The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring
Nancy Jo Sales

One’s first thought is that nobody could be so stupid. Not because of the gang’s crimes — which, after all, they managed to pull off without ever being caught — but for the way they talk about themselves. Whatever they were taught in school, if they even went to school, the Bling Ring have to be seen as pure products of reality television and social media.

Then one begins to wonder. This is Hollywood (or close enough) after all. Many of their parents worked in the industry. Could it be that they were just playing at being stupid? Could Paris Hilton be as stupid in real life as the version of herself she plays on TV? And how hard would it be for the role to take over, especially if you imagined your life not as a movie (Neal Gabler had already alerted us to this a decade earlier) but as a reality TV performance? After all, the same transference also happened in the case of the adults, police and lawyers. And while we’re wondering about things,  why don’t the stars lock their doors? It seems there was a lot of stupid to go around.

Nancy Jo Sales seeks to understand. She keeps asking why. The monster of fame? Narcissism? One feels nervous at how much has changed just since 2013. Reviewing some of the research into narcissism presented in The Narcissism Epidemic, Sales expresses concern at how “many of the leading representatives of our dominant culture may have seriously dysfunctional personalities.” Only three years later one of them would be president of the United States.

Obviously celebrity played a big part in the moral calculations made by the gang, but maybe not in the usual way. Of course the only reason anyone cared about these crimes, the reason they were in the news and the reason there was a book and then a couple of movies about them, was because of whose houses were being broken into. But then that was a reason not to care as well. Fame was all that mattered, and in the end it didn’t matter much (even the sentences handed down were derisory). This is the unbearable lightness of being, American style. It’s a true crime story where nothing is real.

The Ruin of the Roman Empire

The Ruin of the Roman Empire
James J. O’Donnell

I like how the subtitle here is “A New History.” It’s such an old story you really have to throw that in. But is it all that new?

The main point O’Donnell wants to make is that Justinian was the author of Rome’s decline and fall with his program of “mad restorationism.” When Justinian came to power it was “arguably the last moment of genuinely ancient history when . . . the totality of what Rome created could still be thought of as one community.” When he died that world lay, if not in ruins, at least irremediably fractured. This, however, is not a wholly original thesis. Justinian has always had plenty of critics, even in his own day. O’Donnell’s own spin is to make Justinian out to be a Hamlet figure.

That’s an interesting analogy, and one of many O’Donnell indulges. Theoderic, for example, is likened to Othello, Theodahad “is a character straight out of Evelyn Waugh,” and Cassiodorus is Doctor Zhivago. You didn’t get as much of this in the Old Histories of the fall of Rome, and while some of it is interesting I felt it mostly to be a distraction from a narrative that didn’t have much new to say.

Who Killed Canadian History?

Who Killed Canadian History?
J. L. Granatstein

J. L. Granatstein’s 1998 manifesto, completely revised 10 years later, is worth considering today in light of more recent developments. I think it’s fair to say that the health of Canadian history, measured by general public knowledge of the subject, hasn’t rebounded. If anything, the reports I’ve seen have it that things are getting worse, especially among young people. So do we need to re-arraign the usual suspects?

Universities are an easy target, and remain so. But it’s not just History departments; the Humanities in general are under pressure from forces not entirely under their control. Political correctness, which I considered a spent force in 1998, has revived with a vengeance, but I don’t think it registers with the broader public as much (about this, however, I could be very wrong). More than this, however, I think it’s the continuing fallout from the digital revolution that is hastening history’s demise. Twenty, perhaps even ten years ago, Granatstein could hold out hope that a new web-page might somehow make a difference. In his defence, that was the only bet to be made. We’ve all seen how things turned out.

Death by Video Game

Death by Video Game
Simon Parkin

With a title like this, taken from the spate of news stories about people dying after marathon sessions playing video games, I was expecting a book more critical of the addiction issues surrounding gaming. Instead Simon Parkin has written a fulsome appreciation of gaming and all of their many positives. There is nothing wrong with this, and I think Parkin’s book is excellent at what it does, but it really does present a slanted case that soft pedals the dangers and risks involved. In the chapter “Hiding Place,” for example, games are held out as ways to escape from a grim or damaging reality that seem to me little different than drugs or alcohol. Also missing is any discussion of the way game designers and the industry in general consciously seek to create addictions in players, using techniques even more insidious than cigarette companies. Maybe it’s just my usual pessimistic outlook, but I think the story is a lot darker than Parkin makes out.

America, The Farewell Tour

America, The Farewell Tour
Chris Hedges

The America Chris Hedges lives in is not a happy place: locked in terminal decline while ruled over by vicious and exploitative elites and soulless corporations, it seems ripe for revolution. Government has proven to be worse than useless: “a motley collection of imbeciles, con artists, thieves, opportunists, and warmongering generals.” Donald Trump is only “the grotesque visage of a collapsed democracy,” “what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality – a sputtering, narcissistic, imbecilic, megalomaniac.”

Though America, The Farewell Tour is a scattershot book, jumping about crazily even within its different thematic chapters, there is a coherence to the argument. A malaise not restricted to America (there is a “single discontent” that spans the globe) has been brought about by global capitalism and its neoliberal ideology. Instead of directing anger at their oppressors people fall into despair and pursue various highly-addictive avenues of escape, from opium to porn to gambling. In all of this “we flee toward the promise of magic, unchecked hedonism, and perpetual stimulation. There is a pathological need in America to escape the dreary and the depressing.”

“The whole earth is our hospital / Endowed by the ruined millionaire.” It’s a famous line that could use some updating. We’d want to make it an endowment from a billionaire today. And not a hospital but a hospice. Attached to a prison.

The Great Leveler

The Great Leveler
Walter Schiedel

What a disappointment. The thesis sounds interesting, but Walter Schiedel is a dull, academic writer, making the exposition nearly unreadable. Despite all the charts and graphs, I also found the point being made rather vague. Only violent events lead to significant reductions in inequality. On the one hand that’s obvious – power is rarely relinquished voluntarily. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, drawing on the example of the French Revolution, it’s a “firm rule” that “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

But Schiedel stretches this across too wide a swath of history (“from the stone age to the twenty-first century”) for it to mean very much. War, revolution, state collapse, plague: why render all these as “violence”? What is meant, I think, is more along the lines of collapse. In any event, the question then becomes what it will take for our own unbalanced, dysfunctional society to correct its course. As a more complex and advanced civilization, will we require a bigger bang, or a smaller? I suspect something smaller, but leading to even greater consequences. Interesting times ahead!

The Death of Truth

The Death of Truth
Michiko Kakutani

As the chief book reviewer for the New York Times for many years Michiko Kakutani had one of the most prominent platforms in the English-speaking world for her literary opinions. Despite this, I never found her reviews very original or insightful, and even referred to them as book reports on occasion. The Death of Truth is very much more of the same, reading like a summary of the vast and ever increasing field of Trumpology. Judged on its own it’s just another piece of wood on the pile, offering up an anthology of observations made by other authors, all saying similar things in different words, with little attempt at any deeper analysis or explanation.

Kakutani, who seems to have at least skimmed a lot of books, suffers from the curse of student writing, which is to quote a source or authority for everything she says, no matter how obvious or banal an observation it may be. Her conclusion, that truth is important for the proper functioning of democracy, is important, but a platitude. What we’re left with feels more like a research paper or review of the literature than a rallying cry.