The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
I’ve remarked before on how narcissism has become an all-purpose diagnosis for society’s present ills. (See, for example, my review of Rod Liddle’s Selfish, Whining Monkeys.) I don’t think Mark Lilla ever uses the word in this pointed little book, but his “hyperindividualism” means much the same thing. Either way, the result has been to fragment the once great mountain of progressivism into isolated caves of identity: an identity politics not only opposed to the previous liberal dispensation’s commitment to solidarity but near indistinguishable from the guiding philosophy of the neoliberal world order.
As it now stands, liberalism has become a pseudo-politics focused on theatrics and symbols. The antidote Lilla proposes is a more practical liberal politics built from the ground up around local organizations. Is that still possible? I don’t think “social” media is going to be any help.
The Burning of the World
I wonder when this memoir of the opening stages of the First World War in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire (on the Galician front) was written. There’s no reference to the date of its writing in the introduction, and the only clue we get is in the brief note on the author’s life that says the memoir was “probably” written sometime after the Second World War, perhaps as much as forty years after the events it describes.
The reason this is important has less to do with problems of memory than it does with the massive literature that, by the time these memoirs were being composed, had already done so much to standardize the genre. Memoir had been overtaken by cultural memory, and not just of the Great War. The indifference of nature to man’s suffering, for example, might have been drawn from The Red Badge of Courage.
As with any memoir of the First World War the contrast between life before and after is the dominant theme. 1914 is when so much came to an end. The Burning of the World gives us another perspective on this, as well as a reminder of the sheer physical unpleasantnes of war, which can have less to do with its violence and destruction than the endurance of endless cold and exhaustion, and the “sullen struggle” for survivial in wartime which takes place both at the front and at home.
Secrets in the Cellar
Is there any point in ranking the evildoers found in the annals of true crime? If there is (and some exercise in moral judgment does seem to be part of the genre’s purpose) then surely Josef Fritzl stands as one of the worst of the worst. Even when compared to the other captive narratives that came out around the same time, Fritzl’s imprisonment and rape of his daughter and begetting of a family that he maintained in a miserable basement dungeon for over twenty years ranks as shocking.
John Glatt’s little book didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but still left me impressed by how the full story was even worse than I imagined. One point I hadn’t been aware of showed how thoroughly wicked a person Fritzl was. Not only was he selfish and cruel, he was also cheap: not tipping at the bordellos he frequented, trying to nickel-and-dime the tenants in his apartment building, and even fostering his own children instead of adopting them because it got him a bigger government cheque. Despite this streak of vicious mean-spiritedness he was a lousy businessman and was deep in debt at the time of his arrest. Of course being a miser was far from his worst personal failing, but it just goes to show how some people are bad all the way through.
I think I’ve read most of the books explaining the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and while there have been several excellent ones (Matt Taibi’s Insane Clown President for dispatches from the campaign trail, Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes on Hillary Clinton’s story, and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism for a global view are the titles that stand out), Thomas Frank’s critical examination of the twenty-first century Democratic Party, Listen, Liberal, may be the best, and makes an essential companion piece to The Wrecking Crew, his searing anatomy of current Republican ideology. That Listen, Liberal was first published before Trump’s election (with an afterword added to the paperback edition) only underlines the authority of its analysis.
The subtitle asks “What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” Frank’s answer is that the Democrats saw their future in waging class war against their working-class base (who would be left with nowhere else to turn) in order to curry favour with a social-economic elite of well-educated professionals (the top 10%). Theirs was to be a “liberalism of the rich” that would increase inequality in the name of heaping more rewards on society’s biggest winners. This was a dangerous game, since the way the playing field is tilted today there are always going to be a lot more losers than winners. Trump, perversely, could appeal to the losers — albeit not to their sense of injustice but their impotence and rage. Clinton was left wondering what happened, and in the end could only go on insisting that she had somehow really won.
Only the Devil Is Here
A blighted natural landscape being traversed by a man and boy has become a popular motif in contemporary fiction, informing such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Jantunen’s A Desolate Splendour. Stephen Michell enters this same terrain with his debut novel, and once again we have the stoic, mysterious father figure (here named Rook) protecting the boy (Evan) from the many dangers of the road. It’s all very archetypal as well as apocalyptic, but Michell shows that he’s a capable writer with this kind of material in several cinematic sequences. The theological message, however, left me a bit confused with its inversion of the traditional hierarchies of darkness of light. I’ve nothing against radical re-imaginings of Christian mythology, but think in this case it might have been better to leave the more familiar religious elements out of the mix. One gets the sense that this is a world the Father has ceased to take much of an interest in.
Ed. by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff with Project Censored
The subtitle for this yearbook of the top censored stories and media analysis of 2016-2017 refers to a “post-truth” world, making apt use of Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year. Post-truth was a popular coinage in the dawning Age of Trump, along with “alternative facts” and “fake news,” giving some idea of the evolving nature of the media landscape surveyed in this, the first Censored volume since Trump’s election. And if, as is suggested, “the real threat to a civilized society is stupidity,” then another word to keep in mind may be “agnotology” (the study of the deliberate creation of ignorance by the merchants of doubt).
Of course, the news media have always had difficulties with truth and reporting facts, but with Trump there has been a more open embrace of the disinformation-and-propaganda model by power elites. Nevertheless, important if inconvenient truths are still out there, beginning with this year’s top underreported story on widespread lead contamination of the water supply in the U.S. Apparently the disaster in Flint was just the tip of an infrastructure iceberg.
Censored 2018 is one of the slimmer entries in this series, but punches above its weight with a solid line-up of top censored stories, many of which alert us to significant threats to health, democracy, and the environment. Also included is a selection of interesting commmentary, including an essay by Edward Herman on the media model put forward in Manufacturing Consent at thirty (spoiler alert: things are actually getting worse). If you’re a regular reader of these volumes then you’re likely not going to be surprised by any of this. You can, however, always be better informed.
The Wrecking Crew
There’s an understandable tendency to view books on current political affairs as having a short shelf date. Once this expires, these matters leave the field of reportage and enter the domain of the historian. You can be sure all the current bestsellers on Donald Trump will soon disappear and leave not a wrack behind.
It would be a mistake to so neglect Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew. His analysis of the conservative campaign to ruin government is as vital today as it was ten years ago, writing at the moment of the subprime mortgage crisis. Looking around the shattered landscape of 2008 Frank saw that conservatism’s “economic theories had been badly discredited and its political fortunes lay in ruins.” That wasn’t the case, not by a long shot, but this makes an understanding of the ideology of the wreckers (or “wingers,” as they’re also labeled here) all the more relevant to the current situation. In 2018 the right is riding high, with even more extreme plans for dismantling the so-called “deep state” and dragging the United States back to the nineteenth century (or the neoliberal paradises of Saipan and post-war Iraq). So it’s a book that’s not only as timely as ever but, given all that’s happening, even more depressing.