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.

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The Road to Unfreedom

THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM
By Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder is an academic writer who wants to write for a mass audience, and he has had some success in this regard. His little chapbook On Tyranny, for example, became a surprise bestseller, without saying much that was very new. Its virtues were that it was short and relatively accessible.

I had to stick in that qualifier because Snyder is not always so easy to understand. He can drift into poetic, rhetorical metaphors (“The ink of political fiction is blood,” “To end factuality is to begin eternity”) and has a penchant for coming up with infelicitous labels for concepts that might be better expressed in more familiar terms (schizofascism, sadopopulism). A good example of both tendencies in action can be seen in the central distinction he makes between the politics of inevitability and eternity.

The meaning of these terms is not self-evident and may require some explanation.

The two politics are a linked pair, reduced in their simplest terms to “progress and doom.” Both are mythic structures, or ways of imagining history. The politics of inevitability has it that history has a purpose and a direction. This may be toward the “one market, under God” of neoliberalism, or the Marxist classless society. Either way, it signifies the march of progress, which terminates in the end of history. This progress is a natural law and cannot be altered or avoided. Hence inevitability. As the acronym TINA has it, “there is no alternative.” Snyder likens it to sleepwalking “to a premarked grave in a prepurchased lot” (he frequently uses death imagery). Even democracy becomes an empty ritual, akin to what David Runciman in How Democracy Ends refers to as “mindlessness.”

The politics of inevitability turns into the politics of eternity by way of the poetry I mentioned earlier. “Eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse.” “The natural successor to the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity.” What Snyder is getting at here is the way the politics of eternity happens when the inevitable doesn’t materialize. Progress (toward whatever end) turns into the God that fails. Why does it fail? Because of its enemies. Enemies that are invariably seen as external threats, the foreign “other.”

The upshot of the politics of eternity is that there is no longer any progress, or way that history can be redeemed. I don’t like the word “eternity” but the general point is that a return to the past “replaces the forward movement of time.” There is only an eternal struggle, with the forces of darkness and light locked in endless warfare.

Snyder’s point in The Road to Unfreedom is that this trajectory from inevitability to eternity, from saviour to victim, from utopia to nostalgia, from progress to doom, from “radical hope” to “bottomless fear” (there are a lot of these pairings) is one that the United States, under the tutelage of Putin’s Russia, is currently traveling.

There is something to this. I can remember the world’s outpouring of solidarity with the U.S. after the attacks on 9/11, best represented by the headline in the French newspaper Le Monde the day after: Nous sommes tous américains — We Are All Americans.

What was odd was that the U.S. wasn’t having any of it. Very soon the French would be vilified, along with any other country that didn’t immediately fall into line. Instead of taking a true leadership role the U.S. identified itself with Israel, the besieged outpost of civilization surrounded by enemies and under attack by terrorists. Such a transference baffled me, as it seemed so far removed from America’s role and place in the world. Snyder’s categories, however, help explain what was going on. From the shining city on the hill America had become Masada, a nation trapped in a cycle of “endless crises and permanent threats.”

Of course 9/11 was before Trump, a figure Snyder despises as “an American loser who became a Russian tool.” Specifically, Trump was a tool designed by Russia in its own political image: the media-generated “payload of a cyberweapon, meant to create chaos and weakness, as in fact he has done.” Trump’s Manchurian mission was to lead America further down the road to unfreedom, from inevitability to eternity. Another instance of mission accomplished.

Snyder has been criticized for giving Russia too much credit (or blame) for creating Trump. I think he makes a convincing case, though the financial details of the arrangement are still obscure. The bigger problem people seem to have with emphasizing the Russian connection is that they feel it lets Hillary Clinton and the Democrats off the hook. But for the Russians (or the Electoral College, or James Comey, or whatever other excuse), Clinton would have won.

In a close election one can make an argument for any single factor being determinative. Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election and I assume they did have some impact, but did they tip the scale in Trump’s favour?
This seems to me to be an idle question. What was significant was that the election was even close in the first place. Trump was a symptom of the systems failure in American politics, not the disease.

I think Snyder is fair in this regard too, highlighting the ways in which America has become susceptible to just such a threat as the propagandists of the politics of eternity pose. From the growth in inequality to the hollowing out of the news to the replacement of facts with fiction and the rise of social media, the West has become increasingly vulnerable to the sirens of eternity.

The greatest failure has been of the politics of inevitability. The march of progress has either stalled or gone into reverse, with stagnating or falling real wages over the last forty years and government’s near total inability to take action on any of the most pressing issues people face. This has led in turn to widespread disgust with politicians, who are seen as being a class of self-serving, unrepresentative and unresponsive elites. In such an environment the forces of anti-government have gained strength, earning mandates to simply tear it all down. The result is Snyder’s sadopopulism:

Insofar as the American politics of eternity generates policy, its purpose is to inflict pain: regressive taxes that transfer wealth from the majority of the country to the very rich, and the reduction or elimination of health care. The politics of eternity works as a negative-sum game, where everyone but the top 1% or so of the population does worse, and the resulting suffering is used to keep the game going. People get the feeling of winning because they believe that others are losing. . . . So long as enough Americans understood losing as a sign that others must be losing still more, the logic could continue.

This is the downward spiral we’re currently stuck in. The only way out is a rise in prosperity and a better functioning economy, which I don’t see as being in the cards. The new inevitability is that we’re all going down.

Notes:
Review first published online June 11, 2018.

Secrets in the Cellar

Secrets in the Cellar
John Glatt

Is there any point in ranking the evildoers found in the annals of true crime? If there is (and some exercise in moral judgment does seem to be part of the genre’s purpose) then surely Josef Fritzl stands as one of the worst of the worst. Even when compared to the other captive narratives that came out around the same time, Fritzl’s imprisonment and rape of his daughter and begetting of a family that he maintained in a miserable basement dungeon for over twenty years ranks as shocking.

John Glatt’s little book didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but still left me impressed by how the full story was even worse than I imagined. One point I hadn’t been aware of showed how thoroughly wicked a person Fritzl was. Not only was he selfish and cruel, he was also cheap: not tipping at the bordellos he frequented, trying to nickel-and-dime the tenants in his apartment building, and even fostering his own children instead of adopting them because it got him a bigger government cheque. Despite this streak of vicious mean-spiritedness he was a lousy businessman and was deep in debt at the time of his arrest. Of course being a miser was far from his worst personal failing, but it just goes to show how some people are bad all the way through.

Selfish, Whining Monkeys

SELFISH, WHINING MONKEYS: HOW WE ENDED UP GREEDY, NARCISSISTIC AND UNHAPPY
By Rod Liddle

When did narcissism become the definitive dysfunctional condition of our time? Some people would point to Tom Wolfe’s christening of the 1970s as the “Me Decade” or Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, but I think these were prophetic voices from the cultural antennae of the race, and I think Lasch anyway was onto something a little different than what we mean by narcissism, a diagnosis more classically grounded in then current models of psychology.

The ‘80s were a bad decade too, and when David Sirota wrote his critique of the pop culture of the time (Back to Our Future) he specifically called out its selfishness and “virulent egomania.” This was the Thatcher and Reagan ‘80s, when there no longer was any society but only the grasping individual. Things were clearly on a narcissistic trajectory, though I don’t recall the diagnosis being made quite as often back then.

A decade later, Bill Clinton would present himself as the love child of the counterculture and neoliberalism, the two self-centered ideologies that columnist Rod Liddle identifies as having given birth to the present age.
Of course this was all before the advent of Donald Trump, a figure viewed by many professionals as showing clear indications of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). But even before Trump’s election it seemed as though narcissism was popping up everywhere. In 2014 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell warned of The Narcissism Epidemic. Also in 2014 Aaron James proffered Assholes: A Theory, which defined the titular condition as sharing many features with NPD (with James even admitting at one point that “being an asshole is probably only one version of the disorder”).

That same year (2014, still pre-President Trump) saw the publication of Rod Liddle’s Selfish, Whining Monkeys: How We Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy.

Obviously all of these people were responding to something in the culture and the way we live now. Trump was more symptom than cause: the cherry on top of a cake that had already been baked.

A preliminary note before I get going. Liddle is, at least in Britain, a controversial figure. Indeed he courts controversy, and on more than one occasion has been taken to task for crossing over the line into open racism and misogyny. I don’t want to get into any of those arguments here, as I don’t think the essays in Selfish, Whining Monkeys do cross that line (though there’s probably enough here for readers so disposed to conclude that Liddle is a rotten person). Instead, I think it’s worth focusing on what is of value in Liddle’s analysis of the zeitgeist and how it is we got here.

We begin with the selfishness of the monkeys (us). Which is to say, our narcissism. Liddle sees this, as I’ve already mentioned, as the idiot child born of Frankfurt School Marxism and Chicago School economics. Both schools stressed the supremacy of the individual: the former as leading the struggle against capitalist consumerism and traditional authoritarian political structures, the latter as the engine driving us toward capitalism’s (and history’s) triumphant end.

But whatever its ideological origins – and they are likely more complex than Liddle has them – narcissism is firmly in the saddle today. In some ways this is benign, as in our fetishizing of working out at the gym. In other ways, however, it is a real problem, and one that admits of no easy solutions. This is because narcissists know that they are right, and much of our current culture supports them in this.

Liddle pillories the narcissistic certitude of ideologues of the left and right, who share “a grim insistence that everything they say is beyond possible contradiction and that those who dare to contradict them should be punished somehow.” One thinks right away of the bubble-blowing effect of the Internet that allows the narcissist to spin a cocoon about him or herself, a technologically-enhanced tunnel vision which encourages an intolerance toward the very existence of other opinions. Or even other people. Liddle caustically calls the Internet

a medium which accommodates itself perfectly to our almost infantile narcissism, our big-I-am willy-waving and relentless solipsism. Its apogee was back in 2006, when Time magazine chose its Person of the Year, and guess who won? Yes, it was You! Yes, You! Every one of You, everyone in the world sat behind their little screens tap tap tapping away. You’ve won! All the people people beavering away at their blogs, their take on the world (comments: 0), all the monomaniacal communities. Congratulations – You are the most important person in the world. Hell, shucks and so on – be honest with Yourself. You always were. As if it needed Time magazine to tell you that.

Liddle writes in this jokey manner throughout, but he wants to make a serious point. Of course selfish, whining monkeys, or narcissists, or assholes, are annoying, and not always in a humorous way. That’s a given. But they also represent something worse: a social disease that prevents us from taking collective action for the common good. Whether you locate the source of the malaise in the ‘60s counterculture or the ‘80s individualistic revolution, or some “poisonous cocktail” combining the two, “the appetite for collective solutions to national problems was almost eradicated from the public mind, and in its place we had a vaulting personal acquisitiveness and a diminished concept of what constitutes society.” Indeed, determining that society as such does not exist, “and that it is up to us as individuals to make our mark in the world, then necessarily the amount of respect we have for other people – now viewed merely as competitors – will diminish also.” Furthermore, since nothing that happens to anyone else, living or yet to be born, is of any consequence to the narcissist they are free to indulge in the shortest of short-term thinking. Only immediate personal benefits count. What this all adds up to is no laughing matter.

The other point Liddle makes that deserves attention comes in his critique of the “faux left.” By the faux left he means bourgeois metropolitan liberals, “people who consider themselves of the left, or leftish, but whose views are often wholly irrelevant to the poorest indigenous sections of our society, or actively hostile towards them.” That word “indigenous” is one that gets him in trouble, because what Liddle is talking about here is the white working class. It’s important to note however that he’s not making the case that this is a class that is particularly hard done by but rather that it’s one that the faux left doesn’t care about. They can go on virtue signalling, meaning taking noble public stands on issues that cost them nothing, or which even provide them with benefits. A chief example here being immigration, where the liberal elite signal the importance of diversity and open borders while taking advantage of cheap gardeners and nannies.

Yes, things are a lot more complicated than this. Still, what Liddle represents is a point of view that resonates with a lot of people, and his analysis isn’t that far removed from that of Thomas Frank in Listen, Liberal. Only replace the faux left with Frank’s Democratic elite, the Brexit voter with the Trump voter, and you have a pretty good correspondence. In both cases you have the left behind looking for help in right-wing ideologies after the (faux) left has abandoned them. Narcissism in effect becomes a defence mechanism. In the end Liddle comes full circle, to “narcissism, once again”: “We demand to be heard because we know that underneath we count for less than we once did.” This is a downward spiral indeed, and we haven’t come close to reaching its bottom yet.

Notes:
Review first published online May 22, 2018.

The Darkening Age

THE DARKENING AGE
By Catherine Nixey

What was it that made the Dark Ages so dark? Assuming that they were dark, a point not all historians allow. And by asking who, or what, made them dark I mean who switched off the lights of learning?

Christianity, or the Church, has long come in for much of the blame. Edward Gibbon saw in the fall of the Roman Empire the triumph of barbarism and religion, and the revolution in modern thought largely defined itself as being a liberation from the yoke of scholastic (church) learning.

This isn’t totally fair. What seems to have happened is more of a general economic collapse leading to a significant downgrade in various forms of higher culture that were, at the time, elite luxuries. In his excellent history of philosophy from ancient times to the Renaissance, The Dream of Reason, Anthony Gottlieb looks at the fall of philosophy and concludes that “Nobody had killed the Greek inheritance; it had simply been allowed to waste away.”

I don’t think Catherine Nixey would entirely disagree with this, but The Darkening Age nevertheless sets itself the task of describing, as the subtitle puts it, “the Christian destruction of the Classical world.” This was mainly accomplished by a narrowing of the Classical mind. With the triumph of Christianity came an intolerance for other forms of faith, philosophy, art, and culture. Theatres closed, poetry stopped being written, statues and temples were torn down, and philosophical inquiry was made illegal, all in the name of God and saving souls.

Nixey says little to direct our attention to parallels with our own time. For example, there’s only a quick link drawn between the desecration of a statue of Athena at Palmyra with the further destruction of the same ancient city in recent years by the Islamic State. It is an embarassing but meaningful connection. If you think tolerance is a virtue, monotheism should make you a little nervous.

Notes:
Review first published online May 14, 2018. For a more scholarly take on the same subject I’d recommend Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind and A.D. 381.

Liminal

LIMINAL
By Jordan Tannahill

In 2014 playwright Jordan Tannahill became the youngest-ever winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Drama. Now, still not 30, he has published a semi-fictional memoir. This is what’s known as a fast start for a literary career.

The genre Tannahill is working is a hot one, sometimes referred to as the autobiographical novel or autofiction. Think names like Karl Ove Knausgård. The reader is given to understand that the people and events being described are, broadly speaking, real, but they are being presented and arranged in such a way as to heighten their dramatic effect. As Tannahill puts, describing his Toronto theatre project Videofag in terms that could just as easily be applied to Liminal, “it is both art and life . . . a sort of hyperreal portrait of a slightly more mundane reality.”

This is having one’s cake and eating it, since we have a tendency to accept that what we’re getting in Liminal is a true story, even if we have no idea how much of it really is. That’s a big part of what makes these books so popular. An enhanced reality may be even better than the real thing.

Tannahill begins with the moment that gives the novel its title and theme. On the morning of Saturday January 21, 2017 he stands in the doorway, on the threshold, of his mother’s bedroom, not sure if she is alive or dead. And so she will remain, suspended between life and death, for the rest of the book.

The liminal state between life and death, subject and object, soul and body, self and other, fact and fiction, along with countless other binaries, is frequently returned to (and sometimes has to be shoehorned in). Meanwhile, as Jordan stands waiting in the doorway, he proceeds to tell his story of the life of the playwright as a young man.

It is more a personal than a professional life, with the emphasis less on his writing, which he scarcely mentions, than on the most significant people in his life. These include his mother, of course, but also a friend named Ana and several different mentors and lovers. These relationships, in turn, are milestones on a journey of self-discovery. As borders break down in liminal space “I am all the bodies through which I’ve known my body and all the people through which I’ve known my person.”

It all makes for a fun read, even if it’s not as revealing as one would expect. Tannahill is a good writer, a natural storyteller with a strong sense of narrative rhythm as well as the ability to launch into almost mystical flights of poetic vision, but he’s not into the kind of obsessive self-examination that Knausgård and others have popularized. The book has an immediacy boosted by the fact that what he’s mainly describing are very recent events, unfiltered by mature reflection, but at the same time one gets the sense that a great deal is being held in reserve.

To take just one example, it’s never clear how Tannahill (who, as noted, doesn’t talk about his own writing much) makes a living. In North America, for whatever reason, money is a more taboo subject than sex. Our narrator confesses to appearing in some porn films but never says how he pays the rent. I doubt the porn would be enough. At one point his mother comes to visit him and he is relieved that she “she didn’t ask me how I was making my money lately and I think we both knew that was for the best.” The rest is silence.

We might agree in considering that silence a relief, at least in this case, but in presenting an autofictional confession certain rules of disclosure apply. One needn’t be explicit, but one can’t be coy.

Liminal gives us little sense that Tannahill is someone struggling to understand his life, but it may be that he hasn’t come to that point yet. Again we’re reminded of how young he is. Instead of thoughts recollected in tranquility, he concludes with a climactic paean to the raw, sensual experience of life, taking us with him as his own liminal state collapses and he rejoices in a new physical contact with the world. This is not someone looking back on his life, but being born again.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star February 9, 2018.

On Tyranny

ON TYRANNY: TWENTY LESSONS FROM THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
By Timothy Snyder

“History can familiarize, and it can warn.” So begins Timothy Snyder’s little book full of timely lessons, cautionary tales, and general guidelines drawn from the darkest days of the twentieth century (think, primarily, Hitler and Stalin) “adapted to the circumstances of today.”

It’s much the same warning that has been sounding since antiquity. Polybius may have been the first to come up with a formal theory of the descent from democracy into tyranny, but it’s a subject that has since gone on to become a staple for statesmen and historians to return to. How do we prevent a state collapsing into barbarity?

Snyder’s primer is obviously targeted at the threat to democracy he sees being advanced in the Trump administration and recent political developments in Europe like the Brexit vote. Such red flags should put us on our guard. But given the nature of such a book, with only a few pages given to each historical lesson and the moral to be drawn from it, one wants to immediately jump in and register some caveats.

The first lesson, for example, is “Do not obey in advance.” What this refers to is “anticipatory obedience,” which means that when people give in to government encroachments on their liberty the government is emboldened to go even further. Meanwhile, whatever freedoms have been given up cannot easily be regained. In other words, there’s a ratchet effect: when tyranny meets with little initial resistance “the first heedless acts of conformity [can] not then be reversed.”

True enough, though I think Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority don’t fit with this particular historical lesson all that well. They weren’t about anticipatory obedience. A more troubling question, however, has to do with the nature of the authority being exercised and where the biggest threats to our freedom may be coming from. For example, we freely give up far more of our personal information and privacy to companies like Google and Facebook than we do to the government – companies that, according to recent reports, are far from innocent when it comes to playing the game of political influence and power. Personally, I’m more concerned about where our first heedless acts of conformity have led us in this regard than I am by any power we have granted to public bodies. The police can only get a sample of your DNA in most countries with a court order (it’s a form of search warrant), but people apparently will now pay corporations to take it from them. This strikes me as a carelessly and dangerously misplaced trust, and an act of anticipatory obedience that will be hard if not impossible to reverse in the future.

I don’t want to suggest here that Snyder is blind to the threat of the Internet. Indeed, this is a major theme that runs throughout the book. In later chapters he emphasizes the importance of print over digital news, of maintaining a private sphere of life and drawing a line between when we are seen and when we are not seen, and of “practicing corporeal politics” (that is, organizing and interacting with real people). What I’m getting at instead is the way tyranny isn’t limited to our political institutions.

Speaking of those, the second lesson is to “Defend institutions.” Again, this is fine as a general principle but it still raises questions. Defend all institutions? Even those that are corrupt, dysfunctional, or antiquated? I’ve been all for abolishing Canada’s senate for years. What if institutions have become so sclerotic they are no longer capable of addressing current crises, and our constitutions are only guarantors of an unresponsive status quo? Are we stuck with a first-past-the-post election system forever? Is there nothing the U.S. can do about its gun laws because of the Second Amendment? Not all political institutions are worth keeping, at least in their present form.

Third up: “Beware the one-party state.” This strikes me as wanting to shut the barn door after the horses are out. If you live in a one-party state the game is already over, and (as Snyder notes) few people know in advance if they are voting for the dismantling of democracy in a last free election. As anti-democratic in spirit as Trump clearly is, I don’t think anyone thought that 2016 was the end of the line. Of course, those more cynical (or realistic) might say that most Western democracies are already one-party states, as only a certain social and economic elite is represented by the political system. This is especially the case in first-past-the-post systems where the ineluctable tendency is toward a two-party system where both sides are in broad agreement on policy with only some minor differences in tone. I don’t think Snyder is advocating for proportional representation though.

I won’t go through the whole list in order. Instead, I’ll register a broader reservation.

Snyder is swimming against the tide of the times. I think he realizes this, but I’m not sure he understands just how strong the countervailing forces are. I’ve mentioned his distrust of the Internet and his call to return to print: “Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.” I heartily agree with him, but at this stage of the game I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t going to happen. I don’t mean to subscribe to what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability” here (meaning there is no alternative to the way things are) but I think we have to limit our plans for change to the possible and the not-so-heroic.

As I say, I think Snyder realizes how hard resistance is going to be. We can see another example of this in his emphasis on the need for personal effort. Lesson 8 calls for the individual to “Stand out,” while the final lesson is to “Be as courageous as you can” (the only explanation of which is that “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny”). Standing out and being courageous, however, are not easy. Few of us, by definition, are heroes, and in any event heroes don’t always have much of a political impact. Those who stand out don’t always draw others to their cause and have rarely been much of a threat to tyrannous governments. The Nazis were not overthrown by conscientious objectors and protests against their regime but by losing a war. Communism collapsed on its own, and those who opposed finally won by pushing at an open door.

Another example of swimming against the tide of the times comes in the call for more political activism among groups. I think this is a little more likely, or at least possible, than people separating themselves from the Internet and reading books again, but it’s still mostly wishful thinking. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone pretty much wrote the epitaph for civic involvement, and it only summarized trends in place before the Internet came along. Unlike some, perhaps many, I do not see the Internet as truly connecting people, as it seems to me to mainly promote more social isolation and apathy.

Does this mean we are doomed to fall into tyranny again? Nothing is inevitable, but I think we’re in trouble. I say this not because of any of the bad habits Snyder adumbrates but because of looming crises that will undercut, and indeed are already undercutting, our democratic systems. When tyranny comes it will be in the guise of an answer to these threats: economic and environmental train wrecks that will put severe pressures on governments around the world. In coping with these crises the lessons of the twentieth century will, I think, be of limited utility except to make the road to ruin better lit and more familiar.

Notes:
Review first published online April 22, 2018.