Rendezous with Oblivion

RENDEZVOUS WITH OBLIVION: REPORTS FROM A SINKING SOCIETY
By Thomas Frank

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before how I think Thomas Frank is the best commentator going on American political culture. His book The Wrecking Crew nailed the essential, unifying principles of today’s Republican party, while Listen, Liberal did the same for the Democrats. Rendezvous with Oblivion doesn’t set as high a bar, being a collection of essays he’s written over the course of the last five years without any overarching thesis. There is, however, a lot to take note of as he is still pitching strikes.

There’s one part of the analysis in particular I want to mention. This has to do with the role our supposed guardians have played (and are playing) during a time of extreme economic anxiety brought on by a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. It’s basically the lifeboat scenario: where too many people are struggling to get on the lifeboats while those already on board want to do everything to secure their own position of security and privilege. Frank looks at two places where this scenario has been playing out, both relating to the guardian role I mentioned: academia and the press.

Both universities and newspapers are under a great deal of pressure in the new economy. Tenured faculty are being replaced by contract or sessional workers, while reporters, in the few newspapers that remain, have been reduced to content providers and “minimum-wage flunkies.” It’s a very, very bad time to be a prof or a journalist, and the future looks even worse. There are, however, still a few lifeboats bobbing amid the wreckage. Might the survivors lend a helping hand for their drowning sisters and brothers? Frank has his doubts.

First up are the universities:

What their [the professoriate’s] downfall shows us is just how easily systems of this kind can be made to crumble. There is zero solidarity in a meritocracy, even a fake one, as the writer Sarah Kendzior showed in a series of hard-hitting articles on the adjunct situation. Just about everyone in academia believes that they were the smartest kid in their class, the one with the good grades and the awesome test scores. They believe, by definition, that they are where they are because they deserve it. They’re the best. So tenured faculty find it easy to dismiss the deprofessionalization of their field as the whining of second-raters who can’t make the grade. Too many of the adjuncts themselves, meanwhile, find it difficult to blame the system as they apply fruitlessly for another tenure-track position or race across town to their second or third teaching job: maybe they just don’t have what it takes after all. Then again, they will all be together, assuredly, as they sink finally into the briny deep.

From my own experience talking with faculty this is an accurate take on the situation. Tenured faculty invariably (I know of only one exception) speak of adjuncts or sessionals as “losers.” There is zero solidarity.

Now here’s what’s been happening in the newsroom, from Frank’s essay on the Washington Post’s smearing of Bernie Sanders. The Post is itself a lifeboat, one of only a few newspapers that has positioned itself as a winner in the new media landscape. But, as Frank writes, the “people at the top of the journalism hierarchy don’t really identify with their plummeting peers.” They are the insiders, the Beltway punditocracy, and “it is increasingly obvious that becoming an insider is the only way to hoist yourself above the deluge.” Above the deluge and in the lifeboat. As for those left behind, they are, just like the university adjuncts, a bunch of losers. Furthermore, and this is the important point Frank is making, “between journalism’s insiders and its outsiders – between the ones who are rising and the ones who are sinking – there is no solidarity at all.”

Until the day, that is, when you wake up and learn that the tycoon behind your media concern has changed his mind and everyone is laid off and that it was never really about you in the first place. Gone the private office or award-winning column or cable news show. The checks start bouncing. The booker at MSNBC stops calling. And suddenly you find that you are a middle-aged maker of paragraphs – of useless things – dumped out into a billionaire’s world that has no need for you and doesn’t really give a damn about your degree in comparative literature from Brown. You start to think a little differently about universal health care and tuition-free college and Wall Street bailouts. But of course it is too late by then. Too late for all of us.

This lack of solidarity is the key, and it’s something I first noticed, and was horribly depressed by, some twenty years ago when I worked in a large industrial union shop. It was staggering to me that the only thing any of the union members saw the union as being good for was what it could do for their own personal benefit. In pursuit of such selfish ends they were more than willing to kneecap their brothers and sisters, and indeed the union itself. As a result, whenever a union steward would mention the word “solidarity,” even in passing, my mouth would fall open. Nobody who worked there showed any indication of caring a bit about that.

My takeaway from the experience wasn’t just that unionism was dead, but that it was dead from the roots up. For it to come back something essential to our whole way of understanding how such social organizations work would have to change. Meanwhile, the good ship of society is on its way down – an image invoked by Frank’s subtitle. Unions, those that survive, do provide lifeboats, but there aren’t enough of those even for just their dues-paying members to each have a place. In the zero-sum competition to be an insider or outsider, winner or loser, solidarity has no place.

This is, of course, the language of Trump, whose favourite pejorative is that of “loser.” Frank ends the book on a dismal note, explaining how Trump will win re-election: easily if the economy stays strong, and if things tank then with the assistance of the snooty Democrats. The problem with the Democrats being that they too are only interested in who comes out on top. They’ve bought into the war-of-all-against-all world view completely, but just have slightly different criteria for selecting the winners. Best advice is to get a lifeboat and a paddle. Not to row with, but to hit anyone on the head who tries to clamber on board.

Notes:
Review first published online August 6, 2018.

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The Red Word

The Red Word
Sarah Henstra

In his book The Once and Future Liberal Mark Lilla has a line about the so-called culture wars where he describes the process through which “the retreating New Left turned the university into a pseudo-political theater for the staging of operas and melodramas.”

That’s something that came to mind when reading Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word, which is a campus novel about a group of activist college feminists in the 1990s whose greatest coup de théâtre is presenting a rape (that’s the red word) as an act of performance art.

A Separate Peace for the MeToo generation? Henstra is a smart writer and must have been aware of the danger. I don’t think she entirely avoids it either, but The Red Word is raw and complex enough to avoid going too far down that road, indulging instead its own version of the mythic method and managing to address the politics of the moment without being political itself in any of the usual, obvious and programmatic, ways.

The Once and Future Liberal

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
Mark Lilla

I’ve remarked before on how narcissism has become an all-purpose diagnosis for society’s present ills. (See, for example, my review of Rod Liddle’s Selfish, Whining Monkeys.) I don’t think Mark Lilla ever uses the word in this pointed little book, but his “hyperindividualism” means much the same thing. Either way, the result has been to fragment the once great mountain of progressivism into isolated caves of identity: an identity politics not only opposed to the previous liberal dispensation’s commitment to solidarity but near indistinguishable from the guiding philosophy of the neoliberal world order.

As it now stands, liberalism has become a pseudo-politics focused on theatrics and symbols. The antidote Lilla proposes is a more practical liberal politics built from the ground up around local organizations. Is that still possible? I don’t think “social” media is going to be any help.

Donald J. Trump

DONALD J. TRUMP: A PRESIDENT LIKE NO OTHER
By Conrad Black

Donald Trump must have been an irresistible subject for Conrad Black, an author who has always leaned toward the “great man” theory of history, with a special sympathy for right-wing politicians who have been, in his eyes, treated unfairly by journalists and historians. Trump fits the bill, at least for Black, because despite all of the less than flattering attention given to him in the media Trump has been a force for good, the necessary man of the hour.

And, to be fair, there is a case for Trump to be made. His election was a remarkable achievement, as he managed to overcome both the Republican and Democratic parties. Furthermore, as president he really is getting things done. Whether you think they are good or bad things is another question.

Black’s analysis gains something from his personal knowledge of Trump. They have had business dealings in the past, and being men of the same age and similar class backgrounds share much the same worldview.
A key part of this worldview is that America before Trump was in decline: disrespected and taken advantage of abroad, falling apart at home.

Who’s to blame? Again, Black and Trump are singing from the same hymnal: the enemies within are identity politics, political correctness, liberal elites, and the media.

Black dials up the rhetoric when dealing with each of these groups. Where Trump merely simplifies every instance of unflattering coverage as “fake news” Black goes after “the carping insolence of penurious journalists,” who pursue the president “with accusatory questions bellowed from salivating mouths, through bared teeth, and with nostrils flared.”

The media are “somnambulant” and “flaccid,” but also “rabid,” “febrile,” “hysterical,” and “demented.” In all things they toe the line of “the politically correct group-think of the liberal elite,” which includes Republicans as much as Democrats, not to mention all of Hollywood (“a moral and intellectual pigsty, an asylum for the stupid, the corrupt, and the vocally shallow, who possess Thespian aptitudes or a saleable appearance and manner”).

One can’t imagine Trump ever using language like this – Black uses words with too many characters for Twitter – but it’s standard TrumpWorld boilerplate.

Black says at one point that he loves Trump for having enemies like these, but in fact he finds more than this to admire in a man he describes as “naturally very humorous, wittily perceptive, refreshingly uninhibited, and a great showman.”

Most of all, Black sees Trump as representing the real United States. As the book’s first sentence puts it: “The traits that elevated Donald Trump to the White House are the traits of America.” Trump is loud, aggressive, and larger than life, but gifted with the common touch:

He was a rich celebrity whose tastes were not to hobnob with the swells and socially eminent benefactors, but, crucially for a presidential candidate, to harvest the affection of the lower middle and working classes of America who were not appalled, but rather, to some degree, inspired, by his bravura, buffoonery, and raw egotism, for behind it they saw an outrageously successful version of themselves, and one who, they intuited, understood them and their desires, fears, and hopes.

In all this, were his followers only being played as suckers? That Trump could “harvest the affection” of an angry electorate is one thing; whether he could actually help them, if such was even his intention, quite another.

Black tells Trump’s story but tells it slant. Trump’s successes are all his own while his failures are mainly the result of accidents or the machinations of his enemies. He does not lie so much as he engages in “truthful hyperbole.” The charge that he is racist or misogynist is refuted by pointing to the fact that he has employed women in various positions, while a catalogue of outrages are blithely dismissed as media-driven scandals or the indiscretions of a charming rogue.

And then there is Melania.

Black is thoroughly smitten with Melania Trump, bringing his narrative to an awestruck stop every time this “breathtakingly tall and beautiful and magnificently proportioned” goddess enters the frame. Melania rises above the world of politics and celebrity like Aphrodite, leaving Black to wax Shakespearean in gaping paeans. A “devoted mother,”

she is well-liked and respected by the public, and always makes an excellent and tastefully glamorous impression when she goes abroad. She is neither an employee of her husband nor a rival nor a scene-stealer; she is neither cloying nor bossy. She is confident and relaxed, cool and poised, looks whimsically on some of her husband’s eccentricities, but is always very supportive. . . . She exudes an exotic and mysterious composure that is often more becoming than the opinionated and busy nature of some of her recent predecessors as first lady. She never appears to the public to be either short-tempered or over-eager to please or impress. Her only historic rival as a glamorous chatelaine in the White House is Jackie Kennedy.

This is laying it on a little thick. Is it being unchivalrous to wonder how whimsically Melania looks at the hush money her husband has paid out to adult performers? Perhaps, but still one wonders.

At the end of A President Like No Other Black leaves us with a Trump triumphant, rising above the partisan witch hunt of the Mueller investigation and setting an agenda to make America, yes, great again.

There is an ambiguity, however, in the final judgement that Trump “is a man of his times, and his time has come.” Might that mean his time is up? The names of Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen are nowhere mentioned in the book, perhaps because they are part of more recent developments. It’s hard to believe there aren’t more shoes to drop. Can the Trump Show continue to enjoy ratings high enough to avoid being cancelled? Stay tuned.

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

Tyrant

TYRANT: SHAKESPEARE ON POLITICS
By Stephen Greenblatt

Tyrant announces itself as a book about Shakespeare on politics, but this is a bit of subterfuge. In fact it is a livre à clef, a book ostensibly on Shakespeare that is really about the rise to power of Donald Trump, as seen through the lens of Shakespeare’s drama. Trump is never mentioned by name, at least that I recall, but in his acknowledgments Greenblatt describes the book’s genesis as being in a dispirited conversation that took place “in a verdant garden in Sardinia” about a certain upcoming election. When the outcome of that election confirmed Greenblatt’s worst fears he felt compelled to pursue his reflections on “Shakespeare’s uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves.”

So, when things begin with a discussion of “oblique angles,” which is to say Shakespeare’s way of dealing with contemporary politics by way of the material of history and legend, we’re also being introduced to Greenblatt’s own method, which is to use Shakespeare as an oblique angle on the present.

There is nothing particularly subtle about any of this. York in the Henry VI plays “sees an opportunity to forge an alliance with the miserable, overlooked, and ignorant lower classes, and he seizes upon it. And we learn that the hitherto invisible and silent poor are seething with anger.” The rabble-rousing Jack Cade is a “loudmouthed demagogue” who invites the masses to enter his own fantasyland while he “promises to make England great again.” “In ordinary times, when a public figure is caught in a lie or simply reveals blatant ignorance of the truth, his standing is diminished. But these are not ordinary times. If a dispassionate bystander were to point out all of Cade’s grotesque distortions, mistakes, and downright lies, the crowd’s anger would light on the skeptic and not on Cade.” Meanwhile, the House of York seeks to establish a family dynasty and make secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy (France). This sleeping-with-the-enemy motif is repeated in the story of Coriolanus going over to the Volscians: “It is as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia – forever sabre-rattling and accusing the rival politicians of treason – should secretly make his way to the Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin.” Macbeth is another cautionary tale, forcing us to consider what happens when “observers, particularly those with privileged access, see clearly that the leader is mentally unstable.”

This is laying it on thick, but it gets a lot thicker when Greenblatt comes to Richard III. Here he really gets to enjoy himself:

Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.

He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning.

He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what most excites him. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is a bully. Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. The skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree. Though they know that he is dangerous, the followers help him advance to his goal, which is the possession of supreme power.

His possession of power includes the domination of women, but he despises them far more than he desires them. Sexual conquest excites him, but only for the endlessly reiterated proof that he can have anything he likes. He knows that those he grabs hate him . . .

Whew! And it goes on in much the same vein. Do you get the point? It’s really hard to miss.

Now this sort of thing is nothing new. Richard Nixon was likened to Richard as well, and I still have a copy of an adaptation of Richard III set in the Nixon administration somewhere in my library. But while such analysis can be entertaining, it has its limits. Specifically, it doesn’t tell us much either about Shakespeare’s play (would you even recognize Richard III from this description?) or about Trump. The figure Greenblatt presents us with is an amalgam that doesn’t have a solid foot in either world.

Another effect of such comparisons is also problematic. I remember a book on the presidency of George W. Bush making him out to be a tragic figure and thinking that he didn’t quite rise to that level. I felt the same thing, even more, when reading Tyrant. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a great villain. Donald Trump wields great power, but is he as interesting? Is anything about him as compelling? I mean, at least Richard was articulate. In comparison, Trump is almost an anti-anti-hero.

Finally, as a reading of Shakespeare’s politics the anti-Trump message takes over entirely. If you want to understand Shakespeare’s politics the starting point is probably still E. M. W. Tillyard’s book on the The Elizabethan World Picture, a book that is now some 70 years old. In trying to make Shakespeare’s plays into warnings for what’s happening in the U.S. today Greenblatt seems to me to overstate the analogy, and his case, leading to some curious readings. For example, is it really true that the heroes of Coriolanus are the Roman tribunes? I’ve always seen them as a pair of cynical and self-serving jerks. Seeing the tribunes as heroes only serves to make Greenblatt’s point about people power being the only way to stand up to Trump.

But there’s nothing new in this. Every generation re-invents Shakespeare, giving itself the Shakespeare it needs while also keeping his message relevant. All commentary is of its historical moment. Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time, and Tyrant is addressed to us.

Notes:
Review first published online July 8, 2018.

The Burning of the World

The Burning of the World
Béla Zombory-Moldován

I wonder when this memoir of the opening stages of the First World War in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire (on the Galician front) was written. There’s no reference to the date of its writing in the introduction, and the only clue we get is in the brief note on the author’s life that says the memoir was “probably” written sometime after the Second World War, perhaps as much as forty years after the events it describes.

The reason this is important has less to do with problems of memory than it does with the massive literature that, by the time these memoirs were being composed, had already done so much to standardize the genre. Memoir had been overtaken by cultural memory, and not just of the Great War. The indifference of nature to man’s suffering, for example, might have been drawn from The Red Badge of Courage.

As with any memoir of the First World War the contrast between life before and after is the dominant theme. 1914 is when so much came to an end. The Burning of the World gives us another perspective on this, as well as a reminder of the sheer physical unpleasantnes of war, which can have less to do with its violence and destruction than the endurance of endless cold and exhaustion, and the “sullen struggle” for survivial in wartime which takes place both at the front and at home.

The Big Picture

THE BIG PICTURE: THE FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE OF MOVIES
By Ben Fritz

The Big Picture is a timely book. Perhaps too timely. It tells the story of the changes that have taken place in the movie business over the last ten years. The upshot of all of which is this: the major studios are no longer interested in making mid-list, risk-taking films on adult or dramatic subjects but instead are only kicking out big-budget and high-profit branded franchise films tied to popular comic books, theme park rides, and toys.

The stats don’t lie: “Of the top fifty movies at the global box office between 2012 and 2016, forty-three were sequels, spinoffs, or adaptations of popular comic books and young-adult novels.” Five of the remaining seven were family animation films. “Today, anything that’s not a big-budget franchise film or a low-cost, ultra-low-risk comedy or horror movie is an endangered species at Hollywood’s six major studios.”

Why has this happened? Television series have replaced the mid-budget dramas, and the big franchise films have sucked up all the media oxygen and cultural buzz, providing the familiarity of comfort food in troubled times. It is also the result of the lowering of the age demographic for moviegoers, which began in the 1970s and has been continuing its descent ever since. The adults left the room long ago, leaving only children, teens, and “kidults” behind. And finally, we can see it as part of a larger transformation in the economy, the movement away from the local to the global, with an attendant hollowing out of the middle-class. The winners take all. Either become a monopoly (a franchise) or go home. “The biggest change over the years is just how poorly mid-budget dramas now perform when they aren’t hits.” These can now “come and go unnoticed, as if [they] never existed.” It’s become a zero-sum game.

I think any moviegoer will have been aware of these developments. Indeed, they have been hard to miss. Today’s most popular movies are slickly produced and boast incredible production values but are almost totally bereft of originality or creativity. This makes Fritz’s book all the more essential reading.

As a business story, The Big Picture concerns itself with the fall of Sony Pictures, which missed the bus on this transformation, and the rise of Disney, owners of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. Disney is the model Hollywood studio and have established the basic template for success:

Disney doesn’t make dramas for adults. It doesn’t make thrillers. It doesn’t make romantic comedies. It doesn’t make bawdy comedies. It doesn’t make horror movies. It doesn’t make star vehicles. It doesn’t adapt novels. It doesn’t buy original scripts. It doesn’t buy anything at film festivals. It doesn’t make anything political or controversial. It doesn’t make anything with an R-rating. It doesn’t give award-winning directors like Alfonso Cuarón or Christopher Nolan wide latitude to pursue their visions.

Though Disney still has flops, it has fewer than other studio – fewer than anyone ever dreamed was possible in a business that has for decades seen more failures than successes and has been compared to riding a roller coaster. Disney has, in short, taken a huge chunk of the risk out of a risky business.

Many in Hollywood view Disney as a soulless, creativity-killing machine that treats motion pictures like toothpaste and leaves no room for the next great talent, the next great idea, or the belief that films have any meaning beyond their contribution to the bottom line. By contrast, investors and MBAs are thrilled that Disney has figured out how to make more money, more consistently, from the film business than anyone ever has before. But actually, Disney isn’t in the movie business, at least as we previously understood it. It’s in the Disney brands business. Movies are meant to serve those brands. Not the other way around.

I think all of this is well observed, and Fritz’s book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in what is happening to movies in our time, both as a business and as a form of art and personal expression. But to return to where I began: is this only a snapshot of a fad, or a real trend?

With the rise of alternative “studios” like Netflix and Amazon, not to mention international players, things could still spin off in interesting new directions (a possibility Fritz entertains). But more than that, might there not be a point of franchise fatigue? This book came out just before the release of several franchise blockbusters in the summer of 2018: Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Jurassic World: Falling Kingdom. All of these movies made money (they could hardly not), but even fan bases were unenthused. Disney has a winning formula now, but I don’t think they can ride it forever. This too shall pass and a new paradigm will take its place. I just wouldn’t want to bet that what comes next will be anything better.

Notes:
Review first published online June 16, 2018.