Censored 2018

Censored 2018
Ed. by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff with Project Censored

The subtitle for this yearbook of the top censored stories and media analysis of 2016-2017 refers to a “post-truth” world, making apt use of Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year. Post-truth was a popular coinage in the dawning Age of Trump, along with “alternative facts” and “fake news,” giving some idea of the evolving nature of the media landscape surveyed in this, the first Censored volume since Trump’s election. And if, as is suggested, “the real threat to a civilized society is stupidity,” then another word to keep in mind may be “agnotology” (the study of the deliberate creation of ignorance by the merchants of doubt).

Of course, the news media have always had difficulties with truth and reporting facts, but with Trump there has been a more open embrace of the disinformation-and-propaganda model by power elites. Nevertheless, important if inconvenient truths are still out there, beginning with this year’s top underreported story on widespread lead contamination of the water supply in the U.S. Apparently the disaster in Flint was just the tip of an infrastructure iceberg.

Censored 2018 is one of the slimmer entries in this series, but punches above its weight with a solid line-up of top censored stories, many of which alert us to significant threats to health, democracy, and the environment. Also included is a selection of interesting commmentary, including an essay by Edward Herman on the media model put forward in Manufacturing Consent at thirty (spoiler alert: things are actually getting worse). If you’re a regular reader of these volumes then you’re likely not going to be surprised by any of this. You can, however, always be better informed.

Advertisements

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew
Thomas Frank

There’s an understandable tendency to view books on current political affairs as having a short shelf date. Once this expires, these matters leave the field of reportage and enter the domain of the historian. You can be sure all the current bestsellers on Donald Trump will soon disappear and leave not a wrack behind.

It would be a mistake to so neglect Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew. His analysis of the conservative campaign to ruin government is as vital today as it was ten years ago, writing at the moment of the subprime mortgage crisis. Looking around the shattered landscape of 2008 Frank saw that conservatism’s “economic theories had been badly discredited and its political fortunes lay in ruins.” That wasn’t the case, not by a long shot, but this makes an understanding of the ideology of the wreckers (or “wingers,” as they’re also labeled here) all the more relevant to the current situation. In 2018 the right is riding high, with even more extreme plans for dismantling the so-called “deep state” and dragging the United States back to the nineteenth century (or the neoliberal paradises of Saipan and post-war Iraq). So it’s a book that’s not only as timely as ever but, given all that’s happening, even more depressing.

Freud: The Making of an Illusion

FREUD: THE MAKING OF AN ILLUSION
By Frederick Crews

I think a lot of us have a complicated relationship with Freud. On the one hand he’s a wonderful writer who created an entire mythology of the mind that has endured for over a century, helping to shape and inform a great deal of modern culture.

It’s terrific stuff, but of course (and we’re moving to the other hand now) it’s all nonsense. That much was obvious to me after just the first few pages of The Interpretation of Dreams (and things tended to go downhill from there). Where, I had to ask myself, was Freud getting all this?

Well, according to Frederick Crews in this thorough examination of Freud’s discovery/invention of psychoanalysis (basically covering the years from 1880 to 1900), the short answer is that he just made it up.

Freud’s theories weren’t grounded in any clinical case work or statistical analysis. He had no success with the former and seems to have been totally uninterested in the latter. He wasn’t much of a doctor or a scientist, and indeed in later life Crews describes a man who had “become an outright antiscientist.” In modern parlance, he was a quack.

His basic assumption, which he maintained in the absence of any evidence, was that what was true for him – and by that I mean what he felt or even dreamed to be true – must also be true for everyone else. His only real test subject was himself. He liked using cocaine and so prescribed it to others, claiming tremendous results despite tragic outcomes. Various foundations of psychoanalysis (the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety) were outgrowths of his own mental morbidity, discovered through sheer introspection, which he then generalized “under the misapprehension that all men were similarly warped.” He then created a library of case fictions that projected his fears onto others, giving them a spurious validity.

That Freud made things up is the easy part. Why he made things up is where the story gets not complicated but ugly. Again there is a short answer: Freud wanted to be rich and famous. He couldn’t become rich and famous as a doctor because he wasn’t a good doctor. So instead he became a writer of popular entertainments. As he explained to a friend:

I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador – an adventurer if you want it translated – with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.

Crews calls this a damning and “definitive self-assessment,” but doesn’t draw attention to the cruelty of the historical conquistadors, or their overweening lust for gold. One wonders if this was an unconscious slip on Freud’s part.

But then, one is left to wonder quite a bit about the extent of Freud’s belief in the new faith he had created. Crews chooses an odd second epigraph for his book in a line from Seinfeld’s George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Is this meant to imply some basic level of bona fides on Freud’s part? Given the thoroughness of Crews’s indictment I don’t think I’d want to give him that large a benefit of doubt.

But we are left with an even larger question, one that Laura Miller flagged in her review of Freud:

These narratives have endured for so long because so many people prefer them to the truth. Why? That’s a question Crews touches on in Freud, but only lightly. If the book fails, it is not in pressing its cause so fiercely but in mistaking who deserves the lion’s share of his scorn. The best hatchet jobs don’t just assail an author or thinker for shoddy or disingenuous work. They also indict the rest of us for buying in.

Just keeping with Freud’s immediate posterity, why did so many others “buy in” or go along with the charade of psychoanalysis? The cult of personality must have played some role, and the institutional strength of the Freud circle, which was remarkably strict and disciplined and remained so even after his death (Freud was a bully, and like all bullies he passed it down). Also the very real benefits that accrue to any member of a court, the operations of which always appears disgusting to outsiders. And, finally, let’s grant that there was something in the Freudian mythology that has had a general resonance with much of modern life. That doesn’t excuse his enablers, but it does provide some defence for the rest of us.

Notes:
Review first published online January 20, 2018.

Swearing Is Good For You

SWEARING IS GOOD FOR YOU: THE AMAZING SCIENCE OF BAD LANGUAGE
By Emma Byrne

You might expect a book on the science of swearing to take a lot of the fun out of the subject. Talking about taboo language is sort of like explaining a joke; subjecting the f-bomb to critical analysis defuses its impact.

Nevertheless, given how significant a role swearing plays in our lives it deserves a closer, clinical look. And Dr. Emma Byrne, a scientist and a journalist who has done research in the field, is well qualified to be our guide.

For Byrne, swearing isn’t just vulgar invective and angry ejaculations but a use of language that is “intelligent and powerful” as well as socially and psychologically essential. A “complex social signal that is laden with emotional and cultural significance,” swearing has meaning and utility in many surprising ways that go beyond the merely communicative.

For example, studies have shown that swearing can have an analgesic effect, so that we experience less pain when indulging in some expletives. And in the workplace swearing can become something like a tribal language, leading to increased social bonding.

In informal and off-colour prose Byrne looks at the science of swearing from the different angles research has taken. There’s a chapter on the structure of the brain and swearing, one on swearing and pain, on why a discussion of Tourette’s syndrome doesn’t really belong in such a book (though this is one of the longest chapters), on gender and swearing, workplace swearing, primate swearing, and swearing in different culture and languages.

Along the way we learn many interesting factoids. For example, by consulting a language database that’s charmingly known as the Lancaster Corpus of Abuse we can see that women’s use of the f-bomb has increased greatly in the last few decades while men’s use of the same has actually gone down, at least in Britain. Byrne views this as progress: “If women and men want to communicate as equals, we need to be equals in the ways in which we are allowed to express ourselves.”

It’s in ways like this that swearing continues to evolve. But despite its ever-changing vocabulary and levels of acceptance it’s safe to say that in one form or another it will always be with us just because it’s so useful. And, yes, good for us too.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star November 24, 2017.

The Truth About Trump

The Truth About Trump
Michael D’Antonio

Does Donald Trump really care that much about having people talking about him, all the time? Yes. And, according to Michael D’Antonio, there is nothing new in this. Trump’s craving for attention, as well as his manner and method in attracting it, have been consistent for years. Indeed Trump claims to be “basically the same” person now as he was when he was eight years old. It’s that consistency that is the remarkable thing. By 2016, our familiarity with his particular brand of celebrity should have bred a greater contempt.

This isn’t to say his shtick hasn’t worn thin. Trump was widely despised even before running for office. But he was possessed of money and fame, which made him, by all our current standards of reckoning, a success. In addition, his media-fueled narcissism, viciously cynical world view, and post-truth attitude toward reality made him, D’Antonio concludes, a representative figure: “truly a man of our time, the ultimate expression of certain aspects of the American spirit in the twenty-first century.”

Fame, Trump has affirmed, is a drug. And what we are witnessing now are the degenerate years of a lifelong addict who has been handed an unlimited supply of the purest junk. In this respect, at least, his consistency of character may take on a darker meaning. Like anyone under the influence, Trump won’t change but will only become a more exaggerated version of what he already is. Buckle up.

Arrival

ARRIVAL: THE STORY OF CANLIT
By Nick Mount

What was CanLit anyway?

University of Toronto English professor Nick Mount traces the origin of the portmanteau back to the early 1960s and the beginning of the CanLit “boom,” but today it sounds more like a course code than a shorthand label for Canadian writing, then or now. In hindsight we might see CanLit as (1) a canon of works to be studied, (2) a historical phenomenon, and (3) a myth.
Mount’s valuable and refreshingly lively account of the subject looks at CanLit from all three angles.

He is briefest on the books themselves, choosing not to get involved in critical evaluation beyond providing brief margin notes that rank the core texts on a scale going from one to five stars. Blame the Internet. For what it’s worth, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook takes top prize for the Great Canadian Novel, with Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women being the only other five-star contender in that category. Which is at least using an expansive definition of what constitutes a novel.

Instead of digging deeply into the books, Arrival is more concerned with their context: biographical, cultural, political, and economic. Such an approach may sound dry and scholarly, but it’s presented in a breezy, humorous, non-academic manner that makes for a quick and genuinely informative read, even for those who think they know the story well. Indeed, the main drawback is that in covering so much ground the discussion gets spread pretty thin in places. One wishes Mount would slow down!

It’s also the case that such an argument pushes the actual CanLit canon, whether intentionally or not, even further to the margin. By emphasizing the many different forces coming together at the same time and place that gave birth to and shaped Canadian writing during these years, CanLit comes to seem less about the writing and more about a kind of product (of the kind sometimes derided as “Canned Lit”).

This isn’t unfair though, and in some ways it makes for a welcome corrective to the default position of ancestor worship that continues to dominate so much of our discussion of CanLit. Mount doesn’t say that these writers lucked out simply by happening to be in the right place at the right time – though he gives plenty of examples of how they won the lottery in that regard. For example, you have to smile at George Jonas recalling getting a job at the CBC in 1960: “you could just walk into an office unintroduced and say, ‘I want to work here.’” Things are rather different around the Ceeb these days.

The CanLit authors were made by their time and place, and in particular it was readers that made them. This is a principle Mount insists on throughout. In his discussion of feminism and CanLit, for example, he talks of how “books become what their readers want,” and that “Canadian women writers wouldn’t have succeeded without the women who were their largest audience.”

By success Mount means something other than artistic achievement, as he later suggests that literary quality is not what makes an author great but rather the quality of their audience: “Writers don’t make classics; readers do.” You can tell from this just how much cultural displacement has taken place in the field of literary criticism, and how far the critical pendulum has swung away from those now marginal texts toward a more market-based form of analysis.

Finally, CanLit is a myth. A self-made and unabashedly self-serving myth, as many of Mount’s biographical sketches reveal. In turn, this myth was CanLit’s greatest achievement. If the cultural construction of CanLit was the product, the myth was the advertising, and nobody played the media as skilfully as this generation of writers, whatever their feet of clay.

But what of CanLit today? This is an important question and one that Mount doesn’t shy away from addressing, though we may debate his conclusions.

In the first place, given that CanLit was a product of its time and place we can confidently declare it over, aside from the few surviving legacy brands. What’s more, we won’t be seeing the cultural and economic conditions that gave rise to it occurring again.

This leaves us with the matter of its legacy.

As a national project CanLit is irrelevant now, and much of the infrastructure built to sustain it is eroding. Nevertheless, Mount, correctly I believe, sees the average quality of the literature produced in Canada to be higher today than it was during the golden age. Readers have never had it so good. What is the link then from past to present?

Is the CanLit canon, as Mount conculdes, a “now recognizable body of writing for critics to describe, students to read, the public to celebrate, and writers to steal from or define themselves against”?

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but it’s not easy to make the case. Frankly, one has to look hard to find the influence of CanLit, at least in terms of books being written out of other books. Rather, if CanLit was defined by its context, it was in turn that context – the network of media and money primarily – that subsequent generations have had to adapt to or try to resist. This makes the story Mount tells all the more relevant, even as CanLit slowly fades from view.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star September 2, 2017.

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump
Ed. by Bandy Lee

Psychology is not an exact science, and diagnosis at a distance or as filtered through the media might be expected to make for an even fuzzier picture. Nevertheless the “27 psychiatrists and mental health experts” who contributed to this collection of essays on Donald Trump and the “Trump effect” do their best, working with and interpreting the same small set of data points.

I doubt anyone will find the results all that surprising. Narcissism is a label that gets used a lot, sometimes with “malignant” attached to it. The basic idea is that Trump has delusions of grandeur and a lack of empathy. Underlying this is a nasty and narrow world view that sees everyone categorized as either winner or loser, con-man or sucker. In layman’s terms, he’s a selfish, paranoid, mean-spirited bully.

Given his wealth and power he has been able to construct an alternate reality or bubble to live in, surrounded by enablers and flattering courtiers. This is the dark side of the much-ballyhooed priority such people place on loyalty. The sad, or Sad!, thing is that there is nothing exceptional about Trump but perhaps the intensity of his anger and the degree of his delusions. In his essay “Pathological Narcissism and Politics,” Craig Malkin harkens back to the gold standard of bad presidents to tell us that “Nixon displayed a combination of intense ambition, authority, grandiosity, arrogance, entitlement, subterfuge, and self-importance that appears to have been common in the Oval Office throughout history.”

It all works until it doesn’t. By which time any warnings or second thoughts come much too late.