Sons of Cain

SONS OF CAIN: A HISTORY OF SERIAL KILLERS FROM THE STONE AGE TO THE PRESENT
By Peter Vronsky

Toronto author and filmmaker Peter Vronsky has written several books on serial killers, and in the introduction to his latest, Sons of Cain, he explains how his fascination with the subject got started.

In 1979 a twenty-three-year-old Vronsky literally bumped into Richard Francis Cottingham, the “Times Square Torso Ripper,” in the lobby of a hotel in NYC they were both staying at. As The Ripper walked past him, a cloth bag he was carrying bonked into Vronsky, with what Vronsky thought might be bowling balls inside. In fact, they were the heads of a pair of Cottingham’s victims.

It’s a wonderfully macabre anecdote and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. Sons of Cain covers a lot of ground in its informative, entertaining, and at times idiosyncratic take on serial killers.

In addition to providing a plethora of case studies and forensic background Vronsky also draws from such sources as zombie movies and cultural anthropology. This may be the best way to proceed, as serial killers as we have come to know them are semi-mythical figures, having a place both in the annals of true crime and in the collective consciousness shaped by the media and pop culture.

There is little consensus even among experts on such fundamental matters as how to define a serial killer and how to explain their behaviour. Are they born or made? Are taxonomies of different types useful? And to these basic questions Vronsky adds another: Why has the activity of serial killers seemed to surge at different times and places? Are their numbers going up or down?

Vronsky’s own approach sticks mostly to male, fantasy-motivated sexual killers who are driven by their primitive, reptile brain. He suggests from this that “Serial killers are what Mother Nature intended all of us to be in the wild before civilization.” Each of us has an inner Hannibal Lecter that we have to properly socialize in order to restrain. A provocative thought, but it may be taking evolutionary psychology too far.

Of course the stories are the main draw here. Fans of true crime will enjoy going through the catalogue of evil, stocked with names famous and obscure. But while there’s plenty of carnage to rubberneck there are also lots of interesting and original observations along the way, and perhaps something to be learned. You never know who you might bump into in a hotel lobby.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 17, 2018.

Advertisements

War of Attrition

War of Attrition
William Philpott

The First World War is usually described as a war of attrition, and in this general history of the conflict William Philpott takes that as his guiding theme, especially as attrition developed into the war’s “determining strategic principle.” Attrition, however, is more a default setting that any war reverts to when equal sides find themselves in a drawn-out struggle. In 1914 it was a type of war that nobody wanted or initially planned for, and when it finally came to pass with the lockdown on the Western front the opposing sides simply had to make the best of it.

I like how Philpott takes an expansive notion of the concept of attrition, bringing factors like morale into the equation. I don’t go all the way with him, however, in his defence of the generals (most notably Haig) and their hit-and-miss execution of a grim strategy they were forced into. Attrition was a strategy, but perhaps not the only or the best one available. It quite easily could have been a losing strategy for the allies had the U.S. not entered the war. And while the generals are often unfairly criticized for being donkeys, I think equally mistaken is the notion that they were doing as well as could be expected and were at least learning all the time. Some did learn, but some didn’t. Some of those who did only did so very slowly. A fair assessment probably lies somewhere in between. We might at least observe that among the generals few stood out, and there were no heroes.

The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring
Nancy Jo Sales

One’s first thought is that nobody could be so stupid. Not because of the gang’s crimes — which, after all, they managed to pull off without ever being caught — but for the way they talk about themselves. Whatever they were taught in school, if they even went to school, the Bling Ring have to be seen as pure products of reality television and social media.

Then one begins to wonder. This is Hollywood (or close enough) after all. Many of their parents worked in the industry. Could it be that they were just playing at being stupid? Could Paris Hilton be as stupid in real life as the version of herself she plays on TV? And how hard would it be for the role to take over, especially if you imagined your life not as a movie (Neal Gabler had already alerted us to this a decade earlier) but as a reality TV performance? After all, the same transference also happened in the case of the adults, police and lawyers. And while we’re wondering about things,  why don’t the stars lock their doors? It seems there was a lot of stupid to go around.

Nancy Jo Sales seeks to understand. She keeps asking why. The monster of fame? Narcissism? One feels nervous at how much has changed just since 2013. Reviewing some of the research into narcissism presented in The Narcissism Epidemic, Sales expresses concern at how “many of the leading representatives of our dominant culture may have seriously dysfunctional personalities.” Only three years later one of them would be president of the United States.

Obviously celebrity played a big part in the moral calculations made by the gang, but maybe not in the usual way. Of course the only reason anyone cared about these crimes, the reason they were in the news and the reason there was a book and then a couple of movies about them, was because of whose houses were being broken into. But then that was a reason not to care as well. Fame was all that mattered, and in the end it didn’t matter much (even the sentences handed down were derisory). This is the unbearable lightness of being, American style. It’s a true crime story where nothing is real.

Team of Vipers

TEAM OF VIPERS
By Cliff Sims

Team of Vipers offers a slightly different perspective on the Trump White House. Different, that is, from more critical reports like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. Instead of being the work of a journalist trying to present a factual account of what has been going on behind the scenes (with all the attendant questions over accuracy and sourcing that come with such reportage), Team of Vipers is an insider’s account and, even more remarkably, one written by someone who very much supports Trump and his policies.

Indeed Sims, who was at one point Special Assistant to the President and Director of White House Message Strategy, is more a soul mate than mere kindred spirit. When he refers to Trump as “history’s greatest troll” it is with respect and admiration at the president’s game. One also notes, as a reflection of Trump’s narcissism, Sims’ preening self-regard and obtrusive references to his own fame. There is even a section of colour photos, all of which are of . . . Sims himself, posing with different White House players.

In all of this we may see like calling unto like, but at the end of his tenure Sims advances things a bit further:

Mirroring is the phenomenon in which people subconsciously mimic each other in social settings – their body language, posture, and gestures. In Trump World, mirroring took on a life of its own. At home, I’d find myself repositioning my silverware the same way Trump would at the dinner table. While making speeches I would realize – sometimes in the moment, sometimes while watching video after the fact – that I was using certain Trumpian mannerisms.

That said, even if his narcissism only makes him a mirror of his boss (or “The Boss”), Sims does add something of value to the record. He was there in the West Wing and he took notes, even on conversations that he only eavesdropped. What can we learn from what he tells us?

In the end, very little. Sims has a Manichean view of the world, and despite professing to be a man of faith himself (a title that in this context means nothing), and acknowledging that Trump is not, he sees the Democrats as nothing short of pure evil. A vote for Hillary Clinton, he tells us not just once but twice, would have been tantamount to a vote for ISIS. Given that level of moral and intellectual polarization you can expect a lot of heavy lifting to put into trying to make Trump over as one of the Great Men of history. Or at least we’ll hear him say “There’s an argument to be made that Trump is such a man, whether people like it or not.”

Special pleading abounds. One of Trump’s “core operating principles” is said to be “strong opinions, weakly held.” Most of us would say an opinion that is weakly held is not a strong opinion, but Sims appreciates Trump’s ability to have his mind changed by “compelling evidence.” Other accounts of Trump changing his mind based on whoever spoke to him last or flattered his vanity the most must be less well informed. But doesn’t being changeable make Trump just another politician? Not at all, not at all:

This was different from flip-flopping, which politicians do for political expediency. There’s no doubt he changed his position, but from my vantage point he did it because he was presented with new information. And isn’t that what we want from our leaders?

Well, if you put it that way!

As a story told from Sims’ vantage point we may expect to see certain matters being magnified while others are diminished. Apparently the Rob Porter affair was “the single most damaging hit to the White House’s credibility of the early Trump presidency.” An entire chapter is spent on this affair, which occupied, as near as I can remember, perhaps a couple of daily news cycles. Meanwhile almost no mention at all is made of Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, or the Mueller investigation. (As an aside, there could not have been collusion, according to Sims, because people working in the White House couldn’t even collude with themselves. Or, as would be revealed by the Mueller report, Trump and his minions were simply too stupid to collude.) But more than this, any discussion linking Trump and credibility is rather pointless. Let’s face it, after the debacle over the pronouncement of the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration there was little credibility left to lose.

I don’t think Sims has much credibility, or at least objectivity, either, but at least you know where he’s coming from and in what direction he is spinning things. One comes away with little tidbits that may or may not be significant. Apparently Trump does not write all his tweets, though he does sign off on them. He has a habit of rearranging items on his desk, which Sims attributes to OCD but which may be an indication of mental deterioration. His wife is apparently nearly as big a TV junkie as he is.

The biggest takeaway Sims wants us to have, however, is this: whatever might be wrong with the Trump White House it isn’t the fault of the guy at the top. His problems have all been the result of the incompetent, back-biting sycophants writhing in the snake pit. The Boss rises above this all. Meanwhile, Sims no longer works there, having been drummed out of the White House after a round of palace intrigue. Everything happens for a reason!

Notes:
Review first published online June 18, 2019.

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.

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.