Sons of Cain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Team of Vipers

TEAM OF VIPERS
By Cliff Sims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, if you put it that way!

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

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

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

Notes:
Review first published online June 18, 2019.

The United States of Anger

THE UNITED STATES OF ANGER
By Gavin Esler

This shouldn’t happen. Timely books such as BBC reporter Gavin Esler’s survey of the political climate in America in the mid-1990s have an extremely limited shelf life. In most cases they are only slightly more enduring than the essays found in weekly magazines. So why return to Esler’s book now, over twenty years after it was published? In part, idle curiosity. But also to see how evident, or even obvious, the roots were of the calamities to come. Were we warned?

As I’ve argued before, the primary (and perhaps only) ideological constant shared by today’s political right is their hatred of government. Whether you’re a billionaire looking for tax breaks and deregulation, a libertarian with a hatred of the nanny state, or a survivalist eagerly anticipating the last days of civilization, the government has become not just an obstacle but a demonic adversary. This is the tie that binds together what Noam Chomsky calls the Republican party’s primary or real constituency (wealth and corporate power) with its popular or voting constituency (the rubes). It is also the force that unites the widespread anger, anxiety, and apathy Esler finds throughout his travels across the nation, the way “the US government is now routinely blamed by many of its citizens for every ill which befalls them.”

Esler begins his book with an anecdote of a woman vacationing in Florida who is told to address her complaints of an alligator in her backyard to a government official. “‘Pah,’ she exploded in disgust. ‘What good did government ever do anybody?’ The word ‘government’ was delivered like a swear-word.” The same observation is made when Esler travels to New Hampshire and meets another such figure:

Choo Choo Caron folds his arms across his chest and purses his lips angrily at the mere mention of the government in Washington. Like the woman tourist in Florida, and countless other taxpayers throughout this book, for Choo Choo “government” is almost a swear word.

The “red scare” of the Cold War had been replaced by the “fed scare” of the 1990s, and not just among the lunatic fringe. “The angriest Americans [that is, angry at the government] turn out to be neither poor nor uneducated nor from racial minorities. They are the white, well-educated middle-classes.”

The result of this is both the delegitimizing of government and the “search for a third party, an independent force of ‘anyone but a politician,’” to run for president. This has, Esler writes, “led voters into eccentric blind alleys,” throwing up figures like the billionaires Ross Perot and Steve Forbes and the television personality Pat Robertson. In the future, he prophesies, such faux-populist figures “will seek to bring about the collapse of one or other of the main political parties. Eventually they will succeed. A genuine third force will destroy either the Republicans or the Democrats.” Chalk one up for the forecaster.

Meanwhile, in the blue corner, we have Hillary Clinton. Esler: “The Clintons [note the plural] are despised by a vocal minority of the angriest Americans well beyond any failures of specific policies” or political successes. “It is difficult to think of a president in modern times who inspires quite as much personal loathing as Bill Clinton does. . . . He and his wife are symbols of the ‘Bad Generation’.”

This, I need to emphasize, was twenty years ago. Such feelings do not go away, especially when their objects remain prominently in the public eye. They ripen. Such was the politician who would want to run against the “third force” of Donald Trump.

Esler also had some ideas at the time as to what issues would come to dominate American politics. Immigration in the 1990s “had again joined the angriest issues dividing Americans from each other, as divisive as race relations and with an explosive potential to bring about serious political dislocation.” In a “malign scenario” he draws of a possible future he describes how “immigration will be the most notable scapegoat for ‘stealing American jobs’” and may fuel scaremongers “into demanding solutions along the protectionist and isolationist lines.” “The shock [of relative American decline] will quickly spill over into foreign policy, with the search for new enemies. The Chinese? The European Union? Mexico? Arabs?”

How about all of the above.

As noted, this is Esler’s malign scenario. He does, however, express confidence that, somehow, the centre will hold and America will not cease to be good and great. With hindsight, however, his darker imaginings have more purchase.

The malign scenario is, as its worst, very frightening indeed. America will come apart, increasingly divided on class and racial lines, staggering under a top-heavy bureaucracy, with an out-of-touch governing elite incapable of reform, buffeted by extremists, religious bigots and unscrupulous populists offering simplistic solutions to a shrinking middle class fearful of change.

Fear of change is, in fact, one of the likeliest guarantors of radical, disruptive change. A society can adapt and evolve or it can face revolution and collapse. In not choosing to make a choice a choice is made. Then apathy, as Esler shows, quickly turns to anger. Which will come too late.

Notes:
Review first published online May 21, 2019.

The Great Degeneration

THE GREAT DEGENERATION
By Niall Ferguson

For many years now it’s been clear that our political glossary has been in need of some updating. Terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” which have always had very different meanings in the United States, Canada, and the U.K., now seem obsolete. Liberal has been superseded by neoliberal, while conservatives clearly don’t want to conserve anything, aside perhaps from networks of established privilege. What do the familiar labels of right and left-wing, an inheritance of the French Revolution, mean anymore? If even leaders of political parties in the U.S. are freely described by the acronym RINO or DINO (Republican or Democrat “In name only”) is it worth keeping the name? What exactly is the “party of Trump”?

For a while now it has seemed to me that the most meaningful political divide, whatever name you want to give the different sides, is that between a party of the state and a party of the anti-state. I prefer anti-state to private sector because I think it highlights what is the more important principle at work. Here is what I had to say about this latter group in my review of Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk:

What is it that has so successfully united the right in the politics of our time? There is little in common between oil company CEOs, country-club conservatives, Tea Partiers, and white males without a college degree or disunionised labour when it comes to economic or even cultural concerns. Instead, what they share is a hatred of the government and an open wish to see it destroyed. Not shrunk, as in previous conservative dispensations, but done away with entirely. Taxes not lowered but abolished. Not less regulation but none at all. The right doesn’t like government and certainly doesn’t see a need for it. Any sort of government action is immediately labeled as socialism. We should just let the market do its work.

As I went on to say in that review, the intellectual foundation or political philosophy of the party of the anti-state was, in the context of American politics, best outlined by Thomas Frank in his book The Wrecking Crew, which came out in 2008. Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration is an expression of the same ideas Frank describes, albeit presented by one of their champions and not a critic.

Ferguson takes as his starting point the fact that after a few hundred years of Western triumph over “the Rest,” sometimes referred to by historians as the Great Divergence, the rest of the world (meaning, mainly, Asia) is now not only catching up but overtaking Europe and North America. “My overarching question is: what exactly has gone wrong in the Western world in our time?”

His answer, to simplify an already short and simple book, is government. Specifically he criticizes moribund – or (it comes to the same thing) “stationary” – political, legal, and economic institutions. It is “institutional degeneration” that leads to decline. What this means in practice is government getting in the way. Like all apologists of the anti-state party Ferguson is a proponent of radical laissez-faire, making him a neoliberal, or libertarian.

As usual, Ferguson presents his case with some sleight of hand, misleading rhetoric, and a few signature moments of eyebrow-raising contrarianism. Public debt, for example, is a great evil, “the single biggest problem facing Western politics.” Ferguson, however, says he doesn’t want to address questions of debt and “sterile arguments between proponents of ‘austerity’ and ‘stimulus’.” Instead he thinks the real issue is the breaking of an intergenerational contract. This then leads him to the embarrassing line that “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they’d all be fans of Paul Ryan.” That is, they would vote for austerity (or “entitlement reform,” as the euphemism has it), but get a massive tax cut to big business that would blow the debt sky-high.

Of course a ballooning debt is not good for young Americans, but Ryan’s politics have always been more about destroying the state than solving existing problems. In working toward that end, his tax bill was an essential bit of legislation, a way of crippling the government if not administering to it a mortal blow. The rest of The Great Degeneration follows the same anti-state line. Did you think that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by a failure of regulation? This is to buy into a statist myth, Ferguson reveals. The global mortgage meltdown was the result of too much regulation! Is technology what’s driving the decline in participation in various civic groups and our going bowling alone? Again, not at all. It is “Not technology, but the state,” which is “the real enemy of civil society.” Is there a cure for a flagging educational system? Yes: more private educational institutions.

“It will be clear by now,” Ferguson writes near the end of his book, at a point where it is indeed very clear, “that I am much more sympathetic . . . to the idea that our society – and indeed most societies – would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. If that is now a conservative position, so be it. Once, it was considered the essence of true liberalism.” By “true liberalism” what is meant is what most people today would call neoliberalism, the essence of which is an attack on the power of the state to do anything other than fight wars and (perhaps) provide a police force. This latter is a point Ferguson wants to underline. “From an historian’s point of view” (or that of a neoliberal think-tank member), “the real risks in the non-Western world today are of revolution and war.” Risks, that is, to the West. So we’d better be ready to deal with the restive Resterners when they start getting jumpy. If the government has a role it’s to provide guns, not butter.

In all of this I am not attacking Ferguson’s ideas so much as trying to properly classify them using a more accurate political terminology than we currently have. My own feeling, however, is that his ideas are very bad and will lead not to an arrest of the great degeneration he describes but an acceleration of the same, particularly in so far as it relates to greater inequality. Ferguson likes to draw an analogy to Darwinism for his analysis, and as far as I can tell he is in effect a modern social Darwinist. He sees the struggle for survival as being the only route to growth. I doubt that growth will be the outcome of such a struggle though, and in any event it’s that very struggle and the random violence of its outcomes that people fashion government to protect themselves from. The idea that getting rid of government will free us all is to take debunked notions of supply-side economics and turn them into not just a panacea but a theology. I also suspect it’s a disingenuous argument, along the lines of championing Paul Ryan’s plans to starve the state or drown it in the bathtub under the guise of creating a more just society.

By being more open as to what they’re all about (as, to their credit, many members of Frank’s wrecking crew are), pundits like Ferguson would do their side a favour and present us with a more honest choice of alternatives than the facile distinction between less government or more government, good government vs. bad. I have nothing against those of Ferguson’s persuasion arguing against the state in all things. They need, however, to be more forthright about just how society in the absence of any effective government is going to work, and for whom.

Notes:
Review first published online December 10, 2018.

A Generation of Sociopaths

A GENERATION OF SOCIOPATHS: HOW THE BABY BOOMERS BETRAYED AMERICA
By Bruce Cannon Gibney

I have a favourite bit of social-historical analysis. It comes from John Kenneth Galbraith and he lays it down as a “firm rule” when considering the cycles of history: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

Galbraith was talking about the French Revolution and the failure of the aristocratic old order to reform itself, but his firm rule has been verified countless times since. In our own day I find it an adage that’s useful to keep in mind when considering things like what sacrifices we can expect people of wealth, power, and privilege to make in order to, say, combat dangerous levels of economic inequality or to fight climate change. The answer is no “material part of their advantage.” In other words, nothing at all.

Bruce Gibney takes the elite and makes them into an age demographic with absolute political power in this passionate polemic directed at what has been fairly dubbed the most spoiled generation in the history of human civilization. These are the children of the Baby Boom, who were born into a well-managed world of peace and prosperity and are leaving behind a toxic crisis of debt, collapsing infrastructure, and environmental destruction. Gibney has a nice image: “The Boomers inherited a productive family farm with a modest mortgage. In twenty years, their children will take over a crumbling estate leveraged to the hilt.” Fully aware of what they have done, they have no regrets. Indeed, they want more, to continue looting society’s till with no thought for a future without them. Their goal has been “to wring every last dollar from the system, and any investment that could not be fully realized within Boomer lifetimes was to be avoided.” The Boomers “simply ignore problems whose greatest effects will fall outside their lifetimes and are of correspondingly little concern.” So, for example, in terms of foreign and domestic policy “All that is required is to avoid wholesale military collapse during Boomers’ golden years, while continuing to channel the budget into retirement and health programs whose gains can be harvested today.”

As with the French Ancien Régime, the sociopathic or narcissistic Boomers cannot be expected to go quietly. Will they surrender any part of their material advantage? Not one bit. They’ve had a great run and now want to throw one hell of a retirement party, come what may. Any change, which will most assuredly be far too little, will not come voluntarily:

There is no surefire treatment for sociopathy at the individual level, and therapists generally wait around for a spontaneous remission. America doesn’t have the luxury of patient optimism and nothing about Boomer behavior or pathologies recommends anything less than coercion by the state, democratically authorized. Boomers have been getting their way for decades and expect to continue doing so. They are not about to swing open the doors of Congress to let in the forces of social orthodoxy, rainbows streaming down from heaven, doves rising up to meet them, and a chorus of hosannas all around. The Boomers are too old, and benefit too much from their policies, for any of that.

Gibney’s diagnosis for this kind of behaviour is sociopathy (ego-centrism, lack of concern for others, disinhibition) but we could just as easily call Boomers narcissistic assholes, an increasingly common label used to describe our present mental-health epidemic (see my reviews of books like The Narcissism Epidemic and Selfish, Whining Monkeys). The essential point, however, is that whether we’re talking about sociopaths or narcissists there is no cure for what is a terminal condition.

Complaints about the Worst Generation have been growing in recent years, and, for many of the reasons Gibney lays out, they are understandable. To some extent they are inevitable when living in a period of crisis and long-term decline. Still, I think the problem is inherent in human nature and systems of political power rather than characteristic of any particular generation. Yes, the Boomers are awful, a combination of being poorly raised (Gibney blames television and bottle-feeding) and having been spoiled by a historical moment that they opportunistically seized. What’s more, they’re getting worse. But most people presented with the same windfall would have behaved the same way.

Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest damage done has been to the cultural environment, the enshrinement of an ideology (sometimes rendered as neoliberalism) championing individual greed and short-term thinking over any sense of a common purpose (“there is no such thing as society”). Future generations will have a hard enough time living in a world the Boomers made in their own image. What will make everything so much worse is the fact that we may be trapped in their heads for a long time as well.

Notes:
Review first published online November 6, 2018.

Natural Causes

NATURAL CAUSES: AN EPIDEMIC OF WELLNESS, THE CERTAINTY OF DYING, AND OUR ILLUSION OF CONTROL
By Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book in 2007 called Dancing in the Streets that was about the expression of collective joy. I mention this only because it is such an outlier in what has been a delightfully gloomy corpus of bestselling cultural criticism: on trying to get by working low-wage jobs (Nickel and Dimed), on the futile pursuit of the American dream (Bait and Switch), on the false promises of the happiness industry (Bright-sided) and, in this latest broadside, on the challenge of facing up to our own mortality.

Having realized that she is now “old enough to die,” Ehrenreich has turned her attention to the inevitability and randomness of death. That may make Natural Causes sound like it’s going to be a bit of a downer, but it’s not. Instead it’s a snarl in the face of the long arc of history that bends toward personal and cosmic annihilation.

It may seem obvious to say that death is inevitable but that hasn’t stopped whole industries growing up dedicated to forestalling death as long as possible and even trying, in some cases, to deny it entirely. Indeed finding a “cure for death” has become a hobby of American billionaires. It seems unfair that people with so much money should still have to die.

Despite being a bit of a gym rat herself, Ehrenreich sees a lot of these projects as misguided. Wellness has its limits. In the case of the spread of some cancers, for example, our own cells may be working against us. Most of Natural Causes is taken up with a discussion of these matters, and how wrongheaded it is to think of our bodies as holistic systems whose malfunctioning can be cured with better programming or technology.

What Ehrenreich offers instead of pipe dreams of immortality is a program of “successful aging.” This turns out to be something almost spiritual: a wilful release of notions of the self and a submersion into something greater than the individual: a “larger human super-being” and a living universe.

If that sounds a little vague and even whimsical it is at least optimistic and represents a death that I think most of us could live with.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 13, 2018.

The Fifth Risk

THE FIFTH RISK
By Michael Lewis

What is it that has so successfully united the right in the politics of our time? There is little in common between oil company CEOs, country-club conservatives, Tea Partiers, and white males without a college degree or disunionised labour when it comes to economic or even cultural concerns. Instead, what they share is a hatred of the government and an open wish to see it destroyed. Not shrunk, as in previous conservative dispensations, but done away with entirely. Taxes not lowered but abolished. Not less regulation but none at all. The right doesn’t like government and certainly doesn’t see a need for it. Any sort of government action is immediately labeled as socialism. We should just let the market do its work.

Thomas Frank has done a good job of explaining this line of thinking, especially in his book The Wrecking Crew. I won’t go over his analysis here but it’s important to keep in mind when reading The Fifth Risk, where Michael Lewis lays out how such an ideology has blossomed thanks to a widespread ignorance of what it is government actually does and the sorts of dangers it protects the public from. It was, for example, an eye-opener for me to learn that roughly half of the Department of Energy’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding America’s nuclear arsenal, and that over half of the Commerce Department’s budget goes to the National Weather Service. I’m guessing these facts aren’t well known by the people who actually pay the bills. And it gets worse. According to one study more than 40 percent of Americans receiving Social Security and/or Medicare benefits in 2008 did not believe they had used a government social program. I believe it was Alexander Hamilton who thought that over time Americans would come to like their government more as they recognized all the good it did. Given their profound ignorance of that good they have, in large numbers, turned against it.

The question then becomes whether anti-government types are even interested in correcting the record.

Lewis thinks they aren’t. Ignorance of the things government does makes it easier to hold to the position that all government is bad. Lewis calls this the “Trumpian impulse – the desire not to know”: in order to preserve “a certain worldview” budget cuts to government services are “powered by a perverse desire – to remain ignorant.” This wilful blindness is where the danger comes in, because it’s what you don’t know and perhaps can’t even imagine that destroys you.

“One day someone will write the history of the strange relationship between the United States government and its citizens. It would need at least a chapter on the government’s attempts to save the citizens from the things that might kill them.” What makes the relationship strange is that such protection is so resented. Any authority exercised by government is viewed as paternalistic and demeaning at best, tyranny at worst. And so it doesn’t matter if Trump is corrupt or incompetent or some combination of the two, since his only role is to discredit and dismantle the state. How did we get here?

Notes:
Review first published online October 16, 2018.