Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife
Bart Ehrman

The concept of an afterlife that includes a judgment resulting in our eternal reward and/or punishment is so much a part of the Western cultural tradition that it’s hard to think ourselves back into its original historical context. Bart Ehrman presents that context with admirable clarity, though I think he strains a bit too hard in his insistence on some points. The afterlife was a concept that evolved over time, and the Bible, a book (or books) written over a long period shows some of that evolution, as do the writings of the early Church fathers — who were trying to forge a theology that was moral and just — in the second and third centuries CE. It should come as no surprise then that a lot of the language reflects a theology in flux, as can be seen in Ehrman’s discussion of what Paul might have meant by being raised a spiritual body.

As great a job as Ehrman does in giving order to a complicated story, it’s not possible to smooth out all the wrinkles. From my own reading I think it likely that Jesus did share in the belief, which was current at the time, of some sort of posthumous reward and punishment. I get the feeling that the notion of death as simple extinction fits better with Ehrman’s own, contemporary point of view. But as always when discussing these matters, much remains open to interpretation.

Dynasty

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Tom Holland

At the funeral ceremonies for the “dashing” Germanicus Julius Caesar in 19 CE the mood of the Roman populace started turning ugly – something his uncle, the princeps Tiberius, couldn’t help but be aware of. “Clinging as he was to the ears of the wolf, Tiberius could feel the rising of its hackles, sense the baring of its teeth, smell the hunger on its breath. He knew that it wanted meat.”

That sort of writing is typical of Tom Holland at his worst, the sort of thing that I described in my note on Millennium as being “stuffed with overwrought scenery and repetitive rhetorical emphases.” You could argue, however, that the style suits the tabloid/soap opera subject matter. The lurid history of the Julio-Claudian line is gone over again here with lots of dash and brio but in a way that will probably leave readers wanting something more substantial.

The Reckoning

The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal
Mary L. Trump

The election of Donald Trump gave his niece, or at least triggered in her, a case of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which eventually landed her in a treatment center in Tucson that specializes in handling such matters. If that strikes you as a bit precious then you’re in for a rough rest of the ride. Trump’s previous book about her uncle, Too Much and Never Enough, was a revealing and insightful biographical-psychological sketch that did a lot to explain the then president’s train-wreck of a personality, but this one paints outside the lines in dragging in a lot of stuff about race in America that isn’t on point. I’d be the last person to defend Donald Trump on a charge of racism – I think he exploited racism in America as much as he could for political gain – but given the enormity of his other outrages it feels off topic here. For a short book like this that lack of focus is a problem.

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion
William Hogeland

Shays’ Rebellion was dismissed with a whiff of grapeshot, without a musket being fired by either side. The Whiskey Rebellion, less than ten years later, was over practically before it started, with no resistance offered to the arrival of federal forces in western Pennsylvania. Some twenty men were brought to trial for treason, leading to only two convictions, one of them being of a man mentally handicapped in some way. Both were pardoned.

It was then a minor, anticlimactic incident. William Hogeland’s account of it is, nevertheless, worth attending to for both its readability and for the picture it draws of Alexander Hamilton. In recent years – meaning in the wake of Ron Chernow’s award-winning biography and the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired – Hamilton has been presented in glowingly heroic terms. Here, however, he is the villain of the piece, which makes a nice corrective.

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.