The Fifth Risk

THE FIFTH RISK
By Michael Lewis

What is it that has so successfully united the right in the politics of our time? There is little in common between oil company CEOs, country-club conservatives, Tea Partiers, and white males without a college degree or disunionised labour when it comes to economic or even cultural concerns. Instead, what they share is a hatred of the government and an open wish to see it destroyed. Not shrunk, as in previous conservative dispensations, but done away with entirely. Taxes not lowered but abolished. Not less regulation but none at all. The right doesn’t like government and certainly doesn’t see a need for it. Any sort of government action is immediately labeled as socialism. We should just let the market do its work.

Thomas Frank has done a good job of explaining this line of thinking, especially in his book The Wrecking Crew. I won’t go over his analysis here but it’s important to keep in mind when reading The Fifth Risk, where Michael Lewis lays out how such an ideology has blossomed thanks to a widespread ignorance of what it is government actually does and the sorts of dangers it protects the public from. It was, for example, an eye-opener for me to learn that roughly half of the Department of Energy’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding America’s nuclear arsenal, and that over half of the Commerce Department’s budget goes to the National Weather Service. I’m guessing these facts aren’t well known by the people who actually pay the bills. And it gets worse. According to one study more than 40 percent of Americans receiving Social Security and/or Medicare benefits in 2008 did not believe they had used a government social program. I believe it was Alexander Hamilton who thought that over time Americans would come to like their government more as they recognized all the good it did. Given their profound ignorance of that good they have, in large numbers, turned against it.

The question then becomes whether anti-government types are even interested in correcting the record.

Lewis thinks they aren’t. Ignorance of the things government does makes it easier to hold to the position that all government is bad. Lewis calls this the “Trumpian impulse – the desire not to know”: in order to preserve “a certain worldview” budget cuts to government services are “powered by a perverse desire – to remain ignorant.” This wilful blindness is where the danger comes in, because it’s what you don’t know and perhaps can’t even imagine that destroys you.

“One day someone will write the history of the strange relationship between the United States government and its citizens. It would need at least a chapter on the government’s attempts to save the citizens from the things that might kill them.” What makes the relationship strange is that such protection is so resented. Any authority exercised by government is viewed as paternalistic and demeaning at best, tyranny at worst. And so it doesn’t matter if Trump is corrupt or incompetent or some combination of the two, since his only role is to discredit and dismantle the state. How did we get here?

Notes:
Review first published online October 16, 2018.

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Foe

FOE
By Iain Reid

When Iain Reid’s debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things came out in 2016 its over-the-top psycho-thriller plot drew a number of apt and complimentary comparisons to the films of M. Night Shyamalan. These are likely to continue with the publication of Foe, a very similar but deeper work.

Both Shyamalan and Reid are masters of suspense. Foe reads like a house on fire, and is almost impossible not to finish in one sitting. The story has a gimmick to it, but it’s one that works. You know that twists are coming, but they’re not easy to figure out. Only when it’s over, and you have time to catch your breath, do you start to raise objections in your head as to whether any of it made sense.

Without spoiler alerts only the basic set-up can be described. Foe is set some time in the future, on a farm operated by a young couple: Junior and Hen (short for Henrietta). As the story begins a stranger named Terrance arrives with some disturbing news: Junior has been selected to be part of the work force on the construction of a space station. While Junior is away, the organization Terrance works for doesn’t want Hen to be left alone and so offers to provide her with a duplicate Junior to keep her company.

The details are left deliberately vague, which adds to the unease. There is an air of comic menace reminiscent of a Harold Pinter play, with characters that seem drawn from the same paranoid matrix. Terrance is the threatening but nerdishly comic bully who drops in out of nowhere, Junior is the frustrated, increasingly desperate Everyman who has his comfortable domestic life turned upside-down, and Hen is the oddly passive woman in the middle who gives the impression of knowing more than she’s letting on.

If Foe were just a thriller it would be a catchy beach read, but it’s not a book without further layers.

It may, for example, be read as a parable about the blurring boundaries between ourselves and our technology, especially when we see Junior being gradually reduced to a pile of data collected by the organization. Why does he find it so hard to resist? To what extent is he complicit in his own undoing? These are questions we’ve all had to face.

Another angle to the story has to do with Junior and Hen’s relationship. How well do they really know one another? How well do any of us know our partners?

While Junior enjoys his life down on the farm, Hen feels herself to be in a rut. Then, as Terrance insinuates himself deeper into their lives they drift even further apart, while paradoxically the bond between them grows stronger. Even after the final reveal we’re left to wonder at the weird mix of dependency, trust, and affection in their feelings for each other.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Foe, however, is something it shares with I’m Thinking of Ending Things: the way Reid takes the familiar gothic setting of the isolated farmstead, which has been a weird enough place in Canadian writing going back many years now, and turns it into an otherworldly hothouse of introversion and fantasy. The rural routes of our national unconscious are getting creepier even as they become the roads less traveled by.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 3, 2018.

America, The Farewell Tour

America, The Farewell Tour
Chris Hedges

The America Chris Hedges lives in is not a happy place: locked in terminal decline while ruled over by vicious and exploitative elites and soulless corporations, it seems ripe for revolution. Government has proven to be worse than useless: “a motley collection of imbeciles, con artists, thieves, opportunists, and warmongering generals.” Donald Trump is only “the grotesque visage of a collapsed democracy,” “what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality – a sputtering, narcissistic, imbecilic, megalomaniac.”

Though America, The Farewell Tour is a scattershot book, jumping about crazily even within its different thematic chapters, there is a coherence to the argument. A malaise not restricted to America (there is a “single discontent” that spans the globe) has been brought about by global capitalism and its neoliberal ideology. Instead of directing anger at their oppressors people fall into despair and pursue various highly-addictive avenues of escape, from opium to porn to gambling. In all of this “we flee toward the promise of magic, unchecked hedonism, and perpetual stimulation. There is a pathological need in America to escape the dreary and the depressing.”

“The whole earth is our hospital / Endowed by the ruined millionaire.” It’s a famous line that could use some updating. We’d want to make it an endowment from a billionaire today. And not a hospital but a hospice. Attached to a prison.

Fear

FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE
By Bob Woodward

It’s a testament to the power of his name that the publication of Bob Woodward’s Fear had such an immediate impact. Though it dominated a week of news, Woodward’s reporting uncovered nothing surprising or new, or added any nuance to what we already know of Donald Trump.

That’s not to say Fear is a bad book, or not worth reading. The dysfunction it describes in the White House is both important to have a record of and entertaining in its own right. But when it came out it was heralded as somehow carrying more weight than similar accounts such as Michael Woolf’s Fire and Fury and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged, which were both dismissed in official quarters as being sensational or gossipy. Both Woolf and Newman, however, had their own sources, and the story they told is one very much on all fours with Woodward’s. I suspect the Trump White House is just a sleazy, tabloid sort of environment. Serious reporting and journalistic standards can’t do anything to clean it up.

So, just to recap what by now is an overwhelming pile of evidence (much of it provided by the president himself): Donald Trump is a boastful narcissist and a bully with an extremely primitive world view that sees everyone as either strong or weak, a winner or a loser. Being strong, or a winner, is the only thing that matters. Or at least being perceived as strong, which comes to the same thing since perception is reality. While he may or may not be a total moron, it’s clear that Trump knows absolutely nothing about how government works, foreign affairs, or how the economy functions (what may be the funniest anecdote in the book has Trump suggest the government simply print money to pay off the nation’s debt). What’s more, Trump isn’t interested in finding out about any of these things. He can’t process information that contradicts his own views, immediately dismissing contrary opinions as bullshit. “I know I’m right,” he would tell advisors warning him of his actions on tariffs. “If you disagree with me, you’re wrong.”

His inner court can best be described as sycophants and handlers. Trump brooks no contradiction, but is very susceptible to flattery and luckily has no attention span (which means that bad decisions can be delayed, sometimes only for a matter of hours, until he has forgotten about them entirely). In perhaps the book’s biggest revelation, his own lawyers have to convince him not to be questioned by the Mueller inquiry because he’s a “fucking liar.” So much so that he can’t stop himself.

Again, this is something we knew already from his various Tweets and speeches. Still, Woodward’s dramatization of just how deep the rot goes has value. We need to feel shocked by all this, so that, perhaps, we won’t come to see it as normal.

There is one point, however, where Woodward steps way out of line. This comes in his account of James Comey’s briefing of the president on the matter of the Steele dossier, where, almost as an afterthought, Comey mentioned the business of the golden showers in a Moscow hotel room. Woodward thinks he shouldn’t have said anything about this because it somehow cheapened or polluted the rest of his presentation about Russia’s election interference. I don’t see why it would have. Comey thought it made “complete sense” since it was part of the dossier and Trump was going to hear about it anyway.

Woodward can’t get his head around this, and bizarrely tries to compare what Comey did to his own writing of a story for the Washington Post, which is a completely different kettle of fish.

In any event, climbing on to his high horse and telling the reader that he would never have done what Comey did is both irrelevant and something no historian or journalist should do. One suspects Woodward is engaging in a bit of damage control of his own here, since he later declared the Steele dossier to be a “garbage document.” Since he had no way of knowing if the contents of the document were true this was an astounding claim, and one quickly held up by Trump as exculpatory. “I was not delighted to appear to have taken sides,” Woodward writes. But he did.

One benefit of this, however, is to make Fear seem less partisan. While damning, this is far from being a hatchet job on the Trump presidency. Matters like his problems with porn stars and the ongoing Russian investigation are barely touched on at all. Instead there is only the spectacle of a vulgar buffoon surrounded by the usual circle of courtiers going through a daily series of empty rituals. Where will this end? With more books, of course. It’s one sure way of making money out of a train wreck.

Notes:
Review first published online September 25, 2018. The meaning of the title is obscure, at least to me. It seems to have been drawn from a (typically) vague utterance of Trump’s where he says that “real power is . . . fear.” I take it this is related to the idea that it is better to be feared than to be loved. However, in context, the line has to do with fighting back against accusations of wrongdoing coming from women, where it seems as though his fear is what is driving Trump’s own need to appear to be strong. That’s more like paranoia than power.

The Great Leveler

The Great Leveler
Walter Schiedel

What a disappointment. The thesis sounds interesting, but Walter Schiedel is a dull, academic writer, making the exposition nearly unreadable. Despite all the charts and graphs, I also found the point being made rather vague. Only violent events lead to significant reductions in inequality. On the one hand that’s obvious – power is rarely relinquished voluntarily. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, drawing on the example of the French Revolution, it’s a “firm rule” that “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

But Schiedel stretches this across too wide a swath of history (“from the stone age to the twenty-first century”) for it to mean very much. War, revolution, state collapse, plague: why render all these as “violence”? What is meant, I think, is more along the lines of collapse. In any event, the question then becomes what it will take for our own unbalanced, dysfunctional society to correct its course. As a more complex and advanced civilization, will we require a bigger bang, or a smaller? I suspect something smaller, but leading to even greater consequences. Interesting times ahead!

The Death of Truth

The Death of Truth
Michiko Kakutani

As the chief book reviewer for the New York Times for many years Michiko Kakutani had one of the most prominent platforms in the English-speaking world for her literary opinions. Despite this, I never found her reviews very original or insightful, and even referred to them as book reports on occasion. The Death of Truth is very much more of the same, reading like a summary of the vast and ever increasing field of Trumpology. Judged on its own it’s just another piece of wood on the pile, offering up an anthology of observations made by other authors, all saying similar things in different words, with little attempt at any deeper analysis or explanation.

Kakutani, who seems to have at least skimmed a lot of books, suffers from the curse of student writing, which is to quote a source or authority for everything she says, no matter how obvious or banal an observation it may be. Her conclusion, that truth is important for the proper functioning of democracy, is important, but a platitude. What we’re left with feels more like a research paper or review of the literature than a rallying cry.

How Democracy Ends

HOW DEMOCRACY ENDS
By David Runciman

The election of Donald Trump and the rise of nationalist/populist movements in Europe are phenomena that have led many to question the health of Western politics. In particular, there has been much hand-wringing over political polarization and authoritarian threats to democracy. Are we in the grip of a “democratic recession”?

Discords are not healed. Representative Assemblies, and so-called democratic governments, have fallen into contempt. Disappointment with ‘popular government’ shows itself in the growth of ‘direct action,’ in reversions to autocracy, and the like.

That is a judgment that could have come from any number of recently published books, such as How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder, or How Democracy Ends by David Runciman.

In fact, it’s taken from a chapbook my grandfather wrote that was published by Ryerson Press in 1933, titled Is Democracy Doomed?

In other words, the alarm has been sounding for a long time.

The direst warnings heard today draw comparisons between what’s happening now and the rise of tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. For Runciman, however, such analogies are overdrawn. In his eyes our situation is a far cry from what it was in the 1930s. Instead, what we are experiencing is a more prosperous, well-established democracy beset by a mid-life crisis.

He does admit there’s a problem. “Contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual. Much of the time it is living on past glories. This sorry state of affairs reflects what we have become.”

The good news is that we can change. The great strength of democracy has always been its ability to adapt to various crises. Indeed, Runciman argues that it performs best when under pressure (an optimism not shared by Levitsky and Ziblatt, who think Trump’s ability to exploit a crisis represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today).

With an eye to the near future, Runciman identifies three challenges that could take democracy down: coup, catastrophe, and technology. Of these he is most concerned with the third, describing Mark Zuckerberg as a bigger threat to democracy than Donald Trump, and Facebook as the new Leviathan or digital overlord. Timothy Snyder also sees social media as danger, though he casts Vladimir Putin in the role of puppet master.

Whatever the threat, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of our politics. As Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, democracy is more likely to die not with a bang but a whimper: undone by incremental steps that may be imperceptible until, like the frog in the pot being brought to a boil, we don’t realize what’s happening until we’re cooked.

This “mindlessness” is a major theme in How Democracy Ends. For Runciman the election of Trump in 2016 is evidence that people felt overly secure, to the point that they believed anyone could be elected president and it wouldn’t make a difference. This is a false sense of comfort, and it underlines Runciman’s main concern: that we take democracy too much for granted. Snyder addresses something similar in The Road to Unfreedom, alerting us to authoritarian forms of politics that turn us into zombies and our elections into empty rituals. “Democracies die when people cease to believe that voting matters.” Hence the need for books such as these to keep us on our toes.

Of course democracy is a continually evolving experiment, and part of the problem in identifying threats to it lies in defining what core principles we think need to be protected. Looking around the world at the different political systems calling themselves democratic we see a wide variety of hybrid forms, not all of which stand for the same things.

Even granted a baseline of free votes in a fair election there is a wide latitude for disagreement. Is the party system democratic? My grandfather didn’t think so. Which electoral system is best for democracy: proportional representation or first-past-the-post? What do we mean by “populism” anyway? Is it an excess of democracy, or just democracy we don’t like?
“Mature, Western democracy is over the hill,” Runciman concludes. “Its prime is past.” Though unlikely to end or die anytime soon, we might expect it to change into something different. In navigating that change we still have some degree of choice. These books aren’t epitaphs so much as guidebooks to where we’ve been and where we may be going.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 22, 2018.