The Chaos Machine

By Max Fisher

Though you may find yourself being called a cynic, it’s always a good idea to suspect the motives of powerful elites.

We need more of such cynicism. I find few things as depressing as the spectacle of downtrodden, ordinary people hoping that the rich and famous might somehow come to their rescue, believing that billionaires and celebrities are their friends or (I have to shake my head as I write this recent favourite) “allies.” Such misguided souls think that the people at the very top, people in charge, have their best interests at heart and are only prevented from joining forces with the little guy by corrupt courtiers and a perfidious establishment. Protesters in St. Petersburg on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, 1905 carried images of Nicholas II and sang patriotic hymns (“God Save the Tsar!”), certain that if Nicholas only heard their pleas for better working conditions he would do the right thing. In the Third Reich it was felt that everything bad being done by the Nazis was due to freelancing party bigwigs. “If only the Führer knew” became a kind of mantra. More recently, Donald Trump became the latest head of state whose populist mission was undone by the dark forces of the deep state.

Max Fisher begins this disturbing account of the takeover of our minds and our politics by social media by telling the story of “Jacob” (a pseudonym), “a contractor with one of the vast outsourcing firms to which Silicon Valley sends its dirty work.” Jacob grew up a techie at heart, with a love of computers and an admiration for web moguls like Mark Zuckerberg. When Jacob, in due course, starts to learn about the evil that Facebook is responsible for he has an idea.

It would mean cracking the security system at work, secreting confidential files abroad, and convincing the media to broadcast his warning for him – all in the hope of delivering them to the screen of one person: Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook. Distance and bureaucracy, he was sure, kept him from reaching the people in charge. If only he could get word to them then they would want to fix things.

Oh, if only Mark Zuckerberg knew!

Of course, Zuckerberg was well aware of what was happening, and indeed was much better informed than Jacob. But he had no intention of “fixing things.” No, he was too busy styling himself a “wartime CEO,” meaning he wasn’t going to listen to anyone telling him what to do. And what he wanted was for Facebook to grow, no matter what the human cost.

It’s pathetic, and I don’t mean that in the modern sense of being merely weak and contemptible, that so much faith is still placed in celebrities, political leaders, and CEOs, hoping that they will somehow save us from the breakdown in our democracy, climate change, and runaway economic inequality. But how can anyone, even the most starry-eyes of cybertopians, still believe that tech billionaires just want to create a better world for all of us? Do people really see the likes of Zuckerberg and Elon Musk as pioneers breaking a trail to an egalitarian utopia rather than just as run-of-the-mill, greedy sociopaths who want to make as much money as possible while the world burns?

This is a point Fisher himself seems a bit wobbly on. He bends as far as he can (too far, in my opinion) in giving the benefit of the doubt to tech titans who mouth platitudes about how increasing engagement on social media brings everyone together, with free speech (however loosely defined) being an ineluctable force for good. So when one critic says that Facebook’s biggest test is “whether it will ever truly put society and democracy ahead of profit and ideology,” I guess we’re supposed to think that the “ideology” part means something.

But I have no idea what. Zuckerberg and Musk, for example, have shown a flexible and situational attitude toward free speech online, to put it mildly. My own sense is that profit (or growth) is their only ideology. Similarly, when Fisher concludes by saying that “Some combination of ideology, greed, and the technological opacity of complex machine-learning blinds executives from seeing their creations in their entirety” I don’t know what blindness he’s talking about. If anything, his book exposes in some detail how, at the executive level, everyone is fully cognizant of what “their creations” are doing. Perhaps not initially, but certainly for the past fifteen or so years. It’s head-scratching then to end on the same old note of wanting to let the guys in charge know what’s happening. If only we could somehow get word to them and let them know what’s really going on!

This caveat entered, I think Fisher’s book provides an excellent primer on a subject that has, deservedly, been getting an increasing amount of attention. Traveling from Sri Lanka and Myanmar to Paris, Berlin, and Washington D.C., he outlines what has become a truly global threat. Drawing on research from evolutionary biology and social psychology that’s now been backed up by acres of big data, you’ll learn about concepts like status threat, the tyranny of the cousins, deindividuation, ampliganda, and irony poisoning. And you should be taking notes, because this stuff is important.

But while there are a lot of new kinks to trace, at heart this is an old story, and not a terribly complicated one either. Perhaps the biggest key to success in a capitalist system is finding a way to externalize costs. This has been most dramatically the case with the fossil fuel industry, not coincidentally one of the most profitable, if not the most profitable, business in history. For these companies the environment – the global environment, including everything from pollution to species extinction to climate change – is all one big externality. It’s a cost, but not one that fossil fuel companies have to worry about. They couldn’t pay the bill even if they wanted to (and they certainly don’t want to).

The tech giants don’t have to worry about any of the damage they cause either. Gutting democracy, creating a mental health crisis, broadcasting vaccine misinformation during a pandemic, even promoting violence that scales up from mass shootings to genocide . . . the companies that profit don’t have to take responsibility for any of this. They are all externalized costs. And, just as with the fossil fuel industry, by this point there’s little the companies who profit from the system could do to actually change it. If they did, it wouldn’t just be the end of business as usual but the end of their business. Take the call for increased moderation of content posted on Facebook. “On some level,” Fisher writes,

moderation was, they knew, a doomed mission. No rulebook could possibly stem the hate and misinformation that Facebook’s systems were engineered, however unintentionally, to mass-produce. It was like putting more and more air fresheners on the outside of a toxic-waste factory while production simultaneously ramped up inside.

Not to mention the way “moderation” has now been cast as political censorship by lefties, or more properly the “reality-based community,” in a transparent attempt to conceal its identity (more pronounced than ever under the chairmanship of Musk) as right-wing media. And so that waste Fisher describes is going to keep on being mass produced, while the companies that pump it out continue to make money. There is “little incentive for the social media giants to confront the human cost to their empires – a cost borne by everyone else, like a town downstream from a factory pumping toxic sludge into its communal well.” “After all, it’s only the users who suffer.”

None of this leads to a healthy polity, or planet. But we’ve been speaking of our economy’s addiction to oil for a lot longer than we have of our addiction to our phones and social media, with even less progress to be shown in breaking the habit. Indeed, our dependency has, if anything, been worsening: tracking a downhill slide from Facebook to YouTube to Twitter.

It’s hard to imagine the next stop being any improvement. That’s not the way addiction works. The best we can hope for is some realization on the part of the pushers that they may in fact be killing their client. Though I’m not sure even that would lead them to change their behaviour. They’re as hooked on profit as we are on their junk. “The business model is what got us into trouble,” one computer scientist opines. Which, in turn, sounds awfully close to what was said about the subprime mortgage crisis: “The incentives were wrong.” One hopes the tech crash won’t be as bad, but I don’t see any grounds for optimism.

The Chaos Machine isn’t unique in its point of view. In fact, there were moments when I thought Fisher slipped into some social-justice language that seemed a little too pat. Is it true that social media was designed by engineers to re-create humanity in their own image, the “rigid archetype” being “ruthless, logical, misanthropic, white, male geeks”? If women or BIPOC had been in charge from the beginning would things be any different? I thought what was happening was being driven by a wedding of the logic of cancer-stage capitalism with our deepest evolutionary instincts. Do we need to beat up on white men for everything?

The simple solution to all of this “comes down to some version of turning it off,” a bit of advice that echoes the environmentalist message to “leave it in the ground,” and which is almost as likely to be followed. Still, I guess we can hope. Though more fruitful ground, I think, would be taking the blinkers away from people like Jacob, who, when we meet him again near the end of the book, is still a believer.

despite his concerns, he still had faith in the company that had promised the world so much; surely this was nothing more than a low-level failure to fulfill Zuckerberg’s grand vision. Even as I sat in his home, poring over documents whose publication he knew would embarrass Facebook, he saw himself as its ally. By revealing the bureaucratic failures he feared were holding the company back, he would help it to achieve the technological revolution in which he’d placed his hopes.

Facebook an “ally” and Zuckerberg’s “grand vision” only undone by “bureaucratic failures.” I began this review by saying I found few things as depressing as this sort of thinking. I’ll end by saying that if anything is going to change, it has to begin here.

Review first published online May 24, 2023.


The Wall

By John Lanchester

The wall has slowly been gaining ground as a metaphor for our time. There had been intimations in the late twentieth century, like when gated communities became news items in the U.S., but it wasn’t long before people took the same local social fear and enlarged the wall to more grandiose heights.

You could see it first in works of the imagination, with walls keeping hordes of the undead at bay in movies like World War Z and the popular novel series and cable show Game of Thrones. From there it was a short step to making the wall a political rallying cry (“Build the wall!”), with authoritarian types from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to Donald Trump’s United States railing against the threat of tides of immigration. Indeed, a wall could be seen as protecting insecure nations from all kinds of threats – not only from immigrants, for example, but from sea levels rising due to global climate change.

I’m reminded of the way William Carlos Williams thought of the way the atomic bomb possessed the imagination of people in the 1960s. In his book Pictures from Breughel (1962) he wrote of how the “mere picture / of the exploding bomb / fascinates us / so that we cannot wait / to prostrate ourselves / before it.” As a picture, an image, and then a metaphor the bomb with “its childlike / insistence” took hold of everyone during the height of the Cold War. It became something people put faith in to keep them safe, even as it also represented apocalyptic levels of global destruction.

I think the wall, or the Wall as it’s rendered in John Lanchester’s dystopic novel, operates in much the same way in our own day. Arriving to stand sentry on it, the book’s narrator Joseph Kavanagh is initially impressed by its sheer size. “What you mainly think,” he says as he confronts it,

is that the Wall is taller than you expected. Of course you’ve seen it before, in real life and in pictures, maybe even in your dreams. (That’s one of the things you learn on the Wall: that lots of people dream about it, long before they’re sent there.)

This is almost always a bad thing in fiction, when cultural totems colonize the unconscious and the life of the imagination. Think of the way commercial jingles infect the brain patterns of sleeping children in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It used to be the Bomb. Now it’s become the Wall, an old technology for a new Cold War. As conceived by Lanchester, it’s much like Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in Normandy as seen in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, with the brutalist poetry of coldconcretewindskywater replacing Barbaric, Mystical, and Bored.

The Wall does double duty for the two threats I mentioned: keeping out unwanted immigrants, or Others, and keeping back rising sea levels brought on by an environmental meltdown dubbed the Change (one effect of the new political structure being the takeover of the language by increased use of capitalization). It is the last line of defence of the homeland, which no longer feels very much like anyone’s home. Or at least it doesn’t to Kavanagh:

Home: it didn’t just seem as if home was a long way away, or a long time ago, it actually felt as if the whole concept of home was strange, a thing you used to believe in, an ideology you’d once been passionate about but had now abandoned. Home: the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Somebody had said that. But once you had spent time on the Wall, you stop believing in the idea that anybody, ever, has no choice but to take you in. Nobody has to take you in. They can choose to, or not.

In his non-fiction, and his novels Mr. Phillips and Capital, Lanchester has written fiction that makes good use of the sort of material that feeds today’s editorial pages if not the headlines. Immigration and climate change are the two obvious ones in play here, but there are also asides on matters like the depopulation of the countryside, social inequality (a class of helots known as the Help do all the “chores and shitwork”), and a profound generational divide. With regard to the latter, Kavanagh (and Lanchester, I think) has no illusions about how we got into this mess:

None of us can talk to our parents. By “us” I mean my generation, people born after the Change. You know that thing where you break up with someone and say, It’s not you, it’s me? This is the opposite. It’s not us, it’s them. Everyone knows what the problem is. The diagnosis isn’t hard – the diagnosis isn’t even controversial. It’s guilt: mass guilt, generational guilt. The olds feel they irretrievably fucked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it. You know what? It’s true. That’s exactly what they did. They know it, we know it. Everybody knows it.

The least Kavanagh’s generation can do is stop breeding, which is a route most of them have taken. It’s just the responsible thing to do.

There is a real insight here. Young people in this world are deeply conservative. What the Wall promises is stasis, and that’s good. “The only things that can happen are bad things. So you want nothing to happen.” All change, like the Change, is disastrous. And so while nothing ever happens on the Wall, this is good and “that’s the way we like it.” Until of course something does happen – this is a novel after all – and it is a disaster.

It’s hard to think of a more depressing zeitgeist. The young people don’t just want to avoid having children, they’ve become reactionary old fogies. But here we are. Kavanagh indulges pastoral dreams of someday living on a commune with his friends. “We’d maybe live on a farm, we’d maybe have, you know, goats. The kind of thing farm people had.” But as he’s already observed, there are no more farm people, only bots tending the crops. Meanwhile, his friend wants to go to college after he’s served his time on the Wall and study literature. He carries a paperback Wordsworth around with him and hopes to become an academic. I had to shake my head at this even being an imaginable career path post-Change, but I think Lanchester’s point is that all these plans for the future are warmed-over retirement fantasies, grounded in a mythic view of England’s past. Only you can’t go home again, especially when there’s no home.

The ending extends the fable-like texture of the rest of the book in a way that is, as they say, ripe with ambiguity and irony. Perhaps the story is just going to keep repeating itself, or perhaps it really is the end of the world. And if it is the end of the world, well, we can’t say it’s been a good run but perhaps we can say that it’s been enough.

Review first published online May 13, 2023.

How the South Won the Civil War

By Heather Cox Richardson

Books on history directed at a general audience tend to run to two extremes: either doorstops that go over the same old ground in ever greater detail or brief introductions that look to cover a subject quickly, picking out only a couple of salient points with little depth of analysis.

Despite agreeing with much of what Heather Cox Richardson says in How the South Won the Civil War, I came away thinking it ended up being the worst of both these worlds.

The basic idea, and it is very basic, has it that American political history has been a constant conflict of democracy and equality (good) vs. oligarchy/hierarchy and liberty (bad). At first blush you may think placing liberty on the dark side a slip, but it’s really a function of what Richardson sees, in blurry terms, as the American paradox, one “that sits at the heart of our nation.” The paradox has it that “equality for white men depended on inequality for people of color and women.” It’s equality as a zero sum game: there’s only so much of it to go around. This leads to a corollary of the paradox: that equality for everyone leads to the end of liberty (that is, for white men).

This is history painted in broad strokes, and in a rush. How the South Won the Civil War covers the entire political history of the U.S., from colonial days to the Trump years, dealing with matters foreign and domestic, in just 200 pages. Breaking it down, the historical-geographical narrative is that oligarchy reached its perfect form in the Old South, was defeated by the forces of equality in the Civil War, but then mounted a comeback through western expansion, the myth of the cowboy, and the rise of “movement conservatism.” As a pull quote: “The resurrection of antebellum southern ideology through the rise of the western individualist rewrote American history.” At the end of this process, which is where we are today, oligarchy is very much back in the saddle, though with “women voters and voters of color” leading a pushback.

There is support for a lot of what Richardson has to say, especially with regard to the New Deal as the progressive version of the lost cause, the swing from the post-WW2 Great Compression to the post-Reagan Great Divergence, and the success of the Republican “Southern strategy.” But beyond the generalities her argument has a lot of problems.

In the first place, as Ronald Syme wrote in The Roman Revolution, “In all ages, whatever the name and form of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade.” That is, whether you want to call Rome a republic or an empire, it was always ruled, not by “the people” or a dictator, but by a governing class. Richardson, however, is not much interested in class. As with so many contemporary academic commentators she prefers to see everything in categories of identity like race and gender. The heroes of her story are thus those women voters and voters of color while white men are the whipping boys. Movement conservatism, for example, was driven in its early years by “young white men whose easy future was no longer ensured,” clinging “to the idea they were special.” A lot of hate went into the writing of that sentence.

By eschewing class for identity politics Richardson does a lot of work for the Right, who want to fight using this language. She also has to ignore facts like Hillary Clinton losing to Donald Trump in 2016 among white women voters, and Trump’s surge in popularity among women and Hispanic voters in 2020. What is driving this? I don’t think using the lens of race and gender is very helpful, or very hopeful, here. (For what it’s worth, I’ll point here to where I’ve previously placed my own favourite whipping boys, the Boomers, in the stocks. Though not the sole guilty party — no single demographic is — I think they have the most to answer for, and help make sense of the nearly identical authoritarian shift in Britain at the same time.)

I mentioned the broad strokes that a history covering so much material in so few pages has to paint in. As we’re swept along readers may find themselves wanting to dig their heels in. Yes, the mythology of the West has at its center the rugged individual who, because he’s an individual, is basically locked in a battle-to-the-death with the world. And because of its historical grounding it certainly comes with a lot of sexist and racist baggage. As a genre, the Western carries a political message. But is it really anti-government? Outlaws aren’t always heroes.  John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) has to be set against My Darling Clementine (1946). And while Star Wars (1977) may be “the classic western story mythologized into space,” its politics are a lot more complicated than just a rainbow coalition fighting a giant, evil bureaucracy with the power of the Force. The Rebel Alliance includes hereditary monarchies. The Force has both a good and a dark side. Where does such a discussion really take us?

I wouldn’t say the South won the Civil War so much as American history shows us different oligarchic factions jockeying for power using the language of equality and liberty in self-serving ways. To be sure, the mythmaking on the Right involves bigger and more dangerous lies, as I think the history surveyed here makes clear. But perhaps the main takeaway I had, and it’s one I found particularly disappointing and not at all Richardson’s fault, was that this sort of analysis doesn’t help that much when considering the present situation not only in America but Western democracies in general. What we’re seeing is a different kind of system breakdown, driven by new forces (environmental, demographic, technological) we still have little understanding of. Meanwhile, liberty and equality don’t mean what they used to, and fraternity disappeared from the face of the earth nearly a century ago. We need a new language of revolution.

Review first published online April 21, 2023.

American Jesus

American Jesus
Stephen Prothero

The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes put it that if horses could draw then they would draw pictures of gods like horses. The more familiar point, for us, being that man creates gods, or God, in his (that is, man’s) image and not the other way around.

Stephen Prothero’s book American Jesus is an excellent guide to the history of this fashioning as it relates to the figure of Jesus in American culture. From humble beginnings (at the time of the Revolution America was not a particularly religious nation, and Christianity was more grounded in the Old Testament), Jesus became a figure “as multiform as Proteus” and a national icon. In large part due to the demands of consumer culture and the needs of the “sovereign audience,” Jesus was truly all things to all men, and women: “When Americans demanded a feminized hero, he became sweet and submissive. When they demanded a manly warrior, he muscled up and charged into battle. As feminism and the civil rights movement gained momentum and baby boomers tuned into the New Age, he became a black androgyne as comfortable with his yin as he was with his yang.” Not to mention the syncretistic way Jesus became (even more) Jewish, fusing his identity as liberator with that of Moses, before also being adopted by Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.

Through all of this Jesus became not the saviour or religious leader that we needed or that we deserved but only the one we wanted at the time. Or, when we didn’t want him, he was made to disappear. It’s a process of transformation that was already underway in the first century CE, as described by Paula Fredriksen in her book From Jesus to Christ. And no doubt the evolution of the divine will continue into the age of Artificial Intelligence. It’s part of being a living God.

The Immoral Majority, Jesus and John Wayne, The Power Worshippers, and Unholy

By Ben Howe

By Kristin Kobes Du Mez

By Katherine Stewart

By Sarah Posner

There were many things that were incongruous about Donald Trump being elected president of the United States in 2016. For starters: how did such a figure become a champion of the political Right? He had been a Democrat in the past, and was considered to be a liberal (in the American sense) on many cultural issues, like abortion. He was opposed to neocon foreign policy, one of the few areas where he seemed to have any interest in policy at all, and seemed indifferent to neoliberal economics beyond anything that would be to his immediate personal benefit. A notorious scofflaw, by the time of the January 6 insurrection and his second impeachment he’d made a mockery of standing for law and order. As far as “family values” went, that was only a punchline to a joke in very bad taste.

But perhaps the greatest incongruity of all was the rock-ribbed support for him among evangelical Christians, some 80% of whom voted for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. The religious Right rallied behind a figure who was, “of course,” as Katherine Stewart drily notes, “the man who by all accounts has the least claim of any public figure in recent memory to those virtues that are commonly identified as ‘Christian’”. As Ben Howe puts it, this was a “story of the evangelical movement embracing someone who was not in it or of it, who was not like it and did not like it, and who represented culturally and morally all that it opposed.” So how was this justified, and why did it happen?

Howe, himself an evangelical of the Never Trump variety, breaks the first question down into what he sees as the three rationalizations evangelicals employed to justify their support for what he dubs “the new good news.” First there was “vessel theology”: the idea that it was not for Christian voters to judge the means God had decided to use to achieve his (God’s) ends. The second rationalization was compartmentalization: Trump wasn’t being elected to be a good shepherd to the soul of the nation, but to kick ass, both foreign and domestic. In other words, there is no spiritual dimension to political decisions but a complete separation of church and state. Finally, if these have failed to move you, there is the lesser-of-two-evils rationalization. Sure Trump was a moral degenerate, but what about Hillary or any of the Democrats? Aren’t they the ones holding Satanic black masses where babies are sacrificed to alien pedophile rings?

The second question, of why evangelicals so enthusiastically went for Trump is, like many “why?” questions, harder to answer. Motivation is always tricky ground to enter into, especially when analysing what appears to be perverse behaviour. That said, in supporting Trump, Howe charges that evangelicals have done irreparable damage to their brand, which means you do have to ask why they did it.

Howe settles on “a simple answer: selfishness.” Unpacking this, what I think his analysis illustrates more broadly is the way evangelicals became hooked on the drug of rage that Trump embodied so absolutely. Trump was the evangelist of a pervasive culture of resentment and “the new era of anger.” Indeed he was resentment and anger incarnate, and for a group that saw itself as sick of losing his was a gospel of endless winning, whatever that might mean. Instead of standing as a rejection of evangelical values he was the demon that the movement summoned forth. The two then became joined at the hip, feeding off each other in a perverse symbiosis. As Sarah Posner reports, “The [religious right] movement desperately needed a savior; Trump was eager to oblige because of his bottomless need for a worshipful retinue. Trump and the religious right, then, are each essential to the other’s success.” And not just success – which can be defined for Trump as staying out of jail and, more ambitiously, for the Christian right as “flipping the script on civil rights, casting conservative Christians as the real victims of prejudice and discrimination, undermining the separation of church and state, and implementing a totalizing legal structure of ‘biblical’ law” – but, finally, essential to their mutual survival.

I began by talking about Trump as an incongruous figure, but this is only one way of looking at him. For other observers he stands more as the terminal point in a long regression. In Jesus and John Wayne Kristin Lobes Du Mez makes the case:

How could the “family values” conservatives support a man who flouted every value they insisted they held dear? How could the self-professed “Moral Majority” embrace a candidate who reveled in vulgarity? How could evangelicals who’d turned “WWJD” (“What Would Jesus Do?”) into a national phenomenon justify their support for a man who seemed the very antithesis of the savior they claimed to emulate?

Pundits scrambled to explain. Evangelicals were holding their noses, choosing the lesser of two evils – and Hillary Clinton was the greatest evil. Evangelicals were thinking in purely transactional terms, as Trump himself is often said to do, voting for Trump because he promised to deliver Supreme Court appointments that would protect the unborn and secure their own “religious liberty.” Or maybe the polls were misleading. By confusing “evangelicals-in-name-only” with good, church-attending, Bible-believing Christians, sloppy pollsters were giving evangelicalism a bad rap.

But evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad. By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates “the least of these” for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means. Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.

In other words, family values had not been rejected so much as redefined in a reactionary way, being all about patriarchal family structures headed by a heroically masculine father figure lording over a sweetly submissive domestic helpmeet. “Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity.”

This point is one that’s often been addressed by political commentators trying to judge how much the rise of Trump marked a break with conservative orthodoxy and the Republican establishment and how much it showed continuity with an established historical arc. Was Trump’s election an aberration, or the dark harvest of seeds sown long ago? Looking back over a century at the fashioning of a masculine, militaristic Christian hero in American pop culture, Du Mez argues for continuity. Evangelicals didn’t just support Trump; in a very real sense they made him. Or to return to the image I used earlier, he was the demon they summoned and then embraced.

Part of the difficulty when discussing these matters lies in defining what it is conservatives and evangelicals believe. What are their core principles and values? Keeping in mind that political and religious creeds evolve, sometimes quite rapidly, I would say that conservatism today is basically neoliberal in its ideology, meaning that it’s opposed to government having any function at all aside from protecting private property. So basically just opposition to taxes and government regulation. Squaring that with a Christian message isn’t easy, but is nevertheless essential as that has become the political freight the religious Right has to carry.

Evangelicalism, however, is a more slippery term. Part of what makes it slippery is that it has become detached from any theological content. “In truth,” Posner writes, “what it means to be an evangelical has always depended on the world beyond the faith.” As critics, even within the evangelical movement, have complained, many people now consider themselves evangelical only because “they watch Fox News, consider themselves religious, and vote Republican.” Indeed, “among evangelicals, high levels of theological illiteracy mean that many ‘evangelicals’ hold views traditionally defined as heresy, calling into question the centrality of theology to evangelicalism generally.”

I talked about how political and religious labels like conservative and evangelical have begun to lose their meaning, but if we take a step back we can say that even categories like politics and religion have been tossed into the hopper. The lines between church and state have obviously blurred any clear or meaningful demarcation. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, politics is our new religion, and so is our religion. But there can be no mistaking which is the junior partner in this alliance of church and state. Politics, specifically Republican politics, hasn’t just infected American religion but taken it over. And, like Trump’s refashioning of the Republican party, the takeover has been hostile. Religious extremism has gone mainstream with an extreme political agenda that Katherine Stewart in The Power Worshippers sees as antithetical to the entire American political tradition.

The agenda being set isn’t about values but power. As always, one has to ignore the rhetoric, the words, and see what’s actually being done. Or, taking another route, we should follow the money. “The religious right is not a single organization,” Stewart writes, “and yet it is surprisingly well organized in a certain sense. It may be perceived as a grassroots movement, not answering in a formal way to a command-and-control hierarchy. But it is the big-picture strategists who are, to a largely underappreciated degree, acting as its architects and engineers.” What this means in effect is that “the Bible of Christian nationalism answers to the requirements of the individuals who fund the movement and grant it power at the highest levels of government.” Schematically, the movement serves “the emotional needs of its adherents, the organizational needs of its clerical leaders, and the political needs and ambitions of its funders.”

For a specific example of how this works, Stewart looks at how Russia is used as a model (a shining city on a hill, if you like) for American Christian nationalists. Now the way the American Right has drawn closer to Russia is a point I’ve made before. After the fall of the Soviet Union, American “conservatives” saw Russia no longer as an evil empire but an exemplar, a textbook case of oligarchic takeover, single-party rule, and media control. As part of this process Russia’s ruling elite wrapped themselves in Orthodox vestments, despite Russia actually being one of the east religious nations on earth. This would dovetail perfectly with the use of religion by the American Right. Stewart is worth quoting here at length:

The Christian nationalists’ affection for Mr. Putin and all things Russian goes much deeper than a tactical alliance aimed at saving souls and defeating “homosexuals” and “gender ideology.” At the core of the attraction lies a shared political vision. America’s Christian nationalists have not overlooked Putin’s authoritarian style of government; they have embraced it as an ideal. During the 2016 presidential campaign Mike Pence hailed Mr. Putin as “a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” The Christian nationalist hasn’t shied away from the fusion of church and state that characterizes Putin’s regime. On the contrary, it appears they want to emulate it. They love Russia, it seems, because they hate America and its form of secular, constitutional democracy.

When Russians undertook a direct attack on American democracy in 2016 with the clear aims of electing Donald Trump as president and undermining Americans’ trust in their system of government, Christian nationalist leaders did more than join Trump in the spurious cries of “No collusion.” They joined him in denying that there ever was as an attack. They cheered him on as he obstructed efforts to investigate the attack. And then they joined hi attacking Democrats, the FBI, the “fake media,” the “deep state,” and everyone else who suggested that investigating and countering an attack on American was a good idea.

It seems sadly fitting that so many of the self-anointed patriots of America’s Christian nationalist movement should have found themselves working with foreign powers intent on undermining our national security, our social fabric, the integrity of our elections, and the future of American democracy. This is a movement that never accepted the promise of America. It never believed that a republic could be founded on a universal ideal of equality, not on a particular creed, or that it might seek out reasoned answers to humanity’s challenges rather than enforce old dogmas. It never subscribed to the nation’s original motto, E Pluribus Unum, that out of many, we could become one. From the beginning, its aim was to redeem the nation by crushing the pluralistic heart of our country. The day when it will have the power to do so is fast approaching.

The cynicism is jaw-dropping. America must be destroyed in order to be “saved.” The foot soldiers of the authoritarian movement will be Christians marching onward to a New Jerusalem, or Moscow, untainted by democracy and the rule of law.

Meanwhile, Trump was only a golden calf for the funders of the movement to present to the people, a false god who would liberate his followers from the rigorous yoke and doctrinal messiness of values and moral law and allow them to freely hate whoever they wanted. Religion, as Posner writes, “is just a cover for the endgame,” which is not the Second Coming or Rapture but the worldwide dismantling of democratic institutions, human rights, and humanitarianism (in their eyes, the latter word being now “not an accolade but an epithet”).

That all of this makes a mockery of Christian teaching, indeed inverts it entirely by turning love to hate, is, in the final analysis, beside the point. Trump has never had any interest in religion of any type, presumably seeing it as being for suckers. His followers have, thus far, only proven him right.

Review first published online March 22, 2023.

The Passenger and Stella Maris

By Cormac McCarthy
By Cormac McCarthy

The publication of Stella Maris only a month after The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy’s first novel since The Road in 2006, is just one of the odd things about this literary double album.

As albums go, what’s on offer is part new material and part greatest hits. In The Passenger we’re introduced to Bobby Western, a salvage diver operating out of New Orleans. It’s the year 1980 and things kick off with Bobby investigating the mysterious wreck of a plane submerged in the Gulf of Mexico. Mysterious because there seems to be a passenger missing from the sealed fuselage.

As any McCarthy hero could tell you, the world is no place for men who aren’t paranoid, which is a point that an amateur JFK assassination expert will later explain to Bobby. This is after some sinister suits (Feds, or maybe gangsters) visit Bobby and he has to go on the run, living off the grid and eating roadkill.

Chapters dealing with this main storyline alternate with the schizophrenic hallucinations of Bobby’s genius sister Alicia (their father worked on the Manhattan Project, which becomes a sort of intellectual original sin). It turns out Alicia committed suicide some years earlier and that the siblings were in love with each other in a quietly creepy way. Bobby then starts to go a bit crazy himself before winding up living in a windmill in Ibiza.

That’s it for plot. The business with the plane is a MacGuffin, an excuse to present a scrapbook of McCarthy’s folksy, faux-Biblical philosophizin’ about love and death and fate. Or, as Stella Maris sells it, God and truth and existence. The characters all sound pretty much the same, saying things like “All you can believe is what is. Unless you’d prefer to believe what aint.” Bobby’s story is that of the “last of all men who stands alone in the universe while it darkens about him. Who sorrows all things with a single sorrow.” This sounds bleak, but there’s always some worse revelation coming, as “Grief is the stuff of life”:

The world’s truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that then the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise.

Some readers will find this pretentious to the point of hilarity, but fans of McCarthy will eat it up. And to give the master his due, he’s very good at it. Weaving together rhythmically spare but ornately dictioned descriptions of life in survival mode gives his writing a texture that’s as much a signature as his apocalyptic visions of a universe collapsing into moral and informational entropy.

Stella Maris is the name of the sanitarium Alicia checks herself into, and the novel of the same name — which is marketed as a coda to The Passenger though it’s really a sort of prequel — takes the form of what amounts to transcripts of discussions between Alicia and one of the resident psychiatrists. Transitioning from one book to the other we move from the mechanics of oil rigs and vintage roadsters rendered in prose that reads like a handbook of some blue-collar, masculine user’s code, to the rarefied world of quantum mechanics and the philosophy of mind.

Stella Maris is certainly a more open-ended book, and it’s an openness that casts a shadow back onto The Passenger. Alicia thinks Bobby is brain-dead after being in a car accident, and we’re left to wonder if maybe he really has passed on to some twilight quantum phase of being, and that The Passenger was just the dream of a dead or dying man. Or perhaps the first book was all one of Alicia’s hallucinations, or the creation of a dismal end-times deity she dubs the Archatron.

There are few writers as skillful at carrying long stretches of a novel with nothing but dialogue, but even given McCarthy’s ability in this regard Stella Maris gets to be a bit much. What it sounds like is the 89-year-old McCarthy talking to himself, musing aloud on various big subjects and not coming up with much except that darkness is falling on the West, the human race, and the universe.

That said, McCarthy’s bleak vision is tragic but not depressing, as it’s driven by an ambitious sense of experimentation and engagement with the American literary tradition that few writers today would dare, much less be capable of. And if it’s to be his final chapter it’s fitting he avoids signing off on a climactic note, preferring to watch the sun go down in style.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, December 2 2022.

Lessons in Stoicism

Lessons in Stoicism
John Sellars

Stoicism has always had a broad popularity, both for being grounded in an ethics of self-help and personal improvement and for its simple, direct statements of how to go about being a better person. It’s a practical and universal philosophy that also gets points for its tough-minded manliness.

My own feeling is that it’s based on a number of principles that sound good at first blush but don’t stand up to close examination. What does it mean to live one’s life in accordance with nature? How can we evaluate if we’ve done our best, or all that we could have done, in any past situation? What if one’s duty to one’s self is in conflict with a social duty? Is everything (anything?) in our life either under our control or incidental? To what extent are reason and emotion separable?

John Sellars has written a quick introduction to questions like these but doesn’t clear any of them up. But I don’t think they can be. This isn’t to say Stoic philosophy is without value. It can provide comfort and be the basis for a constructive kind of personal therapy. It might even change your life. But you have to go into it aware of its limitations.

The Dawn Watch

By Maya Jasanoff

The title of Maya Jasanoff’s book has to be unpacked. The significance of the dawn watch has to do, I think, with her theory about how time is experienced differently on board a ship, which in turn relates to Joseph Conrad’s shuffling of narrative time. It probably also has some connection to Conrad’s career both as a seaman and a writer, standing both at the end of something (the realist novel, the age of sail) and what was coming (modernism and steam). As for the global world, that’s certainly part of the texture of the book’s ground, but while Jasanoff expertly blends history, geography, literature, and biography, “globalization” isn’t a real theme. Conrad was interested in the sinews of trade, at least on the level of moral allegory, and painted on a broad canvas, but he didn’t have a very deep or original take on the sort of thing we talk about when we talk about globalization today.

That out of the way, this is a bracing read that covers a lot of ground with clarity and insight. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Conrad led such an interesting life, at least before settling down to the life of a conservative literary gentleman and the writing of dreary melodramas. It also allows Jasanoff various entry points to discuss the history of economic colonialism during this period. Particularly impressive is the way she interweaves the story of Panamanian independence with the plot of Nostromo.

What depressed me, however, is the fact that Jasanoff is a historian and not an English professor. Of course the disciplines merge in a lot of ways, and in her Acknowledgments she mentions how a book on Conrad and his times is “a quintessential History and Literature topic,” but the fact that it’s academics from other fields who are doing so much of this work instead of literary scholars is something that has been bothering me for going on twenty years. Why is it that a book like this can only be written now by someone other than a literary critic? I’m sure it has something to do with the way English programs have drifted away from textual criticism and the study of sources in order to focus more on theory and political posturing, but it’s truly remarkable how completely the field has been abandoned. I think the academy just doesn’t value this kind of work anymore. Try and find a book like this today, directed at a general audience, written by an English professor. Yes, I know there are some, but very few, and even fewer that address contemporary writing. Truly this is a discipline that has lost its way.

Review first published online February 22, 2023.


Dan Jones

Every history of the Crusading era that I’m familiar with has spent a lot of time addressing the question of the crusaders’ motivation. The usual explanation for why the nobility of Western Europe invaded the Holy Land is the same as that traditionally given for the conquest of the Americas: faith and gold.

I don’t think it’s because we live in an especially cynical age that today we tend to emphasize the latter. Even at the time, crusaders were being called out for their shabby materialism. Dan Jones takes as his epigraph for this highly readable new history a quote from Adam of Bremen (ca. 1076): “In those days, men cared as much for furs as they did for their immortal souls.”

It’s a leitmotif sounded throughout. A later chapter heading will quote the 1108 Magdeburg Letter’s call for Christians to go on holy war “so save your souls and, if you wish it, acquire the best land in which to live.” “These were not wars of religion,” Jones kicks things off by telling us, “indeed, religion was often very plainly secondary to commercial and geopolitical considerations. But they were wars between religious men . . .” I don’t know what to make of that qualification. What of it? Everyone was “religious” in the middle ages.

Gradually, and I guess predictably, what began as a Christian mission became a business and then turned into a racket. It’s only in a footnote that Jones lets us know about how the innovation in Innocent III’s bull Quia Major (1213) allowed financial donations to bestow the spiritual benefits of actually going on crusade. It’s a parlour game as to when the Crusades finally ended, but by that point (at least) it’s clear they were dead.

Personality and Power

By Ian Kershaw

The role of the individual in history is a timeless debating topic precisely because it can never be definitively answered. The flag-bearers for the two opposing sides are usually taken as Thomas Carlyle for the “great man” theory of history and Leo Tolstoy for the importance of fate and larger historical forces. But while “the question has lain close to the centre of historical enquiry ever since the study of history became a professional discipline in the nineteenth century,” Ian Kershaw says that it has mainly been addressed as “a theoretical issue . . . seldom confronted directly and empirically.”

You might think that this is what Kershaw is going to do then in Personality and Power, but it’s a task he’s both well-equipped and temperamentally unsuited for. Kershaw is a dry and painstaking historian, with a prose so geared toward qualification and half-statement that it’s hard to think of him confronting any question directly. In the sentence I just quoted from earlier, for example, I left out how the question of the “individual’s impact on historical change” has only “indirectly . . . lain close to the centre of historical enquiry.” Why “indirectly” when the statement that it only lays “close to the centre” is already vague enough?

This may seem like academic hair-splitting, but Kershaw is always engaged in this kind of rhetoric of half-statement, taking two steps forward and then sometimes two or more steps back. Was Mussolini involved in the assassination of the Socialist leader Matteotti? “Almost certainly he was at least indirectly implicated.” I don’t think you can be less conclusive in only eight words.

So if you’re looking for a direct and empirical answer to the question Personality and Power poses you may be disappointed by some flabby answers. “Without [Lenin] the twentieth century would have been different, if in ways we can only dimly imagine.” Well, sure. Hitler’s “colossal impact on European history during his era was second to none.” OK.

As for the role of the individual vs. historical forces, “Given a unique context that offered the necessary structural conditions, Stalin provides a self-evident case of the importance of the individual in history.” So which is it? The unique context and structural conditions, or the individual? Nothing seems self-evident about this. As for Mussolini, little of his route to power was under his “personal control.” There was “nothing inevitable” about his takeover, because without “the prevailing social, economic, and political preconditions his dictatorship would not have been possible.” I can’t get my head around this. If he was swept to power by the prevailing winds, with little under his control, doesn’t that make his takeover seem more, not less inevitable? Or here Kershaw is on De Gaulle and decolonization: “His achievement should not be exaggerated. The global pressure for decolonization was so strong that it would have happened anyway, whatever the character of the French government. Still, without de Gaulle’s leadership it could well have been a far more thorny path.” Could have. I suppose.

That said, I did find the discussion in Personality and Power to be mostly on point, insightful, and of real value in addressing the central question. The broad conclusions that Kershaw draws probably won’t surprise anyone, basically being elaborations on Marx’s dictum that individuals make history under existing circumstances, but he places them in a context that provides an appropriate historical scaffolding.

That scaffolding also encourages the reader to draw some of their own conclusions, or at least entertain further speculations. I found myself thinking back to an idea Bob Woodward put forward in his book Shadow about how post-Watergate American presidents were consumed by the “myth of the big-time president” and the need to prove themselves through leading the state through some dramatic crisis. And by dramatic crisis what they meant was a global war. One gets the same sense in this book of a number of oversize, big-time national leaders in the first half of the twentieth century followed by a bunch of bureaucrats of lesser stature. It’s a process that even got going before the Second World War though, as Kershaw notes in his introduction to Francisco Franco: “It is, of course, obvious that Franco’s wider impact scarcely compares with that of Hitler and Mussolini, or Lenin and Stalin. He presents a case study in the role and impact of the individual in history at the lower end of the scale.” Because Spain was too weak to get involved in the war (on Franco’s preferred side, anyway) and so sat on the sidelines of history.

Another point that I wondered about was the inverse relation between the immediate, dramatic impact made by revolutionary leaders and how lasting that impact was. The more radical, individually-directed historical changes tended to be the ones that didn’t last. History has a way of ironing out the bumps of oversized personalities. This doesn’t mean that such leaders didn’t “make” history, only that their window for making it was necessarily limited to their own lifetimes. Of course figures like Lenin and Hitler caused incalculable damage, but it’s hard to think of their legacies as anything other than something that had to be, with difficulty, overcome. Meanwhile, a genuine strongman like Josip Broz Tito could only influence his own part of Europe, with a legacy that disappeared on his death because Yugoslavia, like Spain, couldn’t make or break Europe on its own.

Kershaw insists this is not a series of pocket bios but I suspect that’s what most people will be reading it for. The larger question he sets out with, however, is broadly entertained. I thought the importance of luck – a determinative force in history that can’t really be analyzed but which can be of enormous importance – might have been addressed a little more. Also, in the back half of the book there were some figures I wasn’t sure belonged, like Helmut Kohl. And I was puzzled as to why Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was not only left out but not so much as mentioned anywhere. I realize the question of whether or to what extent Turkey should be considered part of Europe can be complicated, but I still thought his story very much belonged here.

Great men (and one woman, Margaret Thatcher), or broader historical forces? Obviously history is the product of both. A book like this lets us consider the question a little deeper though, and do some of the historical math.

Review first published online February 8, 2023.