Personality and Power

By Ian Kershaw

The role of the individual in history is a timeless debating topic precisely because it can never be definitively answered. The flag-bearers for the two opposing sides are usually taken as Thomas Carlyle for the “great man” theory of history and Leo Tolstoy for the importance of fate and larger historical forces. But while “the question has lain close to the centre of historical enquiry ever since the study of history became a professional discipline in the nineteenth century,” Ian Kershaw says that it has mainly been addressed as “a theoretical issue . . . seldom confronted directly and empirically.”

You might think that this is what Kershaw is going to do then in Personality and Power, but it’s a task he’s both well-equipped and temperamentally unsuited for. Kershaw is a dry and painstaking historian, with a prose so geared toward qualification and half-statement that it’s hard to think of him confronting any question directly. In the sentence I just quoted from earlier, for example, I left out how the question of the “individual’s impact on historical change” has only “indirectly . . . lain close to the centre of historical enquiry.” Why “indirectly” when the statement that it only lays “close to the centre” is already vague enough?

This may seem like academic hair-splitting, but Kershaw is always engaged in this kind of rhetoric of half-statement, taking two steps forward and then sometimes two or more steps back. Was Mussolini involved in the assassination of the Socialist leader Matteotti? “Almost certainly he was at least indirectly implicated.” I don’t think you can be less conclusive in only eight words.

So if you’re looking for a direct and empirical answer to the question Personality and Power poses you may be disappointed by some flabby answers. “Without [Lenin] the twentieth century would have been different, if in ways we can only dimly imagine.” Well, sure. Hitler’s “colossal impact on European history during his era was second to none.” OK.

As for the role of the individual vs. historical forces, “Given a unique context that offered the necessary structural conditions, Stalin provides a self-evident case of the importance of the individual in history.” So which is it? The unique context and structural conditions, or the individual? Nothing seems self-evident about this. As for Mussolini, little of his route to power was under his “personal control.” There was “nothing inevitable” about his takeover, because without “the prevailing social, economic, and political preconditions his dictatorship would not have been possible.” I can’t get my head around this. If he was swept to power by the prevailing winds, with little under his control, doesn’t that make his takeover seem more, not less inevitable? Or here Kershaw is on De Gaulle and decolonization: “His achievement should not be exaggerated. The global pressure for decolonization was so strong that it would have happened anyway, whatever the character of the French government. Still, without de Gaulle’s leadership it could well have been a far more thorny path.” Could have. I suppose.

That said, I did find the discussion in Personality and Power to be mostly on point, insightful, and of real value in addressing the central question. The broad conclusions that Kershaw draws probably won’t surprise anyone, basically being elaborations on Marx’s dictum that individuals make history under existing circumstances, but he places them in a context that provides an appropriate historical scaffolding.

That scaffolding also encourages the reader to draw some of their own conclusions, or at least entertain further speculations. I found myself thinking back to an idea Bob Woodward put forward in his book Shadow about how post-Watergate American presidents were consumed by the “myth of the big-time president” and the need to prove themselves through leading the state through some dramatic crisis. And by dramatic crisis what they meant was a global war. One gets the same sense in this book of a number of oversize, big-time national leaders in the first half of the twentieth century followed by a bunch of bureaucrats of lesser stature. It’s a process that even got going before the Second World War though, as Kershaw notes in his introduction to Francisco Franco: “It is, of course, obvious that Franco’s wider impact scarcely compares with that of Hitler and Mussolini, or Lenin and Stalin. He presents a case study in the role and impact of the individual in history at the lower end of the scale.” Because Spain was too weak to get involved in the war (on Franco’s preferred side, anyway) and so sat on the sidelines of history.

Another point that I wondered about was the inverse relation between the immediate, dramatic impact made by revolutionary leaders and how lasting that impact was. The more radical, individually-directed historical changes tended to be the ones that didn’t last. History has a way of ironing out the bumps of oversized personalities. This doesn’t mean that such leaders didn’t “make” history, only that their window for making it was necessarily limited to their own lifetimes. Of course figures like Lenin and Hitler caused incalculable damage, but it’s hard to think of their legacies as anything other than something that had to be, with difficulty, overcome. Meanwhile, a genuine strongman like Josip Broz Tito could only influence his own part of Europe, with a legacy that disappeared on his death because Yugoslavia, like Spain, couldn’t make or break Europe on its own.

Kershaw insists this is not a series of pocket bios but I suspect that’s what most people will be reading it for. The larger question he sets out with, however, is broadly entertained. I thought the importance of luck – a determinative force in history that can’t really be analyzed but which can be of enormous importance – might have been addressed a little more. Also, in the back half of the book there were some figures I wasn’t sure belonged, like Helmut Kohl. And I was puzzled as to why Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was not only left out but not so much as mentioned anywhere. I realize the question of whether or to what extent Turkey should be considered part of Europe can be complicated, but I still thought his story very much belonged here.

Great men (and one woman, Margaret Thatcher), or broader historical forces? Obviously history is the product of both. A book like this lets us consider the question a little deeper though, and do some of the historical math.

Review first published online February 8, 2023.


The Storm Is Upon Us

By Mike Rothschild

There’s a school of thought, and it’s one I’m inclined to ally with, that has it that the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016 was the result of a publicity stunt or exercise in branding that slipped the guardrails of democracy. If so, it may share something with the phenomenon of QAnon. While there are a few prime suspects, it’s still not known for sure who got the QAnon ball rolling, but more to the point it’s not clear what their aim was. Perhaps, in an attention economy, it was just a way of catching eyeballs and getting clicks. But whatever its initial purpose, even before the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, it was clear that things had gotten well out of hand.

In both cases – Trump and QAnon – the tinder had been prepared in advance and was only now, to borrow the analogy of Evan Osnos in Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, being lit. The question then becomes just why so many people adopted such a crazy belief system, one that had at its heart the idea that “deep state” elites were running a pedophile sex ring and that Donald Trump was the only one capable of having the guilty parties apprehended (and summarily executed). Rothschild has an answer for that, and I think it makes sense:

This is ultimately what brings people to Q, and what keeps them there. The promise of bad people being punished is one element of it, but the feeling of being part of something important and powerful is vastly underestimated. Q believers see themselves as soldiers fighting for the ultimate cause – and are surrounded by people who validate them, rather than insult them. Yes, Q makes mistakes and gets things wrong, and posts on a message board full of the worst people saying the worst things. But that can be explained away, or written off as just another attack by the enemy. What’s real, what’s tangible to Q believers is how it makes them feel. What questions it answers. What holes it fills that other aspects of life don’t. For some, it’s as compartmentalized as that – good feelings shared with a community about something awesome that will happen to people they hate.

In other words, QAnon is a sort of religion. Rothschild spends a fair bit of time discussing its cult-like attributes, with experts weighing in. The biggest argument against such a classification is QAnon’s lack of a clear leadership structure or org chart, but on the most basic level I think we can still talk of a Church of Q. It’s a belief system giving its adherents a meaning and purpose to their lives, a sense of community strengthened by an us vs. them mentality, the faith that justice will finally be served on the wicked, and an outlet for their frustration, anger, and hate. Of course, it all seems silly from the outside, but so does much of what goes viral on the Internet. “Bored and isolated,” Rothschild writes of Q followers, “they went looking for explanations, enemies, and entertainment. And conspiracy theories provided all three.”

The Q movement, like Trumpism, was also aided by plugging into a “rich tapestry of conspiracy theories, ancient hatreds, currency scams, moral panics, and social media rumors,” as well as anti-liberal “populist” attitudes that were becoming deeper and more prevalent at the time. Chief among these latter being a hatred of the government and the media, a hatred that would metastasize with the pandemic lockdown. But with the election of Biden in 2020 and the eventual end of the pandemic, were the phantoms of QAnon laid to rest, or only temporarily banished? Has the storm passed? The fact that the Republican Party had effectively become “the party of Q” during the Trump years and even after doesn’t bode well for the future.

Rothschild’s book does a good job covering a complicated phenomenon “touching numerous different areas of culture, politics, sociology, and technology.” Along the way he alerted me to some points that I’d missed. In particular, I was interested in how QAnon was deliberately marketed to target demographics like Boomers (“as much as seven times more likely to share fake-news stories” on Facebook) and women. I knew nothing at all of the phenomenon of “Pastel QAnon,” which had to do with promoting QAnon by way of female bloggers and influencers who were into wellness and yoga stuff. This is a part of the Internet that’s outside of my own media silo. But given the prominence of women in the movement – the congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, and January 6 rioter Ashli Babbitt – I shouldn’t have been surprised. Q was not a movement exclusive to angry white men, but one made up of an entire class of anxiety- and grievance-filled Americans. A group that hasn’t gone, and won’t easily go, away.

Review first published online December 1, 2022.

Mussolini’s Daughter

By Caroline Moorehead

Writing the biography of very famous people can’t be easy. For some perennially popular subjects the field is now so crowded as to put off any but the most determined or revisionist of historians. And while familiarity hasn’t stopped new biographies of Napoleon, Lincoln, and Hitler appearing every year, with scraps of previously undiscovered material getting turned up every now and then that lead to new perspectives, I think there’s a law of diminishing returns in operation.

One way of getting around this problem is to shift focus to someone close to the main figure in the story who isn’t as well known. One example being Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s Daughter. And now Caroline Moorehead’s account of Edda Mussolini, who was Benito Mussolini’s favourite child.

Edda’s name doesn’t appear in the title or subtitle of Moorehead’s book, perhaps signaling her secondary role in the world-historical events that follow. A famous figure in her day, I think Edda’s largely been forgotten in the years since the end of the Second World War and the collapse of Italy’s Fascist regime. Edda lived to be 84, dying in 1995, but Moorehead’s book skims over her final 50 years in a mere handful of pages. For biographical purposes, Edda life ended with her father hanging by his heels from the roof of a gas station in Milan. “I write, I dream, I drink, I smoke,” is how she described her postwar existence to one friend. “And yet,” she would add, “I continue to live, not vegetate.” Which is setting a low bar.

Edda herself remains a bit mystifying. Moorehead confesses at the outset that “what follows is as close to the truth as I have been able to get.” But does this mean there were hidden depths to Edda’s character, or that there was actually less to her than met the eye? I’m drawn toward the latter position. She and her husband Galeazzo Ciano – for a time Italy’s foreign secretary – became the Fascist poster couple, which may have been incongruous in some ways (particularly given their louche lifestyles) but in so far as they were usually presented to the public as images without much in the way of substance, they fit the bill. Edda wasn’t particularly attractive, but she was tall and thin, while Ciano was a peacock. “Edda and Ciano were everything Mussolini had dreamt of as his model Fascist family: young, healthy, fashionable, forceful and fertile.” But did they even get along?

In terms of personality, Edda was a wild child and very much her daddy’s girl: a hothead “with a taste for dramatic scenes.” She shared many of the same mannerisms (like throwing her head back and sticking her jaw out at someone she was berating) and, even more shocking, the same sexual promiscuity. When asked how she resembled her father she replied “I wouldn’t be able to say the ways in which I do not resemble him. I am a faithful copy.”

For good and ill. She was also her father’s closest confidant and perhaps his only friend, and in this social narrowness she also took after him. I was surprised when I read Moorehead’s account of the sinking of a ship Edda was stationed on (she’d been in her cabin reading P. G. Wodehouse when it was torpedoed). Apparently “her closest friend,” a fellow nurse, died in the attack. The friend’s name didn’t ring any bells and, checking the index, I found out that this was the only mention of her in the entire book.

Who else did Edda like to hang out with? Like a lot of today’s power couples, her marriage to Ciano seems mostly to have been one of mutual convenience. It’s hard to say if she was ever in love with any of her lovers. Apparently she got along well with Magda Goebbels, which doesn’t say much in her favour as Magda seems to have been a very dull woman.

But then wasn’t Edda, despite her glamorous profile (which included an appearance on the cover of Time Magazine in 1939), a bit dull herself? Fiery, to be sure, but still an uneducated peasant girl whose shallowness is evident throughout Moorehead’s account. In Edda’s defence, her position in the Fascist regime was one she didn’t seek and seemed to not particularly enjoy, though the evidence here is ambiguous. Meanwhile, the question of her culpability in the crimes of the Fascist state is one that exercised investigators then and now.

Was she a power behind the throne? Moorehead’s subtitle is taken from a profile of Edda that appeared in an Egyptian magazine, but it has to be given some interpretive shading:

Edda, [the profile] said, “rules her father with an iron fist.” This, certainly, had become the accepted view in many circles, but as with so much else in Edda’s life, it has to be seen in context. Her power was never of a concrete kind, not least because she was a woman, and because she was quickly bored with the minutiae of daily decisions. But her closeness to her father and Ciano’s reliance on her, together with her impatience at equivocation, made her formidable, even when she was least aware of it.

Try parsing that out. A Fascist figurehead unaware and uninterested in her own power? It seems odd, but a similar contradiction also informed Edda’s description of her father as both “feeble and authoritarian.” Which he was, at least at the end, when he’d become a sock puppet or, in Edda’s phrasing, a “rag in the hands of the Germans.”

Of course, Edda herself would deny having any influence in matters of state, though after the war there were good reasons for downplaying any role she might have had. On trial, she remarked “It wasn’t as if I was Helen of Troy.” Of some significance, though again it’s hard to interpret, is her absence from Ciano’s diaries, the preservation of which played such a large part in her escape from Italy at the end of the war. Did her husband see her as not being involved? Was he trying to protect her? Was he jealous of her? We can’t say.

Moorehead does point out that Edda was more pro-war than Ciano, which counts against her on many levels. Italy, for example, just wasn’t ready for war. As Mussolini quipped at the time, “With an army like this, one can declare war only on Peru.” But Il Duce was the decider, and he was growing feeble.

If Edda remains a cipher it’s no fault of Moorehead. As well as being highly readable this is a full and honest account that leaves much to the reader to interpret in their own way. I came away from it thinking of Edda as little more than a high-strung, Fascist fashion model who flew (or was carried) too close to the sun. That she survived the wreckage is testimony to a certain resourcefulness and resiliency, but that’s the best I can say.

Review first published online November 11, 2022.

I Just Wrote This Five Minutes Ago . . .

By Carl Watts

The title of this collection of essays, addressing not just contemporary poetry itself but its reception and what used to be known as the scene, comes from an attitude that Carl Watts (and others) picked up on when attending open mic poetry readings. What it refers to is poets showing up claiming that what they were about to read had only been written that morning, or on the drive over to the venue, or just five minutes ago.

Such a careless attitude didn’t do much to win over other poets, with Watts flagging a “consensus that this practice implied arrogance and a lack of respect for other people’s time and attention.” One of the expectations the audience at a poetry reading might reasonably have had is that there had at least been some “work put in in advance.”

It’s that notion of work that’s central to most of what Watts has to say about poetry. One of his keynotes is the famous line from Auden that poetry makes nothing happen. Poetry doesn’t do any work, and if you’re feeling in a bad mood you might even say it’s without utility or value. When you get right down to it, these are all variations on the question of What’s poetry for?

Watts has a complicated answer to this, seeing the time we spend (or, less charitably, waste) reading poetry as having both a personal and social value:

I see contemporary poetry as a form of expenditure that forges links among disparate practices and parties, sustaining a civil society of (mostly) good-faith engagement that resists value defined as monetary, based on an end product, or instrumental in that it is socially beneficial in some directed or predetermined way.

The critic has a role to play in all this. He does work too. A big part of that work just amounts to reading: digging at the rock face of contemporary poetry. And this is where Watts stands out, as his essays are grounded in a sensitive, eclectic, and intelligent reading of various poets and poems, the majority of whom I was unfamiliar with. Among those I did know, I’ve never found much that’s interesting in the poetry of Rupi Kaur – and Watts himself is “not exactly a fan” – but the essay “recuperating” Kaur is the best analysis yet that I’ve read of her oeuvre and makes a case for her poetry’s value in a credible way, especially in terms of its broadening of poetry’s audience.

On the other hand, Kaur’s status as a celebrity and sales juggernaut – that is, a poet whose primary value is commercial – makes her sui generis. Is her popular, participatory message a poetics, I want to ask, or a brand? Watts does well reading her poetry, but I still came away wondering, as I have for a while, how much Kaur is writing social media and how much social media is writing her. This gets to a larger point about how much Watts sees poetry merely as a vehicle (or perhaps cultural lens), and how much he sees it as expressing its own message (that is, doing work).

Good poetry criticism and good poetry seem to go hand-in-hand. Great poets need great critics. Canada has been blessed with a number of the latter over the last twenty years or so, including names like Carmine Starnino, Jason Guriel, and Michael Lista (a line-up Watts refers to as the “slash-and-burn” reviewers). I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Canadian poetry has had so many highlights during this same period, and I’m only disappointed I haven’t read more of it, knowing there are so many good Canadian poets out there.

Meanwhile, there has been very little quality criticism directed at Canadian fiction. And I suspect there is some connection here to the fact that our fiction, especially the novel, has been in such a depressing rut, with so little recognition either academically or in the media of the best that’s out there. But I digress.

Watts is doing important work (yes, work), though my own preference is for a critical voice closer to what used to be known as literary journalism, back when that was still a thing. I had the sense that Watts was being pulled in two directions, and it was noticeable when he drifted into a more academic style, with the sort of frustrating false precision typical of that kind of writing. Nevertheless, what he’s given us is a well-informed snapshot of poetry today and a vision for how it fits into a larger cultural picture that remains very much in flux. If poetry makes nothing happen, things still happen to it. It’s a story worth our attention.

Review first published online October 24, 2022.

The Lost Battles

By Jonathan Jones

There’s a line of thinking that has it that what made Florence such a cauldron of genius in the Renaissance, indeed what made the Italian Renaissance, was the fury of artistic competition. Competition, and this is a related point that’s rarely remarked on, which was often very public in nature, and judged to the highest standards.

If competition was this important, the contest between the two titans of the day, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, who were commissioned in 1504 to paint battle frescos in the Great Council Hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, might have been the defining event of the age.

It might have been, but neither of the frescos was painted. All we have are designs and reconstructions, most notably Raphael’s of the Battle of Anghiari and Aristotele de Sangallo’s of the Battle of Cascina (a reproduction of the latter strangely missing from this otherwise well-illustrated book). And yet, the imagination can dwell just as much on a painting lost. At least that’s what Jonathan Jones concludes at the end of his captivating account of the great duel:

The lost Battles of Leonardo and Michelangelo are as available to us, as real, as any work of art, for all art requires imagination and thought to truly enjoy it. Almost because the originals are not visible, the process of reconstructing these great works in our minds can gives us a stronger feeling for them than we might have for many a well-preserved painting. Their first audience responded to the concepts and images that were in them, not to details of execution. So can we. There are enough preparatory drawings, copies, written descriptions, and allusions in later works to make these vanished pictures astonishingly real. In the end this is simply the immediacy of the greatest art.

There’s something to this, though I think contemporary viewers responded to details of execution as well. Leonardo’s Last Supper, for example, is only a blur even after restoration, but the concept makes it iconic. And it’s possible Leonardo was aware of this, as he did have trouble finishing things.

Review first published online September 27, 2022.

The Lost Decade

THE LOST DECADE 2010 – 2020
By Polly Toynbee and David Walker

Given the horrors of the last ten years and the “rightward lurch” toward authoritarianism in Western countries, it’s easy to forget the opportunity costs. Nothing, like something, happens anywhere, as Philip Larkin once observed.

So while all the bad somethings marched on – the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law being the chief examples – the nothings piled up too. Nothing done to address the threat of climate change. No attempt to repair crumbling infrastructure. No growth in wages (what led the Bank of England to call this a “lost decade” in the UK). Problems that were already going to be difficult to deal with were on the way to becoming irremediable given the level of social and economic breakdown.

This political survey of the second decade of the twenty-first century in Britain manages to cover most of the bad things that happened as well as the good things that didn’t. Strictly in terms of politics these years were marked by a Tory ascendancy, and an increasingly radical one at that. The hard-right turn of the Tories is likened to what happened with the Russian Revolution from 1905 to 1917, and the French Revolution going from the Girondins to the Jacobins. It’s hard to feel good about such historical comparisons.

But why did this happen? As is the case with any dramatic social transformation we have to look at both long-term and more proximate causes, and a quest to find any single explanation will likely come up short. For Brexit as for the election of Trump we can point fingers everywhere. Bad times (“austerity” in Britain) often lead to bad politics.

“Brexit is polymorphous; it’s simultaneously about England and the UK, about the UK and Europe; about attitudes, instincts, sensibilities, places, races, self-image, reputation; about institutions, not just parliament. It’s a long list.” Given all this, it’s little surprise that Brexit itself was a mess of contradictions: little England nationalism allied with free-trade libertarianism. Though one supposes that the nationalism was for the plebs while libertarianism, as always, was something only to be enjoyed by those at the top.

Still, if I had to single out just a couple of causes for Britain’s malaise (not so different from our own in North America), I’d settle on the following.

In the first place: voter passivity. In their interviews, Toynbee and Walker express some surprise at voters who had little knowledge or even curiosity about what was happening. Given a chance to initiate fair voting reforms in 2011, voters stayed home: only two out of five showed up, and 68% of those plumped for the status quo. This apathy – product of a general sense of personal well-being (politically, not always a good thing) – allowed the energized base of the right to set the course. Yes, the best lack all conviction and the worst really are full of passionate intensity.

The second point that I think is worth flagging is the generational divide. I’m reluctant to bash the Boomers more than I have already, but if the shoe fits then they should wear it. Whatever one thinks of how things have turned out, this is very much the world the Boomers made, and one they continue to dominate politically and economically. In the Brexit vote “victory was swung by Tory voters . . . who were relatively prosperous. And older. Age tipped the outcome everywhere: retired people in strongly pro-remain London backed leave in similar proportions to the retired of Yorkshire, the north-west and Wales.” Next up, the 2017 election “was the first where age was a stronger predictor of voting intention than social class.”

There’s more to this than the relatively recent (Boomer-driven) development that has seen seniors become an economic elite, or at least better-off, on average, than any other age demographic. Older people are also the most resistant to change. As has often been remarked, we usually get more conservative as we get older, and harken back to imagined good ol’ days when Britain or America were great. Privilege then becomes a double-edged sword.

Older people were some of the most satisfied according to the well-being scores – yet also the most dissatisfied, if their voting patterns said anything about their emotional state. In the UK, life satisfaction now reached its peak between the ages of seventy and seventy-four. The “old” felt life was most worthwhile, as indeed it certainly was for most of them, economically. Odd, though, that the group most regretting lost Britishness were, on these measures, personally today’s happiest.

Why did the most spoiled generation in the history of civilization (remember that this is a Western phenomenon) turn out like this? In large part, I think, precisely because they were so spoiled. Neoliberalism wasn’t a reaction against the counterculture of the 1960s but its natural fruition. Having been given the world, what could the Boomers want but more? Alas, “To age is to crumble” (Toynbee and Walker are talking about infrastructure here). The response to that inevitable fate has been bitterness and rage. The mess that’s left will be for someone else to clean up.

Review first published online July 18, 2022. The Boomers never gave up. A November 2022 YouGov poll of British voters found that 56% of people thought the decision to leave the EU was wrong and only 32% still thought it was right. The only age group to still register a majority still in favour of Brexit (and this was six years later, after its failure was abundantly clear) was the over-65s.  57% of that cohort supported Brexit, with the other age brackets breaking down as 37% of 50-64s, 21% of 21-49s, and 11% of 18-24s.

Arguing with Zombies

By Paul Krugman

One thing that becomes clearer as you get older is that there’s no point in arguing with some people. Unless it’s a subject they truly have no interest in whatsoever, their minds are usually made up.

This is especially the case if it’s a matter they feel some personal investment in. The mindset then becomes like that of a cult. Think of fandom, in the realm of the cult of celebrity. Or, in the field of ideas, true believers in the cybertopia being fashioned by the digital revolution, or acolytes of the neoliberal ideology that free markets create the best of all possible worlds when set free from all government regulation. To hold such truths to be self-evident, natural, ineluctable laws, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is to mark oneself as one of the elect.

For Paul Krugman it is the neoliberal faith, specifically that cutting taxes on the wealthy will inevitably result in greater economic growth and prosperity (what is now the sole remaining policy plank of the Republican Party), is a “zombie” or “cockroach” idea. Indeed, it is the “ultimate zombie” idea, one that has been shambling about now for well over a century. And this despite the fact that it has been tested repeatedly over the past fifty years and been proven false.

What adds to the pointlessness of arguing with zombies is the fact that we inhabit a cheerfully post-truth, post-fact media ecosystem, largely operated by the very groups who stand to profit most from the dissemination of such toxic ideas. “We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence is that it’s wrong.”

Given this state of affairs, you have to wonder why Krugman even bothers. As I started off by saying, there’s little point arguing with true believers about these matters. One of the better pieces included here is an analysis of the dangers of widening economic inequality, and a dismantling of the various right-wing arguments (more zombie ideas) defending this growing gap. It’s the oldest essay in the book, first published in 1992. Since then the situation Krugman describes has only gotten worse, while the same “conservative” (in reality, radical redistributionist) arguments in its defence continue to be made.

One can’t be pessimistic enough about where all this is headed. In 2014, writing on the sharp rightward turn of the Republican Party into a kind of fever swamp of mass insanity, Krugman signs off thusly: “An ugly political scene is about to get even uglier.”

It certainly did, and quickly. Is it even possible to imagine when things will start getting better?

Review first published online July 11, 2022. One point I wish Krugman had expanded on is how zombie ideas are manufactured and propagated. In think-tanks and through right-wing media, yes, but some further examination would have been helpful. We can blame “the rich” (as in “Why do Republicans adhere to a tax theory that has no support from nonpartisan economists and is refuted by all available data? Well, ask who benefits from low taxes on the rich, and it’s obvious.”) but I’d like him to name names, and give some numbers (they exist) on just how much the rich and the powerful profit from peddling their ideological snake oil. They spend an incredible amount on lobbying and media manipulation, but the return on their investment is even more amazing and should be more reported on.


By Evan Osnos

I’ve written before about how the dominant political emotion of our age is anger, a point brought home just by looking at a list of some of the titles I’ve reviewed: Gavin Esler’s The United States of Anger, Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage, Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, and even the second book of Bob Woodward’s trilogy on the Trump presidency, Rage.

In Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury Evan Osnos tries to come to grips with this same phenomenon. For the most part, his diagnosis runs along what have now become clearly established lines, with the fuel for America’s fury being provided by the decades-long growth in economic and social inequality. As the sociologist Nicholas Christakis has found, inequality is a social cancer, one that has “subverted group cohesion, making people less cooperative, less friendly, and ultimately less able to work together.” Government is no longer able to offer a solution, as one of America’s two effective parties (and in any first-past-the-post electoral system there can only be two effective parties) has now defined itself as at war with the very concept of using federal power for any other purpose than deepening inequality. This becomes a vicious circle. The wrecking crew destroys government, leading to more people blaming government for being ineffective.

The public has given up. Shuttling between Clarksburg, West Virginia and the South Side of Chicago, Osnos picks up on “a sensation that was calcifying in America’s political culture – a feeling of being trapped by an undertow of economics and history, of being ill-served by institutions, of being estranged from a political machinery that was refined, above all, to serve itself.” Government had become identified with the dreaded elites, while being unresponsive to and unrepresentative of the people.

The larger fact was that, year by year, the West Virginia public was losing faith in politics at all. In 1960, more than 75 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots – almost 14 percent more than the national average. By 2012, West Virginia’s turnout had sunk to 46.3 percent, the second-lowest level in America. Over the decades, the compounding effects of political cynicism and influence had broken public faith in government.

I mentioned Clarksburg and Chicago as two of Osnos’s ports of entry into America’s Wildlands (a term firefighters use to describe dried-out terrain that provides perfect tinder for forest fires). The third place he goes to is Greenwich, Connecticut. This last is a place not like the others, being the sort of Emerald City where the economy’s winners (principally hedge-fund managers and people working in finance) have built their fortress-style McMansions. But though living in another world, the citizens of Greenwich are part of the same story:

As Americans reckoned with the origins of our political moment – the Trump years, the fraying of a common purpose – we tended to focus on the effects of despair among members of the working class who felt besieged by technology, globalization, immigration, and trade. But that ignored the effects of seclusion among members of the governing class, who helped disfigure our political character by thrusting absolutists into positions of power and then ignoring their violence – all while enfeebling the basic functions of the state. They had secured their control over the levers of democracy but disowned the consequences of its deterioration. They had receded behind gracious walls.

The point Osnos is making is that while on the most visible level inequality favours the few at the expense of the many, in fact it’s bad for everybody. I think this is right, and the effects are probably even worse for the ruling class, at least in moral terms. That said, where would you want to live, Greenwich or Clarksburg?

There is also a warning implicit in the metaphor of the wildfire, which will burn everything down when it’s lit. This idea of a wildfire suggests political revolution, and it may well be that we’ll look back upon the Trump years, culminating in the assault on the Capitol buildings, as a kind of revolution. I dislike revolutions though, preferring the natural evolution of political systems as they adapt to deal with emerging changes and crises. The problem with revolutions is they have a bad habit of spinning off in directions no one anticipated or desired.

But what is to be done? I quoted Osnos earlier talking about America’s “calcifying” political culture. This is a word that brought to mind Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, which saw America as sclerotic and sterile. In short: old. This is no longer the America of Paine and Emerson, issuing radical calls to make the world new. Instead it’s an America of affluent retirees, where the average age of a Senator is 63 and the last presidential election was between two men over the age of 70 who were both in pretty obvious mental decline. The greatest threat to such a governing class is change, any change. As Osnos observes, by 2020

Money and concerted obstruction [in Washington] were damning the natural routes of political evolution. This was easy to overlook because it was less a matter of what was happening than what was not happening. Historically, Americans had maintained the fitness of democracy by amending the Constitution, on average, at least once a decade. But that pace had stalled for half a century. Other than a minor amendment in 1992, to raise congressional salaries, the last major change to the Constitution was in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to eighteen. Despite campaigns for the Equal Rights Amendment, to prevent gender discrimination, and for reforming the Electoral College, Americans had entered the longest stretch without a substantive amendment since before the Civil War. The sclerosis extended to the inhabitants themselves. The Senate was the oldest in history, including eight octogenarians, nearly twice the number who had ever served at one time.

Canada is in no better shape. We seemingly can do nothing to make any changes to our dysfunctional electoral system, or reform our Senate, a body that serves no purpose whatsoever. So instead we lurch from crisis to crisis, while our politics, shaped by the first-past-the-post system become ever more polarized.

Wildland is a well-written and insightful book of on-the-ground reporting. It also gives me no hope for the future. If we can’t choose to change, and direct that change, then change will eventually be thrust upon us. And we aren’t going to like that one bit.

Review first published online April 25, 2022.

The Anatomy of Fascism

By Robert O. Paxton

Robert Paxton begins this authoritative account of fascism by calling it “the major political innovation of the twentieth century.” There’d been nothing like it before, and some would argue we haven’t seen anything like it since 1945.

Grounding fascism’s origins in the conditions specific to post-First World War European society may limit it somewhat, but I think fairly so. In his penultimate chapter on fascism as it has appeared in “Other Times, Other Places,” what Paxton shows is how the movement’s twin ur-types (Italian Fascism and German Nazism) now only provide a toolkit for contemporary authoritarians. But to the question of “Can it happen here?” (meaning the West, and more specifically America) he provides a monitory send-off (and remember, this is 2004):

The well-known warning signals – extreme nationalist propaganda and hate crimes – are important but insufficient. Knowing what we do about the fascist cycle, we can find more ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery. Fascists are close to power when conservatives begin to borrow their techniques, appeal to their “mobilizing passions,” and try to co-opt the fascist following.

There is nothing unique to fascism in this. The great political –isms have all gone the same way, evolving into new forms. Communist China has little to do with anything anyone in the nineteenth, or even much of the twentieth century would recognize as communist. Populism has had its meaning hijacked by its enemies, a process recently described by Thomas Frank in his book The People, No. It’s almost impossible to say where liberalism lines up today, whether it be something progressive or neoliberal or libertarian.

I use the word evolve to describe this transformation, as the great –isms have adapted to a changing political environment while converging in their development into a new species of political power: a global caste of tech-enabled kleptocrats without any political ideology beyond self-enrichment. In this they may be seen as representing what will turn out to be the major political innovation of the twenty-first century.

But the new authoritarians aren’t entirely new. As Ronald Syme put it in his classic work on the end of the Roman Republic: “In all ages, whatever the form and nature of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade.” Today’s ruling elites constitute a more cynical and, perhaps paradoxically, less politically engaged class than previous historical examples, but they are no less dangerous (even if less militaristic) or efficient in their capture of state resources. They have learned to take advantage of new opportunities and public anxieties, from immigration and economic disruption to increasing inequality, political polarization, and the baneful effects of social media. Fascism, in brief, is no longer the threat it was but only because it has mutated into something that authoritarians have found works better for them.

Review first published online April 18, 2022.

The Decadent Society and On Decline

By Ross Douthat

By Andrew Potter

It’s ironic that the age of postmodernism – broadly, the back half of the twentieth century – among whose foundational beliefs is the invalidity of historical meta-narratives, has itself been characterized by many historians as representing one of the clearest, and certainly most recent, examples we have of such a meta-narrative in operation.

What I’m referring to is the myth of a decline from a golden age. The golden age in this context refers to what Eric Hobsbawm, in his magisterial history of the twentieth century Age of Extremes, more specifically called the golden age of capitalism, and which ran from roughly the early 1950s to the early 1970s. During this period Western economies boomed, there was rapid technological progress, internal improvements were the order of the day, and societies became more egalitarian.

The 1970s saw a swing away from all this, a turn often seen as triggered by the oil shock and identified as a hard turn to the political right and the neoliberal agenda of leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Wages stagnated. Economic inequality grew. Environmental issues like pollution, extinction, and global climate change went from being persistent and intractable to lost causes. Even life expectancies began to decline for the first time since we started recording them.

Scientists began talking about “peak science,” that from now on we were going to spend more and more time, money, and effort to learn less and less, while in the cultural field commentators began to take note of the triumph of nostalgia. “As it evolves into the dominant mood of the twenty-first century,” Andrew Potter writes, “nostalgia culture has just become the culture, one where consumer crazes and social media shivers amount to little more than the context-free curation of the past.”

I’ve written a lot about this point myself in regard to Canada’s fetishizing of a golden age of CanLit, but it’s a phenomenon that’s widely attested elsewhere. Kurt Andersen, perhaps the first person to sound the alarm on the nostalgia cult, is fixated on the subject in his book Fantasyland. In Hatchet Job the film critic Mark Kermode makes the argument that movies peaked in terms of their popularity as far back as the 1930s and ‘40s and that “to all intents and purposes we are now merely sifting through the wreckage of an art form whose popular supremacy has long been superseded.” That’s true, and what’s more to the point, how many of our biggest movies today are remakes, reboots, and legacy intellectual properties going on fifty years-old that have now been turned into franchises? Quite a lot of them.

Music? As recently reported by Ted Gioia, old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, and it’s a trend that’s worsening: “The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago.” I was struck by this most recently when listening in to a neighbour’s house party and hearing nothing but songs from the 1980s. What, I wondered, has happened to today’s kids, to be so much in love with the music of their parents, or even grandparents? But maybe the kids were alright. Perhaps the question I should have been asking is what had happened to their music.

How can one live in such a social, political, and cultural moment and not start to think about stagnation and decline? Ross Douthat and Andrew Potter are two writers whose thoughts have turned in that direction, and in The Decadent Society and On Decline they present very similar takes on the problem. From their analysis only dismal conclusions can be drawn.
Though it’s much shorter (it’s part of the Biblioasis series of Field Notes), On Decline strikes me as having the firmest grip on what’s going on. Front and center is the historical myth of boom and bust, golden age and fall. For Potter, as for many observers of the period, the golden age wasn’t an example of the inevitability of progress so much as a historical blip brought about largely by a wealth of easily exploited energy resources. In the post-WW2 period we hadn’t advanced to some higher state of civilization but only won a lottery:

Our mistake was believing that the world had figured things out in a way that was more or less stable and permanent. It turns out that this period of stability and growth was temporary. Progress itself was something that fed off a massive one-time windfall we gained access to in the nineteenth century. We didn’t climb a ladder, we stumbled into a buffet. We’ve been feasting off that buffet for a few centuries now. Unfortunately, it looks like the party is coming to an end.

Having gorged ourselves at this buffet, or sucked dry what Potter elsewhere calls the post-WW2 “oasis” of low-hanging fruit, we are now coming up against the hard limits of growth. Douthat likens what’s happening to the frontier thesis of the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, which saw the American West as giving rise to a spirit of democracy and egalitarianism in that country. In turn, the frontier’s closing (dated 1890) could be taken as marking a high tide in these values. Douthat thinks this “can be usefully applied to the entire modern project” because “bedrock assumptions” like perpetual progress can now be seen as having been based upon our expansion into new worlds that no longer exist. There’s no more free land, or free lunch.

Another analogy I had brought to mind was that put forward by Pierre Berton in his book 1967: Canada’s Turning Point. Why, Berton wondered, looking back thirty years later, were we so nostalgic for the Centennial?

By a number of measurements we are a great deal better off today than we were thirty years ago. We are healthier and we are wealthier than we were in 1967. The real net worth of the average Canadian is almost double what it was back then. Babies born today can expect to live longer – six years more than the centennial crop of babies. The death rate for infants has dropped from twenty-two per thousand to six. Far fewer mothers die in childbirth. And, as far as minority groups are concerned, we live in a much more tolerant society and one that is far less repressed.

Why, then, do we look back to 1967 as a golden year compared to 1997? If we are better off today, why all the hand wringing?

In answering that question Berton suggests various reasons, like the fear of the country splitting apart, but more broadly he draws a connection to an aging population. What happened from 1967 to 1997? The Boomers got old, and with their youth went their optimism and dreams for a golden future.

We were all high in 1967, like somebody who has just won the lottery. Expo taught us to go first class, and we reveled in the pride that inspired. In those days we felt secure as Canadians, confident enough to push for a better, freer life. We did not count the cost until the bills began to come in. The years that followed had some of the effects of a hangover after a binge.

The buffet, the oasis, winning the lottery, the drunken binge – they all work as metaphors. The point being that now the party’s over. The optimism, confidence, and sense of security enjoyed in the golden age is gone.

This is bad news because, as Ross Douthat argues, progress is a necessary fiction for modern societies. Indeed, he even goes further and equates the notion of progress with civilization itself. What happens when we stop believing in our very purpose?

The biggest effect this loss of faith has had so far is on our politics. A society that sees itself, correctly or not, as being stuck in a state of (terminal) decline will be first and foremost one that is, paradoxically, resistant to changing course. All change will be seen as change for the worse, or as losing everything in what is a zero-sum game (hence the current vogue for seeing every crisis as “existential”). A voter’s prime directive becomes holding on to one’s privileged lifestyle. The beneficiaries of the banquet/oasis/post-War party were the Boomers and, being old, they are the ones who now have the most to lose. What Douthat means by a decadent society is one that can be characterized more accurately as a society of retirees, with stagnation being synonymous with sclerosis and sterility (both being words that he uses). The whole world, to paraphrase Eliot, is our nursing home. Or, per Douthat:

we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, burrowing into cocoons from which no chrysalis is likely to emerge, growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens.

Those screens, in turn, are our invitation into more comforting virtual realities, the environment of Andersen’s fantasyland. True belief being no longer necessary for survival, we are cut free to believe anything we want in what Steven Pinker calls the tragedy of the belief commons. Here is Potter on the political endgame brought about by the closing of the Western mind as well as the political frontier:

It’s the simple fact of economic expansion that inclines people towards feelings of openness and toleration and that inspires trust in our democratic institutions. Just as the knowledge the pie will keep getting bigger makes people more generous in the divvying up of that pie, the sense that we can expect things to get even better – no matter where we currently are on the development curve – acts as a sort of bellows of fellow-feeling, making people more hopeful for the future and more generous-minded. More than anything else, the mere fact of growth is a signal that the future will be better than the past.

Unsurprisingly, the opposite holds during periods of stagnation, when zero-sum thinking kicks in. When the economy stops growing or even starts to shrink, people become fearful for the future, suspicious of immigrants and diversity in general, and distrustful of democracy. Stagnation breeds authoritarianism – that, of course, is one of the great lessons of the 1930s, as the Great Depression drove diverse, democratic populations toward nationalism and into the arms of fascist dictators. While there are no iron-clad laws of history, economic stagnation and the decline of liberal democracy are strongly linked.

Not a happy ending, but these are books about the end of the world as we knew it. Is that decline, or decadence, or something new that we can’t identify yet? I think the answer lies in our past, which gives me little hope for the future.

Review first published online March 21, 2022.