All the Truth Is Out

ALL THE TRUTH IS OUT: THE WEEK POLITICS WENT TABLOID
By Matt Bai

Any good history book looks in two directions. Most obviously it looks back, and makes a claim for why its subject marks a significant historical moment. For Matt Bai the undoing of Gary Hart’s bid to become the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the lead-up to the 1988 election because of his dalliance with Donna Rice was one such moment, despite its not being that well remembered today.

Politics was changing, and the way politics was being covered in the media. CNN and Fox were just getting started, “the advance guard of the communications revolution.” “Character,” however loosely defined, was becoming an issue that had to be addressed, and entertainment (or tabloid) values were in the driver’s seat. Watergate had been a game changer, taking down a sitting president, but Hart’s scandal would mark “another step down in the cascade that was carrying political journalism into dark and unexplored waters.” One reporter’s decision to ask Hart a question about adultery is described as a step so momentous it “it would shock the political world and forever shift the boundaries of campaign journalism.” So 1987 was a watershed.

But historical moments exist on a continuum. “The week politics went tabloid” didn’t come entirely out of left field. Throughout the book Bai comes back to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) as his North Star on the nature of this great transformation, and Postman was extrapolating from trends already well advanced in the culture. Of perhaps more interest to us today, however, is the way historical moments also allow us better insight into current events, helping to answer the question of How did we get here?

The gorilla in the room here is Donald Trump. Bai’s book was published in 2014 and so Trump isn’t mentioned, being just a minor television personality at the time. But Bai’s analysis of where political trends were taking us gave us a stark warning of what was to come:

There had been plenty of “horse race” journalism before the 1980s, stories about who was likely to win which primaries and all of that, but the candidates themselves were discussed mostly for their arguments and strategies, rather than for their skills as evaders and salesmen. In the Age of Show Business, however, the measure of a leader became his hunger for the game, his talent for dazzling crowds, his deftness at surviving an unreasonably brutal and small-minded process. We openly admired roguish candidates who could dexterously deflect assaults on their character – from their adversaries, and from us – and disdained those who thought themselves above it. We set traps and then marveled at those who could escape them with Houdini-like grace, which is why Clinton came to be known, almost universally, as the most talented statesman of the age, despite having achieved relatively little of his governing agenda. In short, we came to confuse actual leadership with the capacity to endure, and to entertain.

But wait, there’s more! Afraid of intense media scrutiny, candidates would learn from the Hart scandal to play it safe, becoming scripted and anodyne while insulating themselves from the press by teams of handlers. This would make any display of authenticity gold. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” would be an early example, thrilling reporters starved for “any contact with candidates that felt even remotely genuine” and unfolding “like a political reality show in the age before reality programming became commonplace.” And so to The Apprentice.

At the same time, a cult of celebrity would develop that “overwhelmed any discussion of intellect and experience among politicians” and further erased the boundaries between public service and entertainment. Sarah Palin was the precursor to Trumpism here, bringing “stagecraft and stardom” to the campaign trail and absolutely nothing else. Such were the lessons to be learned.

All the Truth Is Out is a readable and informative account of this signature moment, though I think it does oversell that moment in a perfectly understandable effort by the author to build up its importance. I can understand being sympathetic toward Hart, but I think Bai goes too far in building him up as a lost leader.

In a couple of places I found my own memory of the events corrected. It’s a popular misunderstanding, for example, that the surveillance of Hart was a response to the challenge he made to the press to “follow me around.” In fact, his townhouse was already being staked out. It’s also the case that the famous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, she in a short dress and he in a Monkey Business t-shirt, only became public after Hart had dropped out of the primaries.

These are essential points but they aren’t the main takeaways, which have to do with the downward spiral of American politics and political journalism that has brought us to the present point. I know a lot of people who don’t bother with books like this precisely because they are thought to be only timely. With perspective, however, they are much more than that.

Notes:
Review first published online November 23, 2019.

Verdun

VERDUN: THE LOST HISTORY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BATTLE OF WORLD WAR I, 1914 – 1918
John Mosier

The historian John Lukacs was fond of saying that all history is necessarily revisionist. It’s an observation I’ve often made myself, though for slightly different reasons. That said, I think the pursuit of “lost histories,” as this account of Verdun dubs itself, can be oversold. In my notes on Jack Beatty’s The Lost History of 1914 I said much the same of another attempt to uncover something missing from the well-worn record of the First World War. Here it’s even more in evidence.

For some reason John Mosier thinks it significant that the battle of “Verdun” actually covered a wider geography and longer history than is usually credited. But of course there was a broader theatre of operations, and it was characteristic of many First World War battles to turn into bloody campaigns. That there were actually nine (by Mosier’s accounting) battles of Verdun, of which the fifth is the most famous, tells us nothing. Troy was razed any number of times, but we only care about the destruction of Troy VII.

It’s too bad that Mosier insists on being so contrarian. He might have written a decent history of the fighting around Verdun, even keeping his critical brief against the French GQG, in which I find much to agree with. His discussion of artillery and topography is excellent. But one also has the sense that the book was composed in a rush. The treatment of how casualties have been (mis)calculated is confusing. The writing is very choppy and the crude maps are worthless. Some of the conclusions are a stretch (Hindenburg’s rise was only indirectly connected to what happened at Verdun). And still there is the constant straining to somehow set the record straight when that record is mostly just the straw man of contemporary propaganda. “There are limits to writing histories based on government press releases,” Mosier tells us, but how many historians, especially recent ones, have been guilty of such misconduct? For all the insistence revisionist historians place on setting the record straight, I suspect little history has been lost.

Notes:
Review first published online November 7, 2019.

The Gilded Rage

THE GILDED RAGE: A WILD RIDE THROUGH DONALD TRUMP’S AMERICA
By Alexander Zaitchik

There has been much written over the past few years about the Trump voter. The trouble with defining this semi-mythical beast is that people had different motivations for supporting Trump and it’s difficult to come up with a single, if necessarily composite, portrait.

That said, Alexander Zaitchik’s interviews with various Trump supporters while following the candidate’s campaign in 2016 allow us to make some generalizations. A few of these reinforce what has become a stereotype. The Trump voter tends to be older. Most of the people Zaitchik interviews are middle-aged or retired. They are white. They are male (the women we hear from are mostly just echoes of their partners). While some of them are casualties of economic disruptions, many others are relatively well off. A number of them run their own small businesses.

This is the demographic. As far as the psychology goes, it is dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hate. “What you’re seeing is an angry America,” one West Virginian Trump voter explains. The first interviewee we meet is described as “affable” but immediately said to be “twice angry” because of having to walk so far to a Trump rally and because his mother’s house had been blocked in by Trump protesters (an inconvenience that has, in turn, sent her directly into the Trump camp). Then, when he finally arrives at the rally, he gets a full dose of the candidate’s “hot and burning hatred.”

As is the case with most angry people – that is, people who aren’t upset at one specific thing but who are just angry – their anger is unfocused but invariably directed outward. The two favourite targets are government and the media. We meet one fellow who blames Obama for his marriage breaking down, and another who blames Jimmy Carter for the auto accident he was in. What government and the media represent are the “elites,” meaning groups that should represent, reflect, and be responsive to their rage but which instead are seen as at best uncaring and at worst mocking them.

Racism and misogyny, two of the more popular accusations made against Trump voters, come across as secondary, if present at all. Instead, what they most despise is the government, and the public sector more generally. They are true believers in capitalism and markets, despite what those forces may have done to them. Hence the importance to them of Trump’s status as a businessman. Even acknowledging his many failures and multiple bankruptcies doesn’t change this. It’s not important that Trump be a successful businessman; it’s enough that he has market values at heart, that he understands the world of business and isn’t someone just feeding at the public trough.

Meanwhile, what these people have really been betrayed by is the ideology (the preferred term these days is neoliberal) that they so want to believe in. They’ve indeed been screwed, just not by the people they blame the most. Trump the failure becomes, in turn, the perfect vehicle to express their misdirected rage.

Notes:
Review published online October 15, 2019. The diagnosis of anger has been so well analyzed now that I think it stands as more fact than theory. The literature is vast. See, for example, my reviews of Gavin Esler’s The United States of Anger and Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin
Peter Ackroyd

Not all biographies are of much help in understanding or interpreting an artist’s work, but in the case of Charlie Chaplin some knowledge of where he was coming from is useful. The man’s creative output was a direct consequence and reflection of his unhappy childhood. Raised in poverty, with an alcoholic (soon deceased) father and a mad mother, he quickly had to shift for himself by going on stage. And so in later life he would be obsessed with money and mistrustful of others, becoming a distant father and a self-directed control freak. He was also hard on women (who he both sentimentally idealized and lusted after). As Peter Ackroyd points out, there was much of Dickens here, and a little of Hitler as well. An auteur — and Chaplin was as total an auteur as one could imagine — is a dictator. Ackroyd briskly covers the bases in this short bio, though he avoids any penetrating critical judgments. In preferring to be suggestive, however, he suggests enough.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible
Peter Pomerantsev

The most disturbing line in Peter Pomerantsev’s account of his adventures in modern Russia comes right at the end, in an interview with a lawyer fighting Russian corruption. “We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end-point of evolution,” the lawyer explains, and that in their interactions with countries like Russia the West would be negotiating from a position of strength. The Cold War was over, after all, and it was the end of history.

But in fact the West has proven to be highly vulnerable to exploitation by the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-rule of law regimes of the post-Communist world. Indeed, it is the condition of modern Russia that many in the West now openly aspire to: a “postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.” This is all very sad, and more than sad.

Pomerantsev’s Russia is mainly Moscow, a city that seems to be both imploding (with construction projects competing to be ever closer to the imperial centre of the Kremlin) and spreading everywhere at the same time (Pomerantsev works in the television business, TV being “the only force that can unify and rule and bind” such a giant nation). I suppose today we’d also want to include the Internet, but in any case Moscow is where the magic happens. Black magic to be sure, but it’s still not clear how any society can fight the real fake media.

On Saudi Arabia

On Saudi Arabia
Karen Elliott House

Karen Elliott House has several different ways of imagining Saudi Arabia. It is, for starters, “a family corporation,” one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. It is also likened to “a grand hotel,” with Saudi citizens checking in at birth and being kept in an artificial but luxurious lifetsyle by an army of poorly-paid foreign workers. And finally it is a 747 jet, “richly appointed but mechanically flawed . . . losing altitude and gradually running out of fuel.”

Each of these reflects a different characteristic of the truly bizarre Saudi political regime. The real question then becomes how such a dysfunctional state has managed to keep going for so long. There are obvious answers: oil wealth, for starters, and the fact that nobody wants to see the state fail. But House also indicts the character of the people: a “somnolent and passive” population without any tradition of individual initiative or enterprise. In both politics and religion submission to authority is paramount, and freedom is undervalued, when it is given any value at all. House thinks many Saudis find freedom frightening. There is something in this that is more ancient or antique than medieval, but in either case it’s anti-modern and suggests a terrible reckoning when the plane inevitably runs out of gas.

World Without Mind

WORLD WITHOUT MIND: THE EXISTENTIAL THREAT OF BIG TECH
By Franklin Foer

Over the last twenty years (I think it’s been that long) there have been any number of books published about the impact of the digital revolution on the economy, on culture, on politics, and even on our brains. And while I haven’t done a thorough statistical analysis I think it’s safe to say that the majority of these books have taken a negative view of that impact.

In that regard Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is nothing new. There are two points that he emphasizes that are worth taking note of though. Both stem from his focus on Big Tech not as some impersonal force of nature, but as the expression of a targeted corporate agenda.

In the first place, Foer stresses how we are “not just merging with machines, but with the companies that run the machines.” “Technology” is not an abstraction. It does not provide a public space. There are no neutral platforms. When you interact with the Internet, even if just browsing, you are interacting with a corporation that is monetizing that interaction in some way. We tend not to think about the invisible corporate structures and algorithms that shape our experience of the digital world but we should, because they influence not just what we buy and sell, but what we like and dislike and how we feel about ourselves and others. And this is not a shaping that is taking place naturally. Big Tech is taking a guiding hand. “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.”

The second point Foer makes is related to this same hidden corporate influence. We have a tendency to see the outcomes of the digital revolution as being the result of impersonal, and immeasurably vast, economic forces. The collapse of newspapers or the taxi business are just what happens when billions of consumers decide they want something cheaper, or more convenient, or more immediate. But this is to again underestimate Big Tech’s agency. Foer, editor of a journal that was purchased by one of the accidental Facebook billionaires, had a front-row seat at what was really happening in the world of print media. For the platforms to be profitable, content (or information, or knowledge) had to be made free. Which is to say worthless. This was done deliberately. “The Big Tech companies didn’t just benefit from the economic collapse of knowledge. They maneuvered to shred the value of knowledge, so that the old media would come to helplessly depend on their platforms.” Amazon lowers the prices of books because they don’t want the books themselves to have any value. The value will be in its devices and its site. Google and Facebook punish companies that don’t share their vision of intellectual property. Which vision has it that, as long as it isn’t Google’s or Facebook’s intellectual property, it should be free. At which point, its value lost, it can be absorbed by the tech giants and remonetized.

The knock-on effects have been catastrophic. “By collapsing the value of knowledge, they [Big Tech] have diminished the quality of it.” And this is just the cultural industry we’re talking about. Much the same goes for most goods and services. Yes we can blame consumers for some of this, if blame is the right word, but we should not ignore the pecuniary motives of those who have profited the most from this great transformation.

Notes:
Review first published online September 3, 2019.