All the Truth Is Out

ALL THE TRUTH IS OUT: THE WEEK POLITICS WENT TABLOID
By Matt Bai

Any good history book looks in two directions. Most obviously it looks back, and makes a claim for why its subject marks a significant historical moment. For Matt Bai the undoing of Gary Hart’s bid to become the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the lead-up to the 1988 election because of his dalliance with Donna Rice was one such moment, despite its not being that well remembered today.

Politics was changing, and the way politics was being covered in the media. CNN and Fox were just getting started, “the advance guard of the communications revolution.” “Character,” however loosely defined, was becoming an issue that had to be addressed, and entertainment (or tabloid) values were in the driver’s seat. Watergate had been a game changer, taking down a sitting president, but Hart’s scandal would mark “another step down in the cascade that was carrying political journalism into dark and unexplored waters.” One reporter’s decision to ask Hart a question about adultery is described as a step so momentous it “it would shock the political world and forever shift the boundaries of campaign journalism.” So 1987 was a watershed.

But historical moments exist on a continuum. “The week politics went tabloid” didn’t come entirely out of left field. Throughout the book Bai comes back to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) as his North Star on the nature of this great transformation, and Postman was extrapolating from trends already well advanced in the culture. Of perhaps more interest to us today, however, is the way historical moments also allow us better insight into current events, helping to answer the question of How did we get here?

The gorilla in the room here is Donald Trump. Bai’s book was published in 2014 and so Trump isn’t mentioned, being just a minor television personality at the time. But Bai’s analysis of where political trends were taking us gave us a stark warning of what was to come:

There had been plenty of “horse race” journalism before the 1980s, stories about who was likely to win which primaries and all of that, but the candidates themselves were discussed mostly for their arguments and strategies, rather than for their skills as evaders and salesmen. In the Age of Show Business, however, the measure of a leader became his hunger for the game, his talent for dazzling crowds, his deftness at surviving an unreasonably brutal and small-minded process. We openly admired roguish candidates who could dexterously deflect assaults on their character – from their adversaries, and from us – and disdained those who thought themselves above it. We set traps and then marveled at those who could escape them with Houdini-like grace, which is why Clinton came to be known, almost universally, as the most talented statesman of the age, despite having achieved relatively little of his governing agenda. In short, we came to confuse actual leadership with the capacity to endure, and to entertain.

But wait, there’s more! Afraid of intense media scrutiny, candidates would learn from the Hart scandal to play it safe, becoming scripted and anodyne while insulating themselves from the press by teams of handlers. This would make any display of authenticity gold. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” would be an early example, thrilling reporters starved for “any contact with candidates that felt even remotely genuine” and unfolding “like a political reality show in the age before reality programming became commonplace.” And so to The Apprentice.

At the same time, a cult of celebrity would develop that “overwhelmed any discussion of intellect and experience among politicians” and further erased the boundaries between public service and entertainment. Sarah Palin was the precursor to Trumpism here, bringing “stagecraft and stardom” to the campaign trail and absolutely nothing else. Such were the lessons to be learned.

All the Truth Is Out is a readable and informative account of this signature moment, though I think it does oversell that moment in a perfectly understandable effort by the author to build up its importance. I can understand being sympathetic toward Hart, but I think Bai goes too far in building him up as a lost leader.

In a couple of places I found my own memory of the events corrected. It’s a popular misunderstanding, for example, that the surveillance of Hart was a response to the challenge he made to the press to “follow me around.” In fact, his townhouse was already being staked out. It’s also the case that the famous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, she in a short dress and he in a Monkey Business t-shirt, only became public after Hart had dropped out of the primaries.

These are essential points but they aren’t the main takeaways, which have to do with the downward spiral of American politics and political journalism that has brought us to the present point. I know a lot of people who don’t bother with books like this precisely because they are thought to be only timely. With perspective, however, they are much more than that.

Notes:
Review first published online November 23, 2019.

Verdun

VERDUN: THE LOST HISTORY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BATTLE OF WORLD WAR I, 1914 – 1918
John Mosier

The historian John Lukacs was fond of saying that all history is necessarily revisionist. It’s an observation I’ve often made myself, though for slightly different reasons. That said, I think the pursuit of “lost histories,” as this account of Verdun dubs itself, can be oversold. In my notes on Jack Beatty’s The Lost History of 1914 I said much the same of another attempt to uncover something missing from the well-worn record of the First World War. Here it’s even more in evidence.

For some reason John Mosier thinks it significant that the battle of “Verdun” actually covered a wider geography and longer history than is usually credited. But of course there was a broader theatre of operations, and it was characteristic of many First World War battles to turn into bloody campaigns. That there were actually nine (by Mosier’s accounting) battles of Verdun, of which the fifth is the most famous, tells us nothing. Troy was razed any number of times, but we only care about the destruction of Troy VII.

It’s too bad that Mosier insists on being so contrarian. He might have written a decent history of the fighting around Verdun, even keeping his critical brief against the French GQG, in which I find much to agree with. His discussion of artillery and topography is excellent. But one also has the sense that the book was composed in a rush. The treatment of how casualties have been (mis)calculated is confusing. The writing is very choppy and the crude maps are worthless. Some of the conclusions are a stretch (Hindenburg’s rise was only indirectly connected to what happened at Verdun). And still there is the constant straining to somehow set the record straight when that record is mostly just the straw man of contemporary propaganda. “There are limits to writing histories based on government press releases,” Mosier tells us, but how many historians, especially recent ones, have been guilty of such misconduct? For all the insistence revisionist historians place on setting the record straight, I suspect little history has been lost.

Notes:
Review first published online November 7, 2019.

The Gilded Rage

THE GILDED RAGE: A WILD RIDE THROUGH DONALD TRUMP’S AMERICA
By Alexander Zaitchik

There has been much written over the past few years about the Trump voter. The trouble with defining this semi-mythical beast is that people had different motivations for supporting Trump and it’s difficult to come up with a single, if necessarily composite, portrait.

That said, Alexander Zaitchik’s interviews with various Trump supporters while following the candidate’s campaign in 2016 allow us to make some generalizations. A few of these reinforce what has become a stereotype. The Trump voter tends to be older. Most of the people Zaitchik interviews are middle-aged or retired. They are white. They are male (the women we hear from are mostly just echoes of their partners). While some of them are casualties of economic disruptions, many others are relatively well off. A number of them run their own small businesses.

This is the demographic. As far as the psychology goes, it is dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hate. “What you’re seeing is an angry America,” one West Virginian Trump voter explains. The first interviewee we meet is described as “affable” but immediately said to be “twice angry” because of having to walk so far to a Trump rally and because his mother’s house had been blocked in by Trump protesters (an inconvenience that has, in turn, sent her directly into the Trump camp). Then, when he finally arrives at the rally, he gets a full dose of the candidate’s “hot and burning hatred.”

As is the case with most angry people – that is, people who aren’t upset at one specific thing but who are just angry – their anger is unfocused but invariably directed outward. The two favourite targets are government and the media. We meet one fellow who blames Obama for his marriage breaking down, and another who blames Jimmy Carter for the auto accident he was in. What government and the media represent are the “elites,” meaning groups that should represent, reflect, and be responsive to their rage but which instead are seen as at best uncaring and at worst mocking them.

Racism and misogyny, two of the more popular accusations made against Trump voters, come across as secondary, if present at all. Instead, what they most despise is the government, and the public sector more generally. They are true believers in capitalism and markets, despite what those forces may have done to them. Hence the importance to them of Trump’s status as a businessman. Even acknowledging his many failures and multiple bankruptcies doesn’t change this. It’s not important that Trump be a successful businessman; it’s enough that he has market values at heart, that he understands the world of business and isn’t someone just feeding at the public trough.

Meanwhile, what these people have really been betrayed by is the ideology (the preferred term these days is neoliberal) that they so want to believe in. They’ve indeed been screwed, just not by the people they blame the most. Trump the failure becomes, in turn, the perfect vehicle to express their misdirected rage.

Notes:
Review published online October 15, 2019. The diagnosis of anger has been so well analyzed now that I think it stands as more fact than theory. The literature is vast. See, for example, my reviews of Gavin Esler’s The United States of Anger and Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger.

World Without Mind

WORLD WITHOUT MIND: THE EXISTENTIAL THREAT OF BIG TECH
By Franklin Foer

Over the last twenty years (I think it’s been that long) there have been any number of books published about the impact of the digital revolution on the economy, on culture, on politics, and even on our brains. And while I haven’t done a thorough statistical analysis I think it’s safe to say that the majority of these books have taken a negative view of that impact.

In that regard Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is nothing new. There are two points that he emphasizes that are worth taking note of though. Both stem from his focus on Big Tech not as some impersonal force of nature, but as the expression of a targeted corporate agenda.

In the first place, Foer stresses how we are “not just merging with machines, but with the companies that run the machines.” “Technology” is not an abstraction. It does not provide a public space. There are no neutral platforms. When you interact with the Internet, even if just browsing, you are interacting with a corporation that is monetizing that interaction in some way. We tend not to think about the invisible corporate structures and algorithms that shape our experience of the digital world but we should, because they influence not just what we buy and sell, but what we like and dislike and how we feel about ourselves and others. And this is not a shaping that is taking place naturally. Big Tech is taking a guiding hand. “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.”

The second point Foer makes is related to this same hidden corporate influence. We have a tendency to see the outcomes of the digital revolution as being the result of impersonal, and immeasurably vast, economic forces. The collapse of newspapers or the taxi business are just what happens when billions of consumers decide they want something cheaper, or more convenient, or more immediate. But this is to again underestimate Big Tech’s agency. Foer, editor of a journal that was purchased by one of the accidental Facebook billionaires, had a front-row seat at what was really happening in the world of print media. For the platforms to be profitable, content (or information, or knowledge) had to be made free. Which is to say worthless. This was done deliberately. “The Big Tech companies didn’t just benefit from the economic collapse of knowledge. They maneuvered to shred the value of knowledge, so that the old media would come to helplessly depend on their platforms.” Amazon lowers the prices of books because they don’t want the books themselves to have any value. The value will be in its devices and its site. Google and Facebook punish companies that don’t share their vision of intellectual property. Which vision has it that, as long as it isn’t Google’s or Facebook’s intellectual property, it should be free. At which point, its value lost, it can be absorbed by the tech giants and remonetized.

The knock-on effects have been catastrophic. “By collapsing the value of knowledge, they [Big Tech] have diminished the quality of it.” And this is just the cultural industry we’re talking about. Much the same goes for most goods and services. Yes we can blame consumers for some of this, if blame is the right word, but we should not ignore the pecuniary motives of those who have profited the most from this great transformation.

Notes:
Review first published online September 3, 2019.

Inside Hitler’s Bunker

INSIDE HITLER’S BUNKER: THE LAST DAYS OF THE THIRD REICH
By Joachim Fest

The classic account of the endgame of the Third Reich, at least for English readers, has long been Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler. Trevor-Roper was there on the spot at the end of the war and his book, which came out in 1946, has mostly stood the test of time. Still, some update after sixty years was probably necessary and one couldn’t ask for a better guide than Joachim Fest, whose work on the history of Nazi Germany stands alone for its readability and insight.

Fest begins by making a bold claim for the importance of Hitler’s last two weeks on (or under) earth. “Nothing gets to the root of what drove [Hitler] all his life better than to examine his behavior during those weeks, when he shut himself off from the world more than ever before.” All of his character traits were, in this period, “concentrated and intensified.” As Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg observed, “Hitler in the bunker – that’s the real Hitler!”

As excellent a “historical sketch” as Fest provides us, I can’t accept this premise. Hitler at the end was a physical and mental wreck. To be sure many of his personal qualities and obsessions became even more exaggerated, but he also went off in some new directions. When he said, for example, that he wanted his epitaph to read that he was “the victim of his generals,” this was in response to his feelings of being abandoned and betrayed at the end. It’s not the kind of thing he would have considered just a few years earlier.

As he did in his superb biography of Hitler (still the best one-volume account available, for my money), Fest intersperses more general reflective and thematic chapters into the narrative account of life in the monkey house (to borrow Trevor-Roper’s name for the Nazi court). In the final one of these he sums up Hitler’s world view, which was strictly (social) Darwinist in its positing of life being an endless war of all against all. In his less guarded moments Hitler would “mockingly denounce morality, religion, and all humanitarianism. In the real world, he declared, more ‘naked’ laws applied.” All moral and political codes meant to protect one human being from another were dismissed not only as deceptive and cowardly but as a sin against Nature, which was both the one true God and an “iron law of logic.”

All of which is a fair description of Hitler’s belief system. The depressing, even frightening thought is that it stands as an equally fair description of a lot of today’s politics as well. Longstanding political principles once held to be sacred, like democracy and the rule of law, are increasingly seen as the sort of “twaddle” Hitler derided. The only thing that matters is winners and losers, Lenin’s “Who, whom?” “What makes Hitler a phenomenon unlike any other in history is that his goals included absolutely no civilizing ideas,” Fest concludes. Perhaps not civilizing, but durable.

Notes:
Review first published online August 28, 2019.

Sons of Cain

SONS OF CAIN: A HISTORY OF SERIAL KILLERS FROM THE STONE AGE TO THE PRESENT
By Peter Vronsky

Toronto author and filmmaker Peter Vronsky has written several books on serial killers, and in the introduction to his latest, Sons of Cain, he explains how his fascination with the subject got started.

In 1979 a twenty-three-year-old Vronsky literally bumped into Richard Francis Cottingham, the “Times Square Torso Ripper,” in the lobby of a hotel in NYC they were both staying at. As The Ripper walked past him, a cloth bag he was carrying bonked into Vronsky, with what Vronsky thought might be bowling balls inside. In fact, they were the heads of a pair of Cottingham’s victims.

It’s a wonderfully macabre anecdote and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. Sons of Cain covers a lot of ground in its informative, entertaining, and at times idiosyncratic take on serial killers.

In addition to providing a plethora of case studies and forensic background Vronsky also draws from such sources as zombie movies and cultural anthropology. This may be the best way to proceed, as serial killers as we have come to know them are semi-mythical figures, having a place both in the annals of true crime and in the collective consciousness shaped by the media and pop culture.

There is little consensus even among experts on such fundamental matters as how to define a serial killer and how to explain their behaviour. Are they born or made? Are taxonomies of different types useful? And to these basic questions Vronsky adds another: Why has the activity of serial killers seemed to surge at different times and places? Are their numbers going up or down?

Vronsky’s own approach sticks mostly to male, fantasy-motivated sexual killers who are driven by their primitive, reptile brain. He suggests from this that “Serial killers are what Mother Nature intended all of us to be in the wild before civilization.” Each of us has an inner Hannibal Lecter that we have to properly socialize in order to restrain. A provocative thought, but it may be taking evolutionary psychology too far.

Of course the stories are the main draw here. Fans of true crime will enjoy going through the catalogue of evil, stocked with names famous and obscure. But while there’s plenty of carnage to rubberneck there are also lots of interesting and original observations along the way, and perhaps something to be learned. You never know who you might bump into in a hotel lobby.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 17, 2018.

Team of Vipers

TEAM OF VIPERS
By Cliff Sims

Team of Vipers offers a slightly different perspective on the Trump White House. Different, that is, from more critical reports like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. Instead of being the work of a journalist trying to present a factual account of what has been going on behind the scenes (with all the attendant questions over accuracy and sourcing that come with such reportage), Team of Vipers is an insider’s account and, even more remarkably, one written by someone who very much supports Trump and his policies.

Indeed Sims, who was at one point Special Assistant to the President and Director of White House Message Strategy, is more a soul mate than mere kindred spirit. When he refers to Trump as “history’s greatest troll” it is with respect and admiration at the president’s game. One also notes, as a reflection of Trump’s narcissism, Sims’ preening self-regard and obtrusive references to his own fame. There is even a section of colour photos, all of which are of . . . Sims himself, posing with different White House players.

In all of this we may see like calling unto like, but at the end of his tenure Sims advances things a bit further:

Mirroring is the phenomenon in which people subconsciously mimic each other in social settings – their body language, posture, and gestures. In Trump World, mirroring took on a life of its own. At home, I’d find myself repositioning my silverware the same way Trump would at the dinner table. While making speeches I would realize – sometimes in the moment, sometimes while watching video after the fact – that I was using certain Trumpian mannerisms.

That said, even if his narcissism only makes him a mirror of his boss (or “The Boss”), Sims does add something of value to the record. He was there in the West Wing and he took notes, even on conversations that he only eavesdropped. What can we learn from what he tells us?

In the end, very little. Sims has a Manichean view of the world, and despite professing to be a man of faith himself (a title that in this context means nothing), and acknowledging that Trump is not, he sees the Democrats as nothing short of pure evil. A vote for Hillary Clinton, he tells us not just once but twice, would have been tantamount to a vote for ISIS. Given that level of moral and intellectual polarization you can expect a lot of heavy lifting to put into trying to make Trump over as one of the Great Men of history. Or at least we’ll hear him say “There’s an argument to be made that Trump is such a man, whether people like it or not.”

Special pleading abounds. One of Trump’s “core operating principles” is said to be “strong opinions, weakly held.” Most of us would say an opinion that is weakly held is not a strong opinion, but Sims appreciates Trump’s ability to have his mind changed by “compelling evidence.” Other accounts of Trump changing his mind based on whoever spoke to him last or flattered his vanity the most must be less well informed. But doesn’t being changeable make Trump just another politician? Not at all, not at all:

This was different from flip-flopping, which politicians do for political expediency. There’s no doubt he changed his position, but from my vantage point he did it because he was presented with new information. And isn’t that what we want from our leaders?

Well, if you put it that way!

As a story told from Sims’ vantage point we may expect to see certain matters being magnified while others are diminished. Apparently the Rob Porter affair was “the single most damaging hit to the White House’s credibility of the early Trump presidency.” An entire chapter is spent on this affair, which occupied, as near as I can remember, perhaps a couple of daily news cycles. Meanwhile almost no mention at all is made of Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, or the Mueller investigation. (As an aside, there could not have been collusion, according to Sims, because people working in the White House couldn’t even collude with themselves. Or, as would be revealed by the Mueller report, Trump and his minions were simply too stupid to collude.) But more than this, any discussion linking Trump and credibility is rather pointless. Let’s face it, after the debacle over the pronouncement of the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration there was little credibility left to lose.

I don’t think Sims has much credibility, or at least objectivity, either, but at least you know where he’s coming from and in what direction he is spinning things. One comes away with little tidbits that may or may not be significant. Apparently Trump does not write all his tweets, though he does sign off on them. He has a habit of rearranging items on his desk, which Sims attributes to OCD but which may be an indication of mental deterioration. His wife is apparently nearly as big a TV junkie as he is.

The biggest takeaway Sims wants us to have, however, is this: whatever might be wrong with the Trump White House it isn’t the fault of the guy at the top. His problems have all been the result of the incompetent, back-biting sycophants writhing in the snake pit. The Boss rises above this all. Meanwhile, Sims no longer works there, having been drummed out of the White House after a round of palace intrigue. Everything happens for a reason!

Notes:
Review first published online June 18, 2019.