The End of Tsarist Russia

The End of Tsarist Russia
Dominic Lieven

I thought this was a great account of Russia’s “march to World War I and revolution,” and would recommend it to anyone. It covers the terrain very well, emphasizing the importance of the Eastern front (“the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict”) and providing interesting commentary on such matters as the reception of Ivan Bloch’s work in Russia and Russia’s nationalism/patriotism deficit (at least compared to the other major powers). I’m less inclined to the view that Russia solely or primarily collapsed from within in 1917 and was still holding steady on the front. That was the case only, I would say, where they were facing the fading Ottoman Empire. In terms of both will and material I think the Russian army was licked, even without a mutiny in the trenches. The collapse was general, leaving the Bolsheviks to, as Lenin put it, pick up power where they found it lying in the street.

The Horror! The Horror!

The Horror! The Horror!
Jim Trombetta

American horror comics, at least of the notorious pre-Code variety, didn’t have a particularly long run. All of the examples in this weighty survey, less an anthology than a exhibition catalogue, were published between 1950 and 1954, the terminal date being when the Comics Code Authority was established.

Despite their all-too-brief flowering, the place these comics have in pop culture is hard to overstate. Was the 1952 story “Dungeon of Doom!” from Chamber of Chills an inspiration for John Carpenter’s They Live? I think it might have been.

The commentary by Jim Trombetta is a bit random, drawing from figures as diverse as Northrop Frye and Melanie Klein to introduce the different thematic sections. But what’s said is of interest, sometimes in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Trombetta’s commentary on the trope of shrunken heads.

The real meat of the book, however, consists of the reproductions, which are beautifully reproduced in all their full-colour glory — albeit tending to be yellowy with age, and sometimes suffering from those chromatic shifts brought on by the sloppy production process used to create the originals. Not that I would want any of this cleaned up. This is a volume worthy of classic trash.

The Braver Thing

THE BRAVER THING
By Clifford Jackman

In his widely heralded 2015 novel The Winter Family Clifford Jackman mixed pulp fiction with broader social and historical speculations as he told the story of a brutal gang of American outlaws. In his follow-up The Braver Thing he does something similar with the crew of the Saoirse, a pirate ship in the eighteenth century, though it’s a book that sails into different waters.

To be sure, the genre elements are all in place. This is a pirate novel so there’s a captain with an eye patch, a talking parrot, and sea battles that see men “pulped into tripe” with grapeshot and “hacked into meat” by swords. There are treasures lost and won, storms and duels and mutinies, and maybe even a giant sea beast at the end.

But in addition to all this swashbuckling there is a political theme introduced, signaled by an epigraph from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and chapter headings announcing the different forms of governance that are attempted on the Saoirse.

The ship of state is an ancient metaphor that goes back to Plato’s Republic, but it’s put to an extreme stress test here. That’s because these are men for whom violence isn’t a last resort but a profession and entire way of life.

As it sets out on its voyage the Saoirse is likened to “a wooden world . . . a parasitic nation at war with all the world, enemies of all mankind.” The crew are warrior monks of the sea: men without women, or much in the way of any human bonds at all. There are no female characters in the novel, and though lip service is paid to the notion of pirate brotherhood they are not a family. Real family being one of the few social units Winter presents as giving life purpose and meaning.

As with the gang of Winter desperadoes, the pirate ship in The Braver Thing is a radical anti-polis more than a microcosm of any sort of functioning society. The Gentlemen of Fortune and Honest Fellows, though bound together by articles of service and given to holding lots of shipboard meetings and votes, have little sense of loyalty or a social contract. The shipboard state, to use the language of political science, is prior to the individual.

What identity the crew have is submerged in rank and function. This is especially so at the top, where the isolation and burden of command results in self-flagellating pathologies. It’s not that absolute power corrupts so much as it breaks men into pieces.

The Braver Thing isn’t a novel that goes deep into the heads of any of its characters. There’s more a sense that anyone is expendable, with even the captains of the Saoirse coming and going almost by accident. But that is by design. Winter is less interested in psychology than he is in the behaviour of the group and the timely question of how to get by in a world where politics has gone mad and the ship of state is plunging into the blackness of darkness. Pro tips: keep your head down, do your duty, and you might get out alive.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 4 2020.

Rage

RAGE
By Bob Woodward

Rage is the sequel to Fear, and in the intervening years Bob Woodward has cooled toward his subject despite being granted greater access (seventeen on-the-record, taped conversations with Trump). But cooled only by a couple of degrees. Despite his conclusion, delivered in the book’s final sentence, that “Trump is the wrong man for the job,” this is a book that bends over backward to present the president in the best possible light. He is allowed to go on at length through many a “rambling, repetitious, often defensive monologue,” with little editorial comment by his interlocutor. His love letters to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un are quoted from with none of the contempt they deserve. “They reveal a decision by both [Trump and Kim] to become friends. Whether genuine or not, probably only history will tell.” I have to say that this takes a reluctance to draw conclusions a bit too far.

You could say that Woodward was only giving Trump enough rope to hang himself – and there are certainly moments of this kind to be appalled by – but that’s not the way most of it plays. Instead you get the sense that he’s actually trying not only to be fair but to understand the person he’s talking to.

But what is there to understand? What is the point of talking to Trump? He lies about everything, and whatever the subject at hand just switches it so that he can go over his long, familiar list of obsessive grievances. We never learn anything, any more than we learn anything from his press conferences or tweets. What you see is what you get, or, to paraphrase Michelle Obama only slightly, he is what he is.

What is that? Someone very stupid, with no attention span (a minus number, in the words of Anthony Fauci), a sense of insecurity so deep one may as well call it paranoia, and a bottomless reservoir of anger and resentment. Trump appeals to people who hate, mainly out of a paranoid belief that everyone hates them, is laughing at them, or is somehow ripping them off. Probably the most dramatic moment in Rage comes as Woodward watches him respond to a video of various Democrats watching his 2019 State of the Union address. “You’re seeing hate!” he cries. “Hate! See the hate! See the hate!” We can call it Trump Derangement Syndrome.

George Will once observed that Trump was like the boring drunk at the bar, holding forth with his uneducated and uninformed thoughts on what’s wrong with the world. Close, but Trump doesn’t drink and one suspects he thinks bars are gross. Instead he is an even more easily recognizable type: the bitter man who sits at home yelling at his TV. Listening to him is a hard task, and we have to listen to him a lot in Rage.

How do members of his court cope? I don’t think they’ve ever been under any illusions as to the breadth and depth of Trump’s stupidity. Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, would call him “a fucking moron.” James Mattis, secretary of defense, would describe the difficulty of imparting information to the president at briefings.

“But the facts would be dismissed, and we’d be off on one of those ramps that circled around and started going. And then you’re sitting there, and it’s not deference at that point. It’s grasping for a way to get it back on subject. And it was just very hard. And there wasn’t a lot of time for it.”

Mattis would later say that duty compelled him to put up with Trump’s stupidity, but when it went over the line to “felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.” This is a man who was under no illusions as to how ignorant, or felony stupid, Trump was. One imagines this must be a feeling shared by all those in Trump’s orbit, though many have opted to become enablers for some presumed gain. “Stay the course,” Mike Pence whispers in the ear of Dan Coats. “Stay the course.” But a course toward what? Regressive tax “reform” sucking more wealth into the hands of the plutocracy? “Conservative” judges?

It’s just possible, I suppose, that Jared Kushner actually respects Trump. His rationalizations for Trump’s erratic behaviour strike me as unconvincing though. Still, he is introduced to us here by Woodward in a manner that is polite and deferential to a fault. On the basis of what evidence could Jared Kushner possibly be described or even imagined as being “highly competent”? He sets up study groups and spouts business school jargon and gets absolutely nothing done. As a businessperson he’s been, arguably, an even more spectacular failure than his father-in-law.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic the course was set for ruin. But as Adam Smith once observed, there’s a lot of ruin in a country. Sarah Kendzior has described the Republican project for America as consisting of stripping the country down to its parts and then selling them off to oligarchs. After four years of Trump this is a process that is now well advanced, and it’s hard to see how the “dismantling of the state,” to use Steve Bannon’s name for it, is going to be reversed. What is the cure for rage? Because this is the virus that is destroying America, and Trump, while he may be a super-spreader, is only a carrier of the disease.

Notes:
Review first published online October 2, 2020.

Surviving Autocracy

Surviving Autocracy
Masha Gessen

Near the end of this terrific assessment of where the United States, and the West more generally, is at politically Masha Gessen tells us that “Three years of Trumpism has extinguished whatever remained in American politics of the language of solidarity or the idea of public welfare.”

I don’t want to sound superior or blasé about this, because that’s not how I feel, but this ship sailed a long, long time ago. Lewis Lapham has tracked for decades the falling fortunes of the word “public” in our civic discourse, from signifying something noble and valuable to referring to anything corrupt and worthless. The same cynical transformation in Russian political language is described by Gessen, with Trump only left to mock such notions as democracy and moral principle as fit only for suckers and losers.

Gessen comes at the issue of Trump’s aspirational autocracy (or, more broadly, what I would call Republican oligarch envy) from different angles but I think what she has to say about the corruption of language by way of Trump’s mangled “word piles” is perhaps the most on target. We don’t have an honest language at hand anymore to describe what has been happening to Western democracy. We can speak the names of the crimes we are witnessing, but they’ve lost their meaning.

Hollywood North

HOLLYWOOD NORTH
By Michael Libling

Hollywood North is a terrific novel about growing up in mid-century Trenton, Ontario, but it’s also a great deal more than that.

Michael Libling proceeds by way of subtlety and misdirection. On the face of it, Trenton in the late 1950s and early 1960s seems like a dark idyll from the pages of Stephen King, with a gang of kids – narrator Gus, buddy Jack, and budding love interest Annie – slowly becoming aware of something sinister going on in town.

It seems a lot of accidents and disappearances have been happening in Trenton, going back nearly a hundred years. Adults, however, are curiously apathetic, if not hostile, to the gang’s investigations. Is Pennywise the Clown up to his old tricks? Or does this all have something to do with Trenton’s brief incarnation as a movie hub, dubbed Hollywood North, back in the days of silent film? Perhaps the cache of silent-film title cards that Jack discovers holds a key to the mystery.

Or perhaps there’s no mystery at all. Movies are, like the idylls of childhood, illusions. As we get older both fade from our memories, or are reimagined as something less dramatic.

Hollywood North is a coming-of-age story like no other, masterfully using the guise of supernatural horror to wrap its poison pill. Childhood idealism gives way to deceit. We give up the freedom of youth for weary resignation to the inscrutable and mostly grim workings of fate. Cold revenge is not a dish to be enjoyed but only a petty and bitter satisfaction. Dreams are a source of regret, and their loss a welcome oblivion.

That probably sounds rather downbeat, but while Hollywood North is a dark fantasy it’s presented in such a lively way, right down to the book’s delightful interior design elements, that you don’t notice the darkness falling until the curtain is pulled on The End. The writing has an immediacy and power of observation that tears the reader through the story like a dangerous set of rapids leading into a whirlpool of horror.

The psychological and emotional business of growing up is a familiar theme in fiction, but it’s rarely been handled with this much sophistication while being so entertaining in the bargain. The balancing of pop, or pulp, fiction with profundity is hard to maintain, but Libling makes it seem easy. As a novel containing history, real and imagined, we might even say the epic of Trenton has arrived.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, December 20 2019.

Men on Horseback

MEN ON HORSEBACK: THE POWER OF CHARISMA IN THE AGE OF REVOLUTION
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.

Notes:
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?

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.

Notes:
Review first published online June 22, 2020.