Rendezous with Oblivion

By Thomas Frank

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before how I think Thomas Frank is the best commentator going on American political culture. His book The Wrecking Crew nailed the essential, unifying principles of today’s Republican party, while Listen, Liberal did the same for the Democrats. Rendezvous with Oblivion doesn’t set as high a bar, being a collection of essays he’s written over the course of the last five years without any overarching thesis. There is, however, a lot to take note of as he is still pitching strikes.

There’s one part of the analysis in particular I want to mention. This has to do with the role our supposed guardians have played (and are playing) during a time of extreme economic anxiety brought on by a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. It’s basically the lifeboat scenario: where too many people are struggling to get on the lifeboats while those already on board want to do everything to secure their own position of security and privilege. Frank looks at two places where this scenario has been playing out, both relating to the guardian role I mentioned: academia and the press.

Both universities and newspapers are under a great deal of pressure in the new economy. Tenured faculty are being replaced by contract or sessional workers, while reporters, in the few newspapers that remain, have been reduced to content providers and “minimum-wage flunkies.” It’s a very, very bad time to be a prof or a journalist, and the future looks even worse. There are, however, still a few lifeboats bobbing amid the wreckage. Might the survivors lend a helping hand for their drowning sisters and brothers? Frank has his doubts.

First up are the universities:

What their [the professoriate’s] downfall shows us is just how easily systems of this kind can be made to crumble. There is zero solidarity in a meritocracy, even a fake one, as the writer Sarah Kendzior showed in a series of hard-hitting articles on the adjunct situation. Just about everyone in academia believes that they were the smartest kid in their class, the one with the good grades and the awesome test scores. They believe, by definition, that they are where they are because they deserve it. They’re the best. So tenured faculty find it easy to dismiss the deprofessionalization of their field as the whining of second-raters who can’t make the grade. Too many of the adjuncts themselves, meanwhile, find it difficult to blame the system as they apply fruitlessly for another tenure-track position or race across town to their second or third teaching job: maybe they just don’t have what it takes after all. Then again, they will all be together, assuredly, as they sink finally into the briny deep.

From my own experience talking with faculty this is an accurate take on the situation. Tenured faculty invariably (I know of only one exception) speak of adjuncts or sessionals as “losers.” There is zero solidarity.

Now here’s what’s been happening in the newsroom, from Frank’s essay on the Washington Post’s smearing of Bernie Sanders. The Post is itself a lifeboat, one of only a few newspapers that has positioned itself as a winner in the new media landscape. But, as Frank writes, the “people at the top of the journalism hierarchy don’t really identify with their plummeting peers.” They are the insiders, the Beltway punditocracy, and “it is increasingly obvious that becoming an insider is the only way to hoist yourself above the deluge.” Above the deluge and in the lifeboat. As for those left behind, they are, just like the university adjuncts, a bunch of losers. Furthermore, and this is the important point Frank is making, “between journalism’s insiders and its outsiders – between the ones who are rising and the ones who are sinking – there is no solidarity at all.”

Until the day, that is, when you wake up and learn that the tycoon behind your media concern has changed his mind and everyone is laid off and that it was never really about you in the first place. Gone the private office or award-winning column or cable news show. The checks start bouncing. The booker at MSNBC stops calling. And suddenly you find that you are a middle-aged maker of paragraphs – of useless things – dumped out into a billionaire’s world that has no need for you and doesn’t really give a damn about your degree in comparative literature from Brown. You start to think a little differently about universal health care and tuition-free college and Wall Street bailouts. But of course it is too late by then. Too late for all of us.

This lack of solidarity is the key, and it’s something I first noticed, and was horribly depressed by, some twenty years ago when I worked in a large industrial union shop. It was staggering to me that the only thing any of the union members saw the union as being good for was what it could do for their own personal benefit. In pursuit of such selfish ends they were more than willing to kneecap their brothers and sisters, and indeed the union itself. As a result, whenever a union steward would mention the word “solidarity,” even in passing, my mouth would fall open. Nobody who worked there showed any indication of caring a bit about that.

My takeaway from the experience wasn’t just that unionism was dead, but that it was dead from the roots up. For it to come back something essential to our whole way of understanding how such social organizations work would have to change. Meanwhile, the good ship of society is on its way down – an image invoked by Frank’s subtitle. Unions, those that survive, do provide lifeboats, but there aren’t enough of those even for just their dues-paying members to each have a place. In the zero-sum competition to be an insider or outsider, winner or loser, solidarity has no place.

This is, of course, the language of Trump, whose favourite pejorative is that of “loser.” Frank ends the book on a dismal note, explaining how Trump will win re-election: easily if the economy stays strong, and if things tank then with the assistance of the snooty Democrats. The problem with the Democrats being that they too are only interested in who comes out on top. They’ve bought into the war-of-all-against-all world view completely, but just have slightly different criteria for selecting the winners. Best advice is to get a lifeboat and a paddle. Not to row with, but to hit anyone on the head who tries to clamber on board.

Review first published online August 6, 2018.

Donald J. Trump

By Conrad Black

Donald Trump must have been an irresistible subject for Conrad Black, an author who has always leaned toward the “great man” theory of history, with a special sympathy for right-wing politicians who have been, in his eyes, treated unfairly by journalists and historians. Trump fits the bill, at least for Black, because despite all of the less than flattering attention given to him in the media Trump has been a force for good, the necessary man of the hour.

And, to be fair, there is a case for Trump to be made. His election was a remarkable achievement, as he managed to overcome both the Republican and Democratic parties. Furthermore, as president he really is getting things done. Whether you think they are good or bad things is another question.

Black’s analysis gains something from his personal knowledge of Trump. They have had business dealings in the past, and being men of the same age and similar class backgrounds share much the same worldview.
A key part of this worldview is that America before Trump was in decline: disrespected and taken advantage of abroad, falling apart at home.

Who’s to blame? Again, Black and Trump are singing from the same hymnal: the enemies within are identity politics, political correctness, liberal elites, and the media.

Black dials up the rhetoric when dealing with each of these groups. Where Trump merely simplifies every instance of unflattering coverage as “fake news” Black goes after “the carping insolence of penurious journalists,” who pursue the president “with accusatory questions bellowed from salivating mouths, through bared teeth, and with nostrils flared.”

The media are “somnambulant” and “flaccid,” but also “rabid,” “febrile,” “hysterical,” and “demented.” In all things they toe the line of “the politically correct group-think of the liberal elite,” which includes Republicans as much as Democrats, not to mention all of Hollywood (“a moral and intellectual pigsty, an asylum for the stupid, the corrupt, and the vocally shallow, who possess Thespian aptitudes or a saleable appearance and manner”).

One can’t imagine Trump ever using language like this – Black uses words with too many characters for Twitter – but it’s standard TrumpWorld boilerplate.

Black says at one point that he loves Trump for having enemies like these, but in fact he finds more than this to admire in a man he describes as “naturally very humorous, wittily perceptive, refreshingly uninhibited, and a great showman.”

Most of all, Black sees Trump as representing the real United States. As the book’s first sentence puts it: “The traits that elevated Donald Trump to the White House are the traits of America.” Trump is loud, aggressive, and larger than life, but gifted with the common touch:

He was a rich celebrity whose tastes were not to hobnob with the swells and socially eminent benefactors, but, crucially for a presidential candidate, to harvest the affection of the lower middle and working classes of America who were not appalled, but rather, to some degree, inspired, by his bravura, buffoonery, and raw egotism, for behind it they saw an outrageously successful version of themselves, and one who, they intuited, understood them and their desires, fears, and hopes.

In all this, were his followers only being played as suckers? That Trump could “harvest the affection” of an angry electorate is one thing; whether he could actually help them, if such was even his intention, quite another.

Black tells Trump’s story but tells it slant. Trump’s successes are all his own while his failures are mainly the result of accidents or the machinations of his enemies. He does not lie so much as he engages in “truthful hyperbole.” The charge that he is racist or misogynist is refuted by pointing to the fact that he has employed women in various positions, while a catalogue of outrages are blithely dismissed as media-driven scandals or the indiscretions of a charming rogue.

And then there is Melania.

Black is thoroughly smitten with Melania Trump, bringing his narrative to an awestruck stop every time this “breathtakingly tall and beautiful and magnificently proportioned” goddess enters the frame. Melania rises above the world of politics and celebrity like Aphrodite, leaving Black to wax Shakespearean in gaping paeans. A “devoted mother,”

she is well-liked and respected by the public, and always makes an excellent and tastefully glamorous impression when she goes abroad. She is neither an employee of her husband nor a rival nor a scene-stealer; she is neither cloying nor bossy. She is confident and relaxed, cool and poised, looks whimsically on some of her husband’s eccentricities, but is always very supportive. . . . She exudes an exotic and mysterious composure that is often more becoming than the opinionated and busy nature of some of her recent predecessors as first lady. She never appears to the public to be either short-tempered or over-eager to please or impress. Her only historic rival as a glamorous chatelaine in the White House is Jackie Kennedy.

This is laying it on a little thick. Is it being unchivalrous to wonder how whimsically Melania looks at the hush money her husband has paid out to adult performers? Perhaps, but still one wonders.

At the end of A President Like No Other Black leaves us with a Trump triumphant, rising above the partisan witch hunt of the Mueller investigation and setting an agenda to make America, yes, great again.

There is an ambiguity, however, in the final judgement that Trump “is a man of his times, and his time has come.” Might that mean his time is up? The names of Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen are nowhere mentioned in the book, perhaps because they are part of more recent developments. It’s hard to believe there aren’t more shoes to drop. Can the Trump Show continue to enjoy ratings high enough to avoid being cancelled? Stay tuned.

Review first published in the Toronto Star May 26, 2018.


By Stephen Greenblatt

Tyrant announces itself as a book about Shakespeare on politics, but this is a bit of subterfuge. In fact it is a livre à clef, a book ostensibly on Shakespeare that is really about the rise to power of Donald Trump, as seen through the lens of Shakespeare’s drama. Trump is never mentioned by name, at least that I recall, but in his acknowledgments Greenblatt describes the book’s genesis as being in a dispirited conversation that took place “in a verdant garden in Sardinia” about a certain upcoming election. When the outcome of that election confirmed Greenblatt’s worst fears he felt compelled to pursue his reflections on “Shakespeare’s uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves.”

So, when things begin with a discussion of “oblique angles,” which is to say Shakespeare’s way of dealing with contemporary politics by way of the material of history and legend, we’re also being introduced to Greenblatt’s own method, which is to use Shakespeare as an oblique angle on the present.

There is nothing particularly subtle about any of this. York in the Henry VI plays “sees an opportunity to forge an alliance with the miserable, overlooked, and ignorant lower classes, and he seizes upon it. And we learn that the hitherto invisible and silent poor are seething with anger.” The rabble-rousing Jack Cade is a “loudmouthed demagogue” who invites the masses to enter his own fantasyland while he “promises to make England great again.” “In ordinary times, when a public figure is caught in a lie or simply reveals blatant ignorance of the truth, his standing is diminished. But these are not ordinary times. If a dispassionate bystander were to point out all of Cade’s grotesque distortions, mistakes, and downright lies, the crowd’s anger would light on the skeptic and not on Cade.” Meanwhile, the House of York seeks to establish a family dynasty and make secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy (France). This sleeping-with-the-enemy motif is repeated in the story of Coriolanus going over to the Volscians: “It is as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia – forever sabre-rattling and accusing the rival politicians of treason – should secretly make his way to the Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin.” Macbeth is another cautionary tale, forcing us to consider what happens when “observers, particularly those with privileged access, see clearly that the leader is mentally unstable.”

This is laying it on thick, but it gets a lot thicker when Greenblatt comes to Richard III. Here he really gets to enjoy himself:

Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.

He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning.

He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what most excites him. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is a bully. Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. The skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree. Though they know that he is dangerous, the followers help him advance to his goal, which is the possession of supreme power.

His possession of power includes the domination of women, but he despises them far more than he desires them. Sexual conquest excites him, but only for the endlessly reiterated proof that he can have anything he likes. He knows that those he grabs hate him . . .

Whew! And it goes on in much the same vein. Do you get the point? It’s really hard to miss.

Now this sort of thing is nothing new. Richard Nixon was likened to Richard as well, and I still have a copy of an adaptation of Richard III set in the Nixon administration somewhere in my library. But while such analysis can be entertaining, it has its limits. Specifically, it doesn’t tell us much either about Shakespeare’s play (would you even recognize Richard III from this description?) or about Trump. The figure Greenblatt presents us with is an amalgam that doesn’t have a solid foot in either world.

Another effect of such comparisons is also problematic. I remember a book on the presidency of George W. Bush making him out to be a tragic figure and thinking that he didn’t quite rise to that level. I felt the same thing, even more, when reading Tyrant. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a great villain. Donald Trump wields great power, but is he as interesting? Is anything about him as compelling? I mean, at least Richard was articulate. In comparison, Trump is almost an anti-anti-hero.

Finally, as a reading of Shakespeare’s politics the anti-Trump message takes over entirely. If you want to understand Shakespeare’s politics the starting point is probably still E. M. W. Tillyard’s book on the The Elizabethan World Picture, a book that is now some 70 years old. In trying to make Shakespeare’s plays into warnings for what’s happening in the U.S. today Greenblatt seems to me to overstate the analogy, and his case, leading to some curious readings. For example, is it really true that the heroes of Coriolanus are the Roman tribunes? I’ve always seen them as a pair of cynical and self-serving jerks. Seeing the tribunes as heroes only serves to make Greenblatt’s point about people power being the only way to stand up to Trump.

But there’s nothing new in this. Every generation re-invents Shakespeare, giving itself the Shakespeare it needs while also keeping his message relevant. All commentary is of its historical moment. Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time, and Tyrant is addressed to us.

Review first published online July 8, 2018.

The Big Picture

By Ben Fritz

The Big Picture is a timely book. Perhaps too timely. It tells the story of the changes that have taken place in the movie business over the last ten years. The upshot of all of which is this: the major studios are no longer interested in making mid-list, risk-taking films on adult or dramatic subjects but instead are only kicking out big-budget and high-profit branded franchise films tied to popular comic books, theme park rides, and toys.

The stats don’t lie: “Of the top fifty movies at the global box office between 2012 and 2016, forty-three were sequels, spinoffs, or adaptations of popular comic books and young-adult novels.” Five of the remaining seven were family animation films. “Today, anything that’s not a big-budget franchise film or a low-cost, ultra-low-risk comedy or horror movie is an endangered species at Hollywood’s six major studios.”

Why has this happened? Television series have replaced the mid-budget dramas, and the big franchise films have sucked up all the media oxygen and cultural buzz, providing the familiarity of comfort food in troubled times. It is also the result of the lowering of the age demographic for moviegoers, which began in the 1970s and has been continuing its descent ever since. The adults left the room long ago, leaving only children, teens, and “kidults” behind. And finally, we can see it as part of a larger transformation in the economy, the movement away from the local to the global, with an attendant hollowing out of the middle-class. The winners take all. Either become a monopoly (a franchise) or go home. “The biggest change over the years is just how poorly mid-budget dramas now perform when they aren’t hits.” These can now “come and go unnoticed, as if [they] never existed.” It’s become a zero-sum game.

I think any moviegoer will have been aware of these developments. Indeed, they have been hard to miss. Today’s most popular movies are slickly produced and boast incredible production values but are almost totally bereft of originality or creativity. This makes Fritz’s book all the more essential reading.

As a business story, The Big Picture concerns itself with the fall of Sony Pictures, which missed the bus on this transformation, and the rise of Disney, owners of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. Disney is the model Hollywood studio and have established the basic template for success:

Disney doesn’t make dramas for adults. It doesn’t make thrillers. It doesn’t make romantic comedies. It doesn’t make bawdy comedies. It doesn’t make horror movies. It doesn’t make star vehicles. It doesn’t adapt novels. It doesn’t buy original scripts. It doesn’t buy anything at film festivals. It doesn’t make anything political or controversial. It doesn’t make anything with an R-rating. It doesn’t give award-winning directors like Alfonso Cuarón or Christopher Nolan wide latitude to pursue their visions.

Though Disney still has flops, it has fewer than other studio – fewer than anyone ever dreamed was possible in a business that has for decades seen more failures than successes and has been compared to riding a roller coaster. Disney has, in short, taken a huge chunk of the risk out of a risky business.

Many in Hollywood view Disney as a soulless, creativity-killing machine that treats motion pictures like toothpaste and leaves no room for the next great talent, the next great idea, or the belief that films have any meaning beyond their contribution to the bottom line. By contrast, investors and MBAs are thrilled that Disney has figured out how to make more money, more consistently, from the film business than anyone ever has before. But actually, Disney isn’t in the movie business, at least as we previously understood it. It’s in the Disney brands business. Movies are meant to serve those brands. Not the other way around.

I think all of this is well observed, and Fritz’s book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in what is happening to movies in our time, both as a business and as a form of art and personal expression. But to return to where I began: is this only a snapshot of a fad, or a real trend?

With the rise of alternative “studios” like Netflix and Amazon, not to mention international players, things could still spin off in interesting new directions (a possibility Fritz entertains). But more than that, might there not be a point of franchise fatigue? This book came out just before the release of several franchise blockbusters in the summer of 2018: Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Jurassic World: Falling Kingdom. All of these movies made money (they could hardly not), but even fan bases were unenthused. Disney has a winning formula now, but I don’t think they can ride it forever. This too shall pass and a new paradigm will take its place. I just wouldn’t want to bet that what comes next will be anything better.

Review first published online June 16, 2018.

The Road to Unfreedom

By Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder is an academic writer who wants to write for a mass audience, and he has had some success in this regard. His little chapbook On Tyranny, for example, became a surprise bestseller, without saying much that was very new. Its virtues were that it was short and relatively accessible.

I had to stick in that qualifier because Snyder is not always so easy to understand. He can drift into poetic, rhetorical metaphors (“The ink of political fiction is blood,” “To end factuality is to begin eternity”) and has a penchant for coming up with infelicitous labels for concepts that might be better expressed in more familiar terms (schizofascism, sadopopulism). A good example of both tendencies in action can be seen in the central distinction he makes between the politics of inevitability and eternity.

The meaning of these terms is not self-evident and may require some explanation.

The two politics are a linked pair, reduced in their simplest terms to “progress and doom.” Both are mythic structures, or ways of imagining history. The politics of inevitability has it that history has a purpose and a direction. This may be toward the “one market, under God” of neoliberalism, or the Marxist classless society. Either way, it signifies the march of progress, which terminates in the end of history. This progress is a natural law and cannot be altered or avoided. Hence inevitability. As the acronym TINA has it, “there is no alternative.” Snyder likens it to sleepwalking “to a premarked grave in a prepurchased lot” (he frequently uses death imagery). Even democracy becomes an empty ritual, akin to what David Runciman in How Democracy Ends refers to as “mindlessness.”

The politics of inevitability turns into the politics of eternity by way of the poetry I mentioned earlier. “Eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse.” “The natural successor to the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity.” What Snyder is getting at here is the way the politics of eternity happens when the inevitable doesn’t materialize. Progress (toward whatever end) turns into the God that fails. Why does it fail? Because of its enemies. Enemies that are invariably seen as external threats, the foreign “other.”

The upshot of the politics of eternity is that there is no longer any progress, or way that history can be redeemed. I don’t like the word “eternity” but the general point is that a return to the past “replaces the forward movement of time.” There is only an eternal struggle, with the forces of darkness and light locked in endless warfare.

Snyder’s point in The Road to Unfreedom is that this trajectory from inevitability to eternity, from saviour to victim, from utopia to nostalgia, from progress to doom, from “radical hope” to “bottomless fear” (there are a lot of these pairings) is one that the United States, under the tutelage of Putin’s Russia, is currently traveling.

There is something to this. I can remember the world’s outpouring of solidarity with the U.S. after the attacks on 9/11, best represented by the headline in the French newspaper Le Monde the day after: Nous sommes tous américains — We Are All Americans.

What was odd was that the U.S. wasn’t having any of it. Very soon the French would be vilified, along with any other country that didn’t immediately fall into line. Instead of taking a true leadership role the U.S. identified itself with Israel, the besieged outpost of civilization surrounded by enemies and under attack by terrorists. Such a transference baffled me, as it seemed so far removed from America’s role and place in the world. Snyder’s categories, however, help explain what was going on. From the shining city on the hill America had become Masada, a nation trapped in a cycle of “endless crises and permanent threats.”

Of course 9/11 was before Trump, a figure Snyder despises as “an American loser who became a Russian tool.” Specifically, Trump was a tool designed by Russia in its own political image: the media-generated “payload of a cyberweapon, meant to create chaos and weakness, as in fact he has done.” Trump’s Manchurian mission was to lead America further down the road to unfreedom, from inevitability to eternity. Another instance of mission accomplished.

Snyder has been criticized for giving Russia too much credit (or blame) for creating Trump. I think he makes a convincing case, though the financial details of the arrangement are still obscure. The bigger problem people seem to have with emphasizing the Russian connection is that they feel it lets Hillary Clinton and the Democrats off the hook. But for the Russians (or the Electoral College, or James Comey, or whatever other excuse), Clinton would have won.

In a close election one can make an argument for any single factor being determinative. Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election and I assume they did have some impact, but did they tip the scale in Trump’s favour?
This seems to me to be an idle question. What was significant was that the election was even close in the first place. Trump was a symptom of the systems failure in American politics, not the disease.

I think Snyder is fair in this regard too, highlighting the ways in which America has become susceptible to just such a threat as the propagandists of the politics of eternity pose. From the growth in inequality to the hollowing out of the news to the replacement of facts with fiction and the rise of social media, the West has become increasingly vulnerable to the sirens of eternity.

The greatest failure has been of the politics of inevitability. The march of progress has either stalled or gone into reverse, with stagnating or falling real wages over the last forty years and government’s near total inability to take action on any of the most pressing issues people face. This has led in turn to widespread disgust with politicians, who are seen as being a class of self-serving, unrepresentative and unresponsive elites. In such an environment the forces of anti-government have gained strength, earning mandates to simply tear it all down. The result is Snyder’s sadopopulism:

Insofar as the American politics of eternity generates policy, its purpose is to inflict pain: regressive taxes that transfer wealth from the majority of the country to the very rich, and the reduction or elimination of health care. The politics of eternity works as a negative-sum game, where everyone but the top 1% or so of the population does worse, and the resulting suffering is used to keep the game going. People get the feeling of winning because they believe that others are losing. . . . So long as enough Americans understood losing as a sign that others must be losing still more, the logic could continue.

This is the downward spiral we’re currently stuck in. The only way out is a rise in prosperity and a better functioning economy, which I don’t see as being in the cards. The new inevitability is that we’re all going down.

Review first published online June 11, 2018.

Selfish, Whining Monkeys

By Rod Liddle

When did narcissism become the definitive dysfunctional condition of our time? Some people would point to Tom Wolfe’s christening of the 1970s as the “Me Decade” or Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, but I think these were prophetic voices from the cultural antennae of the race, and I think Lasch anyway was onto something a little different than what we mean by narcissism, a diagnosis more classically grounded in then current models of psychology.

The ‘80s were a bad decade too, and when David Sirota wrote his critique of the pop culture of the time (Back to Our Future) he specifically called out its selfishness and “virulent egomania.” This was the Thatcher and Reagan ‘80s, when there no longer was any society but only the grasping individual. Things were clearly on a narcissistic trajectory, though I don’t recall the diagnosis being made quite as often back then.

A decade later, Bill Clinton would present himself as the love child of the counterculture and neoliberalism, the two self-centered ideologies that columnist Rod Liddle identifies as having given birth to the present age.
Of course this was all before the advent of Donald Trump, a figure viewed by many professionals as showing clear indications of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). But even before Trump’s election it seemed as though narcissism was popping up everywhere. In 2014 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell warned of The Narcissism Epidemic. Also in 2014 Aaron James proffered Assholes: A Theory, which defined the titular condition as sharing many features with NPD (with James even admitting at one point that “being an asshole is probably only one version of the disorder”).

That same year (2014, still pre-President Trump) saw the publication of Rod Liddle’s Selfish, Whining Monkeys: How We Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy.

Obviously all of these people were responding to something in the culture and the way we live now. Trump was more symptom than cause: the cherry on top of a cake that had already been baked.

A preliminary note before I get going. Liddle is, at least in Britain, a controversial figure. Indeed he courts controversy, and on more than one occasion has been taken to task for crossing over the line into open racism and misogyny. I don’t want to get into any of those arguments here, as I don’t think the essays in Selfish, Whining Monkeys do cross that line (though there’s probably enough here for readers so disposed to conclude that Liddle is a rotten person). Instead, I think it’s worth focusing on what is of value in Liddle’s analysis of the zeitgeist and how it is we got here.

We begin with the selfishness of the monkeys (us). Which is to say, our narcissism. Liddle sees this, as I’ve already mentioned, as the idiot child born of Frankfurt School Marxism and Chicago School economics. Both schools stressed the supremacy of the individual: the former as leading the struggle against capitalist consumerism and traditional authoritarian political structures, the latter as the engine driving us toward capitalism’s (and history’s) triumphant end.

But whatever its ideological origins – and they are likely more complex than Liddle has them – narcissism is firmly in the saddle today. In some ways this is benign, as in our fetishizing of working out at the gym. In other ways, however, it is a real problem, and one that admits of no easy solutions. This is because narcissists know that they are right, and much of our current culture supports them in this.

Liddle pillories the narcissistic certitude of ideologues of the left and right, who share “a grim insistence that everything they say is beyond possible contradiction and that those who dare to contradict them should be punished somehow.” One thinks right away of the bubble-blowing effect of the Internet that allows the narcissist to spin a cocoon about him or herself, a technologically-enhanced tunnel vision which encourages an intolerance toward the very existence of other opinions. Or even other people. Liddle caustically calls the Internet

a medium which accommodates itself perfectly to our almost infantile narcissism, our big-I-am willy-waving and relentless solipsism. Its apogee was back in 2006, when Time magazine chose its Person of the Year, and guess who won? Yes, it was You! Yes, You! Every one of You, everyone in the world sat behind their little screens tap tap tapping away. You’ve won! All the people people beavering away at their blogs, their take on the world (comments: 0), all the monomaniacal communities. Congratulations – You are the most important person in the world. Hell, shucks and so on – be honest with Yourself. You always were. As if it needed Time magazine to tell you that.

Liddle writes in this jokey manner throughout, but he wants to make a serious point. Of course selfish, whining monkeys, or narcissists, or assholes, are annoying, and not always in a humorous way. That’s a given. But they also represent something worse: a social disease that prevents us from taking collective action for the common good. Whether you locate the source of the malaise in the ‘60s counterculture or the ‘80s individualistic revolution, or some “poisonous cocktail” combining the two, “the appetite for collective solutions to national problems was almost eradicated from the public mind, and in its place we had a vaulting personal acquisitiveness and a diminished concept of what constitutes society.” Indeed, determining that society as such does not exist, “and that it is up to us as individuals to make our mark in the world, then necessarily the amount of respect we have for other people – now viewed merely as competitors – will diminish also.” Furthermore, since nothing that happens to anyone else, living or yet to be born, is of any consequence to the narcissist they are free to indulge in the shortest of short-term thinking. Only immediate personal benefits count. What this all adds up to is no laughing matter.

The other point Liddle makes that deserves attention comes in his critique of the “faux left.” By the faux left he means bourgeois metropolitan liberals, “people who consider themselves of the left, or leftish, but whose views are often wholly irrelevant to the poorest indigenous sections of our society, or actively hostile towards them.” That word “indigenous” is one that gets him in trouble, because what Liddle is talking about here is the white working class. It’s important to note however that he’s not making the case that this is a class that is particularly hard done by but rather that it’s one that the faux left doesn’t care about. They can go on virtue signalling, meaning taking noble public stands on issues that cost them nothing, or which even provide them with benefits. A chief example here being immigration, where the liberal elite signal the importance of diversity and open borders while taking advantage of cheap gardeners and nannies.

Yes, things are a lot more complicated than this. Still, what Liddle represents is a point of view that resonates with a lot of people, and his analysis isn’t that far removed from that of Thomas Frank in Listen, Liberal. Only replace the faux left with Frank’s Democratic elite, the Brexit voter with the Trump voter, and you have a pretty good correspondence. In both cases you have the left behind looking for help in right-wing ideologies after the (faux) left has abandoned them. Narcissism in effect becomes a defence mechanism. In the end Liddle comes full circle, to “narcissism, once again”: “We demand to be heard because we know that underneath we count for less than we once did.” This is a downward spiral indeed, and we haven’t come close to reaching its bottom yet.

Review first published online May 22, 2018.

The Darkening Age

By Catherine Nixey

What was it that made the Dark Ages so dark? Assuming that they were dark, a point not all historians allow. And by asking who, or what, made them dark I mean who switched off the lights of learning?

Christianity, or the Church, has long come in for much of the blame. Edward Gibbon saw in the fall of the Roman Empire the triumph of barbarism and religion, and the revolution in modern thought largely defined itself as being a liberation from the yoke of scholastic (church) learning.

This isn’t totally fair. What seems to have happened is more of a general economic collapse leading to a significant downgrade in various forms of higher culture that were, at the time, elite luxuries. In his excellent history of philosophy from ancient times to the Renaissance, The Dream of Reason, Anthony Gottlieb looks at the fall of philosophy and concludes that “Nobody had killed the Greek inheritance; it had simply been allowed to waste away.”

I don’t think Catherine Nixey would entirely disagree with this, but The Darkening Age nevertheless sets itself the task of describing, as the subtitle puts it, “the Christian destruction of the Classical world.” This was mainly accomplished by a narrowing of the Classical mind. With the triumph of Christianity came an intolerance for other forms of faith, philosophy, art, and culture. Theatres closed, poetry stopped being written, statues and temples were torn down, and philosophical inquiry was made illegal, all in the name of God and saving souls.

Nixey says little to direct our attention to parallels with our own time. For example, there’s only a quick link drawn between the desecration of a statue of Athena at Palmyra with the further destruction of the same ancient city in recent years by the Islamic State. It is an embarassing but meaningful connection. If you think tolerance is a virtue, monotheism should make you a little nervous.

Review first published online May 14, 2018. For a more scholarly take on the same subject I’d recommend Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind and A.D. 381.