On Tyranny

By Timothy Snyder

“History can familiarize, and it can warn.” So begins Timothy Snyder’s little book full of timely lessons, cautionary tales, and general guidelines drawn from the darkest days of the twentieth century (think, primarily, Hitler and Stalin) “adapted to the circumstances of today.”

It’s much the same warning that has been sounding since antiquity. Polybius may have been the first to come up with a formal theory of the descent from democracy into tyranny, but it’s a subject that has since gone on to become a staple for statesmen and historians to return to. How do we prevent a state collapsing into barbarity?

Snyder’s primer is obviously targeted at the threat to democracy he sees being advanced in the Trump administration and recent political developments in Europe like the Brexit vote. Such red flags should put us on our guard. But given the nature of such a book, with only a few pages given to each historical lesson and the moral to be drawn from it, one wants to immediately jump in and register some caveats.

The first lesson, for example, is “Do not obey in advance.” What this refers to is “anticipatory obedience,” which means that when people give in to government encroachments on their liberty the government is emboldened to go even further. Meanwhile, whatever freedoms have been given up cannot easily be regained. In other words, there’s a ratchet effect: when tyranny meets with little initial resistance “the first heedless acts of conformity [can] not then be reversed.”

True enough, though I think Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority don’t fit with this particular historical lesson all that well. They weren’t about anticipatory obedience. A more troubling question, however, has to do with the nature of the authority being exercised and where the biggest threats to our freedom may be coming from. For example, we freely give up far more of our personal information and privacy to companies like Google and Facebook than we do to the government – companies that, according to recent reports, are far from innocent when it comes to playing the game of political influence and power. Personally, I’m more concerned about where our first heedless acts of conformity have led us in this regard than I am by any power we have granted to public bodies. The police can only get a sample of your DNA in most countries with a court order (it’s a form of search warrant), but people apparently will now pay corporations to take it from them. This strikes me as a carelessly and dangerously misplaced trust, and an act of anticipatory obedience that will be hard if not impossible to reverse in the future.

I don’t want to suggest here that Snyder is blind to the threat of the Internet. Indeed, this is a major theme that runs throughout the book. In later chapters he emphasizes the importance of print over digital news, of maintaining a private sphere of life and drawing a line between when we are seen and when we are not seen, and of “practicing corporeal politics” (that is, organizing and interacting with real people). What I’m getting at instead is the way tyranny isn’t limited to our political institutions.

Speaking of those, the second lesson is to “Defend institutions.” Again, this is fine as a general principle but it still raises questions. Defend all institutions? Even those that are corrupt, dysfunctional, or antiquated? I’ve been all for abolishing Canada’s senate for years. What if institutions have become so sclerotic they are no longer capable of addressing current crises, and our constitutions are only guarantors of an unresponsive status quo? Are we stuck with a first-past-the-post election system forever? Is there nothing the U.S. can do about its gun laws because of the Second Amendment? Not all political institutions are worth keeping, at least in their present form.

Third up: “Beware the one-party state.” This strikes me as wanting to shut the barn door after the horses are out. If you live in a one-party state the game is already over, and (as Snyder notes) few people know in advance if they are voting for the dismantling of democracy in a last free election. As anti-democratic in spirit as Trump clearly is, I don’t think anyone thought that 2016 was the end of the line. Of course, those more cynical (or realistic) might say that most Western democracies are already one-party states, as only a certain social and economic elite is represented by the political system. This is especially the case in first-past-the-post systems where the ineluctable tendency is toward a two-party system where both sides are in broad agreement on policy with only some minor differences in tone. I don’t think Snyder is advocating for proportional representation though.

I won’t go through the whole list in order. Instead, I’ll register a broader reservation.

Snyder is swimming against the tide of the times. I think he realizes this, but I’m not sure he understands just how strong the countervailing forces are. I’ve mentioned his distrust of the Internet and his call to return to print: “Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.” I heartily agree with him, but at this stage of the game I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t going to happen. I don’t mean to subscribe to what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability” here (meaning there is no alternative to the way things are) but I think we have to limit our plans for change to the possible and the not-so-heroic.

As I say, I think Snyder realizes how hard resistance is going to be. We can see another example of this in his emphasis on the need for personal effort. Lesson 8 calls for the individual to “Stand out,” while the final lesson is to “Be as courageous as you can” (the only explanation of which is that “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny”). Standing out and being courageous, however, are not easy. Few of us, by definition, are heroes, and in any event heroes don’t always have much of a political impact. Those who stand out don’t always draw others to their cause and have rarely been much of a threat to tyrannous governments. The Nazis were not overthrown by conscientious objectors and protests against their regime but by losing a war. Communism collapsed on its own, and those who opposed finally won by pushing at an open door.

Another example of swimming against the tide of the times comes in the call for more political activism among groups. I think this is a little more likely, or at least possible, than people separating themselves from the Internet and reading books again, but it’s still mostly wishful thinking. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone pretty much wrote the epitaph for civic involvement, and it only summarized trends in place before the Internet came along. Unlike some, perhaps many, I do not see the Internet as truly connecting people, as it seems to me to mainly promote more social isolation and apathy.

Does this mean we are doomed to fall into tyranny again? Nothing is inevitable, but I think we’re in trouble. I say this not because of any of the bad habits Snyder adumbrates but because of looming crises that will undercut, and indeed are already undercutting, our democratic systems. When tyranny comes it will be in the guise of an answer to these threats: economic and environmental train wrecks that will put severe pressures on governments around the world. In coping with these crises the lessons of the twentieth century will, I think, be of limited utility except to make the road to ruin better lit and more familiar.

Review first published online April 22, 2018.

Trumpocracy and Fire and Fury

By David Frum

By Michael Wolff

During the 2016 presidential elections CBS CEO Les Moonves made waves when he boasted of the boost Donald Trump’s candidacy had given to his network’s ratings. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Despite not being a reader himself, Trump has been damn good for publishers too. After a slew of post mortems published last year trying to explain the election and how we got here, readers can now look forward to what is sure to be a flood of books offering insider and expert analysis of the Trump presidency. For journalists, historians, psychologists, political scientists, and even novelists and literary critics, Donald J. Trump is going to be the gift that keeps on giving.

The only problem will be keeping pace. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d hear complaints about how cable news had accelerated political reporting to the rhythms of a 24-hour news cycle. With the advent of social media this has been reduced even further, leaving a technology as resolutely old-fashioned as the book at a clear disadvantage when faced with daily Twitterstorms.

The prominent Canadian-American political pundit David Frum recognizes the problem of writing from within the whirlwind of current events. But, seeing as this is a moment of crisis, he also feels that “if it’s embarrassing to speak too soon, it can also be dangerous to wait too long.” And so we have Trumpocracy: an angry assessment by a die-hard “Never Trumper” of what Trump’s use and abuse of power is doing to America’s political culture.

There is much to pick over in the analysis, with many valuable insights and observations. Foremost among these is the role played by “those who enable, support, and collaborate with Donald Trump.” Why have so many people in positions of responsibility and authority caved in so quickly and completely to Trumpism? Frum’s answer is institutional: they didn’t want to alienate the angry and resentful Republican base and they needed Trump to rubber-stamp their agenda. Since Trump has almost no interest in policy, all that was required was that he “have enough working digits to sign their bills into law.” In exchange, a cynical and opportunist Congress would protect him. We’ve yet to see how far they will go in this.

If Frum’s book is more concerned with the big picture, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury goes in the other direction. Here are all the juicy scoops and gossipy revelations that have been feeding the media mills for the past week, propelling Fire and Fury to the top of the bestseller lists. Trump wanted his presidency to be a reality TV program, judged not by its accomplishments but by its ratings. He has succeeded beyond all imagining.

Though hard to put down, Wolff’s breathless tell-all in fact tells us little we didn’t already know about the character of Trump himself. Nearly everyone around him considers him to be a moron. He is needy, paranoid, and narcissistic. He doesn’t “process information” well, has no attention span, and tends to ramble repetitively, boring listeners to tears. Universally described as child-like, he struts upon the stage like a spoiled, petulant bully. None of this is news.

Then there is the presidential court, headlined by the dark whisperer Steve Bannon (who even likens the White House to the court of the Tudors), prevaricating establishment Republicans and generals, and a glossy brood of spoiled but dim children, inheritors of the Trump brand.

In the mutual contempt of warring power bases, and with a near total leadership vacuum at the top, dysfunction has followed: what one outgoing high-ranking staffer characterizes as “bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission” and another more succinctly as “an idiot surrounded by clowns.” The resulting chaos is criticized by both authors. Frum calls the White House “a mess of careless slobs” while for Wolff it becomes the “scene of a daily Trump clusterfuck.”

In the face of all this late-night stand-up material, the frequently heard warnings of a slide toward fascism may be overdrawn. However, after reading Frum and Wolff my own mind kept turning back to the epilogue to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic account of The Last Days of Hitler. In his summary of the Nazi regime as a “monkey house” of “flatterers and toadies” Trevor-Roper saw not totalitarianism, indeed not a government at all, “but a court – a court as negligible in its power of ruling, as incalculable in its capacity for intrigue, as any oriental sultanate.”

The tragedy is that the Trump Show, or Trumpocracy, is only one symptom of a deeper rot. In Trevor-Roper’s analysis, what led to Hitler’s court was “the despair of politics.” The same despair has brought forth the strange fruit surveyed in these two books, and it’s only going to deepen.

Review first published in the Toronto Star January 12, 2018.

Freud: The Making of an Illusion

By Frederick Crews

I think a lot of us have a complicated relationship with Freud. On the one hand he’s a wonderful writer who created an entire mythology of the mind that has endured for over a century, helping to shape and inform a great deal of modern culture.

It’s terrific stuff, but of course (and we’re moving to the other hand now) it’s all nonsense. That much was obvious to me after just the first few pages of The Interpretation of Dreams (and things tended to go downhill from there). Where, I had to ask myself, was Freud getting all this?

Well, according to Frederick Crews in this thorough examination of Freud’s discovery/invention of psychoanalysis (basically covering the years from 1880 to 1900), the short answer is that he just made it up.

Freud’s theories weren’t grounded in any clinical case work or statistical analysis. He had no success with the former and seems to have been totally uninterested in the latter. He wasn’t much of a doctor or a scientist, and indeed in later life Crews describes a man who had “become an outright antiscientist.” In modern parlance, he was a quack.

His basic assumption, which he maintained in the absence of any evidence, was that what was true for him – and by that I mean what he felt or even dreamed to be true – must also be true for everyone else. His only real test subject was himself. He liked using cocaine and so prescribed it to others, claiming tremendous results despite tragic outcomes. Various foundations of psychoanalysis (the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety) were outgrowths of his own mental morbidity, discovered through sheer introspection, which he then generalized “under the misapprehension that all men were similarly warped.” He then created a library of case fictions that projected his fears onto others, giving them a spurious validity.

That Freud made things up is the easy part. Why he made things up is where the story gets not complicated but ugly. Again there is a short answer: Freud wanted to be rich and famous. He couldn’t become rich and famous as a doctor because he wasn’t a good doctor. So instead he became a writer of popular entertainments. As he explained to a friend:

I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador – an adventurer if you want it translated – with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.

Crews calls this a damning and “definitive self-assessment,” but doesn’t draw attention to the cruelty of the historical conquistadors, or their overweening lust for gold. One wonders if this was an unconscious slip on Freud’s part.

But then, one is left to wonder quite a bit about the extent of Freud’s belief in the new faith he had created. Crews chooses an odd second epigraph for his book in a line from Seinfeld’s George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Is this meant to imply some basic level of bona fides on Freud’s part? Given the thoroughness of Crews’s indictment I don’t think I’d want to give him that large a benefit of doubt.

But we are left with an even larger question, one that Laura Miller flagged in her review of Freud:

These narratives have endured for so long because so many people prefer them to the truth. Why? That’s a question Crews touches on in Freud, but only lightly. If the book fails, it is not in pressing its cause so fiercely but in mistaking who deserves the lion’s share of his scorn. The best hatchet jobs don’t just assail an author or thinker for shoddy or disingenuous work. They also indict the rest of us for buying in.

Just keeping with Freud’s immediate posterity, why did so many others “buy in” or go along with the charade of psychoanalysis? The cult of personality must have played some role, and the institutional strength of the Freud circle, which was remarkably strict and disciplined and remained so even after his death (Freud was a bully, and like all bullies he passed it down). Also the very real benefits that accrue to any member of a court, the operations of which always appears disgusting to outsiders. And, finally, let’s grant that there was something in the Freudian mythology that has had a general resonance with much of modern life. That doesn’t excuse his enablers, but it does provide some defence for the rest of us.

Review first published online January 20, 2018.

Swearing Is Good For You

By Emma Byrne

You might expect a book on the science of swearing to take a lot of the fun out of the subject. Talking about taboo language is sort of like explaining a joke; subjecting the f-bomb to critical analysis defuses its impact.

Nevertheless, given how significant a role swearing plays in our lives it deserves a closer, clinical look. And Dr. Emma Byrne, a scientist and a journalist who has done research in the field, is well qualified to be our guide.

For Byrne, swearing isn’t just vulgar invective and angry ejaculations but a use of language that is “intelligent and powerful” as well as socially and psychologically essential. A “complex social signal that is laden with emotional and cultural significance,” swearing has meaning and utility in many surprising ways that go beyond the merely communicative.

For example, studies have shown that swearing can have an analgesic effect, so that we experience less pain when indulging in some expletives. And in the workplace swearing can become something like a tribal language, leading to increased social bonding.

In informal and off-colour prose Byrne looks at the science of swearing from the different angles research has taken. There’s a chapter on the structure of the brain and swearing, one on swearing and pain, on why a discussion of Tourette’s syndrome doesn’t really belong in such a book (though this is one of the longest chapters), on gender and swearing, workplace swearing, primate swearing, and swearing in different culture and languages.

Along the way we learn many interesting factoids. For example, by consulting a language database that’s charmingly known as the Lancaster Corpus of Abuse we can see that women’s use of the f-bomb has increased greatly in the last few decades while men’s use of the same has actually gone down, at least in Britain. Byrne views this as progress: “If women and men want to communicate as equals, we need to be equals in the ways in which we are allowed to express ourselves.”

It’s in ways like this that swearing continues to evolve. But despite its ever-changing vocabulary and levels of acceptance it’s safe to say that in one form or another it will always be with us just because it’s so useful. And, yes, good for us too.

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 24, 2017.


By Nick Mount

What was CanLit anyway?

University of Toronto English professor Nick Mount traces the origin of the portmanteau back to the early 1960s and the beginning of the CanLit “boom,” but today it sounds more like a course code than a shorthand label for Canadian writing, then or now. In hindsight we might see CanLit as (1) a canon of works to be studied, (2) a historical phenomenon, and (3) a myth.
Mount’s valuable and refreshingly lively account of the subject looks at CanLit from all three angles.

He is briefest on the books themselves, choosing not to get involved in critical evaluation beyond providing margin notes that rank the core texts on a scale going from one to five stars. Blame the Internet. For what it’s worth, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook takes top prize for the Great Canadian Novel, with Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women being the only other five-star contender in that category. Which is at least using an expansive definition of what constitutes a novel.

Instead of digging deeply into the books, Arrival is more concerned with their context: biographical, cultural, political, and economic. Such an approach may sound dry and scholarly, but it’s presented in a breezy, humorous, non-academic manner that makes for a quick and genuinely informative read, even for those who think they know the story well. Indeed, the main drawback is that in covering so much ground the discussion gets spread pretty thin in places. One wishes Mount would slow down!

It’s also the case that such an argument pushes the actual CanLit canon, whether intentionally or not, even further to the margin. By emphasizing the many different forces coming together at the same time and place that gave birth to and shaped Canadian writing during these years, CanLit comes to seem less about the writing and more about a kind of product (of the kind sometimes derided as “Canned Lit”).

This isn’t unfair though, and in some ways it makes for a welcome corrective to the default position of ancestor worship that continues to dominate so much of our discussion of CanLit. Mount doesn’t say that these writers lucked out simply by happening to be in the right place at the right time – though he gives plenty of examples of how they won the lottery in that regard. For example, you have to smile at George Jonas recalling getting a job at the CBC in 1960: “you could just walk into an office unintroduced and say, ‘I want to work here.’” Things are rather different around the Ceeb these days.

The CanLit authors were made by their time and place, and in particular it was readers that made them. This is a principle Mount insists on throughout. In his discussion of feminism and CanLit, for example, he talks of how “books become what their readers want,” and that “Canadian women writers wouldn’t have succeeded without the women who were their largest audience.”

By success Mount means something other than artistic achievement, as he later suggests that literary quality is not what makes an author great but rather the quality of their audience: “Writers don’t make classics; readers do.” You can tell from this just how much cultural displacement has taken place in the field of literary criticism, and how far the critical pendulum has swung away from those now marginal texts toward a more market-based form of analysis.

Finally, CanLit is a myth. A self-made and unabashedly self-serving myth, as many of Mount’s biographical sketches reveal. In turn, this myth was CanLit’s greatest achievement. If the cultural construction of CanLit was the product, the myth was the advertising, and nobody played the media as skilfully as this generation of writers, whatever their feet of clay.

But what of CanLit today? This is an important question and one that Mount doesn’t shy away from addressing, though we may debate his conclusions.

In the first place, given that CanLit was a product of its time and place we can confidently declare it over, aside from the few surviving legacy brands. What’s more, we won’t be seeing the cultural and economic conditions that gave rise to it occurring again.

This leaves us with the matter of its legacy.

As a national project CanLit is irrelevant now, and much of the infrastructure built to sustain it is eroding. Nevertheless, Mount, correctly I believe, sees the average quality of the literature produced in Canada to be higher today than it was during the golden age. Readers have never had it so good. What is the link then from past to present?

Is the CanLit canon, as Mount conculdes, a “now recognizable body of writing for critics to describe, students to read, the public to celebrate, and writers to steal from or define themselves against”?

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but it’s not easy to make the case. Frankly, one has to look hard to find the influence of CanLit, at least in terms of books being written out of other books. Rather, if CanLit was defined by its context, it was in turn that context – the network of media and money primarily – that subsequent generations have had to adapt to or try to resist. This makes the story Mount tells all the more relevant, even as CanLit slowly fades from view.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 2, 2017.

Age of Anger

By Pankaj Mishra

In the aftermath of such political shocks as the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president we have begun to see a surge in books attempting to understand this angry new world and explain to us what is going on.

In Age of Anger Pankaj Mishra takes a broad survey of political thought in the modern period in order to find some answers. Beginning with the conflict between the theories of Voltaire and Rousseau he tracks the intellectual history of the struggle between modernity and its discontents.

Modernity, in this account, has played out like a secular form of the Rapture, with a few winners and a great number of people left behind. The dominant ideology has been that of progress, but progress defined in a narrow way that mainly operates to benefit a minority. It is a neo-liberal, globalist, materialist form of progress, driven by an insatiable will-to-power. Its hero is an asocial, technocrat entrepreneur: the baby-faced billionaire in the Silicon Valley mansion.

But progress produces far more losers than winners, more Uber drivers than Übermenschen. And not only are “defeat, humiliation and resentment more commonplace experiences than success and contentment,” but in an age of growing inequality and economic stagnation second place has become a fall into an abyss, with no realistic hope of betterment.

The “disinherited and superfluous” feel betrayed by modernism’s empty promises. Progress, for them, is the god that failed. They are filled with a bitter spirit of envy and ressentiment, finding solace in moralism, tribalism, or nihilism. Guns and religion. “Thus, the trolls of Twitter as much as the dupes of ISIS lurch between feelings of impotence and fantasies of violent revenge.”

Mishra covers a lot of ground in Age of Anger, linking together the various forms discontent has taken – from Romanticism to terrorism – and weaving them into a truly global view. The result is an essential and sobering read.

A belief in progress, or just a hope that things might get better at some point in the future, is a cornerstone of our civilization. But many today are losing that faith, and not without reason. Seeing progress as a cheat and an unrealizable fantasy, they want to put the machine into reverse. If they can’t share the gains, then they at least want the pain to be felt by everyone.

Mishra sees this as a real problem, as we no longer live in a world that is capable of satisfying all of the dreams of material progress and individual empowerment it has raised. Which means the age of anger is going to get angrier yet.

Review first published in the Toronto Star February 5, 2017.

What Happened

By Hillary Rodham Clinton

For Hillary Clinton, writing a post-mortem of the 2016 presidential race was probably not a good idea. Among the general public it will likely be seen as an exercise in excuse-making, or the re-treading of sour grapes. “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser” is a line that has become something of a national credo. Hence the power of Donald Trump’s favourite epithet, directed at anyone who displeases or disagrees with him.

Piling on is very much the spirit of the age, with the antipathy and opprobrium directed at “losers” only getting worse. To take a familiar example from Internet culture, any loser attempting to say a few words in their own defence, however justified, can expect to trigger an avalanche of instant abuse: mocked for being “salty” or “butthurt,” or as calling for the “Waaaaa-mbulance.” It’s a double no-win situation. Better to move on and not say anything.

Clinton is aware of this thinking, and as early as election night, while preparing her concession speech, she experienced a moment of reflection: “I honestly wondered why anyone would want to hear from me again.” But duty called. She wouldn’t go away. Whether this made her a bulwark against the reactionary forces that threatened America or just a sucker for punishment will be up to history to decide. As she now stands before that tribunal, she just wants to “set the record straight.”

Advisable or not, What Happened was inevitable. Financial terms were not disclosed, but Forbes had it that the advance was “expected to be massive” (as a benchmark, Clinton got $8 million for her previous memoir, for which there was no demand at all). And it was a book she wanted, even needed, to write anyway. In part for catharsis and therapy (justifications she has cited on her book tour), but for other reasons as well. After her loss to Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries in 2008 she had conducted a private autopsy into what went wrong, looking to root out disloyalty and betrayal in her ranks. As reported in Shattered: Inside Hillary’s Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, “She believed her campaign had failed her – not the other way around – and she wanted ‘to see who was talking to who, who was leaking to who.’” It was a scab she couldn’t stop picking, and her anger at her defeat and need to assign blame goes some way to explaining her presidential run eight years later and, now, this explanation of an even worse (on every level) defeat.

Anger and feelings of bitter resentment are not attractive qualities in anyone, much less a candidate for public office, but they seem to have been a major driver in 2016. This was an angry electorate, many of whom felt resentful and betrayed. Perhaps not surprisingly, the candidates embodied and reflected these same dark emotions, and looking about after the election Clinton sees the situation as getting even worse. “The whole country was seething. Before the election, it felt as if half the people were angry and resentful, while the other half was still fundamentally hopeful. Now pretty much everyone is mad about something.” It is left to the reader to guess what party lines she sees this half-and-half split breaks along.

Populist anger had obvious roots. The middle class was being eviscerated while government was seen as unrepresentative and unresponsive at best and oppressive at worse. But where did the anger in the candidates come from?

In Devil’s Bargain, Joshua Green describes what he sees as the moment that propelled Donald Trump into the race for the presidency. It was the 2011 White House Correspondents’ dinner and Trump had, in Green’s phrase, been “setup from the beginning.” He was publicly mocked and humiliated by President Obama and others, and his “interest in politics intensified right after.” “I realized,” he would later say, “that unless I actually ran, I wouldn’t be taken seriously.”

The rage machine was pumped and primed. He would have his revenge at the polls.

And what of Hillary? Why was she running? This is the question that haunts the “doomed campaign” described in Shattered. Despite employing an army of speechwriters, Hillary “didn’t have a vision to articulate.” Indeed, “Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”

In the candidate’s own words, as we now have them, the rationale takes the form of the usual bromides. “I knew that if I ran and won, I could do a world of good and help an awful lot of people.” Did that make her ambitious? Sure, but not for money or power for its own sake. Rather, she “wanted power to do what I could to help solve problems and prepare the country for the future.”

As always, she was thinking of the children.

If you think that sounds like a stump speech, and not at all like someone who now feels free to express “unguarded” personal reflections, you’ll have some sense of the disappointment that I think most people will feel trudging through What Happened. In any event, Clinton’s generic talking points (about which I’ll have more to say later) don’t sound any more compelling now than they did at the time, however sincerely they may be held.

The mystery of what made Hillary run is even harder to understand given her personal history. By most if not all accounts she had experienced her eight years as First Lady in the 1990s as a nightmare of public exposure and humiliation. An intensely private and even paranoid person, why would she want to let herself in for more (much more) of the same? Especially given the fact that she would be entering the lists not as a fresh face but as someone with historically high negative ratings and serious vulnerabilities as a candidate?

What was she looking for? Validation? Revenge? Remember that list of enemies.

Leaving all this aside, let’s return to the question of What Happened. And note that the title is not a question. The author, at least, is not in any doubt.

As Bernie Sanders succinctly put it, “Secretary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of this country, and she lost.” Such a stunning result, upsetting pundits and pollsters alike, demands a strict accounting, which it has duly received in an avalanche of analyses. What Happened is part of what has become an entire genre of literature, occupying whole bookstore shelves. Does Hillary’s personal perspective shed any new light on the matter?

Not much. The sad, even tragic thing is that there was really nothing she could do to fix her biggest problems. A presidential candidate in the present age needs to have at least one of two characteristics: outsider status (the rebel, the maverick) or a gift of personal charisma and the common touch. Hillary Clinton couldn’t have been further removed from either. She was the ultimate political insider and, at least on a big stage, devoid of charm. The last president to be so handicapped was George H. W. Bush, another experienced and capable statesman who only rode Reagan’s coattails into the White House and who voters couldn’t wait to see the last of.

Another constant was that in 2016, as always, voters wanted change. This was a mantle that Hillary could never adopt. Her husband diagnosed the problem and tried his best to address it in his speech to the Democratic convention (introducing her as “the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my whole life”), but nobody was buying it. Twenty years ago “Clinton fatigue” was a diagnosable illness in the U.S. body politic, and it wasn’t just Bill who people were sick of. Meanwhile, Hillary had never left the public stage. What sort of change did she represent?

Incremental change. Realistic change. Those were her watchwords, and they are repeated over and over again here. But however defensible they were as policy, they were lead balloons on campaign. Her platform may have been worthy and workable, but, as Edward Luce observes, it was “a bit like prescribing aspirin for cancer.” The success of the incremental program was also predicated on the assumption, or perception, that things were getting better. People have to believe that progress is being made in order for them to buy into staying the course. Needless to say, that’s not how people felt, nor did they feel there was much point in sticking with the status quo. Trump’s platform, in so far as a Trump platform could be described, was pie-in-the-sky nonsense, but he was selling Trump sizzle and not Trump steaks. This frustrated Clinton – a self-confessed policy wonk with an incredible grasp of the political process matched with an obsessive attentiveness to detail – but should have come as no surprise. Surprisingly, it did. She didn’t blame her own naivety but rather the press:

In previous elections, there was always a moment of reckoning when candidates had to show they were serious and their plans credible. Not this time. Most of the press was too busy chasing ratings and scandals, and Trump was too slippery to be pinned down. He understood the needs and impulses of the political press well enough that if he gave them a new rabbit every day, they’d never catch any of them. So his reckoning never came.

Clinton can blame the media all she wants, but shouldn’t she have known that this is how it works? She even sounds surprised at Bernie’s success:

I have a new appreciation for the galvanizing power of big, simple ideas. I still think my health care and college plans were more achievable than Bernie’s and that his were fraught with problems, but they were easier to explain and understand, and that counts for a lot. It’s easy to ridicule ideas that “fit on a bumper sticker,” but there’s a reason campaigns use bumper stickers: they work.

She had a “new appreciation” for this, after having spent her entire life in politics? After all of her and her husband’s campaigns she was just realizing the power of big, simple ideas now? It’s moments like these that lead one to distrust Hillary, more than anything revealed in her secret speeches given to bankers or hacked emails.

In brief, despite her clear superiority in terms of competence, experience, intelligence, and temperament, she was a less than ideal candidate. The baggage was too much, and the fact that she was such a polarizing figure and one with few natural strengths as a campaigner just made things more difficult. It was said (she repeats the claim here) that she could do the job but that she couldn’t run for it. “For me,” she writes, “political campaigns have always been something to get through in order to be able to govern, which is the real prize.” But running – getting elected – is the job, as every politician knows. Was she only kidding herself?

Perhaps. We all do it. And like every very rich and powerful person, Hillary lived in a bubble filled with courtiers and flatterers (she prized “loyalty most among human traits,” which among this class of people is not a virtue). However, I don’t think she was out of touch with reality. She knew her shortcomings and sought to make an end run around them by the clever strategy of avoiding even having an election. “This time,” she writes of the Democratic primaries, “I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.” That is, to anything as vague and shifting as the public will. As a highly intelligent, skilled, and hardworking technocrat this arranging of the business of politics was her element, and had become her preferred m. o.: her political career consisting more of a series of appointments than any electoral success.

She’d had a significant role in her husband’s administration (she scorned staying at home and baking cookies), but only because she was the First Lady. After that she was dropped into a safe seat as a Senator from New York. Patrick Moynihan resigned specifically for her, though she had little connection to her new home. Safe seats in American politics at this level are very safe, and the upshot was that all she had to do was have her name on the ballot and the rest was a matter of taking her place in the Senate. Then there was her run at the Democratic nomination in 2008, which she lost to a relative unknown. She would make sure that wouldn’t happen again. Then another appointment, this time as Secretary of State. During these years she worked hard to sew up the nomination long before she officially announced she was in the race. She had all the money, all the institutional support, all the super-delegates. Nobody from within the party would have a chance, and if any were so bold or so deluded as to make the attempt, there was the very real threat of payback from the Clinton machine (the way traitors were dealt with after her 2008 run). Hence the mantle that was not unfairly draped upon her of being “inevitable.” The media, again not unfairly, referred to the whole process not as an election but a coronation.

(Clinton herself writes that it was in response to this same perception of her privileged status in 2008 that she “determined to run like an underdog and avoid any whiff of entitlement” in 2016. Alas, “Despite my intentions to run like a scrappy challenger, I became the inevitable front-runner before I shook my first hand or gave my first speech, just by virtue of sky-high expectations.” Those expectations, one assumes, are another example of something the media unfairly foisted upon her, and not just an accurate and objective description of the political landscape she had created.)

After having fixed the primaries . . . well, then there was the Republican field. These were the sixteen clowns in the clown car brilliantly described by Matt Taibbi in his collection of field reportage Insane Clown President. This too suited the Democratic candidate. As Edward Lucas, a not-unfriendly source, observes, “Long before Trump came on the scene it was obvious Hillary Clinton could only win the presidency by default. Regardless of how awful her opponent might be, a grudging victory was the best she could hope for.” But that would be fine. Winning by default wasn’t a fall-back option, it was the plan. Then the field propitiously narrowed down to Donald Trump, an anti-candidate who was widely described, perhaps correctly, as the only public figure in the United States with unfavourable ratings higher than her own, and the only one she could be confidently projected to beat in a general election. The “real prize,” after all the messy business of democratic politics had been taken care of was within sight.

At least it was until the unlikely rise of Bernie Sanders. Many were surprised to find What Happened so critical of Sanders, but I think it’s easy to understand Clinton’s outrage. What was the crazy old guy doing in the race? He was another outsider, not even a member of the Democratic Party. The real Dems, for their part, did their best to rid her of him, but were only partially successful. The inevitable coronation began to wobble off its base. Hillary was still inevitable – Sanders never had a chance – but things had started to get ugly. There would be a coronation, but it would be a tarnished crown.

Things went from bad to worse in the general election. It seems impossible, even a year after the fact, but somehow Hillary lost. The main reasons have already been mentioned: Hillary’s own unpopularity and lack of charisma and her inescapable branding as the candidate of the status quo. To these one could add – and she does – foreign intervention (Russian meddling), misogyny, a last-minute FBI announcement, the Electoral College system, Bernie’s negative campaigning, and her treatment at the hands of the media.

She argues her case well – you would expect nothing less – but I came away unconvinced. All of these factors played some role, no doubt, but they seem more like icing on a cake that had been already baked. Yes, James Comey’s October surprise swung the polls against her very late in the game, but those polls (which still had her winning on the eve of the election) were wrong with regard to just about everything leading up to the election, and really, by the last week of the campaign, if things were that close, then obviously much else had gone terribly awry. The Electoral College, or “godforsaken Electoral College” as she calls it here, was a given, and her losing the election despite winning the popular vote was not an “absurdity.” It’s also worth remembering that leading up to the election the Electoral College system was considered by everyone to be to her advantage. Trump had by far the narrowest route to the White House. The she couldn’t block him reflects even more poorly on her.

As for the crossfire from Sanders, this may have hurt her, but . . . she was in an election campaign. What did she want? Bernie to just go away without causing any trouble or making any noise? (Answer: Yes.)

The most problematic of the causes Clinton delves into is the role of the media. The story here is complicated. Clinton thinks the media spent far too much time covering stories relating to her emails and not enough on policy. Coverage was also manipulated, in a fashion, by Trump, who got lots of “free media” by boosting ratings. Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS, publicly pled guilty to having been an enabler, saying that Trump’s campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
That said, I think the influence of the traditional mass media can be overstated in today’s elections, especially among Trump supporters, who are notoriously averse to it. They had Breitbart, InfoWars, and whatever showed up on their Facebook news feed. Did the New York Times (Clinton’s bête noire) sway many voters in Wisconsin? Who even reads newspapers anymore?

It’s also the case that the media overwhelmingly endorsed Clinton for president and were savagely critical of Trump. Even right-wing media and conservative columnists, in magazines, cable shows and talk radio, came out against the Republican Party-crasher. The movement even had a name: Never Trump. The problem was, Trump was running against the media anyway, so, in his case, there really was no such thing as bad publicity. Clinton didn’t know how to deal with such a phenomenon, and in her defence I don’t think anyone else has yet either.

Special mention has to be made of two other reasons for her loss that Clinton discusses in What Happened: misogyny and Russia. Again, both of these were real factors in the election, though I don’t think either was pivotal. Of course, the fact that the race was so close, turning on a matter of thousands of votes in a few states, can make any cause, no matter how trivial, appear a deciding one in retrospect. The point is that it should never have been such a close race in the first place, and the reasons it wasn’t were the more general ones already discussed.

But with misogyny and Russia we see another blind spot in Clinton’s campaign. Here she seems more like someone stuck in the past. The thing is, neither issue was a hot-button in 2016. Clinton could talk about breaking that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but she was running right after Obama, who had already achieved a far more significant and surprising breakthrough in becoming the first African-American president. Most Americans in the twenty-first century accept that a woman president is not only possible but inevitable. It wasn’t something to get all that exercised over.

There’s actually a very funny moment that Hillary wants to take note of and that she “will never forget” that addresses some of this. Throughout her campaign she made use of celebrities, which I think hurt her more than it helped, and at one rally in Cleveland the singer Beyoncé took the microphone. “I want my daughter to grow up seeing a woman lead our country and know that her possibilities are limitless,” the pop star said to the crowd. This struck me as bizarre. I could see a racial argument being made, but there’s already been a black president. So the child of Beyoncé and Jay-Z will grow up feeling her opportunities in life are narrower because a woman didn’t get elected president? Really? I think Beyoncé’s children are going to be just fine. And if you had to choose, wouldn’t you rather be Beyoncé than the president anyway? The glass ceiling metaphor here looks pretty weak.

As with the glass ceiling, the Red scare doesn’t mean as much as it did in the last century. The Soviet Union fell a long time ago, and Russia’s government today is seen as corrupt and autocratic, but no longer a really dangerous adversary of the U.S. It doesn’t even provide an ideological enemy, as it is basically being run by football-club owning oil-and-gas oligarchs and a bloated military-industrial complex. This sounds more like what the U.S. is turning into than a threat to America’s existence. To be sure Putin was trying to get Trump, who he probably thought of as a useful idiot, into the White House, but in 2016 this didn’t seem any different from the usual hacker outrages and data thefts we hear about all the time. The evil Putin might have been just another Nigerian prince offering to make us into millionaires.

In both cases – misogyny and the Russian invasion – the response, and not just among the much-maligned Millennials, was a collective shrug. Perhaps this wasn’t as it should have been, but the bottom line is that these weren’t energizing issues. People had bigger problems than a glass ceiling that they were never going to come up against anyway and foreign hackers who weren’t taking money directly out of their bank accounts. Voter suppression, which Clinton only briefly touches on, strikes me as a much bigger problem, but one that the system seems ill-suited to deal with (since it is very much a product of that system).

I feel for Hillary Clinton. Much of What Happened is spin, but there are moments that I think are deeply felt. Clinton is at her best discussing matters of policy or laying out her case for why she lost, but behind it all is the fact that she did lose an election she should have won to a candidate who seems to have only run as a joke. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t run for public office can fully empathize with what such rejection feels like. To know that so many people simply don’t like you (or hate you without even knowing you) is hard for anyone to take. Indeed, it’s so hard as to be almost impossible. One has to adopt defence mechanisms, like Clinton’s famous reserve, or else try to deflect the blame for such rejection elsewhere. This is only natural. It is understandable. I found the following passage touching:

I have to come to terms with the fact that a lot of people – millions and millions of people – decided they just didn’t like me. Imagine what that feels like. It hurts. And it’s a hard thing to accept. But there’s no getting around it.

Moments like these made me want to like What Happened. It is, however, a nearly unreadable book. It introduces itself by promising that Clinton will be letting her guard down but I never had the sense that this was happening. Instead, it reads like campaign literature.

Two aspects of Clinton’s presentation of self are particularly bothersome.
In the first place, she is at all times the Hero of her own story. There were concerns about whether What Happened would show a requisite amount of contrition on Clinton’s part, and this is something she immediately addresses by stating for the record that she takes responsibility. But for what? The few mistakes she admits to she describes as being mainly due to the bad “optics.” She doesn’t feel she did anything wrong by keeping an email server in her basement or giving secret talks to bankers, but she understands why people would think that she had. She takes responsibility, sort of, for the smoke, but insists there was no fire.

Otherwise, her faults are all the result of an excess of virtue. What Happened is a non-stop humblebrag: she didn’t have enough ego (“I had to actively try to use the word I more”) and didn’t blow her own horn enough, was too polite, too honest and caring, too reserved, too composed, too focused on policy, too practical. In brief, she was too good for the dirty world of politics. Her subsequent shunning is just like what happened to Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones! Oh, wait . . .

I’ve mentioned the psychological burden of being rejected at the polls, and how unbearable it can be. Clinton adopts two approaches to avoiding it. The first is to take on the role of martyr. Yes, she lost, but don’t feel bad for her. Rather, feel ashamed of yourself for letting down the side. Just think “about all the women who had marched, rallied, picketed, went to jail, and endured ridicule, harassment, and violence so that one day someone like me could come along and run for President.” You have betrayed them all. There’s a special place in hell for you, or so we’re told by the not-so-forgiving cardinals of the Church.

Seeing as I’ve quoted the passage in the book that shows Clinton at her best, I’ll now balance things off by quoting the one that I think shows her at her worst, as it relates to this same point:

Since November, more than two dozen women – of all ages, but mostly in their twenties – had approached me in restaurants, theaters, and stores to apologize for not voting or not doing more to help my campaign. I responded with forced smiles and tight nods. On one occasion, an older woman dragged her adult daughter by the arm to come talk to me and ordered her to apologize for not voting – which she did, head bowed in contrition. I wanted to stare her straight in the eyes and say, “You didn’t vote? How could you not vote? You abdicated your responsibility as a citizen at the worst possible time! And now you want me to make you feel better?” Of course I didn’t say any of that.

These people were looking to me for absolution that I just couldn’t give. We all have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

Where to start? That someone writing a memoir could be so tone-deaf as to present herself in such a repellent light, and not even know it? That after her disclaimers about taking responsibility for having let so many people down she now describes herself holding court while they come begging absolution of her, which she only acknowledges with a tight nod of regal authority? That she was not only not offended or disgusted at a woman humiliating her own daughter before her, but actually got angry at the daughter for not having done her duty? That she would expect the reader to feel proud of her exercise of restraint?

This is sickening stuff, and I can’t grant Hillary absolution for having written it.

The other option for avoiding the pain of rejection and loss is through denial. Live in an alternate reality where the people really liked you. Imagine that you won. After all, you did win the popular vote (this is brought up over and over again, to the point where it becomes a running gag). Provide a lot of descriptions of the wildly enthusiastic receptions you received every time you gave a speech, beginning with the campaign’s kick-off on Roosevelt Island: “Friends smiled up at me from the front row. Bill, Chelsea, and Marc were glowing with pride and love. . . a sea of people clapped, hollered, and waved American flags.”

Moments like these are such a high that she can’t even resist giving us the victory speech she had written for election night and basking in a moment of make believe. And finally as a proxy triumph she concludes the book with the reception she got at a commencement speech she gives at her old college:

We turned a corner and saw young women in black robes lining both sides of the hall. They began to clap and cheer wildly. Around another corner were more students. They went on and on, hundreds of them, the entire senior class, lined up like an honor guard. Their cheers were deafening. It was like they were letting months of pent-up feelings pour out – all the hope and hurt they’d felt since November or perhaps since long before. I felt loved and lifted, carried aloft on a wave of emotion.

This is really how the book ends. Words fail me.

The second aspect of the presentation of the self has to do with Clinton’s language. The greatest mystery about What Happened is the quality of the writing. Whatever else you want to say about her, Hillary Clinton is a very intelligent person. She is also an avid reader. The most endearing revelation here is how much she and Bill love books. So how can she be this bad a writer? And by bad I mean a style so thick with insipid platitudes and clichés as to frustrate any attempt at empathy.

I don’t know if Clinton has ever read a Hallmark card or book of inspirational wisdom that she hasn’t taken notes on. She absolutely adores canned wisdom, and the simpler the better. Apparently she makes her speeches out of this material, carrying with her a “little book I keep of quotations, Scripture, and poems.” Someone should point her to websites or apps that will make life easier, as well as assist in fact checking.
Every chapter has an epigraph making the same point about not giving up, trying hard, and doing the right thing. One reads as follows:

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

A note then follows this saying it is a quotation “attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Two minutes on the Internet would have told her that this is a misattribution and that the words actually derive from something written circa. 1900 by a Bessie Stanley of Lincoln, Kansas, who had entered a newspaper contest for a 100-word essay on the topic of What is Success? So much for appropriation of a female voice!

Not that it matters who wrote something so bland and generic. One assumes Clinton got it out of a book full of such quotes, which may also have supplied the epigraph attributed only as a “Chinese proverb” that heads a later chapter. Either that or it’s Ancient Chinese Wisdom from a fortune cookie.

It gets even worse. David Remnick of the New Yorker tells the story:

I went uptown to Riverside Church, where Clinton was scheduled to hold a public conversation with Bill Shillady, a Methodist minister and a family friend who during the campaign had e-mailed Clinton hundreds of morning devotionals — Bible passages with accompanying short sermons — and who had helped officiate at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, in 2010, to Marc Mezvinsky. Now he was publishing those devotionals as a book called Strong for a Moment Like This.

Clinton was doing Shillady a kindness, but even in this she couldn’t catch a break. The day before the event, the publisher, Abingdon Press, announced that it was withdrawing the book because it was filled with passages plagiarized from other pastors and sources. Shillady issued an apology, but, naturally, Clinton took the hit in the press. In her fashion, Clinton soldiered through, holding the conversation with another Methodist minister, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli.

Whatever their provenance – if platitudes even have a provenance – Clinton eats this stuff up. In deciding to enter the race she is struck by three essential pieces of advice offered up by a sixty-four year old woman who was the first to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage: “Never ever give up. You’re never too old to chase your dreams. And even if something looks like a solitary sport, it’s a team effort.” This is the kind of thing you read on grade-school motivational posters with pictures of sailboats tacking into the sunset, but Clinton follows it up with an enthusiastic “Words to live by!” She’s impressed! Then someone whispers in her ear the words “Dare to compete” (taken from a school banner) and, well, “Something just clicked.” She is also taken by the wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt: “I return to her aphorisms again and again.” Example? “If I feel depressed, I go to work.” That’s another keeper for her copybook. At one point she even sees people on a protest march holding up signs with generic quotes from her own speeches – “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” “I Am Powerful and Valuable” – and the words lift her spirits. Seriously.

The worst thing about such a style is that it’s hard to trust. Surely, we think, this isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Such an armour of motivational-poster wisdom must be concealing something. And she does occasionally register that there is a problem, if only of “optics.” For example, after talking about how much she likes kids she has this to say:

I’m sure that in our hypercritical age, this sounds like just a lot of happy talk – the kind of thing politicians say when they’re trying to show their softer side. After all, who doesn’t like kids? Everybody professes to, even when their policies would actually hurt children. But I mean it. This is real for me.

Can we believe her? Does she mean it? Is it real? You can see how the matter of style gets at the heart of the problem with Clinton, and What Happened. People don’t trust Hillary, they don’t find her open, and this puzzles and bothers her. She doesn’t know what else she can do or how much more of herself she can give.

But everything she gives us is embedded in this sticky web of clichés. Trump, in comparison, was wholly transparent. His was the entirely un-mediated self. The misspelled, ungrammatical late-night Twitter rants told us (and continue to tell us) exactly what he thinks and feels. He is vulgar, ignorant, and uncomplicated. He likes gold-plated toilets. He likes meat loaf. He likes grabbing models by the pussy. And we know why he is doing all of this: because he is a narcissist mountebank looking to expand his brand. Then we look at Hillary’s exterior of bland platitudes drawn from (plagiarized) commonplace books and wonder what’s behind it.

One is left thinking that she’s either still being guarded or that Hillary Clinton is the most boring, superficial person alive. Being very much a product of our hypercritical age, my own sense is that the former is more likely the case. But as a lawyer and lifelong politician whose every utterance has been examined by the media with an electron microscope I also think it likely that Clinton has adopted such debased, ultimately non-communicative language as a mode of survival. It’s possible, just, that she really feels she is letting her guard down in What Happened. It’s just that the thought that there is no more authentic self behind these layers is scary.

Near the end of the book she mentions a speech she gave that was called out by one publication as consisting of nothing more than “easy, moralistic preaching couched in the gauzy and gushy wrappings of New Age jargon.” She is hurt by this because, she says, the speech had been her “attempt to talk unguardedly about what I thought was wrong in the country.” One imagines her reading her bad review and saying to herself But this is the best I can do. Why aren’t people understanding that?

One wants to make the effort to understand. But then you unpack her nostrums for what ails America. These come in a chapter titled “Love and Kindness” (epigraph from Henry James: “Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”). Apparently the soulful remedy for the nation’s malaise has to do with cultivating habits of the heart, idealism, and filling a spiritual vacuum. Her concerns along these lines began, she says, in college, where she “felt stifled by the conservative, dollar-crazed conformity of the Mad Men era.”

This line brought me up short. According to some reports Hillary Clinton has amassed a personal fortune of some $300 million out of a lifetime of public service. A particularly effective Trump election ad asked how she had gotten “filthy rich,” and it was a question that had traction because becoming so rich after having been in government so long just felt wrong. Trump was a NYC real estate developer, so everybody knew he was crooked and they weren’t all that concerned where his dirty money came from. As a government employee, Clinton was judged differently. This was the real double standard at play in the election, and it made her look terrible.

There’s a telling moment in Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land where a local man complains of a high-paid minor government functionary. He then suggests the idea that government should be run something like the church: as a charity, where officials renounce the world and volunteer to live in poverty, much the same as monks and nuns.

That’s taking things to another extreme, but it was the sort of thinking, widely shared, that helped to amplify the whisperings of “Clinton cash” and “pay for play” politics. To take the most notorious example, just why were the big banks paying Hillary a quarter million dollars to give a speech that, according to one attendee, “was mostly basic stuff, small talk, chit-chat”? I don’t suspect anything too nefarious in it (beyond her remarks to Wall Street that she had to have “both a public and a private position” on issues), but still haven’t figured it out. In her own defence she would only say that she took the money because “that’s what they offered.”

Now I have nothing against Hillary Clinton being rich. I don’t even find too much that’s objectionable about her doing it by way of public service. But how could such a person possibly sermonize about choosing public service over chasing the almighty dollar? Between her ideals and the reality falls a shadow. Nor does it help that she gives so much back in the form of charity managed through her family foundations and trusts – especially ones with “Global” in their name. People don’t want charity (and among the new class of philanthro-capitalists even calling it “charity” is really stretching things). They don’t want a hand-out. They don’t want philanthropic billionaires who will take care of them (if they behave). They want a chance to live independent lives that have dignity and meaning. They want a fairer system.

There is something about this that Clinton just doesn’t get. At one point she admits that there may “be no room in our politics for the kind of discussion” she wants to have about the role and function of government in building a new sort of caring society. And so “I found a more receptive audience overseas.” Where? In socialist Scandinavia? Among the freedom-hating French?

No. She finds her ideal audience giving “a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.”

Review first published online September 22, 2017.


By Jeff Guinn

In all fairness, this time you could blame the mother. Kathleen Maddox, Charles Manson’s mother, wasn’t cut out for the job. She was only 16 when she had him, and, as Jeff Guinn — surely somewhat euphemistically — puts it, she was a kid who “liked to dance.” And drink. And fool around. And generally get in trouble. Later she’d try to mend fences, but by then it was much too late. Without delving too deeply into these matters, it’s pretty clear that Charlie came by his low opinion of women honestly. Like a lot of men who feel betrayed by this primary relationship he would spend the rest of his life plotting his revenge.

He certainly kept a low opinion of women throughout his criminal career. Examples of his sexist world view would be funny if they weren’t so cruel. Of course women had to provide for the men in the Family. They were the ones who went dumpster-diving to forage for food, then brought it home and prepared and served it, waiting until the men had eaten before having any themselves. They were also used as sexual favours, passed out by Charlie to men whose friendship he wanted to cultivate. So far, so unsurprising. But then one reads about things like this:

In April, Mary Brunner gave birth to a son. She wanted to give birth in a hospital with trained medical personnel on hand, but Charlie wouldn’t hear of it. Natural childbirth was the only way, and Mary would be helped by the other women in the group. The girls told Charlie they had no idea what to do; he replied that they were women, so they would naturally figure it out. When the child came, it was a breech birth. Mary suffered terribly and there was a great deal of uncertain fumbling, but she and her baby somehow survived.

Or this:

At Spahn Ranch, it was a simple thing to scrounge food from L.A.-area groceries, but these so-called garbage runs were impossible in Death Valley, where there were no grocery stores. One time when the food supply ran particularly low, Charlie told the women to fan out into the desert and bring back edible plants. When they told him they didn’t know anything about desert plants, Charlie said that as women they were supposed to know about such things, so go out and gather something. But they couldn’t, even when he bawled them out for being unwomanly.

Life in Death Valley was experienced very differently along gender lines:

It was a hard way to live, but the men in the Family found more to enjoy in it than the women. The men served as armed lookouts, roosting in the shade and avoiding enervating movement in the unrelenting sun. They got the first and largest servings at meals and could relax afterward. The women had to chop wood for the stoves, cook the meals, eat whatever scraps were left by the men, and care for the children.

In the light of all this, and strictly by the way, I think it’s worth drawing attention to a prison interview Bobby Beausoleil gave in 1981 that Guinn doesn’t mention:

ALB [A. L. Bardach]: Did Manson really care or like women?
BB: Oh, Charlie loved women. He showed them plenty of respect. He treated those women better than most men ever treat their women.

Make of that what you will.

The story of Manson’s family has long had a special fascination. Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter may be the bestselling true crime book of all time, and continues to sell. There are many reasons for this: the horror of the crimes themselves, the fame of some of the victims, the cult angle, and perhaps not least the fact that we have never stopped hating hippies. In any event, nearly fifty years after being sent off to prison, Charlie and his surviving family members still manage to get headlines just by coming up for parole.

The focus of Guinn’s book is mainly on the lead-up to the Family’s 1969 murder spree. Manson’s early life is covered well, though there isn’t much to say. Charlie was a lifelong criminal but never got very good at it. He spent a lot of time in prison and jail. Given his incompetence, the police investigation into the Tate and LaBianca murders stands out as having been exceptionally bad. Including Beausoleil’s murder of Gary Hinman, there were three murder scenes where the killings were all committed by the same gang, and deliberately staged so as to look like they were all committed by the same gang. Nevertheless, the police couldn’t connect the dots. That’s truly amazing. Three months after the LaBianca slayings they had still failed to consider any links between the murders. It was only then that “evidence fell into their laps and, almost despite themselves, they began solving the crimes.”

Manson’s life post-trial, which is to say the last forty-five years, are breezed over in a mere ten pages. Admittedly little interesting happened, as Manson has been in prison the whole time, but surely there was some story to tell. I felt more could have been said, even if only of his media afterlife. But the subtitle tells us this was a book about Charles Manson’s “life and times,” and whatever period or “times” you want to associate Manson with, by the early ‘70s it was over. Also, separated from his Family he was a diminished thing. If he was only, as Guinn argues, “an opportunistic sociopath,” then he had run out of opportunities. He’s still a celebrity and so attracts attention, but there isn’t much more to say.

Review first published online September 11, 2017.

Strangers In Their Own Land

By Arlie Russell Hochschild

The stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election left a lot of people scratching their heads. Here was a figure with no experience, and whose candidacy seemed little more than a bad joke, upending the entire established political system. A number of books rushed to explain what had happened, and in particular what made Trump voters tick. Of these, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, while not providing a complete answer, is the best we have so far.

Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, takes as her test ground the area around Lake Charles, Louisiana, where petrochemical refining is the main industry. This has led to a lot of local problems with pollution, and Hochschild takes the environment as a “keyhole issue” to understand how people with different political points of view and from different social and economic classes respond to something that affects everyone equally (meaning that they all breathe the same poison air, eat fish from the same dirty rivers, and are threatened by the same sinkholes). How do right-wingers square the damage caused by pollution with their resistance to regulating polluters?

In answering that question three concepts become central: the Great Paradox, the empathy wall, and the deep story.

The Great Paradox is that made famous by Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: why do so many people vote against their own clear self-interest? In particular, why do poor, working-class people vote for governments whose policies actually punish them economically, while only benefiting a tiny elite?

The empathy wall is what divides us from understanding how people with different points of view from our own think and feel. It seems from most reports that this wall is becoming higher, and more and more a fixed part of the American political landscape. Hence the need for the kind of immersive reportage that Hochschild undertakes.

The deep story is a myth, of the kind you get in Plato’s dialogues where someone wants to make a point by telling a story. The story isn’t “true” (that is, it never happened) but it nevertheless represents a felt reality or can be used as a thought experiment. As Hochschild puts it, “a deep story is a feels-as-if story – it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.”

For Hochschild the deep story explaining Trump voters and Tea Party members is of a bunch of people waiting in line for some promised payoff. Hard work and self-reliance will lead to the realization of the American Dream, or at least some fair reward waiting just over the horizon. Unfortunately, people standing in line see others jumping the queue or being unfairly advanced ahead of them. To their horror they feel themselves actually slipping backward, despite doing nothing wrong and playing by the rules. They feel like strangers at home, and that they have lost honour and respect.

The cornerstone of their faith – and the Tea Party is a religion: “not so much an official political group as a culture, a way of feeling about a place and its people” – is hatred of the government. Not distrust, but hatred. The government has betrayed them. It has taken their money and done nothing to protect them or improve their lives. Instead, they’ve only looted the till, feathering their own nests with public money.

Public servants, they feel, should not get rich for doing their duty. This explains the effectiveness of the Trump campaign’s anti-Hillary television ad that asked how she had gotten so “filthy rich” from a lifetime spent in politics. Nor was this the result of a true double standard. One didn’t expect probity or altruism from a reality TV personality and NYC real estate developer, but from a senator and Secretary of State?

In one of the more telling anecdotes in Hochschild’s book she talks to a local man whose idea of public service is modeled on the church, with those doing government work living modestly like nuns. Similarly, tithing is seen as an honour, where taxes are seen as tyranny. As unrealistic as all this may be, it’s a point of view that I think is widely shared.

As for the environment, I’m afraid that message is being lost completely. Pollution, according to Tea Party doctrine, is “the price we pay for capitalism.” Hochschild breaks down one interviewee’s point of view:

Clean air and water; those were good. She wanted them, just as she wanted a beautiful home. But sometimes you had to do without what you wanted. You couldn’t have both the oil industry and clean lakes, she thought, and if you had to choose, you had to choose oil. “Oil’s been pretty darned good to us,” she said. “I don’t want a smaller house. I don’t want to drive a smaller car.” An operator job in an oil plant is a passport to houses in Pine Mist. One of those rare engineering job gets you into Autumn Run, and a high management job gets you into Courtland. The Arctic Cat, the SUV, the house: all these, she felt, came indirectly from oil. For its part, the federal government got in the way of both oil and the good life.

This kind of thinking drives progressives crazy, but it isn’t crazy itself. It denies reality (or, in Karl Rove’s deathless words, “the reality-based community”) as well as economic self-interest for what Hochschild calls “emotional self-interest”: “a giddy release from the feelings of being a stranger in one’s own land.” This sense of elation or “high” is what Trump offered, the feeling of “being part of a powerful, like-minded majority.” In comparison, what could reality offer? Downward mobility, or moving backward in the line. Of course Trump was only going to make the lives of his followers worse, but you could say the same for any drug.

Review first published online July 19, 2017. Brian Alexander’s Glass House is another excellent work of social reportage on much the same phenomenon. 

The Siege of Mecca

By Yaroslav Trofimov

“Until 1980, the U.S. military footprint in what is today commonly called the Greater Middle East was so light as to be almost invisible. Thirty years later it is massive, seemingly permanent, and overshadows in importance the American military presence anywhere else in the world.” – Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules

Why? Short answer: because of the Carter Doctrine, announced in that president’s State of the Union address in January 1980 where he declared the entire Persian Gulf region to be in the vital interests of the U.S. and therefore under its protection/domination.

Shorter answer: oil.

And why at this time? Because at the end of 1979 there had been an Islamic awakening that had challenged the authority of the Great Powers. On November 4, 1979 the American embassy in Tehran had been stormed. On Christmas Day of the same year the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan. Between these two events, on November 20, a group of fundamentalist terrorists occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for almost two weeks.

Yaroslav Trofimov’s gripping account of the siege of the mosque tells an important story that I suspect few people today know anything about, and helpfully plugs it into the larger context of militant Islamic radicalism.

Few people even at the time knew what was going on. A news and information blackout, of a kind impossible to imagine today, was enforced by Saudi authorities, to the extent that the different branches of the police and military that were directly involved only had a shaky idea themselves as to what they were up against. This, along with poor training and lack of cooperation, prolonged the siege and led to significant loss of life.

As for the larger political context, in terms of both its geographical and historical importance Trofimov may be guilty of overstating things. While there were foreign elements in the terrorist gang and the Saudi government did need to import some Western talent to advise them on the final assault, the takeover of the mosque was — unlike the Iranian revolution and capture of the U.S. embassy in Teheran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — a domestic story. Saudi Arabia was then, as it remains today, a mess. The tension between its government and religious establishment, which has been papered over for a century with a free flow of oil dollars, may be unresolvable.

In hindsight, what makes the story of the siege seem so important is the immediate U.S. response: the massive increase in America’s footprint in the Middle East that would in turn lead to ever greater forms of backlash. It’s curious that this is how it played out. Unallied and even antagonistic Islamic groups reacted against foreign (Western and Russian) imperialism, leading to a far greater involvement, or doubling-down of those same foreign powers, which in turn created an even more violent reaction. As Trofimov puts it, “The process leading to massive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf – a presence that would motivate droves of jihadis to join al Qaeda in following decades – was set in motion” by the siege. This then became a negative cycle, or spiral of violence, with subsequent generations becoming ever more radical while at the same time being inspired by and borrowing from the rhetoric and political ideas of fringe groups whose earlier apocalyptic imaginings they saw being validated.

This sort of escalation is an old story, and I think we need to start thinking of better options. Carrying a bigger stick into the region hasn’t helped.

Review first published online July 10, 2017.