Liberalism and Its Discontents

Liberalism and Its Discontents
Francis Fukuyama

I don’t think Francis Fukuyama is saying anything new in this little book, but what he does say is representative of a lot of mainstream elite thinking on the subject in ways that are worth taking note of.

A believer in classical liberalism, Fukuyama sees it as threatened on two fronts: from the Right by neoliberalism and libertarianism, which leads to gross inequality, and from the Left by the woke revolution and identity politics, which leads to social breakdown. Pulled to the Right the result is nationalist oligarchy or fascism, to the Left there is anarchy.

While I don’t like either extreme, I have trouble understanding the equivalence made between the different threats. Neoliberalism has been the dominant political and economic ideology, worldwide, for going on fifty years. And on the other hand we have the mobocracy of cancel culture, campus free speech drama, and Drag Queen Story Hour? The excesses of the Right and the collapse of democracies into illiberal authoritarianism continues apace, even while, as Fukuyama admits, “It does not appear at this moment that anything like the full progressive agenda is likely to be realized” in the U.S. or anywhere else.

This sort of both-sidesism is a kind of propaganda, with socialism and wokeism invoked as bogeymen by the Right to justify ever more extreme, reactionary policies. But there is no equivalence. The Right poses a very real threat to liberalism, democracy, and the rule of law, while the Left raises the spectre of culture wars that mostly exercise people in the media and universities. Fukuyama may sincerely believe that it is the undermining of “modes of cognition” and speech that is the most acute threat to liberalism today, but that’s only because he’s an academic.

The sins of the Right are grounded in vicious selfishness, those of the Left in cynical hypocrisy. The latter is despicable, and far from even being the debt vice pays to virtue, but it’s not as great a present danger.


Prisoners of the Castle

Prisoners of the Castle
Ben Macintyre

As well as being a chronicle of horrors, the Second World War also provided many thrilling stories of heroism and adventure, not all of them taking place on the battlefield. Ben Macintyre, perhaps best known as the author of Operation Mincemeat, revisits one of the most famous of these in this history of Colditz Prison, a converted castle which was used during the war to hold captured allied officers who had proven to be high risk.

Of course, every prison story is an escape-from-prison story, and Prisoners of the Castle is no exception, as breaking out of the castle became a sort of high-stakes game fought not only between prisoners and guards but between different national teams of inmates. Tunnels were dug, papers forged, uniforms made, and there was even an attempt at building a glider (that might have actually worked!).

Much has already been written about escaping Colditz, and it’s also been the inspiration for movies and a television series. Macintyre tells the story well though, and lets us marvel again at all the ingenuity and resourcefulness on display.

Mussolini’s Daughter

By Caroline Moorehead

Writing the biography of very famous people can’t be easy. For some perennially popular subjects the field is now so crowded as to put off any but the most determined or revisionist of historians. And while familiarity hasn’t stopped new biographies of Napoleon, Lincoln, and Hitler appearing every year, with scraps of previously undiscovered material getting turned up every now and then that lead to new perspectives, I think there’s a law of diminishing returns in operation.

One way of getting around this problem is to shift focus to someone close to the main figure in the story who isn’t as well known. One example being Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s Daughter. And now Caroline Moorehead’s account of Edda Mussolini, who was Benito Mussolini’s favourite child.

Edda’s name doesn’t appear in the title or subtitle of Moorehead’s book, perhaps signaling her secondary role in the world-historical events that follow. A famous figure in her day, I think Edda’s largely been forgotten in the years since the end of the Second World War and the collapse of Italy’s Fascist regime. Edda lived to be 84, dying in 1995, but Moorehead’s book skims over her final 50 years in a mere handful of pages. For biographical purposes, Edda life ended with her father hanging by his heels from the roof of a gas station in Milan. “I write, I dream, I drink, I smoke,” is how she described her postwar existence to one friend. “And yet,” she would add, “I continue to live, not vegetate.” Which is setting a low bar.

Edda herself remains a bit mystifying. Moorehead confesses at the outset that “what follows is as close to the truth as I have been able to get.” But does this mean there were hidden depths to Edda’s character, or that there was actually less to her than met the eye? I’m drawn toward the latter position. She and her husband Galeazzo Ciano – for a time Italy’s foreign secretary – became the Fascist poster couple, which may have been incongruous in some ways (particularly given their louche lifestyles) but in so far as they were usually presented to the public as images without much in the way of substance, they fit the bill. Edda wasn’t particularly attractive, but she was tall and thin, while Ciano was a peacock. “Edda and Ciano were everything Mussolini had dreamt of as his model Fascist family: young, healthy, fashionable, forceful and fertile.” But did they even get along?

In terms of personality, Edda was a wild child and very much her daddy’s girl: a hothead “with a taste for dramatic scenes.” She shared many of the same mannerisms (like throwing her head back and sticking her jaw out at someone she was berating) and, even more shocking, the same sexual promiscuity. When asked how she resembled her father she replied “I wouldn’t be able to say the ways in which I do not resemble him. I am a faithful copy.”

For good and ill. She was also her father’s closest confidant and perhaps his only friend, and in this social narrowness she also took after him. I was surprised when I read Moorehead’s account of the sinking of a ship Edda was stationed on (she’d been in her cabin reading P. G. Wodehouse when it was torpedoed). Apparently “her closest friend,” a fellow nurse, died in the attack. The friend’s name didn’t ring any bells and, checking the index, I found out that this was the only mention of her in the entire book.

Who else did Edda like to hang out with? Like a lot of today’s power couples, her marriage to Ciano seems mostly to have been one of mutual convenience. It’s hard to say if she was ever in love with any of her lovers. Apparently she got along well with Magda Goebbels, which doesn’t say much in her favour as Magda seems to have been a very dull woman.

But then wasn’t Edda, despite her glamorous profile (which included an appearance on the cover of Time Magazine in 1939), a bit dull herself? Fiery, to be sure, but still an uneducated peasant girl whose shallowness is evident throughout Moorehead’s account. In Edda’s defence, her position in the Fascist regime was one she didn’t seek and seemed to not particularly enjoy, though the evidence here is ambiguous. Meanwhile, the question of her culpability in the crimes of the Fascist state is one that exercised investigators then and now.

Was she a power behind the throne? Moorehead’s subtitle is taken from a profile of Edda that appeared in an Egyptian magazine, but it has to be given some interpretive shading:

Edda, [the profile] said, “rules her father with an iron fist.” This, certainly, had become the accepted view in many circles, but as with so much else in Edda’s life, it has to be seen in context. Her power was never of a concrete kind, not least because she was a woman, and because she was quickly bored with the minutiae of daily decisions. But her closeness to her father and Ciano’s reliance on her, together with her impatience at equivocation, made her formidable, even when she was least aware of it.

Try parsing that out. A Fascist figurehead unaware and uninterested in her own power? It seems odd, but a similar contradiction also informed Edda’s description of her father as both “feeble and authoritarian.” Which he was, at least at the end, when he’d become a sock puppet or, in Edda’s phrasing, a “rag in the hands of the Germans.”

Of course, Edda herself would deny having any influence in matters of state, though after the war there were good reasons for downplaying any role she might have had. On trial, she remarked “It wasn’t as if I was Helen of Troy.” Of some significance, though again it’s hard to interpret, is her absence from Ciano’s diaries, the preservation of which played such a large part in her escape from Italy at the end of the war. Did her husband see her as not being involved? Was he trying to protect her? Was he jealous of her? We can’t say.

Moorehead does point out that Edda was more pro-war than Ciano, which counts against her on many levels. Italy, for example, just wasn’t ready for war. As Mussolini quipped at the time, “With an army like this, one can declare war only on Peru.” But Il Duce was the decider, and he was growing feeble.

If Edda remains a cipher it’s no fault of Moorehead. As well as being highly readable this is a full and honest account that leaves much to the reader to interpret in their own way. I came away from it thinking of Edda as little more than a high-strung, Fascist fashion model who flew (or was carried) too close to the sun. That she survived the wreckage is testimony to a certain resourcefulness and resiliency, but that’s the best I can say.

Review first published online November 11, 2022.

I Just Wrote This Five Minutes Ago . . .

By Carl Watts

The title of this collection of essays, addressing not just contemporary poetry itself but its reception and what used to be known as the scene, comes from an attitude that Carl Watts (and others) picked up on when attending open mic poetry readings. What it refers to is poets showing up claiming that what they were about to read had only been written that morning, or on the drive over to the venue, or just five minutes ago.

Such a careless attitude didn’t do much to win over other poets, with Watts flagging a “consensus that this practice implied arrogance and a lack of respect for other people’s time and attention.” One of the expectations the audience at a poetry reading might reasonably have had is that there had at least been some “work put in in advance.”

It’s that notion of work that’s central to most of what Watts has to say about poetry. One of his keynotes is the famous line from Auden that poetry makes nothing happen. Poetry doesn’t do any work, and if you’re feeling in a bad mood you might even say it’s without utility or value. When you get right down to it, these are all variations on the question of What’s poetry for?

Watts has a complicated answer to this, seeing the time we spend (or, less charitably, waste) reading poetry as having both a personal and social value:

I see contemporary poetry as a form of expenditure that forges links among disparate practices and parties, sustaining a civil society of (mostly) good-faith engagement that resists value defined as monetary, based on an end product, or instrumental in that it is socially beneficial in some directed or predetermined way.

The critic has a role to play in all this. He does work too. A big part of that work just amounts to reading: digging at the rock face of contemporary poetry. And this is where Watts stands out, as his essays are grounded in a sensitive, eclectic, and intelligent reading of various poets and poems, the majority of whom I was unfamiliar with. Among those I did know, I’ve never found much that’s interesting in the poetry of Rupi Kaur – and Watts himself is “not exactly a fan” – but the essay “recuperating” Kaur is the best analysis yet that I’ve read of her oeuvre and makes a case for her poetry’s value in a credible way, especially in terms of its broadening of poetry’s audience.

On the other hand, Kaur’s status as a celebrity and sales juggernaut – that is, a poet whose primary value is commercial – makes her sui generis. Is her popular, participatory message a poetics, I want to ask, or a brand? Watts does well reading her poetry, but I still came away wondering, as I have for a while, how much Kaur is writing social media and how much social media is writing her. This gets to a larger point about how much Watts sees poetry merely as a vehicle (or perhaps cultural lens), and how much he sees it as expressing its own message (that is, doing work).

Good poetry criticism and good poetry seem to go hand-in-hand. Great poets need great critics. Canada has been blessed with a number of the latter over the last twenty years or so, including names like Carmine Starnino, Jason Guriel, and Michael Lista (a line-up Watts refers to as the “slash-and-burn” reviewers). I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Canadian poetry has had so many highlights during this same period, and I’m only disappointed I haven’t read more of it, knowing there are so many good Canadian poets out there.

Meanwhile, there has been very little quality criticism directed at Canadian fiction. And I suspect there is some connection here to the fact that our fiction, especially the novel, has been in such a depressing rut, with so little recognition either academically or in the media of the best that’s out there. But I digress.

Watts is doing important work (yes, work), though my own preference is for a critical voice closer to what used to be known as literary journalism, back when that was still a thing. I had the sense that Watts was being pulled in two directions, and it was noticeable when he drifted into a more academic style, with the sort of frustrating false precision typical of that kind of writing. Nevertheless, what he’s given us is a well-informed snapshot of poetry today and a vision for how it fits into a larger cultural picture that remains very much in flux. If poetry makes nothing happen, things still happen to it. It’s a story worth our attention.

Review first published online October 24, 2022.

The Lost Battles

By Jonathan Jones

There’s a line of thinking that has it that what made Florence such a cauldron of genius in the Renaissance, indeed what made the Italian Renaissance, was the fury of artistic competition. Competition, and this is a related point that’s rarely remarked on, which was often very public in nature, and judged to the highest standards.

If competition was this important, the contest between the two titans of the day, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, who were commissioned in 1504 to paint battle frescos in the Great Council Hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, might have been the defining event of the age.

It might have been, but neither of the frescos was painted. All we have are designs and reconstructions, most notably Raphael’s of the Battle of Anghiari and Aristotele de Sangallo’s of the Battle of Cascina (a reproduction of the latter strangely missing from this otherwise well-illustrated book). And yet, the imagination can dwell just as much on a painting lost. At least that’s what Jonathan Jones concludes at the end of his captivating account of the great duel:

The lost Battles of Leonardo and Michelangelo are as available to us, as real, as any work of art, for all art requires imagination and thought to truly enjoy it. Almost because the originals are not visible, the process of reconstructing these great works in our minds can gives us a stronger feeling for them than we might have for many a well-preserved painting. Their first audience responded to the concepts and images that were in them, not to details of execution. So can we. There are enough preparatory drawings, copies, written descriptions, and allusions in later works to make these vanished pictures astonishingly real. In the end this is simply the immediacy of the greatest art.

There’s something to this, though I think contemporary viewers responded to details of execution as well. Leonardo’s Last Supper, for example, is only a blur even after restoration, but the concept makes it iconic. And it’s possible Leonardo was aware of this, as he did have trouble finishing things.

Review first published online September 27, 2022.

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
Edward White

Alfred Hitchcock has long been a favourite subject for biographers, and I’ve even reviewed a couple of the more recent ones by Patrick McGilligan and Peter Ackroyd. But there’s always room for another, so . . .

The attraction comes from Hitchcock’s cultural impact and the air of mystery that he both cultivated and came by naturally. Personal contradictions are fertile ground for biographers, and Hitchcock had plenty. Was he a man of deep faith, or no faith at all? Was he asexual (“Hitch . . . without the cock”), lustful, or gay? Was he auteur (that is, an artist, a label he rejected) or entertainer? Even in terms of Hitchcock’s working style we can get into arguments. Did he really storyboard every shot in each of his movies, so that he could just snooze through the actual filming? Was that how he worked, or was it just a myth fed to the media? It all depends on whose anecdotes you value more.

There’s evidence pointing in every direction, and Edward White looks at a lot of it in chapters that present twelve different ways of looking at the Master. He doesn’t resolve the contradictions, but then nobody else has and I think it’s safe to say that no one ever will. What he presents instead is a range of entry points that deepen our understanding and appreciation of Hitchcock’s life and work in a fresh way.

Did Jesus Exist?

Did Jesus Exist?
Bart Ehrman

The evidence for the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t overwhelming or incontrovertible, though all things considered it’s pretty good. I’m not a religious person myself, but it seems to me almost certain that Jesus was a real person who lived and died at the beginning of the first century CE. And indeed this is a point that has never been much in question. As Bart Ehrman writes, “Every single source that mentions Jesus up until the eighteenth century assumed that he actually existed.” But then some fringe characters began suggesting Jesus might have been made up, a point of view adopted, for various not always complementary reasons, by today’s “mythicists.”

In this timely book Ehrman puts forward the case for believing in Jesus the man (his status as divinity or son of God lying outside the remit of a historian). I say timely because in the twenty-first century the mythicists have been enjoying a resurgence, largely online. While admitting that their position “is interesting historically and phenomenologically, as part of a wider skepticism that has infiltrated parts of the thinking world . . . that deserves a clearheaded sociological analysis in its own right,” this is another direction Ehrman avoids going in. I think that’s probably wise, but it’s still something readers will find hard not to speculate on.

What is there about our own post-truth, Internet-sourced, anti-expertise knowledge ecosystem that leads to the flourishing of so many crank theories? As I began by noting, the proof of Jesus’s existence isn’t so great that it’s irrefutable, and I even found myself resisting some of the points Ehrman makes here. So I get being skeptical of the traditional story. What I don’t understand is why the mythicists believe what they believe. The road of doubt doesn’t necessarily lead to the house of conspiracy. Or at least it shouldn’t.

Chronicles of a Liquid Society

Chronicles of a Liquid Society
Umberto Eco

I’m not being disparaging in saying that this collection of columns by Umberto Eco made me think of the late intellectual as a blogger. He had no remit from the weekly magazine L’Espresso aside from writing on whatever came into his head, so the resulting articles “are by definition an expression of my personal interests, curiosity, and preferences.” These range widely – from religion, race, and technology to comic books – and the essays have a tendency to be more provocative and stimulating than profound, but then Eco’s subject matter is the flotsam and jetsam of a liquid society.

Liquid because it has lost a sense of moral cohesion, social homogeneity, and intellectual guideposts. Postmodernism’s rejection of grand narratives is said to have initiated this breakdown, but I’ve never believed in this critical mythology, which strikes me as only academic dilettantism. Grand narratives have never gone out of style, and in fact are probably more important and influential today than ever.

I’m not even sure Eco would disagree with this, as the pieces here feel less like someone testing the waters and more like mineral samples chipped from the rock-face of our dominant contemporary ideologies. Which makes them all the more worth reflecting on, as our culture continues not to dissolve but to petrify.

The Lost Decade

THE LOST DECADE 2010 – 2020
By Polly Toynbee and David Walker

Given the horrors of the last ten years and the “rightward lurch” toward authoritarianism in Western countries, it’s easy to forget the opportunity costs. Nothing, like something, happens anywhere, as Philip Larkin once observed.

So while all the bad somethings marched on – the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law being the chief examples – the nothings piled up too. Nothing done to address the threat of climate change. No attempt to repair crumbling infrastructure. No growth in wages (what led the Bank of England to call this a “lost decade” in the UK). Problems that were already going to be difficult to deal with were on the way to becoming irremediable given the level of social and economic breakdown.

This political survey of the second decade of the twenty-first century in Britain manages to cover most of the bad things that happened as well as the good things that didn’t. Strictly in terms of politics these years were marked by a Tory ascendancy, and an increasingly radical one at that. The hard-right turn of the Tories is likened to what happened with the Russian Revolution from 1905 to 1917, and the French Revolution going from the Girondins to the Jacobins. It’s hard to feel good about such historical comparisons.

But why did this happen? As is the case with any dramatic social transformation we have to look at both long-term and more proximate causes, and a quest to find any single explanation will likely come up short. For Brexit as for the election of Trump we can point fingers everywhere. Bad times (“austerity” in Britain) often lead to bad politics.

“Brexit is polymorphous; it’s simultaneously about England and the UK, about the UK and Europe; about attitudes, instincts, sensibilities, places, races, self-image, reputation; about institutions, not just parliament. It’s a long list.” Given all this, it’s little surprise that Brexit itself was a mess of contradictions: little England nationalism allied with free-trade libertarianism. Though one supposes that the nationalism was for the plebs while libertarianism, as always, was something only to be enjoyed by those at the top.

Still, if I had to single out just a couple of causes for Britain’s malaise (not so different from our own in North America), I’d settle on the following.

In the first place: voter passivity. In their interviews, Toynbee and Walker express some surprise at voters who had little knowledge or even curiosity about what was happening. Given a chance to initiate fair voting reforms in 2011, voters stayed home: only two out of five showed up, and 68% of those plumped for the status quo. This apathy – product of a general sense of personal well-being (politically, not always a good thing) – allowed the energized base of the right to set the course. Yes, the best lack all conviction and the worst really are full of passionate intensity.

The second point that I think is worth flagging is the generational divide. I’m reluctant to bash the Boomers more than I have already, but if the shoe fits then they should wear it. Whatever one thinks of how things have turned out, this is very much the world the Boomers made, and one they continue to dominate politically and economically. In the Brexit vote “victory was swung by Tory voters . . . who were relatively prosperous. And older. Age tipped the outcome everywhere: retired people in strongly pro-remain London backed leave in similar proportions to the retired of Yorkshire, the north-west and Wales.” Next up, the 2017 election “was the first where age was a stronger predictor of voting intention than social class.”

There’s more to this than the relatively recent (Boomer-driven) development that has seen seniors become an economic elite, or at least better-off, on average, than any other age demographic. Older people are also the most resistant to change. As has often been remarked, we usually get more conservative as we get older, and harken back to imagined good ol’ days when Britain or America were great. Privilege then becomes a double-edged sword.

Older people were some of the most satisfied according to the well-being scores – yet also the most dissatisfied, if their voting patterns said anything about their emotional state. In the UK, life satisfaction now reached its peak between the ages of seventy and seventy-four. The “old” felt life was most worthwhile, as indeed it certainly was for most of them, economically. Odd, though, that the group most regretting lost Britishness were, on these measures, personally today’s happiest.

Why did the most spoiled generation in the history of civilization (remember that this is a Western phenomenon) turn out like this? In large part, I think, precisely because they were so spoiled. Neoliberalism wasn’t a reaction against the counterculture of the 1960s but its natural fruition. Having been given the world, what could the Boomers want but more? Alas, “To age is to crumble” (Toynbee and Walker are talking about infrastructure here). The response to that inevitable fate has been bitterness and rage. The mess that’s left will be for someone else to clean up.

Review first published online July 18, 2022. The Boomers never gave up. A November 2022 YouGov poll of British voters found that 56% of people thought the decision to leave the EU was wrong and only 32% still thought it was right. The only age group to still register a majority still in favour of Brexit (and this was six years later, after its failure was abundantly clear) was the over-65s.  57% of that cohort supported Brexit, with the other age brackets breaking down as 37% of 50-64s, 21% of 21-49s, and 11% of 18-24s.

Arguing with Zombies

By Paul Krugman

One thing that becomes clearer as you get older is that there’s no point in arguing with some people. Unless it’s a subject they truly have no interest in whatsoever, their minds are usually made up.

This is especially the case if it’s a matter they feel some personal investment in. The mindset then becomes like that of a cult. Think of fandom, in the realm of the cult of celebrity. Or, in the field of ideas, true believers in the cybertopia being fashioned by the digital revolution, or acolytes of the neoliberal ideology that free markets create the best of all possible worlds when set free from all government regulation. To hold such truths to be self-evident, natural, ineluctable laws, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is to mark oneself as one of the elect.

For Paul Krugman it is the neoliberal faith, specifically that cutting taxes on the wealthy will inevitably result in greater economic growth and prosperity (what is now the sole remaining policy plank of the Republican Party), is a “zombie” or “cockroach” idea. Indeed, it is the “ultimate zombie” idea, one that has been shambling about now for well over a century. And this despite the fact that it has been tested repeatedly over the past fifty years and been proven false.

What adds to the pointlessness of arguing with zombies is the fact that we inhabit a cheerfully post-truth, post-fact media ecosystem, largely operated by the very groups who stand to profit most from the dissemination of such toxic ideas. “We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence is that it’s wrong.”

Given this state of affairs, you have to wonder why Krugman even bothers. As I started off by saying, there’s little point arguing with true believers about these matters. One of the better pieces included here is an analysis of the dangers of widening economic inequality, and a dismantling of the various right-wing arguments (more zombie ideas) defending this growing gap. It’s the oldest essay in the book, first published in 1992. Since then the situation Krugman describes has only gotten worse, while the same “conservative” (in reality, radical redistributionist) arguments in its defence continue to be made.

One can’t be pessimistic enough about where all this is headed. In 2014, writing on the sharp rightward turn of the Republican Party into a kind of fever swamp of mass insanity, Krugman signs off thusly: “An ugly political scene is about to get even uglier.”

It certainly did, and quickly. Is it even possible to imagine when things will start getting better?

Review first published online July 11, 2022. One point I wish Krugman had expanded on is how zombie ideas are manufactured and propagated. In think-tanks and through right-wing media, yes, but some further examination would have been helpful. We can blame “the rich” (as in “Why do Republicans adhere to a tax theory that has no support from nonpartisan economists and is refuted by all available data? Well, ask who benefits from low taxes on the rich, and it’s obvious.”) but I’d like him to name names, and give some numbers (they exist) on just how much the rich and the powerful profit from peddling their ideological snake oil. They spend an incredible amount on lobbying and media manipulation, but the return on their investment is even more amazing and should be more reported on.