The Tyranny of Merit

By Michael Sandel

In my review of Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites I talked about how hard it is to define just what is meant by a meritocracy. In particular I asked what “merit” consisted of aside from getting ahead or making money. This is a point that I think Michael Sandel also has some problems with, though it’s not one he wants to take on directly. Still, it’s there in his opening chapter. One paragraph suffices to cover the twilight of America’s elites:

Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful. They won World War II, helped rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state, dismantled segregation, and presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to rich and poor alike. By contrast, the elites who have governed since have brought us four decades of stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008, a decaying infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a system of campaign finance and gerrymandered congressional districts that makes a mockery of democracy.

Haven’t governed well? They haven’t done anything well except the one thing they are good at: getting ahead and making money. This is, precisely and I think by definition, what makes them a meritocratic elite.

Put another way, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s a myth, a justification for power and privilege that, outside of a handful of endeavours like some professional sports, has no basis in talent, intelligence, hard work, or the social utility of what one does. Merit does not equal value on any level, however much its ideology insists.

In short, life is a lottery and the meritocratic elite are only the fortunate few. Sandel freely admits as much, drawing authority from as far back as the Book of Job, where the voice from the whirlwind sternly informs us that there is no point to the random blights and blessings that make up our lives, no moral logic or cosmic justice standing behind them. The biggest contributing factor to one’s social status, after all, is the class one is born into. But even in the broader economy it’s basically a crapshoot. The stock market? A casino. Bestsellerdom? A blockbuster movie? Internet stardom? Random lightning strikes. As the screenwriter William Goldman famously put it, when it comes to that kind of success nobody knows anything. Sticking to his own bailiwick, when discussing the increasingly painful process of admissions to prestigious universities, perhaps the key stage in the process of “meritocratic sorting,” Sandel, who teaches at Harvard, proposes that administrators simply “toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them [out of 20,000 – 25,000], and leave it at that.”

The only cure for the “meritocratic hubris” that Sandel sees as being baked into the mix of our current social hierarchy – that is, the tendency of winners “to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way” – is a humility informed by our sense of “the contingency of our lot.” We might reduce this to the form of a prayer: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.”

To recap: It is hard to say what “merit,” when referring to a meritocracy, consists of, but it’s likely to mean nothing useful. Hedge fund operators (who, on average, can’t even outperform the market) and cryptocurrency speculators make thousands of times more than agricultural and personal support workers, who are often little more than slave labour. It’s a readily observable fact that many who have risen to the top through effort and education are in fact no good at what they do, in whatever field, from business to politics to the arts. “Smart America,” as George Packer characterizes it in his more recent book on class sorting, Last Best Hope, is not as smart, or talented, or industrious as the rest of America at all.

Nevertheless, it’s human nature to see any social prominence as earned or deserved, so the language of “merit” automatically gets employed as a way of whitewashing this status. It’s no accident that Packer places himself in “Smart America,” or that David Brooks, writing in The Atlantic, sees himself as a member of a class of people who are wealthier, smarter, more talented, more creative, more open and diverse, and just plain better than the non-elite. They are “our class,” “we” and “us.” People who read The Atlantic. And Brooks wants you to know how much it pains them to have to admit their superiority. But . . . life isn’t fair.

Indeed, to his credit Brooks thinks the current system is insane:

The modern meritocracy is a resentment-generating machine. But even leaving that aside, as a sorting device, it is batshit crazy. The ability to perform academic tasks during adolescence is nice to have, but organizing your society around it is absurd. That ability is not as important as the ability to work in teams; to sacrifice for the common good; to be honest, kind, and trustworthy; to be creative and self-motivated. A sensible society would reward such traits by conferring status on them. A sensible society would not celebrate the skills of a corporate consultant while slighting the skills of a home nurse.

Where I’d differ from Brooks is on the more fundamental point of what the meritocracy consists of. For Brooks meritocracy is a real thing, however invidious and “batshit crazy” it may be as a way of ordering society. I don’t think it’s a real thing, or at least much of one, but rather a myth. It is also worse than useless as a way forward. Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in 2016, enthusiastically spoke of how “I want this [America] to be a true meritocracy. I’m tired of inequality.” This may have been sincere, but as rhetoric it didn’t fool enough people. “The meritocratic ideal,” Sandel writes, “is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.” That is its purpose.

There are two recent developments that are driving a lot of the interest in the meritocracy now, and its “toxic mix of hubris and resentment.” In the first place, while life has always been a lottery it’s becoming even more of a lottery than ever. Second: the prizes for winning that lottery have become ever greater, while runner-up status has come to mean being consigned to oblivion. When Sandel enters into his peroration and offers a prospective vision of “a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity – developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs,” he’s actually looking back to the golden age of the American middle class that entered into palliative care in the 1980s.

So what became of the common good? I don’t think there’s any spoiler alert necessary for the loss of community and the advent of a winner-take-all economy leading to growing levels of inequality, which then needed to find an ideological justification. During the only comparable levels of socio-economic inequality in America (the so-called Gilded Age) the gospel of social Darwinism had its first burst of popularity, and I don’t think today’s prophets of meritocracy are saying much that’s very different from what was said then. The meritocracy is essentially a natural order, the society it creates inevitable. Merit will out no matter what obstacles are placed in its path.

Sandel and Brooks are right in seeing in the myth of meritocracy a mighty engine for the generation of mass resentment. Meritocratic hubris leads to smug self-congratulation among the fortunate and anger among the left behind. “There is reason to think,” Sandel opines, “that popular antipathy toward meritocratic elites played a part in Trump’s election, and in the surprising vote in Britain, earlier that year, to leave the European Union.” People were confused at Trump’s railing against elites when he was himself, at least by his own reporting, a billionaire. But Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, didn’t talk about merit. He talked about winners and losers. And what Trump’s supporters recognized was that Trump was actually a giant loser: a serial bankrupt, serial divorced male, clinically obese, deeply ashamed of being bald, and acting out his various insecurities in giant rages on the most public of stages. His favourite word with which to tag anyone he hated was “loser.” This, like everything else about him, was pure projection. That loser rage, however, struck a mass chord. His anger – and he was anger incarnate – was a kind of therapy. His fear of being laughed at and humiliated was something everyone suffering from a loss of social esteem could relate to.

From politics to pop culture the language of meritocracy is part of the fabric of our lives now, however spurious. The “regime of merit,” Sandel writes, “exerts its tyranny in two directions at once. Among those who land on top, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.” I’m not so sure I agree with the psychological cost of hubris here (I think it more often leads to moral blindness and a pathological arrogance), but in any event we are all living under the tyranny of this bullshit now. And can we expect things to change?

Review first published online October 25, 2021.

My Friend Dahmer

By Derf Backderf

Being a large, affluent, suburban nation (at least for most of the second half of the twentieth century), the U.S. is in love with its roads. Going “on the road” is the preferred way to discover the country, and oneself, while roads not taken are seen as life choices of metaphysical impact. Getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage for many, though one may wonder if this is changing for today’s young Americans.

“All we did was drive. There was nothing else to do,” John “Derf” Backderf writes of his final year of high school. The road is a dominant motif in his brutally honest true-crime memoir My Friend Dahmer. It (the road) is literally totemic, standing upright in several crucial full-page illustrations, never reading from left to right but composed like a monolith with no obvious side roads or turn-offs. There are no roads less traveled by but only a single, solid metaphor for fate that grows darker as the book progresses.

And at the end of the road? Well, we all know how Dahmer’s story ends. There’s no direction to his upright road. It stands squat like a tombstone, which is an effect reinforced by the repeating crosses of power lines. The perspective is flattened so that there’s no vanishing point in the distance so much as just a hill we have to climb, with only darkness at the top.

Such an image lends itself to a feeling of inevitability, which in turn addresses one of the main concerns of all such serial-killer studies. Did Jeffrey Dahmer have to end up the way he did? Was his road his fate? And what was it that made him the monster he became?

That Backderf has no final answers shouldn’t be surprising. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth psychological analysis. Backderf observed Dahmer while they were in high school together in the 1970s, but they don’t seem to have been terribly close friends. And finally he seems just as mystified as anyone at what went into the making of the murderer. At one point he calls out Dahmer’s parents and his teachers for their obliviousness or indifference – “Where were the damn adults?” – but while Dahmer had an unhappy childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family so did lots of kids, and many of them in far worse situations. Furthermore, Dahmer didn’t stand out all that much at school. “If just one adult had stepped up and said ‘Whoa this kid needs help . . . ’ ” Yes, but the fact is that every high school has problem kids like this who are simply passed along. In an epilogue Backderf even confesses that Dahmer wasn’t the most likely candidate at Revere High to become a serial killer. What made Dahmer truly exceptional remained hidden, and probably would have been hidden from his closest friends, if he had any.

Backderf’s art shows the influence of Robert Crumb, effectively using twitching bodies and sweaty faces to evoke anxiety and emotional fragility. But where My Friend Dahmer really stands out is in its depiction of the everyday misery of high school: the in-groups and out-groups, the mockery even performed by the weak on the weaker, the bullying, the failure of authority. Backderf himself doesn’t come out of the story as any kind of hero, and indeed may have contributed to Dahmer’s alienation, but nobody who experienced high school at the time can blame him. Not that I think things are any better now.

“Pity him, but don’t empathize with him,” is how Backderf sums up how we should feel about Dahmer. But in this haunting account I didn’t find much even to pity. Dahmer was a lonely, repressed mess, to be sure, but he was also sadistic and cruel, and it’s not clear that much could have been done for him aside from lifelong medication: “A sad, lonely life that Dahmer would have gladly accepted over the hellish future that awaited him.” He didn’t get that help though, and in any event, by high school I think it was already too late to fix what was wrong.

Review first published online June 12, 2021.

The Year of Lear

By James Shapiro

The Year of Lear is a direct sequel to A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, picking up the Bard’s story five or so years later. I leave the date vague because the title isn’t all that apt. As I understand it King Lear was mostly written in 1605, which is also when the Gunpowder Plot, the signal event discussed here, was discovered. Nor do we spend that much time talking about the life of Shakespeare, as opposed to his plays. Instead this is a literary-historical survey that looks at those “connections to [the] moments of creation” surrounding the writing of King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra, all assumed to have been composed around this time.

Of course we don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life anyway, so Shapiro is perfectly justified in going further afield. There’s only so much you can do with the scattered biographical evidence that we possess. Instead, more time is spent on pulling out threads from the plays, like an entire chapter discussing the special significance the word “equivocate” had and why Shakespeare might have been so taken with it. I found this interesting stuff, even if in the end it didn’t tell me a lot about the tragedy of Macbeth, and could be overdone (for example, I don’t think Macduff is being equivocal so much as ambiguous when he says “He has no children”).

It’s a shame, but it seems as though this is the only form of literary criticism now tolerated by the general public: playing as a sort of background music to biography and cultural history. Still, we should be thankful we’re getting this much. Shapiro is an expert on Shakespeare’s world and makes that world come to life with lots of energy and insight. Some of what he has to say is worth making notes on, like the difference in the use of “you” and “thou” at the time, and the relevance this has in Act One of Lear. Other parts are more of a stretch. For example, Shapiro quotes a letter from the minor courtier Sir John Harington, likening the revels of King James hosting King Christian of Denmark to that of those held by Solomon for the Queen of Sheba, to Shakespeare’s writing of Anthony and Cleopatra. “It’s an uncommon coincidence,” Shapiro concludes, “that even as Shakespeare was writing of a famous encounter with one African queen, Harington’s letter describes another.” I don’t think this rises to the level of any sort of coincidence. Every work of art has countless connections to the moments of its creation, but I doubt this is one of them.

The year of Lear? I can’t think of anything else that 1606 is remembered for today. And yet the play left so little immediate impression that we can’t even say for sure when it was written or first performed. The afterlife or long tail of literature plays out in mysterious and sometimes random ways, leading one to reflect on what will last from our own literary culture. Or whether anything will at all.

Review first published online May 4, 2021.

Bland Fanatics

By Pankaj Mishra

It’s a paradox, but Pankaj Mishra’s collection of essays critiquing the dominant political ideology of our time and the cheerleading done for it by intellectual and media elites seems a bit like picking on a soft target. Are there that many people, aside from those Mishra designates as “the bards of a new universal liberal empire,” who still believe in the myth of a benevolent liberalism raising all boats, promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights, and generally bringing light to all the dark places of the earth? Still believe, when, as Mishra summarizes at one point, “American pathologies – extreme concentrations of wealth, criminalisation of the poor, rogue security establishments, corrupted and dysfunctional politics and a compliant media – have been universalized, much more successfully than democracy and human rights”?

Mishra’s target isn’t so much liberal ideology itself, which can be hard to pin down (is it properly liberal, libertarian, or neoliberal?), as the “reality-concealing rhetoric” used to sell it. What he wants to expose is the “mask” of liberalism, or the performative theatricality of Englishness, or even, for that matter, the scramble of China’s ruling class to provide ideological legitimacy for its authority using whatever ancient or modern sources come to hand.

Of course we don’t have to believe the myth or the rhetoric, the propaganda or the lies. But if a lie works well enough, for enough people, then the public will go along with it. What happens, however, if, in a time of crisis – say with a shock to the financial system or a pandemic – the ruling class, liking to style itself a meritocracy, exposes itself as corrupt, malicious, and incompetent? Will breakdown lead to revolution, or collapse? Bets are being placed.

Review first published online April 27, 2021.

We Should Have Seen It Coming

By Gerald F. Seib

Over the past few years I’ve reviewed many books on the Trump phenomenon. Gerald Seib’s falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, but it does address, squarely, two of the questions that I find most interesting about the whole sorry episode: (1) to what extent was Trump the logical extension if not endpoint of a political movement that began with Reagan?, and (2) what does the label “conservative” mean today? The questions are related, in that Trump may be seen as carrying forward a broader conservative project and/or breaking with it.

Seib’s title makes clear the continuity: the populism of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, the outrage of the Tea Party movement, and the distrust, to put it mildly, of the media were all clear signposts for where the Republican Party was heading (Seib’s escape from a Reagan rally after a colleague warns that they are about to be lynched by the crowd made me think of the stories Katy Tur had to tell in her account of the 2016 Trump campaign Unbelievable). At the same time, Seib also makes it clear that going down this path was as revolutionary in its way as Reagan’s transformation of the political landscape. The Trumpistas were no longer Reagan Republicans but something else entirely.

Are they still conservative though? One gets the sense that Seib, along with his go-to guide in such matters George Will, would like to preserve a core meaning for the word. All too often, however, Seib has to add qualifiers to make it clear what it was Trump was moving away from, if not outright rejecting. Traditional conservatism, for example, or classic or principled conservatism were kaput. And then there are the familiar sub-species of conservatism, now so removed from one another as to be barely on speaking terms: fiscal or economic conservatism, cultural conservatism, and neoconservatism. George W. Bush would try to brand his administration as practicing compassionate conservatism, and Seib takes the story up to a 2019 conference and the efforts to write a manifesto for a new form of “national conservatism” (which is apparently just as terrible as it sounds, being the response to a “real political world . . . of competing tribes and nations”).

After wading through just a brief history of these years one could be forgiven for thinking that the word “conservative” had become detached from all meaning. I wouldn’t disagree. I think there is, however, at least one bedrock principle that has followed through from Reagan to Trump intact. This is the distrust of government, which blossomed over time into a full-blown and largely unreasoning hatred.

The reason I think this has held constant over the decades is that it serves a practical end. The dismantling of government undertaken by the Republican “wrecking crew” has a purpose, which is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy (targeting taxes on capital gains, estates, and dividends) are what Republican donors are paying for, and that’s what they’ve gotten. We might call this Koch conservatism (Seib seems to prefer to call it libertarianism, and I don’t recall his using the term “neoliberalism” once, though it’s a label even George Will approves of). Everything else has been window dressing. Fiscal responsibility, democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution, family values . . . all of this was a joke to be taken as seriously as infrastructure week and having Mexico pay for a wall. Seib wants to add to the conservative checklist items like free markets, being pro-immigration, and some kind of commitment to altruistic foreign involvement, but these had no more purchase under Trump than they really did for anyone post-Reagan. In fact, I’m not sure what he means by a conservative foreign policy. Promotion of democracy? Human rights? It’s hard to say. In any event, Trump wasn’t even going to pay lip service to such nonsense.

Of course government has continued to grow. In a complex, modern bureaucratic state that is inevitable. Someone has to deal with crises that come along, like the 2008 mortgage meltdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are also inevitable exceptions to the program of slash and burn, most notably a defence industry that needs to be serviced in times of both war and peace. But conservative ideology has stayed true to the basic game plan of privatization, getting rid of government regulation, and lowering taxes on the rich. All of which has had the intended effect of widening inequality.

What Trump did, then, wasn’t so much a break with tradition as a break with decorum. He gave the game away. A wholly unprincipled individual himself, he mocked the whole idea of governing by principle. What that left was a cash grab and a drive to, in Sarah Kendzior’s phrase, “strip America for its parts.” To say that people should have seen this coming isn’t quite correct. They should have seen that this is what was always going on.

Review first published online April 19, 2021.

Hatchet Job

By Mark Kermode

The title is catchy, but a bit misleading. British film critic Mark Kermode has mellowed over the years, even to the point where he’s wondering if, at mid-life, it’s been all a waste of time. After a preface that introduces (yet again) the enduring appeal of the negative review, he turns to other subjects. He’s not here to tell us how he hated, hated, hated, someone’s movie but to offer up more wide-ranging observations.

Still, the role of the critic in the twenty-first century media ecosystem is his main theme, and part of that forces him to address the misperception that critics are snobbish axe-men, abusing their privileged positions of trust and power. That may have been the case once, but the mighty have fallen. Film reviewers are now more ignored than despised (perhaps no consolation) and have made peace with the new economy and its entertainment-industrial complex.

In a hatchet job it’s usual to begin with some good news first before, in Gore Vidal’s phrase, donning the executioner’s hood. But since I liked Hatchet Job, and Mark Kermode’s writing in general, I’ll start with the fact that I don’t share any of Kermode’s taste in movies. I’m glad that he still thinks The Exorcist the greatest movie ever made, and that he bawled like a baby on his most recent re-watch of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but at the end of the day I think we like very different things, for different reasons. I’m never going to find David Cronenberg’s Crash “brilliant” or “a near-perfect movie,” not because I find it shocking of offensive but because it’s dull. But, in a book like this, that doesn’t matter. I don’t agree with many of Pauline Kael’s critical judgements either, but still like to read her.

Kermode is very easy to read. Chances are, if you’re interested in this book, that you’ve heard him on the radio or a podcast. That’s what the book sounds like: listening to Kermode talk. The voice is well-informed, enthusiastic, self-deprecating, and digressive to a degree that can be excessive (he’ll stretch an anecdote so that it becomes the connecting thread for an entire chapter). Along the way there are numerous asides that had me nodding my head. Here are a few as a sample:

the idea that all the good movies were made in the very recent past ignores the fact that the real heyday of cinema (in terms of popularity) came in the thirties and forties; to all intents and purposes we are now merely sifting through the wreckage of an art form whose popular supremacy has long been superseded by the advent of television, video-games, and the Internet.

. . .

the longer I do this job, the more I wonder how you can ever know what you actually think of a film, so influential are the circumstances under which you first saw it, and the subsequent opportunities you may or may not have to re-evaluate your first response.

. . .

all movies take a lot of effort to make, even the really rotten ones
So is this what the future of film journalism looks like? Reviewing a bogus script for an unfinished film under the catch-all cloak of completest fandom? Back in the sixties, high-profile critics feared for their jobs and beat themselves up in public for the crime of reviewing a movie they had watched from start to finish but perhaps misjudged in their haste to file copy. Now they stand proudly by reviews of films they haven’t even seen – because they haven’t been made yet – and everyone stands back and applauds.

. . .

Film-makers bleat on all the time about how awful critics are who slag off their work, but no one ever addresses the character-building power of surviving a full-on critical tsunami, or the equally corrosive effect of basking too long in the radioactive sunlight of universal praise.

I found myself agreeing with all of this, in part because I’ve said similar things over the years, most often about book reviewing. That said, I did have a lot of trouble with a couple of the major points that Hatchet Job is organized around.

The first of these has to do with anonymous reviewing on the Internet. “When it comes to critics,” Kermode writes, “I want to know who they are, what they know, where they come from, and what they have to lose.” This last point is the important one. Kermode lays it down as a rule that a critic must stake their reputation on every review they write: “criticism without risk to the critic has no value whatsoever . . . an opinion is only worth as much as its author has to lose: their good name; their reputation; their audience; their job.” It is only this “element of risk” that gives reviews “whatever validity they possess.”

I have two really big problems with this. In the first place, I don’t think it’s true. At least in theory, why shouldn’t an anonymous review be just as perceptive, informative, fair-minded, entertaining, and correct as one written by someone we know? As a general principle I think you should stand behind what you write, but it’s not essential. And why should anyone care where a critic comes from, or “what they know” beyond what is reflected in what they’ve written?

The other problem I have with the risk principle is that it addresses an issue that I don’t see as being much of a problem. Most film bloggers and online critics, at least of any repute, write under their own name, or if they use a pseudonym are easily identified (that is, they don’t try to conceal who they are). Sure there are people who practice a form of drive-by hatchetry online, hiding behind false avatars and funny nicknames, but they’re trolls, not critics. Anonymous posters and posers don’t seem like a big enough danger to bother spending so much time on, and Kermode builds them up into the book’s primary bogeyman.

The second point I found myself disagreeing with has to do with the shift from print to digital reviewing. The death of Roger Ebert is invoked several times as the end of an era in film criticism, and while Kermode feels some sadness at its (the era’s) passing he is enthusiastic at the fact that “like it or not, we’re all bloggers now.” Yes, print is dying but that “does not mean that film criticism as an art form needs to die out, dumb down, or otherwise disintegrate.” While it’s harder for writers to make money, “this is a temporary state of affairs.” Things will get better, and “quality will out, whether in print, broadcast, or Internet publication.”

This was written in 2013 and I wonder if Kermode still believes it. Much has changed since he observed that the world had changed. Does anyone still know, or care, who Harry Knowles is, or was?

It’s true that film reviews have proliferated online, and that some of them have a far greater reach, immediacy, and readership than was ever possible in print, but the money hasn’t followed. And while I’m impressed at the work some sites have done, I don’t think it’s true that “quality will out.” The top film review sites in terms of traffic are often the most superficial and juvenile. Can film criticism, and indeed in-depth film scholarship, continue as the preserve of dedicated amateurs? We’re going to find out.

A bigger issue, as I see it, is the sheer number of film reviews and other material appearing online. I think this is less a sign of health (as Kermode interprets it) than it is of a metastasizing condition. The problem isn’t anonymous reviews but the amount of material out there, with thousands of reviews available almost immediately upon a film’s release, all of them saying nearly the same things. What this then leads to is the rise of the aggregate score: an average taken of these many thousands of reviews that then becomes an official score on IMDb, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, or Metacritic. Enter the hive mind, where voices originally identified with a particular critic become anonymous, simple data points stuck on a graph. Volume will out.

Review first published online April 13, 2021. For my thoughts on Kermode’s The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex see here.

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.