A Promised Land

By Barack Obama

Former U.S. president Barack Obama wants you to know that he still believes in America.

Believing in America, he also believes in such patriotic American staples as democracy, opportunity, good government, and the rule of the law.

You can expect platitudes from a politician, but in the case of the first volume of Obama’s White House memoirs, A Promised Land, they come with a greater sense of urgency. Not just because he was succeeded by someone openly opposed to all of those core beliefs and values, someone enabled by a Republican wrecking crew whose sole political purpose has become the dismantling of the state, but because across the world there is a growing public disillusionment with democracy, putting that form of government at real risk.

As you should also expect from a book like this, Obama is very much concerned with presenting his legacy in the best possible light. What this means is that while admitting he often fell short in achieving his goals when it came to fighting the good fight against obstructionist Republicans for things like healthcare reform and environmental protection, this was largely due to the real limits his power had in “the world as it is.”

Time and again, but especially when faced with falling poll numbers, he upbraids himself for becoming “trapped in my own high-mindedness” and not being able to communicate just how good a job he was really doing. “We’re on the right side of this stuff,” he complains to his closest political confidant David Axelrod while working on the Affordable Care Act. “We just have to explain it better to voters.”

But this doesn’t sound right. Obama was a brilliant communicator. The problem he faced was an electorate that had self-selected into different realities. This is brought home to him by the resiliency of the “birther” claims about his not being born in the United States. That so many people (still) believe this canard is not due to any failure in communication. The birthers believe in alternative facts.

As the author of two previous memoirs, Obama is a practised, observant writer with an important story to tell. One thing you should not expect, however, are any great revelations, inside scoops, or dramatic fireworks. “No-drama Obama” doesn’t roll that way. Still, you don’t have to read far between the lines to pick up what he really thinks of some of the personalities he had to deal with. One can tell that while in office he had genuine respect for German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, but thought French president Nicolas Sarkozy a lightweight and Senator Lindsay Graham a weasel.

Stephen Harper, by the way, is only mentioned once in passing. This country did not seem to occupy much, if any, of Obama’s attention.

The story concludes here with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and the figure of Donald Trump as a sinister shadow waiting in the wings, trafficking in a currency of spectacle and conspiracy theory that “seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day.” Obama says he could feel where this was going: “I knew that the passions he was tapping, the dark, alternative vision he was promoting and legitimizing, were something I’d likely be contending with for the remainder of my presidency.”
Whether in conscious response to this or not, Obama presents himself throughout as the anti-Trump: a family man, self-reflective, empathetic, thick-skinned, and in love with the work of being president while not caring for the pomp and pageantry a bit.

Most of all, however, he describes himself as a believer in “a hopeful, generous, courageous America, an America that was open to everyone.” At the end of the book, describing his address to a college graduation class, he realizes that as a young man “I’d seized on that idea and clung to it for dear life. For their sake more than mine, I badly wanted it to be true.”

He’d soon have plenty of reasons for doubt.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, November 17 2020.

Technological Slavery

Ed. by David Skrbina

Theodore Kaczynski knows how a revolutionary manifesto is supposed to begin. You don’t beat around the bush. Just blast out a slogan that can be painted on a placard or embroidered on a flag. “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.” “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”

Kaczynski’s call for revolution has a familial resemblance to those of Rousseau and Marx in being directed at an oppressive political system, or more broadly a system of power, that has to be dismantled. For Rousseau it’s the social contract, for Marx capitalism, and for Kaczynski industrial civilization, technological society, or the industrial-technological or technoindustrial system (the adjectives industrial and technological are used interchangeably, as are civilization, society, and system).

The technoindustrial system does not serve human needs, but rather constitutes an autonomous source of power that forces humanity to serve it. This is something humans are not evolved to do, so we are required to adopt various coping mechanisms (drugs, etc.). Now, as with Marx’s dialectic, the collapse of the present system is inevitable. It’s going to happen eventually anyway, though perhaps only when it destroys the planet itself. But Kaczynski thinks we can and should move the process along by taking revolutionary action. Things are only going to get worse if we keep going down the road we’re on, so better to pull the Band-Aid off with one quick yank. Which is one of the reasons Kacynski is in prison for life (though the mail bombs, he confesses, were mainly just a way of getting attention for his manifesto).

Getting rid of technological society and then seeding the ground with salt (“the factories should be destroyed, technical books burned, etc.”), will of course be massively disruptive and painful, though the payoff is that we will become physically and psychologically healthier in the long term, and save the planet. Civilizational collapse, however, is not something many people not already living off the grid in a shack in the woods are likely to vote for. They are the Last Men, addicted to their lives of comfort and convenience, even when such an existence is making them sick and undermines their human dignity.

As with so many such diatribes the analysis of the problem is fairly persuasive. Much of modern life is oppressive and damaging to ourselves and the planet. Far less convincing is the solution, which is radical in its simplicity. Even if we don’t go all the way back to hunting and gathering, which is Kacynski’s preferred outcome or “social ideal,” we’ll return to living in small agricultural communities, sort of like medieval villages without the feudalism, or, if you can imagine such a thing, libertarian communes. (Kacynski is against collectives, which he associates with leftism and slave/victim morality —ressentiment leading to a corrupted will to power and ultimately totalitarianism.) It should come as no surprise, given his life choices, that he comes across in these pages as a more than mildly anti-social person.

Kacynski is aware, however, that revolutions never have predictable outcomes. He even offers this up as a principle of history. So whatever plans he has for a future society, if it can be called a “society” at all, are necessarily provisional. The present task is only to destroy. Sticking with the way things are now will only lead to further human de-evolution as we become adjusted and conformed to the new technological environment, “reduced to the status of domestic animal.” Generation by generation we will become weaker and duller, while living with less dignity and freedom. Eventually we will be replaced by machines. So even if the future is cloudy, “It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.”

Such a rallying cry may be interpreted as despairing at the present situation or hopeful of the future. Kacynski wants it to be hopeful, as “one of the indispensable psychological preconditions for revolution is that people should have hope. If there’s no hope, there will be no revolution.” My own feeling is that such a revolution would turn out a lot worse than expected, and the return to a state of nature more problematic. Should nature be our final guide for a healthy and moral life? I can’t bring myself to wholly equate the natural with the good.

The strength of Kacynski’s manifesto is its absolutism. He won’t abide any half measures. And given how he defines the problem he may be correct in insisting upon such a root-and-branch approach. I don’t see any other way to effect his proposed great leap backward. Tearing down the factories and burning the technical manuals, however, is unlikely to prevent the same process that built the present system from doing so again. This is evolution too. For better or for worse, it’s our nature.

Review first published online March 30, 2021.

American Serial Killers

By Peter Vronsky

Most true crime books are timely, flexed-out reportage, cashing in on the notoriety of a headline-grabbing trial and doing little to advance public understanding beyond what you’d get reading the news. Survey books give a bit more perspective, but often don’t provide more than capsule accounts of the most celebrated bloodletters and badmen.

Peter Vronsky is one of the better workers in this busy field and in his several books on the subject he always gives the reader a bit more in the way of informed and original insight. Yes, this latest account of serial killers active in the United States in the back half of the twentieth century covers all of the greatest hits, as well as some curious “footnotes” (I was interested to learn that Harvey Murray Glatman, the Glamor Girl Slayer, was the first killer to photograph his victims, at least that we know of), but it’s precisely the fact that these years constituted such a take-off, followed by a sharp drop around the turn of the millennium, that calls for investigation and analysis.

The numbers are remarkable. In the 1950s there were 72 reported serial killers in the U.S. In the 1960s, 217, in the ‘70s 605, in the ‘80s 768, and in the ‘90s 669. But then a trailing off, with 371 in the 2000s and 117 in the 2010s.

There’s more to the story than just these statistics. Anyone who reads much in this area will know that these same epidemic years (1970-2000) didn’t just produce a greater number of serial killers but all of the names that are still most recognized today: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Richard Ramirez (the Night Strangler), Jeffrey Dahmer, and many others known almost exclusively by their nicknames: the Hillside Strangler, the BTK Killer, the Green River Killer et al. But since Dahmer, what killers have caught the public’s imagination and the media’s eye in the same way? Vronsky lists off eighteen of the more prominent, only to say “If you haven’t heard of them, you are not the only one. Some didn’t even have monikers.” I count myself among the ignorant, pulling a blank on all eighteen.

Have serial killers changed? Has the way we cover them changed? Or are we just not as interested as we used to be? And what conditions – social, political, economic, cultural – gave rise to the epidemic in the first place? These are interesting questions, even if no conclusive answers are available.
On the question of what gave rise to the epidemic Vronksy suggests the after-effects of military service in brutal wars by a parental generation and the influence of crime magazines in making sexual violence an accessible fetish. Borrowing on a term used by anthropologist Simon Harrison, Vronsky sees these as being two elements in a Satanic cultural mix (diabolus in cultura) that combined around mid-century into the perfect breeding ground for the later serial killer explosion.

I would have preferred it if Vronsky had not leaned so heavily on the particular root sources he identifies, but he doesn’t present his case with a lot of wiggle room:

The baby-boom generation of future serial killers was a nest of two thousand sick baby snakes, drinking their fathers’ traumas, their mothers’ neuroses, and sucking up the culture of rape and murder sold to them at the supermarket magazine rack, on TV and movies, and getting stepped on by bullies and rapists and life itself. That’s how a surge of serial killers will be formed, simple and easy. You don’t need a psych degree or a complex theory to figure it out; just peruse a men’s adventure or true-detective magazine from the 1960s and ask your granddad, if he’s still around, what he witnessed in the “last good war.”

This is a thesis Vronsky previously put forward in another serial-killer book, Sons of Cain, but while the specific connections he makes (parental traumas passed down to the next generation plus “rape culture” magazines) aren’t imaginary or wholly speculative, they still strike me as incidental. Most Boomers were spoiled rather than abused, and the mix of sex and violence in the media today are more advanced than anything in the primitive “sweats.” A counter-argument though might be made (indeed has been made) that today we’ve become inured to porn, or that Internet porn in particular has become a kind of mellowing drug for people with violent dispositions. Meaning that the serial killer epidemic might have been a kind of social trauma that we collectively had to go through in order to arrive at our current narcotized, surveillance state.

In any event, while I appreciate the boldness of the argument I think it’s also hard to generalize. Serial killers are a mixed bag. Much is made here of Ted Bundy’s iconic status as the epidemic’s poster boy, the one who would “define for us the new postmodern serial killer.” But Bundy himself strikes me as being highly atypical in most ways.

We are left to wonder whether the serial killer epidemic of 1970 – 2000 will be repeated. Are such phenomena cyclical, or was this a one-off? It’s a pressing question, as Vronsky is concerned at the potential fallout from such crises as the 2008 subprime meltdown, the war on terror, and the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are looking into the abyss of a new American Noir like the one in the 1940s but worse.” I’d agree that the potential is there, as we’ve already seen political and economic institutions straining and beginning to crack. I see the same dark moon rising that Vronsky does, but whether it will produce more of the sorts of lunatics described in these pages is harder to say. It seems to me likely that the same percentage of people carry within them these violent impulses, and if serial killers are opportunists I would expect them to become more active as the sort of opportunities created by, for example, social breakdown arise. Things tend to fall apart all at once, from the personal to the political.

Review first published online March 23, 2021.

The Uninhabitable Earth

By David Wallace-Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth reads very much like what it is: a magazine article that took off (or went viral, as magazine articles now do) that was then expanded to book length. Meaning that despite its timeliness and urgency it also wanders from point to point while becoming repetitive, which has the unfortunate effect of watering down some of its message.

The overarching point is announced in the first sentence: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” This is probably true, and I say “probably” only because I register as a “temperamental declinist” and so what I think is already pretty bad. The set of conditions — social, technological, economic, political — that have given rise to global climate change are all still very much in the driver’s seat. There seems little interest, at least among the class of those with the power to do much, to change the way we live now, and even if we did somehow manage such a transformation many of the consequences of our industrial, mass-production/mass-consumption economy (a historical blip in the grand scheme of things) are now baked into the system anyway.

In all of this there is nothing new, at least if you’ve been keeping even slightly informed about what’s been going on. Wallace-Wells isn’t providing any original analysis as he’s a journalist and not a scientist or environmentalist. He does, however, highlight the various main areas of concern moving forward, like extreme weather events, extinctions, rising ocean levels, refugee crises, and the spread of infectious disease. More broadly, he wonders what will happen when we step outside the environmental window that our species has evolved within thus far. If, as I think is true, “the wheels of all communities are greased by abundance; baked by deprivation, they stall and crack,” then how will we respond when that cracking occurs?

Little time is spent on potential solutions or fixes, perhaps because Wallace-Wells doesn’t put a lot of stock in them. Nor do I. Instead, he speculates on ways we may have to adapt in order to cope. These range from the withdrawal to virtual worlds (a preferred environment that gives us the illusion of control) to the development of new moral systems. In any event, “we know enough to see, even now, that the new world we are stepping into will be so alien from our own, it might as well be another planet entirely.” And that’s not just a comment on the physical or natural environment. In the way we live, work, eat, and relate to one another our children will become aliens too.

Review first published online March 11, 2021.

Twilight of the Elites

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.

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.


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.

Review first published online January 30, 2021.

Alexander the Great and Before and After Alexander

By Anthony Everitt
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?

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

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 only underline just how much has changed. In talking with musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers Deresiewicz shows us how real lives have been impacted by our culture crash, as well as what coping/survival strategies have been adopted. While fascinating in their own right, such stories also relay some practical information 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 was here before us. Surveying the American literary scene in 1831 he wrote 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. 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 it is 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?

Review first published online December 12, 2020.


By Bob Woodward

Rage is the sequel to Fear, and in the intervening years Bob Woodward has cooled toward his subject despite being granted greater access (seventeen on-the-record, taped conversations with Trump). But cooled only by a couple of degrees. Despite his conclusion, delivered in the book’s final sentence, that “Trump is the wrong man for the job,” this is a book that bends over backward to present the president in the best possible light. He is allowed to go on at length through many a “rambling, repetitious, often defensive monologue,” with little editorial comment by his interlocutor. His love letters to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un are quoted from with none of the contempt they deserve. “They reveal a decision by both [Trump and Kim] to become friends. Whether genuine or not, probably only history will tell.” I have to say that this takes a reluctance to draw conclusions a bit too far.

You could say that Woodward was only giving Trump enough rope to hang himself – and there are certainly moments of this kind to be appalled by – but that’s not the way most of it plays. Instead you get the sense that he’s actually trying not only to be fair but to understand the person he’s talking to.

But what is there to understand? What is the point of talking to Trump? He lies about everything, and whatever the subject at hand just switches it so that he can go over his long, familiar list of obsessive grievances. We never learn anything, any more than we learn anything from his press conferences or tweets. What you see is what you get, or, to paraphrase Michelle Obama only slightly, he is what he is.

What is that? Someone very stupid, with no attention span (a minus number, in the words of Anthony Fauci), a sense of insecurity so deep one may as well call it paranoia, and a bottomless reservoir of anger and resentment. Trump appeals to people who hate, mainly out of a paranoid belief that everyone hates them, is laughing at them, or is somehow ripping them off. Probably the most dramatic moment in Rage comes as Woodward watches him respond to a video of various Democrats watching his 2019 State of the Union address. “You’re seeing hate!” he cries. “Hate! See the hate! See the hate!” We can call it Trump Derangement Syndrome.

George Will once observed that Trump was like the boring drunk at the bar, holding forth with his uneducated and uninformed thoughts on what’s wrong with the world. Close, but Trump doesn’t drink and one suspects he thinks bars are gross. Instead he is an even more easily recognizable type: the bitter man who sits at home yelling at his TV. Listening to him is a hard task, and we have to listen to him a lot in Rage.

How do members of his court cope? I don’t think they’ve ever been under any illusions as to the breadth and depth of Trump’s stupidity. Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, would call him “a fucking moron.” James Mattis, secretary of defense, would describe the difficulty of imparting information to the president at briefings.

“But the facts would be dismissed, and we’d be off on one of those ramps that circled around and started going. And then you’re sitting there, and it’s not deference at that point. It’s grasping for a way to get it back on subject. And it was just very hard. And there wasn’t a lot of time for it.”

Mattis would later say that duty compelled him to put up with Trump’s stupidity, but when it went over the line to “felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.” This is a man who was under no illusions as to how ignorant, or felony stupid, Trump was. One imagines this must be a feeling shared by all those in Trump’s orbit, though many have opted to become enablers for some presumed gain. “Stay the course,” Mike Pence whispers in the ear of Dan Coats. “Stay the course.” But a course toward what? Regressive tax “reform” sucking more wealth into the hands of the plutocracy? “Conservative” judges?

It’s just possible, I suppose, that Jared Kushner actually respects Trump. His rationalizations for Trump’s erratic behaviour strike me as unconvincing though. Still, he is introduced to us here by Woodward in a manner that is polite and deferential to a fault. On the basis of what evidence could Jared Kushner possibly be described or even imagined as being “highly competent”? He sets up study groups and spouts business school jargon and gets absolutely nothing done. As a businessperson he’s been, arguably, an even more spectacular failure than his father-in-law.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic the course was set for ruin. But as Adam Smith once observed, there’s a lot of ruin in a country. Sarah Kendzior has described the Republican project for America as consisting of stripping the country down to its parts and then selling them off to oligarchs. After four years of Trump this is a process that is now well advanced, and it’s hard to see how the “dismantling of the state,” to use Steve Bannon’s name for it, is going to be reversed. What is the cure for rage? Because this is the virus that is destroying America, and Trump, while he may be a super-spreader, is only a carrier of the disease.

Review first published online October 2, 2020.

Men on Horseback

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.

Review first published online August 11, 2020.