Twilight of the Elites

TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: AMERICA AFTER MERITOCRACY
By Christopher Hayes

In Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, after the fallen angels have built their palace of Pandemonium, Satan takes his magnificent place at their head:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Show’rs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais’d
To that bad eminence.

As a student I remember some time spent in discussion of what sort of merit Satan possessed to have risen to that bad eminence. Would it not have been bad merit? And what would that be?

This is a point that’s often recurred to me when considering the meritocracy, a word I always feel like putting in quotation marks because I don’t know how merit is being defined or what value is being placed on it.
In most respects I think what qualifies as merit is only what makes the most money. As such, there are a number of problems with it. In the first place, it has no moral basis. In this sense Pandemonium is a meritocracy. If Satan had been a professional athlete, can we doubt he’d have been taking performance enhancing drugs? And who would or could accuse him of doing anything wrong? Gaming the system is itself part of the game. Then there is the matter of what happens when incentives and compensation are out of whack. One can blame elites for the collapse of Enron or the 2008 financial crisis, but the people in charge were just competing for the showrooms of beautiful prizes to be won by those with the greatest merit. Meaning the best ability to play a particular game. And finally there is the matter of inheritance. The merit in a meritocracy is the possession of a single generation, but given how systems of social and economic inequality lock in, “merit” can, and indeed usually does, become nothing more than a class signifier.

In short, a meritocracy, like any oligarchy, can only be expected to get worse over time. As Lewis Lapham put it:

oligarchies bear an unhappy resemblance to cheese, and over time even the best of them turn rancid. The government might delay the procedure by making as difficult as possible the concentrations of wealth that inevitably fall to the lot of individuals equipped with financial talent, military genius, or noble birth – but not even the strictest tax or sumptuary laws can nullify the logic of compound interest or postpone indefinitely the triumph of vanity. Sooner or later the men become pigs. An oligarchy the might once have aspired to an ideal of wisdom or virtue gradually acquires the character of what Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool” – a man, or class of men, so bewildered by their faith in money that they “therefore imagine there is nothing it cannot buy.” Once the oligarchy has been made stupid with insolence and greed, it’s only a matter of time – maybe two or three decades, never more than three or four generations – before the government reformulates itself under a new row of statues and a new set of glorious truths.

Regulatory capture is the name given to this last part of the process. The larger transformation, or decline, of the oligarchy or meritocracy into an elite clique of locked-in privilege is what Christopher Hayes describes in his book:

extreme inequality of the particular kind that we have produces its own particular kind of elite pathology: it makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt than those in a more egalitarian social order would. This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production has revealed: As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elite.

The function served by the language of meritocracy is nothing new. Observing the vogue for social Darwnism in the late nineteenth century, a time of booming economic growth and terrible inequality, John Kenneth Galbraith noted how well its American gospel “fitted the needs of American capitalism”:

The rich man was the innocent beneficiary of his own superiority. To the enjoyment of wealth was added the almost equal enjoyment which came with the knowledge that one had it because one was better.

And so the gospel of meritocracy. These are stories elites like to tell themselves.

Hayes does a good job covering the ground and explaining how the practice of meritocracy got into trouble in the 2010s, or what he calls “the fail decade.” Time and again elites were shown to be corrupt, self-serving, incompetent, and dangerous to the rest of society. But did all of this mean that they were no longer a meritocracy? Again one has to ask what their merit was supposed to consist of. If it was only something to advance themselves economically then none of the charges that Hayes brings against it matter. The elites were operating precisely as they should in getting rich and increasing their power by any means necessary. If their objective failures led to a “crisis of authority” during these years, that would only benefit them as well. There’s a lot of money to be made in the ruin of a country.

Notes:
Review first published online February 7, 2021. A little point that stuck out while reading: in his discussion of political consensus Hayes observes that “over the last several decades, partisan affiliation has generally weakened, with a large percentage of voters identifying as independents or moving back and forth between designations.” I was under the impression that the exact opposite was happening, a process of polarization analysed in such books as Ronald Brownstein’s The Second Civil War and Steve Kornacki’s The Red and the Blue. Unfortunately, Hayes doesn’t provide any source for the weakening of party affiliation he sees.

Reaganland

REAGANLAND
By Rick Perlstein

Reaganland is the final volume of Rick Perlstein’s chronicle tetralogy on the rise of the modern American right, or New Right as I think it is more properly styled. The previous books were Before the Storm, Nixonland, and The Invisible Bridge, and as time went on they became even more exhaustively immersive, to the point where I can see why Perlstein felt he couldn’t go on. But the question he leaves us with is if there would be any point in continuing the story further. To put it another way, with the election of Reagan, was our present course set?

Reagan really did mark a revolution in the GOP, which was no longer the Republican Party of Eisenhower or even of Nixon and Ford. As Paul Weyrich, one of the architects of the New Right, put it, the movement was not meant to be conservative but radical, involving a total restructuring of the political and social order. The winners in this restructuring would be the newly class-conscious financial and business elites, a group Kurt Andersen dubbed “evil geniuses” and Perlstein “boardroom Jacobins.” The basic ideology would be neoliberal, which is to say opposed to government in nearly all its forms with a kind of religious intensity. Perlstein even renders a sermon delivered by James Robison in all its full exclamatory glory, wherein “God’s Angry Man” condemns government as “a confiscator! And a consumer! And a disperser of your wealth. It! Produces! Nothing! And it functions best when it functions least!”

That sort of rhetoric is still with us, and indeed the question Reaganland leaves us with is how much of a through line can be drawn from Reagan to Trump. What later came to fruition was present at the end of the ‘70s in Robison’s outraged tirade of bottomless anger and grievance. Then there was the politicization of social issues (something Reagan was early to recognize the value of), the branding of “Make America Great Again,” the racism inherent in the Republican “Southern strategy,” the blithe indifference to facts or the truth, all of this would be dialed up in the years to come but it was nascent in everything Perlstein describes. The capstone was Fox News and social media as a way to make people even angrier, so that forty years later mobs would be storming the capital.

Reagan, like Trump, would be a figure drawn from the glamorous world of show business, while Carter could only play a sort of Beverly Hillbilly, sermonizing not on the evil of government but about public sacrifice. Is there a dirtier word in modern American culture? Carter did not understand yet that, as a later president would put it, the American way of life is nonnegotiable.

Essential reading then, for a deeper understanding of today’s politics. Perlstein’s eye for the telling detail and anecdote is exquisite, and the amount of material he has trawled through is truly impressive. He must have lived in a library for years My only complaint would be that I have never seen a book, at least from a major press, with this many typos in it. Was it rushed into print? Perhaps it was, being published during the run-up to the 2020 election that saw the dismissal of Trump. As events have shown, however, the New Right is continuing on the same trajectory even post-election, and the U.S. is still very much Trumpland. America’s rightward turn is describing a long arc indeed.

Notes:
Review first published online January 30, 2021.

Alexander the Great and Before and After Alexander

ALEXANDER THE GREAT: HIS LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH
By Anthony Everitt
BEFORE AND AFTER ALEXANDER: THE LEGEND AND LEGACY OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
By Richard A. Billows

Every generation, it seems, creates its own Alexander the Great. Or, as Anthony Everitt puts it at the beginning of his new life of Alexander, “their accounts reflect the concerns of their own age as much as they do of his.”

Alexander was a giant figure interpreted in various ways even while alive. Following almost immediately upon his death in 323 BCE there were two schools of Alexander biography, often described by scholars as the official and the vulgate. We’re more sophisticated today, but among contemporary historians there are still profound divisions. In the twentieth century the big divide was political, ranging from seeing Alexander as a progressive, unifying figure (Sir William Tarn) to a cruel dictator (Ernst Badian). More recently the split has been between those who accept Alexander as being truly great and others who try to diminish his accomplishments, usually by building up how much he inherited from his father Philip.

I wonder how much, and what, this most recent development in Alexander studies makes him more our contemporary. But I won’t speculate about that here. Suffice it to say that for Richard Billows, in the critical camp, he is “one of the most overrated figures in world history.”

The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip, and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonous, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and turning those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture. Without their efforts, the history and civilization of the lands and cultures of western Asia, Europe, and north Africa would be very different than they are today.

There’s a lot I could push back against here (obviously Alexander didn’t have the opportunity to turn his conquered lands into a viable empire), but given that it’s the final paragraph in Billows’ book it might be better to just quote from the conclusion of Arrian’s biography. In classical times Alexander had his detractors as well, and Arrian wants to fire back at them.

Whoever therefore reproaches Alexander as a bad man, let him do so; but let him first not only bring before his mind all his actions deserving reproach, but also gather into one view all his deeds of every kind. Then, indeed, let him reflect who he is himself, and what kind of fortune he has experienced; and then consider who that man was whom he reproaches as bad, and to what a height of human success he attained, becoming without any dispute king of both continents, and reaching every place by his fame; while he himself who reproaches him is of smaller account, spending his labour on petty objects, which, however, he does not succeed in effecting, petty as they are.

Like most scholars in the pro-Philip camp, Billows spends a lot of time talking about the innovations Philip made to the Macedonian army, and he does a first-rate job of this that I think even people who have read around a lot in the area will learn something from. He also goes into the story of the Diadochi (or successors to Alexander) in some depth, which is a complicated story that’s easy to get lost in (though it did get a solid book-length treatment recently in Ghost on the Throne by James Romm). Some of the supporting material, however, is third-rate. The pictures are drawn from Wikimedia Commons, and the introductory maps have mistakes like “Macadonia” and a note saying that Alexander died “in what is present day Baghdad” (Alexander died in Babylon, a city on the Euphrates River, some 80 km south of present-day Baghdad, which is on the Tigris).

I’m not sure we need more biographies of Alexander, but he’s a subject, like Napoleon or Lincoln, that just keeps cruising along. And as I’ve said, each generation has to make a new one, fashioned to some degree in its own image. This started as early as the Alexander Romance, wherein Alexander became the son of a pharaoh to the Egyptians and the brother of Darius to Persian readers. We can all pick and choose. Among modern biographies, I’m very fond of the books written by Peter Green and Robin Lane Fox, each well-written, learned, and opinionated in instructive ways. I don’t think either has been bettered, but Everitt is game for “a new look” that “reflects our own twenty-first-century hopes and fears, most particularly about the nature of power and the fascination – and impermanence – of military success.”

I wouldn’t have thought those concerns particular to the twenty-first century. Indeed, I would have thought them far less particular than they were to the century just passed. Instead, what makes Everitt’s book most of its time is its breezy voice. Everitt is starting to sound a bit like the popular historian Tom Holland, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The breezy style makes him easy to read, but it also carries a lot before it. “His [Alexander’s] life was an adventure story and took him to every corner of the known world.” This is the second sentence. It is not true. Even if we take “the known world” to just mean the Mediterranean Alexander obviously never visited the half of it. Rome and Carthage remained far outside his orbit. But “every corner of the known world” sounds good. Then, on the next page, we’re told, in what I’m sure is a typo, that Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire in the middle of the fifth century, which is off by a hundred years.

I think undemanding, general readers will enjoy Everitt’s book. It tells the story in a lively, contemporary fashion. Dramatic action is highlighted, like the scene where the general Cleitus saves Alexander’s life by cutting off the arm of an enemy who was about to administer a coup de grâce. Personally, I don’t think this happened, but it’s a great war story. Then there are chapter titles like “The Empire Strikes Back,” “A Passage to India” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” As far as interpretation goes, it seems fair enough, but again tends to blow past any caveats. Is it a “fact” that Alexander, facing a mutiny on the Indus, “never had any intention of marching to Ocean”? I think he might have kept going.

We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Alexander of history has kept going, and likely will continue to do so for many years to come. I am concerned, however, not so much at the picture of Alexander that is being drawn as the general quality of the biographer’s art. In terms of their scholarship and readability neither of these books seem to me to be an advance on Green or Lane Fox, which are now fifty years old. We’re marching on, but is it an advance?

Notes:
First published online December 29, 2020. For more on Alexander see my joint review of Guy MacLean Rogers’ Alexander and Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great.

The Death of the Artist

THE DEATH OF THE ARTIST: HOW CREATORS ARE STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE IN THE AGE OF BILLIONAIRES AND BIG TECH
By William Deresiewicz

A lot of what William Deresiewicz has to say in The Death of the Artist isn’t all that new. The collapse of the arts economy, mainly as a result of the digital revolution, has been well documented in such earlier books as Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? and Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash. Still, it’s an important transformation that needs to be recorded and analyzed, and I welcome any fresh perspective on the ongoing crisis.

Deresiewicz gives us that fresh perspective mainly through a series of interviews with artists who are trying to make it in the new entertainment order. These aren’t all tales of doom and gloom, though most of them are and the few success stories seem limited to me, while also underlining just how much has changed. In talking with musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers Deresiewicz shows us how real lives have been impacted, as well as what coping/survival strategies have been adopted. So while fascinating in their own right, there’s also some practical information relayed relating to what is “the central question that is raised by this book as a whole: how to keep your soul intact and still make a living as an artist.”

Lanier has already made one dark prophecy, that in the future art may be the sole preserve of the privileged. But while Deresiewicz is alert to the danger of the arts becoming merely “a rich kid’s game,” that may be too pessimistic. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories out there. Unfortunately, while “success” (the word has different meanings) in the arts may be open to all, it is only so as a lottery. This being the preferred word of many interviewees to describe the current economy, and the one I would adopt as well.

Where I found the book most interesting is the stress that is (correctly, I believe) put on the way these transformations are tracking the widening inequality in American life more generally. “As institutions tremble and crumble, professionals across the board are losing their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth is moving upward everywhere, and everywhere the middle class is disappearing.” The arts are very much part of that “everywhere,” which means “the devastation of the arts economy . . . is rooted in the great besetting sin of contemporary American society: extreme and growing inequality.” Now ask yourself when you see such a trend being reversed.

This leads to the next important point. If things continue, as I think they will, on their present trajectory, what will the future of art look like? As Deresiewicz puts it, “What kind of art are we giving ourselves in the twenty-first century?”

We might not be surprised that Alexis de Tocqueville has been here before us. Surveying the American literary scene in 1831 he writes of how Americans “like books that are easily procured, quickly read, and that do not require scholarly research to be understood. They insist on facile beauties that are self-evident and that can be immediately enjoyed; above all, they demand the unexpected and the new.” “Need I say more?” he continues. “Who cannot guess what is to follow?” But we really don’t have to guess. We’re familiar with it already:

Taken as a whole, the literature of democratic centuries cannot present the image of order, regularity, knowledge, and art that literature exhibits in aristocratic times. Form will usually be neglected and occasionally scorned. Style will frequently seem bizarre, incorrect, exaggerated, or flaccid and almost always seem brazen and vehement. Authors will aim for rapidity of execution rather than perfection of detail. Short texts will be more common than long books, wit more common than erudition, and imagination more common than depth. An uncultivated, almost savage vigor will dominate thought, whose products will frequently exhibit a very great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will seek to astonish rather than to please and to engage the passions rather than beguile taste.

Deresiewicz doesn’t mention Tocqueville, but I find this vision of the future of American writing fits the contemporary scene pretty neatly, and not just in terms of its literary productions.

In attempting to define the spirit of the age (at least in the arts) Deresiewicz settles on the word “producerism,” which makes central the twin ideas that art is now just content and that everyone is an artist. However, while rejecting the latter notion as absurd (even if this runs the risk of making him appear “a snobbish old asshole”), I don’t think he addresses how much sense it makes within a lottery economy (which would be my own way of defining the current paradigm). In a lottery everyone has a chance to make it, and so everyone is an artist. Dan Brown. Stephenie Meyer. E. L. James. Are these not authors? Artists? By present standards I think we have answer that they are. Indeed they are the most successful – and so representative? – of the new paradigm. As Deresiewicz recognizes, it’s crazy to say that the cream is rising to the top. But whatever it is that is rising to the top of a flooded zone (one can’t resist referencing how shit floats), that’s where we’re at. Bad art drives out good. Which means it isn’t bad.

Or at least so the poptimists would tell us. Criticism has gone the way of the arts. Today’s reviewers and critics have little left to do aside from offering superficial commentary on the vagaries of celebrity while reporting on the rankings of box office and bestseller lists. Art appreciation is all about liking things, and how we like them.

So, just as everyone’s an artist, everyone is now a critic. And like the corpses caught in the web of the monster haunting the sewers of Derry in Stephen King’s It, everyone floats. In 2018 YouTube’s top earner was reported to be someone named Ryan, who generated over $20 million in income. Ryan, you may be surprised, is a critic. His YouTube channel is a review program. He was also, in 2018, 7 years old, and his reviews consisted of opening up boxes of toys and playing with them. Need I say more?

Notes:
Review first published online December 12, 2020.

Men on Horseback

MEN ON HORSEBACK: THE POWER OF CHARISMA IN THE AGE OF REVOLUTION
By David A. Bell

After the Second Punic War had ended the two giants who’d faced off in that epic conflict, Hannibal and Publius Cornelius Scipio (later Africanus) quickly fell back to earth. We might think of them as the original men on horseback: figures who were great military leaders, saviours of their nation, and semi-divine (contemporary propaganda had them both descended directly from gods). But backlash was inevitable, and not I think in response to their ambition. It was more a case of political checks and balances.

Hannibal was essentially banished from Carthage and scrambled around as a general-for-hire in some losing causes before killing himself in Bithynia as the Romans were closing in. Scipio, who also took the route of exile, may have killed himself as well, though all we know for sure is that he died embittered at the ingratitude of Rome.

In Men on Horseback historian David Bell isn’t as interested in these ancient types, focusing on the peculiarly modern traits of the charismatic leader. Still, it’s worth remembering that these people have been with us for a while, often coming to the same end.

Bell identifies the Age of Revolution (the period at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries) as a great seed time for men on horseback. Most of his book consists of pocket bios and analysis of the careers of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, and Simón Bolivar. When these national heroes arose is an integral part of the story, as there was a lot more to their rise to power than just their horsemanship.

In fact, I think this is the most important question that Men on Horseback addresses. To what extent were these men self-made, and to what extent were they the product of a particular cultural and political environment? Is charisma “primarily an exceptional, magnetic quality possessed by individuals or, rather, something projected onto them by their followers, which is to say, a fiction invented to serve a social and political purpose”?

Of course the only answer is that it’s a bit of both. In so far as such a book as this has application to our own time, however, I think its interest is all on the side of the matrix of factors that contribute to or enable the rise of the charismatic leader. These, in turn, are broadly cultural: “The ability to appear charismatic depends not only on the individual in question but on which traits are likely to elicit such beliefs and feelings within a particular community. In other words, it is a question not just of psychology but of culture.” The charismatic leader is what his age demands, and if he did not exist it would become necessary to invent him.

At least that was the case in the eighteenth century. With Washington, for example, “Americans were desperate for a ‘great man’ and convinced themselves – for the moment without much evidence – that they had found him in the physically dazzling Washington.” Napoleon had to save his revolution, while Loverture and Bolivar had to lead theirs.

People cry out for a leader and in doing so invest him with supernatural gifts. The problem is that celebrity has gone on to become such a debased coinage. Though he is never mentioned by name, the dark shadow hanging over Bell’s book is Donald Trump. The case of Trump, however, highlights what may be the biggest transformation the concept of charisma has undergone in our time.

Put simply, Donald Trump is a mere celebrity, meaning his fame is divorced from any personal accomplishments. One doubts he can ride a horse as well as a Kardashian, much less a Bolivar. While the great men Bell describes each had their shortcomings, they were at the very least effective military leaders and capable politicians. Trump went bankrupt trying to run a casino, and even his speeches and rallies are dull and incoherent. As with many contemporary populist leaders he is less a strong man than a buffoon, his fame a product of playing a comic character on a reality show.

How far then can Bell’s project of “writing charisma into history” be taken in a media/political environment where the manufacture of charisma has outstripped any relation to individual achievement? Charisma, Bell concludes, “is an integral, inescapable part of modern political life – democracy’s shadow self.” But like democracy itself it has become a force to be constructed and stage-managed. Today’s strong men aren’t the real thing any more than today’s democracy is representative or responsive, but the would-be charismatic can still play a man on horseback on TV. “Surely the fabrication of charisma requires more than propaganda,” Bell writes. Perhaps this can be asserted with regard to North Korea, the example Bell cites, but North Korea is a country closer to the Stone Age than the eighteenth century. It’s a principle that no longer holds true for our own marvelous land of Oz.

Notes:
Review first published online August 11, 2020.

Just How Stupid Are We?

JUST HOW STUPID ARE WE?
By Rick Shenkman

The year was 2009, which means I’m discussing the paperback edition of this book, with its epilogue concerning the election of Barack Obama. Should 2008 have made us feel better? Rick Shenkman thinks not. Obama simply presented better than John McCain. “Everywhere he went he drew enormous crowds who seemed attracted as much by the spectacle as by anything else. What most people in attendance at his events seemed to crave was an emotional experience.” Now that sounds familiar.

In hindsight, the degeneration Shenkman describes here was not going into reverse but was in fact getting worse. He began writing the book because “many wanted to know how such a thing as [George W. Bush’s] election to the highest office in the land had come to pass.” Only the name has changed, while the astonishment has increased.

The question Shenkman addresses in his title is a controversial one. Intelligence takes many different forms, and I’m always wary of those who limit it to people who read a lot of books. What Shenkman means by it though is an understanding of basic civics, of being smart enough, or knowing enough, to be able to cast an informed vote. Questioning the wisdom of The People is sacrilege in America, but Shenkman doesn’t shy away from his conclusion that the greater involvement of “the masses” in politics has been a net minus. “We have put our fate in the hands of The People, the same folks who by and large (1) find politics boring and (2) are ignorant and irrational about public affairs.” No cheerleader of democracy he.

Even the media, those Chomskyan master manipulators, are let off the hook, as they merely cater to the appetites of Alexander Hamilton’s “great beast.” “Just as a people get the government they deserve, they also get the media they deserve.”

As Shenkman observes, several times, such a stance is pretty much taboo in America, or really any democracy, but it does draw attention to what is a perennial problem: the call for The People (the capitals are his) to perform a civic duty they are mostly uninterested in and almost entirely unequipped for.

But this was, as I’ve said, 2009. Was there no sign of hope?

For those who live on hope — and don’t we all — several developments of the last decade or so are promising.

I find the Internet promising

I find blogging promising.

Where they may lead is anybody’s guess. But one can hope that they will give the intelligent the tools needed to take political campaigns to a higher level rather than merely empowering, as sometimes currently seems the case, nitwits, extremists, and the obnoxious.

Well, blogging is dead and we know where the promise of the Internet led. I don’t think the question of how stupid we are is as concerning now as how stupid we’re going to get.

Notes:
Review first published online June 22, 2020.

Heinrich Himmler

HEINRICH HIMMLER
By Peter Longerich

In the lives of the leading figures of the Nazi establishment there’s often a large gap between an individual and their historical significance. In his biography of Goebbels, Peter Longerich could make something out of this, using it to gain a greater psychological insight into his subject. In this equally massive biography of Himmler it’s more of a problem.

For Longerich, Himmler’s private life was absorbed by his public persona. The SS was in many ways a product of Himmler’s own inhibited personality, but at the same time it came to define him. You couldn’t separate the man from the uniform. “Gradually the personality and the office became one.”

This is, then, very much a professional biography. About Himmler’s inner life Longerich remains circumspect. But was there all that much to say? I don’t think Longerich had access to the cache of letters between Himmler and his wife that formed the basis for the documentary The Decent One, but then I don’t see where they would have changed anything in his assessment. Himmler was a conservative prig, though bitter enough to succumb to fringe fantasies of mystical and racist claptrap, perhaps as a way of making up for his own inadequacies. It’s hard to see what it was he was any good at, or what he would have made of his life without the Nazi party.

Unfortunately, this makes Longerich’s book a hard slog, at times little more than a detailed calendar of Himmler’s various official functions. Things are made worse by the fact that Longerich, at least in translation, is an even duller writer than Ian Kershaw. There are interesting historical tidbits thrown up, and it’s no doubt a reliable resource, but this is a book that’s hard to read from cover to cover and it doesn’t tell us much more about its subject than we already knew.

Notes:
Review first published online May 24, 2020.

The View from Flyover Country

THE VIEW FROM FLYOVER COUNTRY
By Sarah Kendzior

Meeting the 18th president of the United States was an experience that forced Henry Adams to reconsider much of the prevailing scientific thought of his day:

That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called—and should actually and truly be—the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

Imagining what Adams would think of the presidency of Donald Trump is too depressing to want to consider. But we may take Trump’s ascendancy to the highest office in the land as making ludicrous many of our own intellectual shibboleths. Foremost among these is the notion of modern society being a meritocracy. Would you refute America as meritocracy? One might kick at Trump as Samuel Johnson did a rock and declare “I refute it thus!”

Or, as Sarah Kendzior puts it, “Over the past few decades, the U.S. has turned into a country where the circumstances into which you are born increasingly determine who you can become.” Those circumstances are primarily one’s socioeconomic status, but also relate to race, gender, and the year of one’s birth. The much maligned Millennials, to take Kendzior’s own cohort, are the “screwed generation.” It’s not a judgment I would argue against. I feel sorry for these people. They live, as Kendzior puts it in a nice image, “in the tunnel at the end of the light.”

Many of the essays in The View from Flyover Country deal with the job situation in the media and academia, being the two sectors of the economy that Kendzior is most personally invested in (she is a columnist with a Ph.D.). I would have liked a broader analysis, but you have to write what you know. As it stands, her conclusion that “In multiple professions, workers are performing nearly identical tasks for radically different salaries” is limited, though the principle does have some purchase outside journalism and education.

Meritocracy is, largely, a myth. Privilege is leveraged to maintain itself in all walks of life. The current social structure is based on luck and then multiplied through the so-called Matthew effect (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”) As inequality deepens this will only become more obvious and more of a problem. The process of de-evolution from Washington to Trump is just the beginning.

“The first step to topping a meritocracy is recognizing that it is not a meritocracy.” From there, however, any correction will probably require far more radical steps than we can currently imagine. In the wake of Trump and the Covid-19 crisis most people want a return to normal. It is essential, Kendzior reminds us, “we remember that ‘normal’ is how we got here.”

Notes:
Review first published online May 7, 2020.

I Am Dynamite!

I AM DYNAMITE!
By Sue Prideaux

I like it when I learn something from a book, and I learned quite a bit from I Am Dynamite!, Sue Prideaux’s biography of Friedrich Nietzsche. That said, I’m sure this was mostly because I’d never read a biography of Nietzsche before but had gotten by on the sketches that came with introductions to his work or discussions of his philosophy. Add to this the layers of myth that have always surrounded the man, constantly in need of being cut away, and Prideaux’s book made a real difference in my understanding of the man.

For example: I’d always known that Nietzsche was “sickly,” but this really doesn’t cover the half of it. His eyesight was very poor (in fact he was nearly blind) and a sensitivity to light gave him debilitating headaches while requiring the wearing of sunglasses most of the time. He also suffered from hemorrhoids, migraines, and digestive disorders (his bowels further wrecked by the medicine of the day). I also knew he’d had an accident involving a horse that restricted his army service but wasn’t aware of its severity. What happened is that he speared himself on the pommel of his saddle, resulting in a chest wound so deep he could see bone. In later life he would claim “200 days of torment a year” from various afflictions. Is it any wonder his philosophy would be so concerned with the health of the individual?

Another eye-opener had to do with influences. I knew, from Will Durant, that Nietzsche was “the child of Darwin and the brother of Bismarck.” And his borrowings from Schopenhauer are obvious and have been much analysed. What I was surprised by was just how much Wagner’s romantic musings on the Dionysian had contributed to The Birth of Tragedy, and how much Paul Rée contributed to Nietzsche’s aphoristic style and the idea of there being a genealogy of morals. How much of Nietzsche’s impact was the result of his originality, and how much due to his simply pursuing current ideas into the red zone of shock and discomfort?

On a more mundane level, I had thought typewriters were a slightly older invention. But it was only in 1882 that Nietzsche took possession of an early prototype (a Hansen’s Writing Ball). Apparently it was damaged in transit and never worked as it should, though with Nietzsche’s eyesight it might not have been of much use anyway. Which was, perhaps, for the best. “Our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts,” he was led to observe. Truly a thought ahead of its time.

Was Nietzsche’s a life of disappointments, or did he not know what he wanted? Somehow — it really was a lucky break — he became close friends with his idol Wagner. Then they fell out. He got a job as a tenured professor at the age of 24, without even having completed his doctorate, but hated the job and committed professional suicide by writing entirely un-academic books. He pursued Lou Salomé, perhaps romantically, but I think we feel relief that things never went any further.

Was he learning something from all of this? Surely something not only about the vanity of human wishes but their perversity.

Notes:
Review first published online May 2, 2020.

War With Russia?

WAR WITH RUSSIA? FROM RUSSIA & UKRAINE TO TRUMP & RUSSIAGATE
By Stephen F. Cohen

There’s a curious way that in the most polarized political environments, such as we see in the United States today, the left and right ends of the spectrum bend towards each other to make a circle. The overlap between supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is just one notable example of this.

A lot of this, I believe, is due to the way, when politics is defined by anger and hate, the enemy of one’s enemy becomes a friend. Stephen F. Cohen exemplifies this process pretty neatly. He knows who he hates: the bipartisan U.S. national security establishment and the mainstream media. Anything that disrupts these elite establishments or discomfits their mandarins is a force to be welcomed and encouraged. And so, enter Cohen’s champion: Donald J. Trump. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Cohen begins from a position that I find reasonable. Indeed, it mirrored my own in 2016. I agree that it was Boris Yeltsin, more than his inheritor Vladimir Putin, who set Russia off on a disastrous anti-democratic trajectory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I also think it’s true that much of the behaviour that Putin has been accused of most vehemently by the West has been reactive in nature, responding primarily to an aggressive American foreign policy.

During the 2016 election I would even have agreed with Cohen that a less antagonistic approach toward Russia, of the kind signaled by Trump, made a lot of sense. Since then, however, it has become abundantly clear that Trump has no conception of, much less interest in, the national interest and that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election for the purpose of helping Trump. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that Trump’s businesses were in debt to Russian interests and perhaps pretty heavily compromised by them as well.

About this there has been a great deal of reporting. Whole books have been written on the subject. The Mueller Report concluded that “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in a sweeping and systematic fashion.” Putin has admitted before all the world that Trump was his preferred candidate in the 2016 election. It’s long been known that the only thing that has kept Trump from further bankruptcies has been Russian money, provided in ways that make no sense to outsiders. This has given rise to much speculation about buying influence and money laundering – speculation that is entirely justified given how these operations are known to operate – but the nature of Trump’s Russian connections has, with tremendous effort and some well-documented lies, thus far remained concealed from view.

As more facts came to light, the dossier on Trump and Russia kept getting darker. But this led Cohen, in a most Trumpian fashion, to double down in his efforts as an apologist. He sees no evidence whatsoever of any kind of Russian meddling in the election. This is all a hoax and a witch hunt driven by elites, Trumpian language that he doesn’t place in quotes, adopting it wholly as his own. Furthermore, he can find no persuasive, consistent, plausible, or coherent motive for Putin to want to back Trump or to weaken the U.S., as though having an ignorant buffoon who openly admires him and wants to do business with him were not preferable to an anti-Russian hawk.

At what point do you give up? When whataboutism reaches the point of asking the media to focus on Joe Biden’s handling of the Ukraine file instead of “condemning Trump based on dubious narratives and foreign connections”? (In Cohen’s defence, this was before Trump’s cynical attempt to withhold money from Ukraine until they performed political favours for him, but still elides the crucial difference that Biden was acting in a public capacity and executing state policy, whatever you think of that policy, while Trump’s dealings were all under the table.) Or when the Steele dossier is held up as “the foundational document of the Russiagate narrative” despite this being categorically untrue at the time and more recently rejected even by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee? Cohen prefers a memo on the matter released by Devin Nunes. Any port in a storm. This is a mind not only closed but with the door locked and the windows boarded up.

In the repetition of the farthest of alt-right talking points we see the real Trump Derangement Syndrome in action: the compulsion to defend Trump at any cost to one’s own self-respect or intellectual integrity. Has any president been treated as harshly by the press as Donald Trump has? I would say probably not, but this is due to Trump being the most corrupt and dishonest president in American history. For Cohen it’s because the media and the political establishment are out to get him. This is how TDS works.

Mere hate is elevated by Cohen into forebodings of the apocalypse. Not only is the squabbling over Ukraine a new Cold War (something which is, in turn, “an elite project”), it is an even more dangerous Cold War than the first (with the attendant neo-McCarthyism worse than the first time around as well). Indeed, Cohen calculates that the Russiagate scandal is the single greatest threat facing the United States today. Not Russia, mind you, but Russiagate. That is, the hoax, the witch hunt. It comes in several notches above the proliferation of nuclear weapons (number four on the list of threats) and climate change (number five).

With such dramatic stakes there can surely be no compromise with the enemy. Sides must be taken, and there can be no going back. Cohen has taken his leap of faith, but gives us no reason to follow him through the looking-glass.

Notes:
Review first published online April 24, 2020.