Excellent Sheep and Fail U.

By William Deresiewicz

By Charles J. Sykes

The future of the university has been a hot topic for the last five years or so, warm with much talk of a higher-education “bubble.” There are certainly grounds for concern on this front. Here’s Charles Sykes with some American stats worth considering:

Since 2004, student debt has more than quintupled; 66 percent of students now borrow to pay for their education – up from just 45 percent as recently as 1993. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of student borrowers grew by 92 percent and the average student loan grew 74 percent. The average student now graduates with around $30,000 in student loans, while the portion of students with $100,000 or more has doubled. Millions of students carry debt burdens without getting any degree at all. Student loan debt now exceeds both the nation’s total credit card and auto loan debt. The delinquency rate on student loans is higher than the delinquency rate on credit cards, auto loans, and home mortgages.

Comparing student loan debt to mortgage debt before the housing bubble burst in 2008, Sykes cites a report that says the balance of student loans has grown twice as fast. This is troubling.

But the economic worries are only part of it. From questions of whether the present system of higher education will survive a crash, or even a gentle deflation, concerned critics have also begun to question the role and value such an education has in contemporary life – to wonder what a university is for, and whether it is, not just in a financial sense, worth it.

The defence of a university, and in particular the value of a liberal arts education, has a long and rich history. So much so that William Deresiewicz knows that a lot of it now sounds clichéd. If you want to make the argument that a university education aids in giving purpose and meaning to one’s life, be aware that this is going to seem trite to most ears. “I am painfully aware that much of what I’ve been saying,” Deresiewicz says, “has long been reduced to cliché – and worse than cliché, advertising fodder. ‘Be yourself,’ ‘Do your own thing,’ ‘You only live once’; such sentiments are next to meaningless now.”

Meaningless or not, these are the lines that have to be trotted out because there isn’t much else to point to. Even without the threat of the financial bubble bursting, the arts in particular have been experiencing a tremendous crisis of confidence lately (see, for example, my joint review of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature and John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?).

In these two books blame for the current crisis is spread around. Some of the problems universities face are of their own making. They spend too much money – far too much money – on bloated administration and buildings. There has been a “flight from teaching” into the more lucrative field of research, leaving the university’s most important function to a growing class of underpaid sessionals. In repackaging an education as a consumer good they have made the university experience over into a meaningless exercise in accreditation. If consumers (students) want easy marks and a “safe space,” then that’s what they’re going to get.

But it’s not all the fault of our universities. The economy and, even more broadly, the culture have moved on. If the real purpose of a university education, as has been argued for many years now, is to provide a badge of one’s social-economic class, then we might expect something like the present crisis to be occurring as that class has come under increasing pressure. Try making a sales pitch like this to a member of today’s shrinking middle class:

You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.

What makes what Deresiewicz is saying here a little hard to take is that he is preaching to a class, America’s elite, who, as he capably demonstrates, have nothing to fear from falling anyway. The faux-meritocracy aren’t going anywhere, as they have already “made it” from birth. Then there is the implicit assumption that becoming “fully human” is only something that can be achieved from an elite education. Elsewhere in his book Deresiewicz tempers this somewhat, saying that, if the purpose of education is to turn adolescents into adults, “You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished.” Still, I think experience tells most of us that higher education isn’t as necessary, useful, or even relevant to any of this becoming as it is made out to be.

It seems clear, at least to me, that some kind of contraction in the university economy is inevitable. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to come about voluntarily, with the system adopting a new philosophy that Charles Sykes summarizes as “smaller, fewer, less” (and, increasingly, “online”). But even if the bubble deflates without popping, a soft landing will still lead to much being lost. There’s a dark age ahead. The lamps of learning are going out all over academe. I don’t expect to see them lit again in my lifetime.

Review first published online May 22, 2017.


By David Denby

What is snark? It’s a fitting question to ask considering how it began life as a nonsense word before going on to enjoy a brief moment in the media sun as a critical rallying cry.

David Denby, a professional film critic, seems like a good source to turn to for a definition, especially in a short book concerned with formulating a precise description of the phenomenon. Does he succeed? I’ll try not to be too snarky in my comments.

To begin with, the identification of snark is a value judgment, and like all such judgments much of it lies in the eye of the beholder. We know snark, or like to think we know it, when we see it. We may also be aware of degrees of snarkiness (Denby ranges them from high to low), and the very different personal responses we may have to it. Indeed, our own response may be conflicted. Denby “hates” snark but also finds it “irresistible.” Is it possible to make sense out of such ambivalence?

Given its inherent subjectivity, even the best efforts at nailing some kind of working definition down may come to nought. So in addition to trying to figure out what it is I’d like to go on to ask why we are hunting it down and what’s at stake. But, for the moment, we’ll put those questions to one side.

To begin with first principles: snark is a form of evaluative criticism, which is to say it passes judgment. Seeing as we’re calling it snark, our thumbs will usually be pointing down. In terms of its critical voice, snark may make use of irony, irreverence, or spoof, but, as Denby breaks it down, it is something different than all of these. Perhaps the quality it is most often identified with is sarcasm. It is criticism with bite. But as Clive James wrote, in defense of snark, “all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree.” It’s just a question of how much pepper you like.

To this essentially negative or adverse character Denby would add two other qualities. In the first place, snark is personal. It isn’t just an attack on something but someone: the person (or people) responsible for whatever it is the critic is finding fault with. Extended to the political realm – and this is a direction Denby really wants to take snark, though I’m not sure it’s a wise move – it means going after a politician’s personal qualities, and in particular their race and gender.

The reason I don’t think expanding snark to discussions of politics is a wise move is because I believe a politician’s personal qualities are among the things voters should know about. I’m not talking about jibes at Barack Obama for being black or Hillary Clinton for being a woman – these examples of bigotry and crude insult are only straw men Denby sets up. But surely mocking a politician for personal failings that go to matters of judgment or temperament, in whatever context those qualities express themselves, is fair game.

Political snark, however, does highlight something about snark that is a real problem. One functional definition of snark might simply be the expression of an opinion, often but not always made in a sarcastic tone, that you disagree with. Or, if this isn’t the difference between snark and not-snark, it’s at least the difference between snark to be avoided and snark you like. Criticizing Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton isn’t just snark, it’s hate speech. Criticizing George W. Bush or Donald Trump is an exercise of critical wit or irony. Thus, for Denby: Maureen Dowd bad, Stephen Colbert good. And Keith Olbermann (another liberal commentator) can be excused because “he may use snark as a weapon, but snark is not his general mode.” Which makes no sense at all to me except as partisan positioning.

This business of taking sides is the way that I’ve typically found the label of snark being used in discussions of book and film reviewing. Now I’ll admit labeling snarky reviewing can be difficult. Denby quotes from one of the earliest anti-snark manifestoes, by Heidi Julavits, as finding “it hard to separate justified cruelty in criticism from mere showing off,” and immediately adds “I agree: One can’t make general rules about it; one can only go on a case-by-case basis.” This makes any attempt at definition (which is a “general rule”) kind of pointless, and it also opens the door for that eye-of-the-beholder quality I began by mentioning. Thus the helpfulness of my rule of thumb for identifying snark as the expression of an opinion you disagree with. If you find yourself in sympathy with the negative judgment being passed on a new novel or film then you’ll likely find the review insightful, courageous, important, well-written, clearly argued, cogent, etc. If you disagree with it then you’ll think it’s just a snark attack. It really is that easy.

The other quality Denby uses to characterize snark is that it is criticism without “a coherent view of life” or any vision of what is of value. Snark is nihilistic, tearing down everything indiscriminately, without appeal to any common standards. Here again we are led into danger. What if one’s values are nihilistic? Or what if the vision of what is of value that is being expressed is different than our own? Aren’t we likely to see criticism from any uncongenial perspective as snark?

From my own experience, snarky critics tend to be among the most passionate and even idealistic critics going. So when Denby writes that if you “scratch a writer of snark . . . you find a media-age conformist and an aesthetic nonentity” who recognizes “no standard but celebrity” I have no idea what he’s talking about. Most of the snark I recognize as such is radically opposed to media conformity, and has no greater enemy than celebrity.

All of this is just to point out that definition is pretty much impossible. But, to return to the question I flagged earlier, why are we so intent on calling it out? What’s at stake? Why does Denby care?

That’s another hard question to answer. As noted, Denby doesn’t mind some snark. There is snark he finds enjoyable. But there is something at stake in the hunting of the snark. We have to be concerned at any line being drawn around critical expression and, yes, freedom of speech. Denby is careful to say that he doesn’t want to forbid snark, but at the same time he would clearly like to see the worst examples of it eliminated. This is dangerous territory for anyone, but especially a professional critic, to enter into. Nevertheless, Denby is far from alone in taking his stand among those who have grown tired of an excess of voices and divergent views, particularly on the Internet. And as the trend toward media cocooning continues, insulating ourselves online in a web of self where opinions disagreeing with our own can be safely filtered, this is very much swimming with the tide.

Finally, why does Denby care? I don’t know, but some of his own snarkiness offers some hints. Denby is an older, establishment critic, having been a film reviewer for the New Yorker for over twenty years. Who are the people who really bother him (aside from Maureen Dowd)? Bloggers who are only adept at “schoolyard taunts.” Punks who are dismissed as “today’s snarky pipsqueaks.” “The snarkers,” Denby tells us, “sound like kids – and not like wild, beautiful, and crazy kids, either, but like hoods and brats.”

One gets that Denby wants to defend standards of “intellectual complexity or wit” (domain of the Scriblerian snarkers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift), but those standards, as we’ve seen, remain relative, subjective, and uncertain. Meanwhile, what really upsets him are those critical kids on his lawn, the ones (as his subtitle has it) “ruining our conversation.”

But there is no single conversation, just as there is no single set of critical standards. There are many conversations, taking place in many different rooms. Some of these we may want to join, while others we try to avoid. But any form of criticism, in my opinion, can be good for the soul. And snark, paradoxically, might even teach us to be less judgemental and more tolerant of the views of others, in whatever form they are expressed. The form an idea takes, after all, is an idea or mode of thought itself. And the worst thing we can do is to try to make the world a place that always agrees with us.

Review first published online May 1, 2017.

Best Canadian Essays 2016

Edited by Christopher Doda and Joseph Kertes

A collection of essays is a tough sell. The very word “essay” sounds like a work assignment, and it covers so much ground it’s hard to find the right shelf for such a volume in the bookstore. The Best American Essays series, for example, is one of a stable of annual titles brought out alongside Best American Sports Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing, and Best American Travel Writing. In Canada, one volume has to cover everything.

Beginning with definitions, most people would understand an essay to be a species of non-fiction. But the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not always that great. Any piece of writing, at least any that’s worth reading, involves the exercise of art and imagination. As editor Joseph Kertes puts it, “The art of non-fiction lies in the storytelling ability of its creator, just as it does in fiction. I want to feel compelled to read it, compelled to know.”

These are the magazine pieces that weren’t just skimmed or glanced at, but which, to quote the master essayist Francis Bacon, had to be chewed and digested. They require being “read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

The vast range of topics are approached from perspectives that run from the intensely personal (memoir, anecdote, family history) to the professional (journalism and reportage on news and current events). Leona Theis’s speculative alternative biography “Six Ways She Might Have Died Before She Reached Nineteen” is a remarkable example of the former, while Richard Poplak’s “Dr. Shock,” a profile of a serial sex offender who worked as a psychiatrist in South Africa and then Canada, is typical of the latter approach. They’re very different essays, but both are eye-opening, compelling reads

Blending the two approaches is Kenneth Sherman’s terrific essay “Living Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor.” A scholar and poet in his own right, Sherman examines Sontag’s famous work in the light of his recent bout with cancer (a subject he deals with in more depth in his excellent cancer memoir Wait Time). Sontag’s intellectual distance from the subject is counterpoised to Sherman’s immediacy, with the result being a profound piece that’s made all the stronger for its grounding in personal experience.

2016 was a year of good reads, so enjoy! The house of the essay has many mansions, and every door here opens onto one worth entering.

Review first published in the Toronto Star January 1, 2017.

American Heiress

By Jeffrey Toobin

The twentieth century had a lot of “crimes of the century.” Best-selling author and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has already written a book on one of them, the O. J. Simpson case, and in American Heiress he takes on another: the kidnapping and subsequent criminal career of Patricia Hearst.

What makes a crime a crime of the century? Celebrity is one crucial ingredient. Patty Hearst wasn’t famous for anything she did, but she had a famous name, being an heiress to the Hearst family fortune (her grandfather was the tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane himself).

Then there is the matter of how sensational and media-friendly a case it was. Here again Hearst’s story checked all the boxes as the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army played the media for all it was worth before going down in a blaze of guerilla glory on live TV (a novelty at the time). To this day the image of “Tania” (Hearst’s nom de guerre) holding a machine gun in front of the SLA flag is one of the most iconic of the period. In many ways her controversial trial-of-the-century, starring F. Lee Bailey for the defence, was anti-climactic.

A final factor contributing to crime-of-the-century status is broader cultural significance. In the case of O. J. Simpson, for example, there was the issue of race in America. For the story of Patty Hearst it was the moment of backlash against the counterculture. By 1974, the year she was kidnapped, the Summer of Love was a bitter memory for many, even in San Francisco.

Hearst was, in Toobin’s analysis, “emblematic of the political evolution of the country during the 1970s,” going from being a symbol of wounded innocence to one of wayward youth, “just another privileged youngster who had turned her back on all that was wholesome about her country.”

The hero of the historical moment wasn’t Patty’s father, a genial, alcoholic patrician who came to be seen as a lax and irresponsible parent, but the law-and-order governor of California Ronald Reagan. You didn’t need to be a Weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. After her rescue Hearst adjusted quickly to the changed political climate, casting herself as the victim in a captive narrative and marrying her police-officer bodyguard.

The question of how sincere Hearst was in her turnaround is the question that has dogged her ever since.

Was she just a naive idiot? If not for their involvement in a couple of murders (one of which was apparently accidental), the SLA might be remembered today as a comic gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and the story of Hearst’s kidnapping a 1970’s version of O. Henry’s classic story “The Ransom of Red Chief” (a parallel that at least one SLA member drew explicitly).

Was she a victim: raped and brutalized, coerced and brainwashed by the SLA? It’s clear she had numerous chances to escape, but was she too traumatized or fearful to take them? Had she developed Stockholm syndrome?

Or was she a willing participant in the SLA’s madcap plans for revolution but then changed her mind when the law caught up with her? Was throwing her fellow revolutionaries under the bus just the price she had to pay in order to re-embrace her former life of privilege?

Readers will have to make up their own minds. Toobin, who did not get to interview Hearst, has no particular agenda and lets the facts speak for themselves. What he does render judgment on is the distasteful aftermath of the affair, as Hearst, after being convicted for bank robbery, had her sentence commuted by President Carter before receiving a pardon from President Clinton. As Toobin observes, “Rarely have the benefits of wealth, power, and renown been as clear as they were in the aftermath of Patricia’s conviction.”

If there’s a moral to the story it is here. Wealth will out. “The story of Patricia Hearst,” Toobin concludes, “as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending.” After her brief flirtation with fame and notoriety Hearst returned to lead “the life for which she was destined.” In this she was, again, flowing with the historical tide. Waking from the nightmare of revolution and social upheaval, Americans just wanted to enjoy being rich.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 7, 2016.

Hitler: Ascent

HITLER: ASCENT, 1889 – 1939
By Volker Ullrich

Another biography of Hitler? And not just another, but another great big biography of Hitler?

Hitler: Ascent, which takes us from Hitler’s birth to his fiftieth birthday, runs nearly 1,000 pages and is only the first part of a two-volume set, a massiveness that recalls Ian Kershaw’s epic treatment of the same subject (Hubris and Nemesis).

But yes, another big biography is necessary, and for several reasons.

In the first place because the demand is there. Hitler has been one of the most studied figures in all of history, to the point where whole books have been written about the books that have been written about him, but interest remains higher than ever in the twenty-first century.

Second, while most of the story has been thoroughly researched and is well known, new information (not all of it reliable) keeps coming out in dribs and drabs, mostly in the form of diaries or letters located in archives. The complete diaries of Goebbels, for example, turned up after Kershaw had finished his work, and missing parts from the diaries of Himmler were only discovered earlier this year.

And finally another biography is necessary because Hitler is always with us, with every right-wing demagogue and tin-pot dictator who comes along inevitably made out by the media to be this reincarnation. There’s even something called Godwin’s law that says that the longer any online discussion goes on, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler. He’s inescapable.

Given Hitler’s continuing cultural presence it behooves us to have a fuller understanding of the man, one that explains the meaning behind the myth and places him in his appropriate context.

That context is complex, but Ullrich makes it accessible, judiciously balancing his analysis betwen the personal and the political. Difficult patches like the Nazi’s seizure of power, and how near-run a thing it was, are clearly described, while a sensible discussion is provided of what can be said about Hitler’s personality. In style and tone it is closer to the work of Joachim Fest than that of Kershaw, which shouldn’t come as too big a surprise given that both Fest and Ullrich come from a background in journalism whereas Kershaw is an academic. Ullrich, even in translation, is far easier to read than the precise but dull-as-dust Brit.

Ascent won’t be the last word, because there can never be a last word on Hitler. But this is an excellent bio — authoritative, up-to-date, and readable — that has given us a Hitler for our time.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 25, 2016.

Glass House

By Brian Alexander

Coming hard on the heels of the election of Donald Trump as president, it would be easy to see Glass House as a political book, an attempt to explain Trump’s improbable rise by taking as a case study the decline of an American industrial town.

This would be mistaken, as Brian Alexander has little to say about politics and, in any event, the narrative of the free-falling white working class taking a hard turn to the right is actually more complex than the media portrays it.

Instead, Glass House is a “state of America” book. Specifically, it is a tale of paradise lost: the end of the golden age of American capitalism and its decline into a cancer stage where nothing about the system (or The System, as it’s often rendered here) seems to work.

The pretty town of Lancaster, Ohio, home to the Anchor Hocking Glass Company, was profiled in Forbes Magazine in 1947, when it was made out to be “the epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” Today Anchor Hocking is a shadow of its former self and Lancaster has fallen on hard times, becoming, in the words of one resident, “a dead town . . . a dead little dying town.” The American dream of working hard and getting ahead is gone, the social contract “smashed into mean little shards by the slow-motion terrorism of pirate capitalism.”

Saying what happened isn’t as easy or as obvious as lining up the usual culprits of globalization, technology that makes workers redundant, and the crushing of unions (though all of these played a role). There are, however, clear villains. In answer to the question of what happened, one native Lancastrian responds that “corporate America happened.” Anchor Hocking went through a series of changes of ownership, the only point being to saddle it with debt and drain it of capital, what Alexander describes as “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’” As jobs were lost and wages and benefits cut, what Lancaster was mainly left with in terms of employment were things that have to be handled locally, often through public services: health care, education, police and law enforcement.

But because a belief in how the system is supposed to work, the American ideology of private enterprise and personal responsibility, is so strong and so ingrained, there is a knee-jerk need to blame others. In particular this means outsiders: immigrants and the federal government. Resentment in turn set in motion a downward spiral, as “Lancaster stopped spending on itself.” Why bother, when there was no longer any belief in community or a common good? And so infrastructure, human and material, rotted while “Even as many condemned both federal and state government programs and government spending, they ignored the fact that their town owed many of the jobs it had to both.”

This is a familiar problem, and one we might expect to get worse. The public sector has become a lifeboat. This breeds envy and resentment among those being eaten alive in the private sector, and also creates a dangerous imbalance in the economy. The government, or unionized public sector, is increasingly seen as the only game in town for safe, secure, well-remunerated employment. In the long run, that’s not sustainable economically or politically.

The future looks grim. The old social contract is gone and there is nothing to take its place but cynical self-interest, resulting in a few big winners and many more desperate losers. Alexander describes the case of one young man as representative of the sense of growing alienation:

it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality. The whole culture had changed. Brian was from a middle-class family, but he didn’t believe in any institution or person in authority. He didn’t feel like he was a part of anything bigger than himself. Aside from his mother and his father, and his brother, Mike, he was alone.

Well, we might say, at least Brian has a family. Even that, however, is in the process of being eroded. But what will take its place? Nothing that looks like collective action, from any side of the political spectrum. Not even religion, which doesn’t seem to play much of a role in the various lives Alexander examines here.

Which only leaves drugs, and anger.

A book like Glass House works because Lancaster is a microcosm. Of course not every town is like Lancaster, but the essential cultural and indeed moral change that Alexander describes is the same everywhere and is having a similar effect. The city of glass is a mirror for all our woes.

Review first published online March 9, 2017.

Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation and They Would Never Hurt a Fly

By Laura Silber and Allan Little

By Slavenka Drakulić

Democratic politics tend to have an authoritarian tug to them. The “people” do not clamour for liberal values. As has often been remarked, nobody ever ran for office on a platform of being soft on crime. We want leaders who talk tough and exude power. People who kick ass and take names. Even if the ass they kick may be our own.

This was something brought home to me while observing the campaign of Donald Trump for president. Watching coverage of his rallies, I couldn’t help noticing how it was the chants of the crowds that were egging him on to make his most outrageous statements. An insecure person, he responded to such encouragement every time, which only made him seem more a creature of the crowd than their master. We like to think of the demagogue as someone adept at whipping the masses into a frenzy, but more often than not they are something simpler: figures tossed up by the crowd and made the emblem of a radicalized general will.

You’d think it would be hard to find a more unprepossessing demagogue than Donald Trump, a television personality whose candidacy was seen as a joke by most observers. Without intelligence, experience, or charisma, few gave him much of a chance. However, he (or his managers) had his finger on the pulse of what was bothering people and was so able to ride their resentment into the highest office in the land. I don’t think anyone was as surprised as he was at this turn of events. In the words of Sidney Blumenthal, “Winning the presidency was never [his] deep desire, more a branding scheme that spun out of control.”

Such a phenomenon was not without precedent. Thirty years earlier, a similarly uninspiring candidate, Slobodan Milošević, had come to power in Yugoslavia, carried on a rising tide of nationalism. Milošević didn’t invent Serbian nationalism, and indeed the ferocity of his supporters seems to have taken him by surprise. In their excellent, journalistic account of the Yugoslavian disaster, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, Laura Silber and Allan Little paint a picture of a weak man who did not control events but was controlled by them. Opportunistic, to be sure, but something even less than that word implies. Recalling the first steps of Milošević’s rise to power, then Serbian president Ivan Stambolić describes his response to a rally of Kosovo Serbs in 1987:

After hours of heated talks, the Kosovo Serbs agreed to leave Belgrade. But the crowd had delivered an unmistakeable message – the sheer power of their numbers could easily disrupt daily life.

Milošević understood what it meant. For the first time he saw that an angry crowd could unsettle the Yugoslav leadership. He turned to Stambolić and said: “The fatherland is under threat.” Stambolić was astounded and asked what the matter was. He saw that Milošević was shaking. It struck Stambolić as a decisive alarming moment. “And that’s how it all began. The nationalism ran into his embrace. They grabbed him. He didn’t really enjoy it very much. But he knew it was politically very profitable.”

Throughout these early days Silber and Little describe how Milošević “felt the pull of the masses” and responded to it, rather than the other way around. In many ways Milošević was simply the mouthpiece for a growing sense of disaffection and resentment among a population that felt itself left behind. He understood their anger at being globalism’s losers. Faced with the secession of more successful states like Slovenia and Croatia his rhetoric had to fall back on the last refuge/threat of militarism. “If we have to fight, we’ll fight. I hope they won’t be so crazy as to fight against us. Because if we don’t know how to work and do business, at least we know how to fight.”

And so, as with the accidental President Trump, “things spun out of control.”

Later, after a descent into total barbarism, a peace was hammered out. Silber and Little see only gloomy lessons having been learned. The death of Yugoslavia “demonstrated that might, rather than reason, brought rewards; and it showed that the carving out of ethnically pure territorial units produced neater maps on which to build a peace settlement.” In order to salve their conscience, the West put some of the worst bad actors on trial for war crimes.

This is the story Slavenka Drakulić tells in They Would Never Hurt a Fly. The star of the show, “one of the biggest villains of the twentieth century,” is, of course, Milošević. But who is he? Drakulić admits she doesn’t know. He is an actor, he “needs a public.” It was the public, after all – the crowds, the masses – who made him. As a result, “It is almost as if this man has no other personality than his public one.”

There is nothing interesting about him as a private person, period. The transcripts [of private conversations taped by Croatian secret police between 1995 and 1998], like the biographies, reveal what there is to reveal about this man: banality, vulgarity, and emptiness. There is no elegance or grandeur about him, not a single interesting thought, nothing to inspire curiosity. All in all, Milošević appears to be just a boring character surrounded by corrupt children and a wife thirsty for power. In history, he may have played a gigantic role, the role of a villain, but he appears to be a dwarf. A small, angry, autistic man.

No, people like Milošević, or Donald Trump, are not great men. They are banal, vulgar, hollow men who only amplify the anger of the masses. This suggests at least one way of responding to the familiar questions that Drakulić poses at the end of her account of the trials:

My biggest disappointment was finding that [Borislav Herak, sentenced to death for rape and mass murder] was a man who looked like any other man: a neighbor, a relative, or even a friend. I looked for any evidence that he was different – in short, that he was a monster. And I was not the only person looking for such signs in war criminals. Many have done the same.

Does some personality flaw – or a specific type of character – cause human cruelty? Is there in every community a certain percentage of people who have the pathology to commit the worst crimes if given the chance? Or do they commit crimes only under social and psychological pressure? These questions are not new.

Obviously evil people exist, but in the case of many of Yugoslavia’s war criminals what we’re seeing may only be representatives (literally, in the case of the democratically-elected leaders) of a popular malaise. In other words, this is less the case of “criminal personalities” than a criminal society. As Drakulić puts it, “Perhaps what had changed [in Yugoslavia] was not the person, but the circumstances. There was no longer peace; now there was war”:

there must have been many such “criminal personalities” around to be able to rape tens of thousands of women and to kill more than two hundred thousand people during the war. There would have had to be thousands upon thousands of men committing such acts. Were the majority of them criminal personalities? This is hard to believe. More likely, the war itself turned ordinary men – a driver, a waiter, and a salesman . . . – into criminals because of opportunism, fear, and not least, belief. Hundreds of thousands had to have believed that they were right in what they were doing. Otherwise, such large numbers of rapes and murders simply cannot be explained – and this is even scarier.

I’m not sure this is scarier though. What’s worse: that there may be thousands of murderous psychopaths among us straining at the leash of civil society, or that the general will itself has such apocalyptic desires? It seems to me it would be easier to blame the monsters than ourselves.

Review first published online February 13, 2017.