A Promised Land

A PROMISED LAND
By Barack Obama

Former U.S. president Barack Obama wants you to know that he still believes in America.

Believing in America, he also believes in such patriotic American staples as democracy, opportunity, good government, and the rule of the law.

You can expect platitudes from a politician, but in the case of the first volume of Obama’s White House memoirs, A Promised Land, they come with a greater sense of urgency. Not just because he was succeeded by someone openly opposed to all of those core beliefs and values, someone enabled by a Republican wrecking crew whose sole political purpose has become the dismantling of the state, but because across the world there is a growing public disillusionment with democracy, putting that form of government at real risk.

As you should also expect from a book like this, Obama is very much concerned with presenting his legacy in the best possible light. What this means is that while admitting he often fell short in achieving his goals when it came to fighting the good fight against obstructionist Republicans for things like healthcare reform and environmental protection, this was largely due to the real limits his power had in “the world as it is.”

Time and again, but especially when faced with falling poll numbers, he upbraids himself for becoming “trapped in my own high-mindedness” and not being able to communicate just how good a job he was really doing. “We’re on the right side of this stuff,” he complains to his closest political confidant David Axelrod while working on the Affordable Care Act. “We just have to explain it better to voters.”

But this doesn’t sound right. Obama was a brilliant communicator. The problem he faced was an electorate that had self-selected into different realities. This is brought home to him by the resiliency of the “birther” claims about his not being born in the United States. That so many people (still) believe this canard is not due to any failure in communication. The birthers believe in alternative facts.

As the author of two previous memoirs, Obama is a practised, observant writer with an important story to tell. One thing you should not expect, however, are any great revelations, inside scoops, or dramatic fireworks. “No-drama Obama” doesn’t roll that way. Still, you don’t have to read far between the lines to pick up what he really thinks of some of the personalities he had to deal with. One can tell that while in office he had genuine respect for German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, but thought French president Nicolas Sarkozy a lightweight and Senator Lindsay Graham a weasel.

Stephen Harper, by the way, is only mentioned once in passing. This country did not seem to occupy much, if any, of Obama’s attention.

The story concludes here with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and the figure of Donald Trump as a sinister shadow waiting in the wings, trafficking in a currency of spectacle and conspiracy theory that “seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day.” Obama says he could feel where this was going: “I knew that the passions he was tapping, the dark, alternative vision he was promoting and legitimizing, were something I’d likely be contending with for the remainder of my presidency.”
Whether in conscious response to this or not, Obama presents himself throughout as the anti-Trump: a family man, self-reflective, empathetic, thick-skinned, and in love with the work of being president while not caring for the pomp and pageantry a bit.

Most of all, however, he describes himself as a believer in “a hopeful, generous, courageous America, an America that was open to everyone.” At the end of the book, describing his address to a college graduation class, he realizes that as a young man “I’d seized on that idea and clung to it for dear life. For their sake more than mine, I badly wanted it to be true.”

He’d soon have plenty of reasons for doubt.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, November 17 2020.

Technological Slavery

TECHNOLOGICAL SLAVERY: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF THEODORE J. KACYNSKI
Ed. by David Skrbina

Theodore Kaczynski knows how a revolutionary manifesto is supposed to begin. You don’t beat around the bush. Just blast out a slogan that can be painted on a placard or embroidered on a flag. “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.” “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”

Kaczynski’s call for revolution has a familial resemblance to those of Rousseau and Marx in being directed at an oppressive political system, or more broadly a system of power, that has to be dismantled. For Rousseau it’s the social contract, for Marx capitalism, and for Kaczynski industrial civilization, technological society, or the industrial-technological or technoindustrial system (the adjectives industrial and technological are used interchangeably, as are civilization, society, and system).

The technoindustrial system does not serve human needs, but rather constitutes an autonomous source of power that forces humanity to serve it. This is something humans are not evolved to do, so we are required to adopt various coping mechanisms (drugs, etc.). Now, as with Marx’s dialectic, the collapse of the present system is inevitable. It’s going to happen eventually anyway, though perhaps only when it destroys the planet itself. But Kaczynski thinks we can and should move the process along by taking revolutionary action. Things are only going to get worse if we keep going down the road we’re on, so better to pull the Band-Aid off with one quick yank. Which is one of the reasons Kacynski is in prison for life (though the mail bombs, he confesses, were mainly just a way of getting attention for his manifesto).

Getting rid of technological society and then seeding the ground with salt (“the factories should be destroyed, technical books burned, etc.”), will of course be massively disruptive and painful, though the payoff is that we will become physically and psychologically healthier in the long term, and save the planet. Civilizational collapse, however, is not something many people not already living off the grid in a shack in the woods are likely to vote for. They are the Last Men, addicted to their lives of comfort and convenience, even when such an existence is making them sick and undermines their human dignity.

As with so many such diatribes the analysis of the problem is fairly persuasive. Much of modern life is oppressive and damaging to ourselves and the planet. Far less convincing is the solution, which is radical in its simplicity. Even if we don’t go all the way back to hunting and gathering, which is Kacynski’s preferred outcome or “social ideal,” we’ll return to living in small agricultural communities, sort of like medieval villages without the feudalism, or, if you can imagine such a thing, libertarian communes. (Kacynski is against collectives, which he associates with leftism and slave/victim morality —ressentiment leading to a corrupted will to power and ultimately totalitarianism.) It should come as no surprise, given his life choices, that he comes across in these pages as a more than mildly anti-social person.

Kacynski is aware, however, that revolutions never have predictable outcomes. He even offers this up as a principle of history. So whatever plans he has for a future society, if it can be called a “society” at all, are necessarily provisional. The present task is only to destroy. Sticking with the way things are now will only lead to further human de-evolution as we become adjusted and conformed to the new technological environment, “reduced to the status of domestic animal.” Generation by generation we will become weaker and duller, while living with less dignity and freedom. Eventually we will be replaced by machines. So even if the future is cloudy, “It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.”

Such a rallying cry may be interpreted as despairing at the present situation or hopeful of the future. Kacynski wants it to be hopeful, as “one of the indispensable psychological preconditions for revolution is that people should have hope. If there’s no hope, there will be no revolution.” My own feeling is that such a revolution would turn out a lot worse than expected, and the return to a state of nature more problematic. Should nature be our final guide for a healthy and moral life? I can’t bring myself to wholly equate the natural with the good.

The strength of Kacynski’s manifesto is its absolutism. He won’t abide any half measures. And given how he defines the problem he may be correct in insisting upon such a root-and-branch approach. I don’t see any other way to effect his proposed great leap backward. Tearing down the factories and burning the technical manuals, however, is unlikely to prevent the same process that built the present system from doing so again. This is evolution too. For better or for worse, it’s our nature.

Notes:
Review first published online March 30, 2021.

American Serial Killers

AMERICAN SERIAL KILLERS: THE EPIDEMIC YEARS 1950 – 2000
By Peter Vronsky

Most true crime books are timely, flexed-out reportage, cashing in on the notoriety of a headline-grabbing trial and doing little to advance public understanding beyond what you’d get reading the news. Survey books give a bit more perspective, but often don’t provide more than capsule accounts of the most celebrated bloodletters and badmen.

Peter Vronsky is one of the better workers in this busy field and in his several books on the subject he always gives the reader a bit more in the way of informed and original insight. Yes, this latest account of serial killers active in the United States in the back half of the twentieth century covers all of the greatest hits, as well as some curious “footnotes” (I was interested to learn that Harvey Murray Glatman, the Glamor Girl Slayer, was the first killer to photograph his victims, at least that we know of), but it’s precisely the fact that these years constituted such a take-off, followed by a sharp drop around the turn of the millennium, that calls for investigation and analysis.

The numbers are remarkable. In the 1950s there were 72 reported serial killers in the U.S. In the 1960s, 217, in the ‘70s 605, in the ‘80s 768, and in the ‘90s 669. But then a trailing off, with 371 in the 2000s and 117 in the 2010s.

There’s more to the story than just these statistics. Anyone who reads much in this area will know that these same epidemic years (1970-2000) didn’t just produce a greater number of serial killers but all of the names that are still most recognized today: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Richard Ramirez (the Night Strangler), Jeffrey Dahmer, and many others known almost exclusively by their nicknames: the Hillside Strangler, the BTK Killer, the Green River Killer et al. But since Dahmer, what killers have caught the public’s imagination and the media’s eye in the same way? Vronsky lists off eighteen of the more prominent, only to say “If you haven’t heard of them, you are not the only one. Some didn’t even have monikers.” I count myself among the ignorant, pulling a blank on all eighteen.

Have serial killers changed? Has the way we cover them changed? Or are we just not as interested as we used to be? And what conditions – social, political, economic, cultural – gave rise to the epidemic in the first place? These are interesting questions, even if no conclusive answers are available.
On the question of what gave rise to the epidemic Vronksy suggests the after-effects of military service in brutal wars by a parental generation and the influence of crime magazines in making sexual violence an accessible fetish. Borrowing on a term used by anthropologist Simon Harrison, Vronsky sees these as being two elements in a Satanic cultural mix (diabolus in cultura) that combined around mid-century into the perfect breeding ground for the later serial killer explosion.

I would have preferred it if Vronsky had not leaned so heavily on the particular root sources he identifies, but he doesn’t present his case with a lot of wiggle room:

The baby-boom generation of future serial killers was a nest of two thousand sick baby snakes, drinking their fathers’ traumas, their mothers’ neuroses, and sucking up the culture of rape and murder sold to them at the supermarket magazine rack, on TV and movies, and getting stepped on by bullies and rapists and life itself. That’s how a surge of serial killers will be formed, simple and easy. You don’t need a psych degree or a complex theory to figure it out; just peruse a men’s adventure or true-detective magazine from the 1960s and ask your granddad, if he’s still around, what he witnessed in the “last good war.”

This is a thesis Vronsky previously put forward in another serial-killer book, Sons of Cain, but while the specific connections he makes (parental traumas passed down to the next generation plus “rape culture” magazines) aren’t imaginary or wholly speculative, they still strike me as incidental. Most Boomers were spoiled rather than abused, and the mix of sex and violence in the media today are more advanced than anything in the primitive “sweats.” A counter-argument though might be made (indeed has been made) that today we’ve become inured to porn, or that Internet porn in particular has become a kind of mellowing drug for people with violent dispositions. Meaning that the serial killer epidemic might have been a kind of social trauma that we collectively had to go through in order to arrive at our current narcotized, surveillance state.

In any event, while I appreciate the boldness of the argument I think it’s also hard to generalize. Serial killers are a mixed bag. Much is made here of Ted Bundy’s iconic status as the epidemic’s poster boy, the one who would “define for us the new postmodern serial killer.” But Bundy himself strikes me as being highly atypical in most ways.

We are left to wonder whether the serial killer epidemic of 1970 – 2000 will be repeated. Are such phenomena cyclical, or was this a one-off? It’s a pressing question, as Vronsky is concerned at the potential fallout from such crises as the 2008 subprime meltdown, the war on terror, and the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are looking into the abyss of a new American Noir like the one in the 1940s but worse.” I’d agree that the potential is there, as we’ve already seen political and economic institutions straining and beginning to crack. I see the same dark moon rising that Vronsky does, but whether it will produce more of the sorts of lunatics described in these pages is harder to say. It seems to me likely that the same percentage of people carry within them these violent impulses, and if serial killers are opportunists I would expect them to become more active as the sort of opportunities created by, for example, social breakdown arise. Things tend to fall apart all at once, from the personal to the political.

Notes:
Review first published online March 23, 2021.

The Uninhabitable Earth

THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: LIFE AFTER WARMING
By David Wallace-Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth reads very much like what it is: a magazine article that took off (or went viral, as magazine articles now do) that was then expanded to book length. Meaning that despite its timeliness and urgency it also wanders from point to point while becoming repetitive, which has the unfortunate effect of watering down some of its message.

The overarching point is announced in the first sentence: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” This is probably true, and I say “probably” only because I register as a “temperamental declinist” and so what I think is already pretty bad. The set of conditions — social, technological, economic, political — that have given rise to global climate change are all still very much in the driver’s seat. There seems little interest, at least among the class of those with the power to do much, to change the way we live now, and even if we did somehow manage such a transformation many of the consequences of our industrial, mass-production/mass-consumption economy (a historical blip in the grand scheme of things) are now baked into the system anyway.

In all of this there is nothing new, at least if you’ve been keeping even slightly informed about what’s been going on. Wallace-Wells isn’t providing any original analysis as he’s a journalist and not a scientist or environmentalist. He does, however, highlight the various main areas of concern moving forward, like extreme weather events, extinctions, rising ocean levels, refugee crises, and the spread of infectious disease. More broadly, he wonders what will happen when we step outside the environmental window that our species has evolved within thus far. If, as I think is true, “the wheels of all communities are greased by abundance; baked by deprivation, they stall and crack,” then how will we respond when that cracking occurs?

Little time is spent on potential solutions or fixes, perhaps because Wallace-Wells doesn’t put a lot of stock in them. Nor do I. Instead, he speculates on ways we may have to adapt in order to cope. These range from the withdrawal to virtual worlds (a preferred environment that gives us the illusion of control) to the development of new moral systems. In any event, “we know enough to see, even now, that the new world we are stepping into will be so alien from our own, it might as well be another planet entirely.” And that’s not just a comment on the physical or natural environment. In the way we live, work, eat, and relate to one another our children will become aliens too.

Notes:
Review first published online March 11, 2021.

Twilight of the Elites

TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: AMERICA AFTER MERITOCRACY
By Christopher Hayes

In Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, after the fallen angels have built their palace of Pandemonium, Satan takes his magnificent place at their head:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Show’rs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais’d
To that bad eminence.

As a student I remember some time spent in discussion of what sort of merit Satan possessed to have risen to that bad eminence. Would it not have been bad merit? And what would that be?

This is a point that’s often recurred to me when considering the meritocracy, a word I always feel like putting in quotation marks because I don’t know how merit is being defined or what value is being placed on it.
In most respects I think what qualifies as merit is only what makes the most money. As such, there are a number of problems with it. In the first place, it has no moral basis. In this sense Pandemonium is a meritocracy. If Satan had been a professional athlete, can we doubt he’d have been taking performance enhancing drugs? And who would or could accuse him of doing anything wrong? Gaming the system is itself part of the game. Then there is the matter of what happens when incentives and compensation are out of whack. One can blame elites for the collapse of Enron or the 2008 financial crisis, but the people in charge were just competing for the showrooms of beautiful prizes to be won by those with the greatest merit. Meaning the best ability to play a particular game. And finally there is the matter of inheritance. The merit in a meritocracy is the possession of a single generation, but given how systems of social and economic inequality lock in, “merit” can, and indeed usually does, become nothing more than a class signifier.

In short, a meritocracy, like any oligarchy, can only be expected to get worse over time. As Lewis Lapham put it:

oligarchies bear an unhappy resemblance to cheese, and over time even the best of them turn rancid. The government might delay the procedure by making as difficult as possible the concentrations of wealth that inevitably fall to the lot of individuals equipped with financial talent, military genius, or noble birth – but not even the strictest tax or sumptuary laws can nullify the logic of compound interest or postpone indefinitely the triumph of vanity. Sooner or later the men become pigs. An oligarchy the might once have aspired to an ideal of wisdom or virtue gradually acquires the character of what Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool” – a man, or class of men, so bewildered by their faith in money that they “therefore imagine there is nothing it cannot buy.” Once the oligarchy has been made stupid with insolence and greed, it’s only a matter of time – maybe two or three decades, never more than three or four generations – before the government reformulates itself under a new row of statues and a new set of glorious truths.

Regulatory capture is the name given to this last part of the process. The larger transformation, or decline, of the oligarchy or meritocracy into an elite clique of locked-in privilege is what Christopher Hayes describes in his book:

extreme inequality of the particular kind that we have produces its own particular kind of elite pathology: it makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt than those in a more egalitarian social order would. This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production has revealed: As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elite.

The function served by the language of meritocracy is nothing new. Observing the vogue for social Darwnism in the late nineteenth century, a time of booming economic growth and terrible inequality, John Kenneth Galbraith noted how well its American gospel “fitted the needs of American capitalism”:

The rich man was the innocent beneficiary of his own superiority. To the enjoyment of wealth was added the almost equal enjoyment which came with the knowledge that one had it because one was better.

And so the gospel of meritocracy. These are stories elites like to tell themselves.

Hayes does a good job covering the ground and explaining how the practice of meritocracy got into trouble in the 2010s, or what he calls “the fail decade.” Time and again elites were shown to be corrupt, self-serving, incompetent, and dangerous to the rest of society. But did all of this mean that they were no longer a meritocracy? Again one has to ask what their merit was supposed to consist of. If it was only something to advance themselves economically then none of the charges that Hayes brings against it matter. The elites were operating precisely as they should in getting rich and increasing their power by any means necessary. If their objective failures led to a “crisis of authority” during these years, that would only benefit them as well. There’s a lot of money to be made in the ruin of a country.

Notes:
Review first published online February 7, 2021. A little point that stuck out while reading: in his discussion of political consensus Hayes observes that “over the last several decades, partisan affiliation has generally weakened, with a large percentage of voters identifying as independents or moving back and forth between designations.” I was under the impression that the exact opposite was happening, a process of polarization analysed in such books as Ronald Brownstein’s The Second Civil War and Steve Kornacki’s The Red and the Blue. Unfortunately, Hayes doesn’t provide any source for the weakening of party affiliation he sees.

Reaganland

REAGANLAND
By Rick Perlstein

Reaganland is the final volume of Rick Perlstein’s chronicle tetralogy on the rise of the modern American right, or New Right as I think it is more properly styled. The previous books were Before the Storm, Nixonland, and The Invisible Bridge, and as time went on they became even more exhaustively immersive, to the point where I can see why Perlstein felt he couldn’t go on. But the question he leaves us with is if there would be any point in continuing the story further. To put it another way, with the election of Reagan, was our present course set?

Reagan really did mark a revolution in the GOP, which was no longer the Republican Party of Eisenhower or even of Nixon and Ford. As Paul Weyrich, one of the architects of the New Right, put it, the movement was not meant to be conservative but radical, involving a total restructuring of the political and social order. The winners in this restructuring would be the newly class-conscious financial and business elites, a group Kurt Andersen dubbed “evil geniuses” and Perlstein “boardroom Jacobins.” The basic ideology would be neoliberal, which is to say opposed to government in nearly all its forms with a kind of religious intensity. Perlstein even renders a sermon delivered by James Robison in all its full exclamatory glory, wherein “God’s Angry Man” condemns government as “a confiscator! And a consumer! And a disperser of your wealth. It! Produces! Nothing! And it functions best when it functions least!”

That sort of rhetoric is still with us, and indeed the question Reaganland leaves us with is how much of a through line can be drawn from Reagan to Trump. What later came to fruition was present at the end of the ‘70s in Robison’s outraged tirade of bottomless anger and grievance. Then there was the politicization of social issues (something Reagan was early to recognize the value of), the branding of “Make America Great Again,” the racism inherent in the Republican “Southern strategy,” the blithe indifference to facts or the truth, all of this would be dialed up in the years to come but it was nascent in everything Perlstein describes. The capstone was Fox News and social media as a way to make people even angrier, so that forty years later mobs would be storming the capital.

Reagan, like Trump, would be a figure drawn from the glamorous world of show business, while Carter could only play a sort of Beverly Hillbilly, sermonizing not on the evil of government but about public sacrifice. Is there a dirtier word in modern American culture? Carter did not understand yet that, as a later president would put it, the American way of life is nonnegotiable.

Essential reading then, for a deeper understanding of today’s politics. Perlstein’s eye for the telling detail and anecdote is exquisite, and the amount of material he has trawled through is truly impressive. He must have lived in a library for years My only complaint would be that I have never seen a book, at least from a major press, with this many typos in it. Was it rushed into print? Perhaps it was, being published during the run-up to the 2020 election that saw the dismissal of Trump. As events have shown, however, the New Right is continuing on the same trajectory even post-election, and the U.S. is still very much Trumpland. America’s rightward turn is describing a long arc indeed.

Notes:
Review first published online January 30, 2021.

Evil Geniuses

Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America
Kurt Andersen

I don’t know why Kurt Andersen keeps going on about nostalgia. He talked about it a lot in his previous book, Fantasyland, and does so again in Evil Geniuses, though in both cases it has only a tangential relation to the political and cultural phenomena that are his subject. Here, for example, nostalgia is simply a “comorbidity” of the redesigning of the American economy by big business, leading to deepening social inequality as the culture fails to renew itself and simply retrenches. It is a feeling, and political technique, that’s characteristic of our time, but finally ambiguous and hard to pin down.

The point being made here is fairly simple. Since the 1960s, and it’s a force that has only been picking up steam, there has been a “quite deliberate reengineering of our economy and society . . . by a highly rational confederacy of the rich, the right, and big business.” Because why wouldn’t they? It was a plan that took no great genius either to figure our or execute. Indeed, the economic theory part was a joke. What enabled it though was infighting among the left while the economic right only had their “one big, simple idea — do everything possible to let the rich stay rich and get richer.” I seem to remember Gore Vidal making the same observation many years ago. By now we’ve seen where the political philosophy that “government is bad” (morphing into “democracy is bad”) takes us, and it’s not the capitalist utopia of Galt’s Gulch.

Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy
Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum adds quite a lot in this little book to the vast literature trying to understand the Trump phenomenon and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism elsewhere in the West (in addition to the U.S. she also looks at developments in Britain, Poland, and Hungary).

I wonder, however, if we might say something in defence of the Trump voter. To be sure, the authoritarian personality is not very congenial, and the rage and resentment that fueled the rise of would-be strong men can get pretty ugly. As Applebaum notes, the new right “is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.” Including, most broadly, democracy and the rule of law.

But they have their reasons. For what has become the politics of grievance, some of the grievances are legitimate. It is a rigged system (in championing merit and competition Applebaum doesn’t appreciate how diminished a role these now play in the economy). The media is biased, albeit more in ways that favour their own penchant for alternative facts and divisiveness. Democratic politics has become unresponsive and unrepresentative, its only business being the servicing of elite interests. The irony is that the right-wing response to this dysfunction has been to “destroy what exists” by voting for even more corruption in government, and following media that only traffic in the most outrageous lies.

As for Trump, the person who hates everything became the perfect vehicle for the hate of so many. As that hate grows, there is sure to be someone to take his place.

Alexander the Great and Before and After Alexander

ALEXANDER THE GREAT: HIS LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH
By Anthony Everitt
BEFORE AND AFTER ALEXANDER: THE LEGEND AND LEGACY OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
By Richard A. Billows

Every generation, it seems, creates its own Alexander the Great. Or, as Anthony Everitt puts it at the beginning of his new life of Alexander, “their accounts reflect the concerns of their own age as much as they do of his.”

Alexander was a giant figure interpreted in various ways even while alive. Following almost immediately upon his death in 323 BCE there were two schools of Alexander biography, often described by scholars as the official and the vulgate. We’re more sophisticated today, but among contemporary historians there are still profound divisions. In the twentieth century the big divide was political, ranging from seeing Alexander as a progressive, unifying figure (Sir William Tarn) to a cruel dictator (Ernst Badian). More recently the split has been between those who accept Alexander as being truly great and others who try to diminish his accomplishments, usually by building up how much he inherited from his father Philip.

I wonder how much, and what, this most recent development in Alexander studies makes him more our contemporary. But I won’t speculate about that here. Suffice it to say that for Richard Billows, in the critical camp, he is “one of the most overrated figures in world history.”

The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip, and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonous, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and turning those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture. Without their efforts, the history and civilization of the lands and cultures of western Asia, Europe, and north Africa would be very different than they are today.

There’s a lot I could push back against here (obviously Alexander didn’t have the opportunity to turn his conquered lands into a viable empire), but given that it’s the final paragraph in Billows’ book it might be better to just quote from the conclusion of Arrian’s biography. In classical times Alexander had his detractors as well, and Arrian wants to fire back at them.

Whoever therefore reproaches Alexander as a bad man, let him do so; but let him first not only bring before his mind all his actions deserving reproach, but also gather into one view all his deeds of every kind. Then, indeed, let him reflect who he is himself, and what kind of fortune he has experienced; and then consider who that man was whom he reproaches as bad, and to what a height of human success he attained, becoming without any dispute king of both continents, and reaching every place by his fame; while he himself who reproaches him is of smaller account, spending his labour on petty objects, which, however, he does not succeed in effecting, petty as they are.

Like most scholars in the pro-Philip camp, Billows spends a lot of time talking about the innovations Philip made to the Macedonian army, and he does a first-rate job of this that I think even people who have read around a lot in the area will learn something from. He also goes into the story of the Diadochi (or successors to Alexander) in some depth, which is a complicated story that’s easy to get lost in (though it did get a solid book-length treatment recently in Ghost on the Throne by James Romm). Some of the supporting material, however, is third-rate. The pictures are drawn from Wikimedia Commons, and the introductory maps have mistakes like “Macadonia” and a note saying that Alexander died “in what is present day Baghdad” (Alexander died in Babylon, a city on the Euphrates River, some 80 km south of present-day Baghdad, which is on the Tigris).

I’m not sure we need more biographies of Alexander, but he’s a subject, like Napoleon or Lincoln, that just keeps cruising along. And as I’ve said, each generation has to make a new one, fashioned to some degree in its own image. This started as early as the Alexander Romance, wherein Alexander became the son of a pharaoh to the Egyptians and the brother of Darius to Persian readers. We can all pick and choose. Among modern biographies, I’m very fond of the books written by Peter Green and Robin Lane Fox, each well-written, learned, and opinionated in instructive ways. I don’t think either has been bettered, but Everitt is game for “a new look” that “reflects our own twenty-first-century hopes and fears, most particularly about the nature of power and the fascination – and impermanence – of military success.”

I wouldn’t have thought those concerns particular to the twenty-first century. Indeed, I would have thought them far less particular than they were to the century just passed. Instead, what makes Everitt’s book most of its time is its breezy voice. Everitt is starting to sound a bit like the popular historian Tom Holland, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The breezy style makes him easy to read, but it also carries a lot before it. “His [Alexander’s] life was an adventure story and took him to every corner of the known world.” This is the second sentence. It is not true. Even if we take “the known world” to just mean the Mediterranean Alexander obviously never visited the half of it. Rome and Carthage remained far outside his orbit. But “every corner of the known world” sounds good. Then, on the next page, we’re told, in what I’m sure is a typo, that Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire in the middle of the fifth century, which is off by a hundred years.

I think undemanding, general readers will enjoy Everitt’s book. It tells the story in a lively, contemporary fashion. Dramatic action is highlighted, like the scene where the general Cleitus saves Alexander’s life by cutting off the arm of an enemy who was about to administer a coup de grâce. Personally, I don’t think this happened, but it’s a great war story. Then there are chapter titles like “The Empire Strikes Back,” “A Passage to India” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” As far as interpretation goes, it seems fair enough, but again tends to blow past any caveats. Is it a “fact” that Alexander, facing a mutiny on the Indus, “never had any intention of marching to Ocean”? I think he might have kept going.

We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Alexander of history has kept going, and likely will continue to do so for many years to come. I am concerned, however, not so much at the picture of Alexander that is being drawn as the general quality of the biographer’s art. In terms of their scholarship and readability neither of these books seem to me to be an advance on Green or Lane Fox, which are now fifty years old. We’re marching on, but is it an advance?

Notes:
First published online December 29, 2020. For more on Alexander see my joint review of Guy MacLean Rogers’ Alexander and Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Jaron Lanier

I’ve been online for over twenty years, but I’ve always been unsure about calling what I do “social media.” Some people tell me it is, others say it isn’t. I’m not, however, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of those platforms, so I think I’ve preserved a kind of innocence.

The arguments for staying off social media are, by now, well established. Basically it manipulates us for its own profit, making us mean, miserable, and isolated (the “social” is a bitter joke) in ways that tend to be self-reinforcing, leading to “an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs.” The “shit machine” of social media creates a world (an economy, a culture) where “the crudest, most selfish, and least informed people” rise to the top, while “anyone who isn’t an asshole gets hurt the most.” It isn’t politically oriented right or left but “biased downward.”

We know this, but it’s like knowing all the very good reasons for becoming vegetarian and never getting around to it because so much of our environment (the economy, the culture) runs on other fuel. Jaron Lanier is a smart guy but a sketchy writer. His acronym BUMMER (for Behavior of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent) is anti-mnemonic, though he does score points for calling Facebook “an existential mafia.” But I’m left wondering how many people his arguments will persuade. Social media is an addiction, and its incentives are all skewed the wrong way. It will take quite an intervention to break the habit now.