The Cult of Impotence and The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen

THE CULT OF IMPOTENCE: SELLING THE MYTH OF POWERLESSNESS IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
By Linda McQuaig
THE MYTH OF THE GOOD CORPORATE CITIZEN: DEMOCRACY UNDER THE RULE OF BIG BUSINESS
By Murray Dobbin

In his latest book, John Ralston Saul argues that Canadians have always leaned to the political left. And while that left-right distinction (Linda McQuaig would rather say “popular” and “market”) may be artificial, it does help to highlight a public-spirited attitude still reflected in most opinion polls.

These days, the main target of the Canadian left is the ongoing consolidation of corporate power, both at home and abroad. The arguments are fairly easy to summarize. Large, transnational corporations dominate government policy, without any corresponding responsibility to individuals or communities. The new world economy, increasingly driven by speculation in financial markets rather than production, gives rise to growing inequality, job insecurity, and lower standards of living.

As corporations get bigger, the individual shrinks. Citizens become mere consumers, and democracy is undermined by a “cult of impotence” – a false belief that representative government is powerless. Of course governments aren’t really powerless, it’s just that they’ve ceased to use their power to promote the public interest. Thus a secretly negotiated foreign investment treaty (MAI) is almost passed without debate, while a measure for taxing currency exchanges (the Tobin tax) gets short shrift.

I found these arguments, made in depth in these two books, convincing. Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with Murray Dobbin when he says that “it would be difficult to imagine a more impoverished set of ideas, principles, assumptions about human nature, and goals for society than those promoted by the new right.”

Because they deal with current affairs, both books show signs of haste. Dobbin has collected a mountain of supporting material, but relies too much on a shotgun blast of statistics to make his case. I would have been interested in his analysis of more fundamental issues. If, for example, there is such a thing as a disease of corporatism, and I think there is, its effects are wider than Dobbin implies. Corporate minds are shaped by corporate structures, which exist in universities and labour unions just as much as on Bay Street.

McQuaig is a more engaging writer, and one not afraid to indulge her gift for narrative. Unfortunately, her book tends to wander through too many anecdotes and unfocused history. As a result, she spends a lot of time off topic, and ends up seeming less than objective.

Both authors do a good job exploding some of the commonly repeated myths of neo-liberalism (that is, right-wing economic theory). Among other things, they explain in clear terms how the government can play a dramatic role in job creation, why more regulation of the market only makes sense, and why the private sector is really no more effective or less bureaucratic than the public.

Of course, the mother of all ecomomic myths, at least in the ’90s, has been the debt. Not that the debt itself is a myth – only the blaming of it on government spending for social programs. In fact, social programs have contributed little. Government spending on programs and services has been falling for 10 years. What is growing are the interest payments on the debt.

McQuaig suggests that our real problem is neither globalization nor technology, but simply a lack of political will. Our impotence is selective. We could, for example, make fighting unemployment a higher priority without causing our currency to collapse. International markets do not take nearly as dim a view of Canada’s situation as our leaders do.

Technology poses a different, and I think harder problem. There can be no question that new technologies are making many fields of labour obsolete. Postal workers and bank clerks, to take a pair of obvious examples, are clearly on the endangered species list. And what are these people going to do when they are replaced by computers? Design software? We have yet to see how the information revolution will play out, but in the short term it seems clear that there will be more losers than winners.

While both Dobbin and McQuaig make impassioned pleas for democracy, their real thrust goes deeper than politics. What they are trying to affirm is a new humanism – one that places human concerns and values ahead of global capital, corporate interests, and abstract economic theories (like the absurd “natural rate” of unemployment). This is certainly a worthy goal, and part of a debate that we all should be engaged in.

Notes:
Review first published April 11, 1998.

Consilience

CONSILIENCE: THE UNITY OF KNOWLEDGE
By Edward O. Wilson

Is there a unity of knowledge that underlies the fragmentation of learning we find in today’s universities? Edward Wilson, one of the world’s foremost science writers and a leading researcher in his own right, thinks there is.

Wilson calls such unity consilience – the theory that all of nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can be reduced. Every thread on the loom, from atoms to ecosystems, from quantum mechanics to Shakespeare, can be traced back to these master blueprints of the material world.

So far it is just a theory. Most of Consilience is “gap analysis,” focused on what we don’t know about life, the universe and everything. On his home turf of the natural sciences Wilson has the easiest case to make, but he has no intention of stopping there. Human history can be a natural science too, and so can the rest of the humanities. All that is needed is an agreement among academic disciplines on a common body of abstract principles and evidentiary proof.

The wider Wilson spreads his net, and it gets pretty wide, the patchier the argument starts to look. There are many valid generalizations made about the arts, but the devil is in the epigenetic details. Consilience in literature, for example, seems only to be warmed-over archetypal criticism (archetypes being expressions of our single genetic human nature). Obviously we have a way to go.

As it stands, consilience is most useful for the critique it provides of the social (or pretend) sciences. The book takes special aim at economics, and performs the practical function of reminding us that it is not really a science at all. At bottom, economics is dressed-up folk psychology with little foundation in empirical research and virtually no predictive power. For a self-professed disciple of the Enlightenment, this will not do. “The time has come for economists and business leaders, who so haughtily pride themselves as masters of the real world, to acknowledge the existence of the real real world.”

This is the voice of wisdom calling.

The best is saved for last. Even readers who reject the theory of consilience entirely should take a look at the brilliant final chapter, “To What End?” Here Wilson looks at the future of the human race, beginning with the “volitional evolution” of the species through genetic engineering (clearly the major ethical debate facing science today).

Of primary concern is the approaching “bottleneck” in the world’s population – set to peak sometime in the next century. Wilson makes it clear that in order to avoid rigorously Malthusian solutions to the problems of overpopulation and scarce resources we must learn to become creative conservationists, and fast.

Ending on such a challenging note is no mistake. Consilience is a deliberately provocative book, filled with ideas that demand attention and discussion. One may disagree with what it has to say, but it should not be ignored.

Notes:
Review first published May 9, 1998.

Conduct Unbecoming

CONDUCT UNBECOMING: THE STORY OF THE MURDER OF CANADIAN PRISONERS OF WAR IN NORMANDY
By Howard Margolian

On June 6, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Division landed on the beaches of Normandy and drove inland toward Caen. In their way was the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth,” an inexperienced unit largely staffed by Nazi zealots and brutal thugs.

In this valuable new book, war crimes investigator Howard Margolian tells the story of how 156 Canadian PoWs were ruthlessly murdered by several different elements of the 12th SS, in various sectors of the field over a 10-day period from June 7 to 17.

Not stopping there, Conduct Unbecoming goes on to relate the “glaring failure of Canadian justice” in prosecuting those responsible. Once the war was over the government grew strangely apathetic about the whole affair, and seemed content to let matters slip.

The results of this policy were shameful. The most infamous of all the war criminals, Kurt Meyer, ended up spending less than 10 years in prison – and he was one of only two senior officers of the 12th ever to be tried.

While Margolian does a very effective job, and no one can dispute the worthiness of his subject, there is still a need to be critical. Such an important history must be held to the highest standards.

It is hard to fault the research of a book that appends 77 pages of notes to 186 of text. Nor would I question the justice of the author’s morality. But some, admittedly minor things are not made entirely clear.

Take, for example, the issue of reprisals. It is suggested at one point that some of the Normandy murders may have been motivated by revenge for British mistreatment of German prisoners, and later that Canadian soldiers settled “a few old scores” with prisoners of the 12th. But there is little explanation of either of these incidents. Was no further evidence available?

After Kurt Meyer was arrested he was sent to the London Cage (a special detention centre), where he was subjected to “well established” interrogation techniques as well as “less savory practices.” What is being implied here? Was there evidence of torture? Does Margolian know something he isn’t telling?

Margolian admits that the “cornerstone of the historian’s craft” is to be objective and detached. When he does digress into editorial comment he is fully justified in doing so. He manages to “personalize and universalize” the tragic events he describes in a very powerful way.

But passion can be a liability for a historian when it leads to a lack of precision. Here as well I had some concerns. Margolian makes a thorough and convincing case against Wilhelm Mohnke as the instigator of what became “the single worst battlefield atrocity committed against Canadians in the country’s military history.”

He has looked at all of the extant investigative records and shows how they point to the “seemingly inescapable conclusion” of Mohnke’s guilt. I am entirely persuaded by the evidence, but was disturbed to find, only five pages later, Margolian referring to Mohnke’s ordering of the massacre as a “fact.” This it is not.

Another example of (understandably) overzealous prosecution occurs in the description of Meyer’s trial. After pleading not guilty to the charges against him, Margolian describes Meyer as bowing awkwardly to the bench. He then goes on to say that this “gesture of servility seemed out of place in a Canadian court.” This is hard to understand. Even today one is supposed to bow to the bench in a Canadian court. And while this was a military court, Meyer could hardly have been expected to salute (as others present did). Is it not likely that Meyer was simply doing what his lawyer told him to do? And why “servility”? The contemporary newspaper report of the trial only describes the bow as “deferential.” This has an entirely different meaning.

It should go without saying that none of this is meant as a defence of Meyer, Mohnke, or any of the other killers. These are only minor quibbles with what is, overall, an excellent book. Conduct Unbecoming sets out to honour our oft-forgotten Canadian heroes and it does so with rare distinction.

This was a story that needed to be told, and we should be glad that Howard Margolian has told it with such intelligence and feeling.

Notes:
Review first published April 4, 1998.

Closed Chambers

CLOSED CHAMBERS: THE FIRST EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE EPIC STRUGGLES INSIDE THE SUPREME COURT
By Edward Lazarus

The judiciary plays a crucial role in both the American and Canadian systems of federal government. As independent interpreters of the nation’s laws – including its supreme laws, the Constitution – they preside over the administration of justice, shape public policy, and defend individual rights and freedoms.

That is the theory. In practice, our courts often fall short of the ideal.

In this fascinating and groundbreaking book, Edward Lazarus provides the first eyewitness account of the personal and political power struggles within the U. S. Supreme Court over the past half-century. The story Lazarus tells has two main acts: The “Rights Revolution” of the radically liberal Warren court, followed by the conservative reaction of the present court, headed by William Rehnquist.

Lazarus describes the defining legal debates (over the death penalty, race, and abortion) with skill, presenting a number of difficult legal issues in lay terms. Although he is an unashamed liberal (he clerked for the Supreme Court under Harry Blackmun in 1988), he is scrupulously fair in his judgments. He frankly blames liberal icons such as Justices Brennan and Marshall for a narrow-mindedness that inspired much of the wrath to come. He also questions the power of the clerks to shape law, especially in their writing of draft opinions.

According to Lazarus, the main problem with the present court is its ideological polarization. The judges do not not engage in meaningful debate, but simply interpret the law in any way that furthers their own political agendas. As a result, the court becomes a forum for the mere exercise of power and loses its integrity. This raises an issue that is potentially devastating to a society based on the rule of law: “If law is no more than power, no more than five votes supported by doctrines of convenience, why should we obey?”

I have to admit, this is a book I have been waiting to read for a long time. It is very rare to hear a clerk of any court speak out in this way and raise these kinds of issues. Lazarus is also an excellent (if dry) writer, blending personal observations with historical awareness and precise legal analysis. Few books in recent years have given as clear a picture of America in the 20th century – where it has been, where it is, and where it is heading.

Notes:
Review first published April 25, 1998.

Civilizations

CIVILIZATIONS
By Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

When Paul Kennedy sent out early drafts of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers for comments he was surprised by the response. Readers wanted more – more background coverage and more detail supporting a thesis that Kennedy originally thought he could develop in a “brief” book.

As a result, his simple argument – that modern history shows a correlation between relative economic strength and military power – took nearly 700 pages to explain.

What happened to Kennedy’s book might be taken as a model for what has become a trend in popular history books. Today we frequently find mountains of detail and footnotes supporting theses that are almost banal. John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is one good example. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Civilizations is another.

Fernandez-Armesto defines civilization as a relationship with the natural environment, one that recrafts the environment to meet human demands. “Civilization makes its own habitat,” and a civilization is only civilized “in direct proportion to its distance, its difference from the unmodified natural environment.”

The implications of this definition are developed in a highly original taxonomy of civilizations. Juxtaposing past and present, “high” and “low,” civilizations are sorted by environmental categories such as desert, highland, forest, and seaboard. Our learned tour guide, with extensive view, surveys humankind from the Kalahari to the Aleutians, demonstrating there is no environment that cannot be adapted to human needs.

But there is no such thing as progress. “Societies do not evolve: they just change.” There are no stages of civilization, no patterns of development, no “survival of the fittest.” Indeed, if we do want to use the survival of a particular group or lifestyle as a mark of civilization, it would be the least likely groups, those who have done the least to transform their environment, who would have to be considered the most civilized.

Thus while Fernandez-Armesto believes in the civilizing “itch” or impulse (he is candid about preferring culture to nature), his thesis implies a reversal of traditional ways of thinking about civilization. The more “civilized” a particular civilization gets – meaning the further it distances itself from its natural environment – the more unstable it is likely to become. “For the history of civilizations is a path picked among ruins” – monuments to noble and spectacular failure.

And that’s it. It is not the sort of argument that really requires 600-plus pages to make, but the detail is there for anyone who wants it. Some hint as to the magnitude of accumulation can be seen in the book’s love of epigraphs. There are over 40 chapter epigraphs appearing in at least five different languages (not all of them translated, or, for that matter, relevant). In fact, there are so many epigraphs they have their own section in the endnotes! Even for an Oxford historian this is four-flushing it.

On the positive side, the writing itself is very good, and makes one think the author might want to try his hand at writing a novel some day. His description of the casinos of Las Vegas, seen in the cold light of day after a night of debauch, shows him at this best:

Their mighty signboards, which looked glamorous or at least glitzy a few hours before, seem half-dressed in daylight: the struts and cables show, dangling or drooping, like unzipped flies and slack stockings.

This is nicely observed, as is the rest of the book, but it does not make up for the fact that Civilizations contains a simple message that doesn’t need anything like the development it receives here. The idea that readers always demand so much more needs to be reconsidered.

Notes:
Review first published February 10, 2001.

Chasing the Chinook

CHASING THE CHINOOK: ON THE TRAIL OF CANADIAN WORDS AND CULTURE
By Wayne Grady

The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that “Every word was once a poem.” “Bare lists of words,” he thought, could be “suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind.”

For Wayne Grady, every word might be an essay. The starting point for Chasing the Chinook is Grady’s belief that Canadian culture is expressed in a distinct Canadian language.

For those who don’t believe Canada has a language (or languages), he suggests that every time we peer into a gopher hole or dump a hockey puck into a corner we are “participating in a linguistic event that is distinctly Canadian.” That is, we are participating in Canadian, not American culture.

Luckily, this is not a rigid thesis. Grady does not see his essays as arguments. Instead, he borrows a definition of the essay from Michael Hamburger: “An essay really ought not to be on anything, to deal with anything, to define anything. An essay is a walk, an excursion, not a business trip.”

The style fits the form. Grady is an effective but still casual writer. The brief chapters in Chasing the Chinook are like little walks, with may diversions. Along the way there are many stops for anecdotes and digressions drawn from his impressive range of reading.

In terms of content, each of the 41 essays focuses on a word that is either demonstrably Canadian “or at least arguably Canadianish.” In most cases the connection is clear (as with “garrison mentality” or “filles du roi”), but even sympathetic readers may find the link is sometimes strained.

There are, for example, several inventions or discoveries made by Canadians that seem to have no particular relevance to Canada at all (such as “kerosene,” “polygraph,” and “Peking Man”). These essays, while enjoyable, don’t have much to do with nationality, words, or culture.

The same thing could be said about “ice.” Ice truly is interesting stuff, and there’s no doubt Canada has a lot of it, but it does not, as Grady suggests, stand in the same relationship to Canadians as sand to Saharans or air to birds. Canadian culture is not quite so large as that.

Objections like these, however, are part of the fun. Any cultural commentator capable of making lucid generalizations of some originality (and there aren’t that many out there) is bound to provoke disagreement. In doing so, Grady forces us to arrive at our own definitions of what is and is not Canadian. The result is a fresh, invigorating approach to that most familiar of our national pastimes.

Notes:
Review first published November 14, 1998.

Byron

BYRON: CHILD OF PASSION, FOOL OF FAME
By Benita Eisler

As a legitimate contender for the title of first modern celebrity, George Gordon, Lord Byron has always been experienced as a seductive blend of life and art. I’m not a huge fan of either, but I did find this new biography by Benita Eisler to be a solid and engaging piece of work. Whether it is really necessary (there was another Byron bio published just last year), or had to be so long (Frederic Raphael covered the same ground in a punchy 200 pages), are questions that still need to be asked.

In addition to all of the standard pitfalls of biography, there are several dangers that are particular to Byron. The first of these has to do with Byron as case study. All modern biographers like to play at being psychoanalysts, and Eisler is no exception to the rule.

A good example of the kind of thing I’m talking about can be seen in her analysis of Byron’s attitude toward Lord Elgin, the man who became famous for plundering Greece of its marbles. Exactly why Elgin’s “dastardly devastation” roused Byron to such a pitch of “malice and hysteria” isn’t clear. The open door of unexplained motivation leads us into the Freudian guessing game. Eisler suggests that Elgin, as ambassador to the Ottoman court, somehow “represented hated patriarchal authority” (always lots of that to go around). Also, as a Scot, he personified the “maternal adversary” (Byron’s mother was Scottish), “bearing the genes Byron repudiated – if somewhat ambivalently – within himself.” You have to wonder how much of this the author expects us to take seriously.

In addition to putting the bard on the couch, there is also a danger the Byron biography will turn into a combination of sexual scorecard and travel itinerary. The two items may even merge, as when Byron’s Grand Tour hit the Levant, a pilgrimage that was planned as the 19th century equivalent of Third World sex tourism. Clearly, in some cases it’s not a great disappointment that the memoirs were burned.

A more subtle risk, and one not avoided here, is for the biographer to fall prey, even at this distance, to Byron’s notorious charm. Writing under the influence, the author errs on the side of generosity, focusing on the great man’s “suffering” while minimizing his culpability and recasting behaviour that was simply degenerate as Romantic rebellion.

A complete biography of Byron has to enter into the moral issues involved in his conduct to a greater degree. One can locate excuses for Byron’s life almost anywhere – heredity, deformity, a confusing childhood – but the fact remains that the man was despicable.

He was not, as his friend Shelley observed, a revolutionary so much as a libertine. Selfishness and irresponsibility may be taken as par for the course for most artists, but to these failings Byron added a record as a negligent father, an abusive husband, and a thoroughgoing pedophile. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” glossed over a laundry list of sins.

None of this, of course, makes for a bad book – indeed, some would say quite the opposite. Even if you don’t care for Byron or his poetry you can still enjoy the story of his life. And readers will find much here to enjoy. Child of Passion, Fool of Fame is both very thorough and quite readable.

It is also, however, entirely unnecessary. I’m unaware of any important new material Eisler is adding to the record. In addition, her claim that “no 20th century biographer has troubled to examine (Byron’s) art” is incredible, and seems out of place in a book that doesn’t go in for a lot of textual analysis. More modesty would have been in order. Eisler’s work is strong enough to stand on its own without making such exceptional claims for itself.

Notes:
Review first published July 17, 1999.

The Bre-X Fraud

THE BRE-X FRAUD
By Douglas Goold and Andrew Willis

Last March, shares in the Canadian mining company Bre-X, once reported to be sitting on the largest gold reserves in the world, collapsed so rapidly that the computer system at the Toronto Stock Exchange crashed. In May, the stock, once valued at over $280 a share, was taken off the market. The company was worth nothing. There was no gold.

For those who have been living in a media vacuum for the last six months, the full story of the Bre-X fiasco is on the way. Despite the fact that investigators are still looking into the case, and that a host of lawsuits are only just getting started, there are a reported six books shortly due out on Bre-X.

The Bre-X Fraud, written by two reporters who covered the story for the Globe and Mail, is the first out of the gate. It is quick reading, divided into bite-sized (two- to three-page) sub-chapters and written in a spare, journalistic style that only occasionally slips. Much of the supporting material is weak (books like this should at least have an index), but this is to be expected.

Being so short, the book never attempts to deal with any part of the story in-depth. But as a brief overview of a complex and wide-ranging story, most readers will find it more than adequate.

As the authors point out, the Bre-X fraud “differed from past stock swindles only in its size and audacity.” Perhaps the only surprising thing about it was that it was pulled off by such a gang of losers.

Before Bre-X, David Walsh was a bankrupt slob with a Grade 10 education and a history of nothing but well-deserved financial failure. “All you had to do was meet him and you wouldn’t have bought the stock,” one investor later remarked.

The company’s chief geologist, John Felderhof, was a down-and-out has-been prospector with a reputation for exaggeration and heavy drinking. And Michael de Guzman, the Filipino polygamist who apparently committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in March, looked up to Felderhof as a mentor!

This was hardly an all-star team.

The entire Bre-X story is truly a “fable for our times,” and in ways that the authors might have developed further. So many aspects of the case seem to define the ’90s: the creation of fantastic wealth almost by accident, the complete triumph of hype over substance, the fact that so many “experts” (particularly among the financial community) never had any idea what they were talking about, and, finally, the way the principals, now luxuriating in the Caribbean, have since cast themselves as victims and dupes so as to invite sympathy rather than contempt.

Except for de Guzman, whose body was half-eaten by maggots and wild pigs before it was fished out of the jungle, the men in charge of Bre-X did very well. Crime may or may not pay but in this case gross incompetence, ignorance, and totally irresponsible behaviour were richly rewarded indeed.

I hate to think that there’s a lesson in that.

Notes:
Review first published September 6, 1997. David Walsh died in the Bahamas in 1998. The lawsuits I mention would drag on for a decade, with no criminal liability ultimately being found. The money, in the meantime, nearly all disappeared.

Blind Eye

BLIND EYE: HOW THE MEDICAL ESTABLISHMENT LET A DOCTOR GET AWAY WITH MURDER
By James B. Stewart

The genre of true crime may not be any stranger than fiction, but there’s no denying it’s a lot scarier. Exhibit A: The strange case of Michael Swango, M. D.

It is hard to locate exactly when Swango started to go bad, but we do know that he began being associated with mysterious deaths as early as medical school, where he was given the nickname “Double-O Swango” – a doctor with a license to kill.

During his internship at the prestigious Ohio State University Medical Centre, this pattern continued, concluding with the attempted murder of Rena Cooper, a 69-year-old widow hospitalized for a back operation. Shockingly, Swango was cleared of wrongdoing by a hospital board of investigation (despite the presence of three eyewitnesses), and, after having his internship cancelled, quietly allowed to continue his studies elsewhere.

Swango’s passion was poison, his modus operandi usually involving some kind of lethal injection. Yet despite his suspicious record, and even a criminal record for poisoning a group of his co-workers, he was able to repeatedly find work at other hospitals both in the U. S. and abroad (Stewart follows his trail all the way to Zimbabwe). By the time he was finally jailed (for fraud), he was suspected by the FBI of having killed 60 people, a figure that would make him one of the most prolific serial killers in American history.

If that was all there was to the story, then Blind Eye would simply be another case study in criminal psychopathy. As the title indicates, however, Stewart’s real target is the medical establishment that allowed Swango to pursue his criminal career for so long. And it is this part of the story that makes Blind Eye such a truly disturbing book.

What Stewart argues is that a buck-passing medical system shares a large part of the blame for Swango’s crimes. Poweful people, in positions of trust, routinely ignored clear evidence of danger and exposed the most vulnerable members of our society to mortal risk.

In fact, even after Swango’s apprehension, the Ohio State administration continued to stonewall both press and prosecutors. Nor was federal legislation in these matters any help. A national data bank set up in 1990 to monitor incompetent and criminal physicians has been a complete failure due to the medical profession’s almost total refusal to report on itself.

“The loyalty among physicians,” Stewart concludes, “makes police officers’ famous ‘blue wall of silence’ seem porous by comparison.”

It is a shameful record, and one that would normally demand some kind of institutional response. Normally, but in this case unlikely. Given the power of the establishment, it will be easier to turn a blind eye.

Notes:
Review first published December 24, 1999. For an account of a very similar case, see my review of Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse.

Better Living

BETTER LIVING: IN PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS FROM PLATO TO PROZAC
By Mark Kingwell

Happiness has always been an impossible concept to pin down. For Mark Kingwell it is “eudaimonistic” (he is a philosophy professor), involving the “rational satisfaction” of a virtuous life. How he comes to this conclusion is the subject of this new book.

When it works, Better Living is a quick-reading piece of what has become known as cultural criticism – full of odds and ends ranging from a discussion of our obsession with obesity to the now de rigeur analyses of Star Trek and The Simpsons. It is organized around Kingwell’s own semi-satiric pursuit of happiness, and looks at current trends through a wide (but shallow) historical lens. Along the way the author discusses pop psychology bestsellers with titles like Become Happy in Eight Minutes, puts himself on Prozac, and even attends a special happiness “clinic” in Massachusetts.

Easy game perhaps, but it is the best part of the book.

In terms of style Kingwell displays a knack for making any platitude seem as exciting as the formula for cold fusion. Thus (are you ready?) “we must confront the possibility” that religion is the opium of the masses and that Star Trekis itself a form of soma” (i.e., television is a drug – emphasis in the original!). Another revelation is that the concept of “cool” has been largely manufactured by advertising agencies.

Really? I’d always wondered.

Better Living is also a very personal book. Most of the time this is a good thing. Kingwell does seem like a decent sort of fellow. But he is also a tortured soul. He is critical of the media, but is a TV junky and media personality himself; he hates the game of academic advancement, but remains a committed player; he rails against materialism and consumerism, but for some reason wants us to know that he owns two Armani suits.

Candor without self-awareness is an unexpected quality in someone who extols the importance of an examined life.

What blindness, for example, leads Kingwell to condemn the kitschy rubber doll facsimiles of Munch’s “Scream” as a “debasement of the artistic image,” then shell out to buy, not one, but two? At first he tries to rationalize his purchase (“I bought them to illustrate a lecture”), but then confesses that he now has them decorating his office! A very “cool” office indeed, I should think.

There is an important point to be made here. The tone of most cultural criticism is detached irony, a way of presenting oneself as in the world but not of it. Fair enough, but one has to temper one’s contempt for the uncritical masses with some belief in a shared humanity, a sense that we are all in this together.

A particularly telling moment occurs when Kingwell visits the CNE. The Exhibition strikes him as a depressing theatre of consumption, full of trashy goods and trashy people (who are described, quite frankly, as pigs wallowing in their slop). While he waits for his wife to buy something he notices a little boy in a “filthy” coat, kneeling in the “dirt.” The “grubby” wretch has mustard and ketchup smeared all over his face and is chewing a hot dog with his mouth open. And there he squats, beneath our gaze: “The entirely contented consumer.”

Offensive stuff, make no mistake. All too often Better Living reminded me of the attacks on the unwashed herd made by Modernist writers in the ’20s and ’30s. And to what end?

Ultimately Better Living is precisely what it seeks to deny – a self-help manual on happiness for high-brows. Call it Chicken Soup for the Academic Soul. There are, for example, “Eight Myths of Happiness” that can be read in Eight Minutes. And finally the whole thing collapses into Adspeak as we are exhorted to make sense of our lives through narratives and “become who we are.” (Yes! That’s it!)

As a diversion some of this may satisfy. But as a guide to better living it is better left alone.

Notes:
Review first published April 18, 1998.