The 1619 Project: A Critique

The 1619 Project: A Critique
Phillip W. Magness

I like the idea behind the 1619 Project. Here was a new perspective on American history focusing on the Black American experience and published by the New York Times as a way of bringing history into a more public forum. I had thought, however, that a big part of its purpose was to foster, or even provoke, further discussion and debate. When that debate arrived, however, it quickly degenerated into Twitter salvos and a withdrawal into bunkers. Whether this was inevitable, or even intentional given the political slant the Project promoted, one can’t help but feel that a great opportunity was missed.

Phillip Magness’s little book only looks at a few disputed issues out of the many available: the primacy given to the idea that the Revolution was fought to preserve slavery in the colonies, the link between capitalism and slavery, and Lincoln’s plans for colonizing freed slaves. Some good points are made, several times over. I hope there will be more to come on the Project, but given the present climate I don’t know if that’s even possible. What a depressing thought that is.

The Hollow Crown

The Hollow Crown
Dan Jones

The one thing most people who know anything about the Wars of the Roses know about them is that they had nothing to do with roses. Aside from that, it’s all a terrible mess: a bewildering series of conflicts stretching over thirty years that has often been likened to Game of Thrones in that even the warring sides of York and Lancaster were hard to distinguish, what with all the switching of allegiances and different families involved (families whose members didn’t always play on the same team).

As far as wars go it surely ranks as one of the most pointless in European history. The Battle of Towton is usually credited as having been the worst military bloodletting on English soil, but it only led to the Yorkists temporarily having the upper hand and settled nothing. Dan Jones makes the story as easy to follow as he can in this popular narrative history without trying to push a provocative new thesis or even offering much of an explanation as to why any of it matters. Though it still makes for a great story.

Post-truth

Post-truth
Lee McIntyre

As with any multi-author series, the MIT Press Essential Knowledge volumes are all over the map in terms of quality. This timely primer on Post-truth, which was Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year, is one of the best. Lee McIntyre provides a genealogy of post-truth, explaining its rise to prominence through an examination of the different forces that gave rise to its full flowering in the year of Trump and Brexit: cognitive biases, propaganda (the work of our “merchants of doubt”), political polarization, the decline of the news, social media, and postmodern theory.

It’s an excellent survey, but doesn’t address the deeper questions I still have. Is it true, as McIntyre concludes, that “truth still matters” and that “it is dangerous to ignore reality”? Yes, but only in some circumstances. Reality, for various reasons, may become intolerable to some people. Humankind cannot bear too much of it, even at the best of times. Meanwhile, truth has a pragmatic value, it lies downstream from money, and while it’s easy to mock the “magical thinking” of Trump the fact is that wealth and power does have the ability to shape reality, at least to some extent. Thinking about post-truth helps us better understand this.

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.

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.

The End of Tsarist Russia

The End of Tsarist Russia
Dominic Lieven

I thought this was a great account of Russia’s “march to World War I and revolution,” and would recommend it to anyone. It covers the terrain very well, emphasizing the importance of the Eastern front (“the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict”) and providing interesting commentary on such matters as the reception of Ivan Bloch’s work in Russia and Russia’s nationalism/patriotism deficit (at least compared to the other major powers). I’m less inclined to the view that Russia solely or primarily collapsed from within in 1917 and was still holding steady on the front. That was the case only, I would say, where they were facing the fading Ottoman Empire. In terms of both will and material I think the Russian army was licked, even without a mutiny in the trenches. The collapse was general, leaving the Bolsheviks to, as Lenin put it, pick up power where they found it lying in the street.

The Horror! The Horror!

The Horror! The Horror!
Jim Trombetta

American horror comics, at least of the notorious pre-Code variety, didn’t have a particularly long run. All of the examples in this weighty survey, less an anthology than a exhibition catalogue, were published between 1950 and 1954, the terminal date being when the Comics Code Authority was established.

Despite their all-too-brief flowering, the place these comics have in pop culture is hard to overstate. Was the 1952 story “Dungeon of Doom!” from Chamber of Chills an inspiration for John Carpenter’s They Live? I think it might have been.

The commentary by Jim Trombetta is a bit random, drawing from figures as diverse as Northrop Frye and Melanie Klein to introduce the different thematic sections. But what’s said is of interest, sometimes in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Trombetta’s commentary on the trope of shrunken heads.

The real meat of the book, however, consists of the reproductions, which are beautifully reproduced in all their full-colour glory — albeit tending to be yellowy with age, and sometimes suffering from those chromatic shifts brought on by the sloppy production process used to create the originals. Not that I would want any of this cleaned up. This is a volume worthy of classic trash.

Surviving Autocracy

Surviving Autocracy
Masha Gessen

Near the end of this terrific assessment of where the United States, and the West more generally, is at politically Masha Gessen tells us that “Three years of Trumpism has extinguished whatever remained in American politics of the language of solidarity or the idea of public welfare.”

I don’t want to sound superior or blasé about this, because that’s not how I feel, but this ship sailed a long, long time ago. Lewis Lapham has tracked for decades the falling fortunes of the word “public” in our civic discourse, from signifying something noble and valuable to referring to anything corrupt and worthless. The same cynical transformation in Russian political language is described by Gessen, with Trump only left to mock such notions as democracy and moral principle as fit only for suckers and losers.

Gessen comes at the issue of Trump’s aspirational autocracy (or, more broadly, what I would call Republican oligarch envy) from different angles but I think what she has to say about the corruption of language by way of Trump’s mangled “word piles” is perhaps the most on target. We don’t have an honest language at hand anymore to describe what has been happening to Western democracy. We can speak the names of the crimes we are witnessing, but they’ve lost their meaning.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight
Sarah Kendzior

I appreciate Sarah Kendzior’s anger at the corruption and criminality of the Trump regime, as well as her perspective both as a Midwesterner (living in St. Louis, Missouri) and an expert on modern forms of autocracy. This broadside follow-up to The View from Flyover Country, however, doesn’t add much but passion and rhetoric to the bill of complaint against Trump, as well as a lot of self-congratulatory pats on the back for calling the 2016 election.

Much of Kendzior’s analysis seems accurate. The Republican mission is to “strip America for its parts” (she repeats this formulation several times), setting up a one-party state oligarchy along the lines of Russia or China. The Trump administration “is a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government,” or, when Kendzior is really wound up, “a white supremacist kleptocracy linked to a transnational crime syndicate, using digital media to manipulate reality and destroy privacy, led by a sociopathic nuke-fetishist, backed by apocalyptic fanatics preying on the weakest and most vulnerable as feckless and complicit officials fail to protect them.”

That such an assessment is more true than false is damning enough. But Hiding in Plain Sight is not a work of investigative reportage so much as an opinion piece. “As I write this in mid-2019, white supremacist movements are moving into mainstream Canadian politics while the country wrestles with financial corruption similar to that which weakened the US and UK economies before our respective collapses.” No notes are provided supporting this so I’m not sure what specifically is being referred to. I don’t think Canada is immune to anti-democratic politics, but I didn’t come away from this feeling newly or well informed.

Perhaps Kendzior thinks this is all obvious. Trump’s crimes and lies are, after all, well documented and “in plain sight.” But their public recitation can still serve some purpose. The biggest lies may be countered by a bigger truth.