of prominent Canadian novels whose family sagas are directed toward the same operatic intersection of legend and history. For some reason it’s a particularly popular mode among Newfoundland writers, with such books as Galore by Michael Crummey and The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston coming immediately to mind.

Such a large, complicated novel is a balancing act. Songs for the Cold of Heart is rambling and spontaneous but also coherent and carefully structured, rooted in the local but never sentimental or provincial in its outlook. Though some of the energy flags in the middle it’s a wonderful read, a testament to the continuing richness and vitality of the art of fiction.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star October 26, 2018.

No Quarter

NO QUARTER
By John Jantunen

Who knows what horrors lurk beneath the surface of Northern Ontario’s cottage country?

Perhaps George Cleary does. George is the former publisher of the Tildon Chronicle and author of a series of twelve melodramatic novels ripe with an excess of sex and violence. One of these novels is even titled No Quarter. It seems that life imitates art in the town of Tildon, and Cleary’s “Fictions” have a prophetic cast.

Unfortunately, George soon dies, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript for a new novel offering cryptic clues to Tildon’s dark history and fiery fate. So it falls to reporter Deacon Riis, George’s adopted son, to figure out what’s behind a recent crime wave involving people from the top and the bottom of Tildon’s food chain.

At the top we have the uber-rich Wane family, enjoying a life of Chandleresque decadence in a gated lakeside mansion. At the bottom there’s René Descartes, an ex-con living in a trailer and trying to get by doing pick-up manual labour. Remarkably, their paths will cross. Sparks will fly.

Jantunen’s previous novel, A Desolate Splendor, had a similar taste for violence set in an unforgiving, apocalyptic landscape. With No Quarter he has added more self-reflective literary elements. In its end is its beginning, and the story closes in upon itself while still leaving key questions unanswered. There are also hints at some deeper, metafictional or mystical connection between George Cleary’s Fictions and what’s going on in Tildon, though this is finally left up in the air.

No Quarter is presented as the first book of The Tildon Chronicles, which helps explain much of its elaborate, in-depth world building. Readers would be advised to keep track of the names and family genealogies as they go along. There is a lot of back story to get through and many detours into stories within stories, not all of them as yet fully digested.

There’s an ungainliness and energy to No Quarter, its unevenness being the result of an ambitious reach. How far that reach extends remains to be seen. It’s hard to make out the road ahead, but it seems as though the twisted chronicles of this town have a way to go.

Notes:
Review first published online December 26, 2018.

The Great Degeneration

THE GREAT DEGENERATION
By Niall Ferguson

For many years now it’s been clear that our political glossary has been in need of some updating. Terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” which have always had very different meanings in the United States, Canada, and the U.K., now seem obsolete. Liberal has been superseded by neoliberal, while conservatives clearly don’t want to conserve anything, aside perhaps from networks of established privilege. What do the familiar labels of right and left-wing, an inheritance of the French Revolution, mean anymore? If even leaders of political parties in the U.S. are freely described by the acronym RINO or DINO (Republican or Democrat “In name only”) is it worth keeping the name? What exactly is the “party of Trump”?

For a while now it has seemed to me that the most meaningful political divide, whatever name you want to give the different sides, is that between a party of the state and a party of the anti-state. I prefer anti-state to private sector because I think it highlights what is the more important principle at work. Here is what I had to say about this latter group in my review of Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk:

What is it that has so successfully united the right in the politics of our time? There is little in common between oil company CEOs, country-club conservatives, Tea Partiers, and white males without a college degree or disunionised labour when it comes to economic or even cultural concerns. Instead, what they share is a hatred of the government and an open wish to see it destroyed. Not shrunk, as in previous conservative dispensations, but done away with entirely. Taxes not lowered but abolished. Not less regulation but none at all. The right doesn’t like government and certainly doesn’t see a need for it. Any sort of government action is immediately labeled as socialism. We should just let the market do its work.

As I went on to say in that review, the intellectual foundation or political philosophy of the party of the anti-state was, in the context of American politics, best outlined by Thomas Frank in his book The Wrecking Crew, which came out in 2008. Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration is an expression of the same ideas Frank describes, albeit presented by one of their champions and not a critic.

Ferguson takes as his starting point the fact that after a few hundred years of Western triumph over “the Rest,” sometimes referred to by historians as the Great Divergence, the rest of the world (meaning, mainly, Asia) is now not only catching up but overtaking Europe and North America. “My overarching question is: what exactly has gone wrong in the Western world in our time?”

His answer, to simplify an already short and simple book, is government. Specifically he criticizes moribund – or (it comes to the same thing) “stationary” – political, legal, and economic institutions. It is “institutional degeneration” that leads to decline. What this means in practice is government getting in the way. Like all apologists of the anti-state party Ferguson is a proponent of radical laissez-faire, making him a neoliberal, or libertarian.

As usual, Ferguson presents his case with some sleight of hand, misleading rhetoric, and a few signature moments of eyebrow-raising contrarianism. Public debt, for example, is a great evil, “the single biggest problem facing Western politics.” Ferguson, however, says he doesn’t want to address questions of debt and “sterile arguments between proponents of ‘austerity’ and ‘stimulus’.” Instead he thinks the real issue is the breaking of an intergenerational contract. This then leads him to the embarrassing line that “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they’d all be fans of Paul Ryan.” That is, they would vote for austerity (or “entitlement reform,” as the euphemism has it), but get a massive tax cut to big business that would blow the debt sky-high.

Of course a ballooning debt is not good for young Americans, but Ryan’s politics have always been more about destroying the state than solving existing problems. In working toward that end, his tax bill was an essential bit of legislation, a way of crippling the government if not administering to it a mortal blow. The rest of The Great Degeneration follows the same anti-state line. Did you think that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by a failure of regulation? This is to buy into a statist myth, Ferguson reveals. The global mortgage meltdown was the result of too much regulation! Is technology what’s driving the decline in participation in various civic groups and our going bowling alone? Again, not at all. It is “Not technology, but the state,” which is “the real enemy of civil society.” Is there a cure for a flagging educational system? Yes: more private educational institutions.

“It will be clear by now,” Ferguson writes near the end of his book, at a point where it is indeed very clear, “that I am much more sympathetic . . . to the idea that our society – and indeed most societies – would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. If that is now a conservative position, so be it. Once, it was considered the essence of true liberalism.” By “true liberalism” what is meant is what most people today would call neoliberalism, the essence of which is an attack on the power of the state to do anything other than fight wars and (perhaps) provide a police force. This latter is a point Ferguson wants to underline. “From an historian’s point of view” (or that of a neoliberal think-tank member), “the real risks in the non-Western world today are of revolution and war.” Risks, that is, to the West. So we’d better be ready to deal with the restive Resterners when they start getting jumpy. If the government has a role it’s to provide guns, not butter.

In all of this I am not attacking Ferguson’s ideas so much as trying to properly classify them using a more accurate political terminology than we currently have. My own feeling, however, is that his ideas are very bad and will lead not to an arrest of the great degeneration he describes but an acceleration of the same, particularly in so far as it relates to greater inequality. Ferguson likes to draw an analogy to Darwinism for his analysis, and as far as I can tell he is in effect a modern social Darwinist. He sees the struggle for survival as being the only route to growth. I doubt that growth will be the outcome of such a struggle though, and in any event it’s that very struggle and the random violence of its outcomes that people fashion government to protect themselves from. The idea that getting rid of government will free us all is to take debunked notions of supply-side economics and turn them into not just a panacea but a theology. I also suspect it’s a disingenuous argument, along the lines of championing Paul Ryan’s plans to starve the state or drown it in the bathtub under the guise of creating a more just society.

By being more open as to what they’re all about (as, to their credit, many members of Frank’s wrecking crew are), pundits like Ferguson would do their side a favour and present us with a more honest choice of alternatives than the facile distinction between less government or more government, good government vs. bad. I have nothing against those of Ferguson’s persuasion arguing against the state in all things. They need, however, to be more forthright about just how society in the absence of any effective government is going to work, and for whom.

Notes:
Review first published online December 10, 2018.

Death by Video Game

Death by Video Game
Simon Parkin

With a title like this, taken from the spate of news stories about people dying after marathon sessions playing video games, I was expecting a book more critical of the addiction issues surrounding gaming. Instead Simon Parkin has written a fulsome appreciation of gaming and all of their many positives. There is nothing wrong with this, and I think Parkin’s book is excellent at what it does, but it really does present a slanted case that soft pedals the dangers and risks involved. In the chapter “Hiding Place,” for example, games are held out as ways to escape from a grim or damaging reality that seem to me little different than drugs or alcohol. Also missing is any discussion of the way game designers and the industry in general consciously seek to create addictions in players, using techniques even more insidious than cigarette companies. Maybe it’s just my usual pessimistic outlook, but I think the story is a lot darker than Parkin makes out.