The Empire Must Die

The Empire Must Die
Mikhail Zygar

The centenary of the Russian Revolution led to a spate of books dealing with what Mikhail Zygar here describes as “an event on a planetary scale . . . the biggest manmade catastrophe in history.”

I don’t know if The Empire Must Die adds much to what was already known, but it’s told in an immediate, journalistic style that certainly freshens things up. The short sections read like present-tense dispatches from the various political fronts, an approach that underlines the contingency of these events. All of which leads to one of Zygar’s main conclusions:

The tragic culmination was in no way the only possible outcome. The idea of preordained karma — that it was the Russian people’s destiny — is currently in vogue in Russia. I hope that this book will cast doubt on that theory. Nothing is known in advance, nothing is 100 percent predetermined. History is one long blunder. The protagonists of this book are forever making plans and predictions, acting on the basis of what always seem to them to be careful calculation. But they almost always delude themselves.

This is the case with most revolutions. They rarely, if ever, have the results intended. When the wheel spins nobody knows where it’s going to stop.

An Oresteia

An Oresteia
Anne Carson

Is Aeschylus especially difficult to translate? Anne Carson’s version of Agamemnon is the best I’ve read, but that’s a relative judgment. I find the long-standard Richmond Lattimore translation, whatever its claims to accuracy, to be absolutely unreadable. And the other versions I’ve looked at haven’t been much better. Carson is the clear winner, though there are places, in particular Cassandra’s wails of woe, that I’m guessing need to be experienced in performance.

In making Agamemnon and the other plays used to put together this Oresteia (Electra by Sophocles and Orestes by Euripides) sound more natural, even colloquial, we also get a new slant on the plays. Carson’s Orestes in particular reads a bit like an ancient Rebel Without a Cause. And surprisingly it works.

American Breakdown

American Breakdown
David Bromwich

Most books on political issues have a short shelf life, but those dealing with the presidency of Donald Trump, who breaks news with every tweet, are quicker to expire than most. So of course some of David Bromwich’s judgements haven’t aged well in the two or three years since they first appeared in various publications. I had to smile, for example, at his description of Lindsey Graham as “among Trump’s most strident critics in the Republican Party.” And wince at how “It now [March 2019] seems likely that Mueller will produce overwhelming evidence of money laundering, as well as tax, business, and bank fraud.” I’m sure such evidence exists, but Mueller wasn’t looking for it.

Other, more general observations have fared better. Trump and indeed the Republican Party’s oligarch envy. Their cultivation of hate. A base defined more by its cynicism than its credulity. The naivety of the Democratic establishment (though I think many of us were just as guilty of this).

But what I find most depressing about the speed of the news cycle in the Trump Era is that, in hindsight, no immediate negative impression he’s made has had to be corrected. Instead, whatever conclusions arrived at based on the evidence at any particular time have had, inevitably, soon to be adjusted downward. Because this is how Trump’s manufacture of outrage works, as he’s forced into having to outdo himself in order to get his fix of being the center of attention and having people talk about him. And still Trump has always been worse than advertised, with always something worse to come.

Heinrich Himmler

By Peter Longerich

In the lives of the leading figures of the Nazi establishment there’s often a large gap between an individual and their historical significance. In his biography of Goebbels, Peter Longerich could make something out of this, using it to gain a greater psychological insight into his subject. In this equally massive biography of Himmler it’s more of a problem.

For Longerich, Himmler’s private life was absorbed by his public persona. The SS was in many ways a product of Himmler’s own inhibited personality, but at the same time it came to define him. You couldn’t separate the man from the uniform. “Gradually the personality and the office became one.”

This is, then, very much a professional biography. About Himmler’s inner life Longerich remains circumspect. But was there all that much to say? I don’t think Longerich had access to the cache of letters between Himmler and his wife that formed the basis for the documentary The Decent One, but then I don’t see where they would have changed anything in his assessment. Himmler was a conservative prig, though bitter enough to succumb to fringe fantasies of mystical and racist claptrap, perhaps as a way of making up for his own inadequacies. It’s hard to see what it was he was any good at, or what he would have made of his life without the Nazi party.

Unfortunately, this makes Longerich’s book a hard slog, at times little more than a detailed calendar of Himmler’s various official functions. Things are made worse by the fact that Longerich, at least in translation, is an even duller writer than Ian Kershaw. There are interesting historical tidbits thrown up, and it’s no doubt a reliable resource, but this is a book that’s hard to read from cover to cover and it doesn’t tell us much more about its subject than we already knew.

Review first published online May 24, 2020.

The View from Flyover Country

By Sarah Kendzior

Meeting the 18th president of the United States was an experience that forced Henry Adams to reconsider much of the prevailing scientific thought of his day:

That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called—and should actually and truly be—the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

Imagining what Adams would think of the presidency of Donald Trump is too depressing to want to consider. But we may take Trump’s ascendancy to the highest office in the land as making ludicrous many of our own intellectual shibboleths. Foremost among these is the notion of modern society being a meritocracy. Would you refute America as meritocracy? One might kick at Trump as Samuel Johnson did a rock and declare “I refute it thus!”

Or, as Sarah Kendzior puts it, “Over the past few decades, the U.S. has turned into a country where the circumstances into which you are born increasingly determine who you can become.” Those circumstances are primarily one’s socioeconomic status, but also relate to race, gender, and the year of one’s birth. The much maligned Millennials, to take Kendzior’s own cohort, are the “screwed generation.” It’s not a judgment I would argue against. I feel sorry for these people. They live, as Kendzior puts it in a nice image, “in the tunnel at the end of the light.”

Many of the essays in The View from Flyover Country deal with the job situation in the media and academia, being the two sectors of the economy that Kendzior is most personally invested in (she is a columnist with a Ph.D.). I would have liked a broader analysis, but you have to write what you know. As it stands, her conclusion that “In multiple professions, workers are performing nearly identical tasks for radically different salaries” is limited, though the principle does have some purchase outside journalism and education.

Meritocracy is, largely, a myth. Privilege is leveraged to maintain itself in all walks of life. The current social structure is based on luck and then multiplied through the so-called Matthew effect (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”) As inequality deepens this will only become more obvious and more of a problem. The process of de-evolution from Washington to Trump is just the beginning.

“The first step to topping a meritocracy is recognizing that it is not a meritocracy.” From there, however, any correction will probably require far more radical steps than we can currently imagine. In the wake of Trump and the Covid-19 crisis most people want a return to normal. It is essential, Kendzior reminds us, “we remember that ‘normal’ is how we got here.”

Review first published online May 7, 2020.

I Am Dynamite!

By Sue Prideaux

I like it when I learn something from a book, and I learned quite a bit from I Am Dynamite!, Sue Prideaux’s biography of Friedrich Nietzsche. That said, I’m sure this was mostly because I’d never read a biography of Nietzsche before but had gotten by on the sketches that came with introductions to his work or discussions of his philosophy. Add to this the layers of myth that have always surrounded the man, constantly in need of being cut away, and Prideaux’s book made a real difference in my understanding of the man.

For example: I’d always known that Nietzsche was “sickly,” but this really doesn’t cover the half of it. His eyesight was very poor (in fact he was nearly blind) and a sensitivity to light gave him debilitating headaches while requiring the wearing of sunglasses most of the time. He also suffered from hemorrhoids, migraines, and digestive disorders (his bowels further wrecked by the medicine of the day). I also knew he’d had an accident involving a horse that restricted his army service but wasn’t aware of its severity. What happened is that he speared himself on the pommel of his saddle, resulting in a chest wound so deep he could see bone. In later life he would claim “200 days of torment a year” from various afflictions. Is it any wonder his philosophy would be so concerned with the health of the individual?

Another eye-opener had to do with influences. I knew, from Will Durant, that Nietzsche was “the child of Darwin and the brother of Bismarck.” And his borrowings from Schopenhauer are obvious and have been much analysed. What I was surprised by was just how much Wagner’s romantic musings on the Dionysian had contributed to The Birth of Tragedy, and how much Paul Rée contributed to Nietzsche’s aphoristic style and the idea of there being a genealogy of morals. How much of Nietzsche’s impact was the result of his originality, and how much due to his simply pursuing current ideas into the red zone of shock and discomfort?

On a more mundane level, I had thought typewriters were a slightly older invention. But it was only in 1882 that Nietzsche took possession of an early prototype (a Hansen’s Writing Ball). Apparently it was damaged in transit and never worked as it should, though with Nietzsche’s eyesight it might not have been of much use anyway. Which was, perhaps, for the best. “Our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts,” he was led to observe. Truly a thought ahead of its time.

Was Nietzsche’s a life of disappointments, or did he not know what he wanted? Somehow — it really was a lucky break — he became close friends with his idol Wagner. Then they fell out. He got a job as a tenured professor at the age of 24, without even having completed his doctorate, but hated the job and committed professional suicide by writing entirely un-academic books. He pursued Lou Salomé, perhaps romantically, but I think we feel relief that things never went any further.

Was he learning something from all of this? Surely something not only about the vanity of human wishes but their perversity.

Review first published online May 2, 2020.

War With Russia?

By Stephen F. Cohen

There’s a curious way that in the most polarized political environments, such as we see in the United States today, the left and right ends of the spectrum bend towards each other to make a circle. The overlap between supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is just one notable example of this.

A lot of this, I believe, is due to the way, when politics is defined by anger and hate, the enemy of one’s enemy becomes a friend. Stephen F. Cohen exemplifies this process pretty neatly. He knows who he hates: the bipartisan U.S. national security establishment and the mainstream media. Anything that disrupts these elite establishments or discomfits their mandarins is a force to be welcomed and encouraged. And so, enter Cohen’s champion: Donald J. Trump. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Cohen begins from a position that I find reasonable. Indeed, it mirrored my own in 2016. I agree that it was Boris Yeltsin, more than his inheritor Vladimir Putin, who set Russia off on a disastrous anti-democratic trajectory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I also think it’s true that much of the behaviour that Putin has been accused of most vehemently by the West has been reactive in nature, responding primarily to an aggressive American foreign policy.

During the 2016 election I would even have agreed with Cohen that a less antagonistic approach toward Russia, of the kind signaled by Trump, made a lot of sense. Since then, however, it has become abundantly clear that Trump has no conception of, much less interest in, the national interest and that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election for the purpose of helping Trump. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that Trump’s businesses were in debt to Russian interests and perhaps pretty heavily compromised by them as well.

About this there has been a great deal of reporting. Whole books have been written on the subject. The Mueller Report concluded that “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in a sweeping and systematic fashion.” Putin has admitted before all the world that Trump was his preferred candidate in the 2016 election. It’s long been known that the only thing that has kept Trump from further bankruptcies has been Russian money, provided in ways that make no sense to outsiders. This has given rise to much speculation about buying influence and money laundering – speculation that is entirely justified given how these operations are known to operate – but the nature of Trump’s Russian connections has, with tremendous effort and some well-documented lies, thus far remained concealed from view.

As more facts came to light, the dossier on Trump and Russia kept getting darker. But this led Cohen, in a most Trumpian fashion, to double down in his efforts as an apologist. He sees no evidence whatsoever of any kind of Russian meddling in the election. This is all a hoax and a witch hunt driven by elites, Trumpian language that he doesn’t place in quotes, adopting it wholly as his own. Furthermore, he can find no persuasive, consistent, plausible, or coherent motive for Putin to want to back Trump or to weaken the U.S., as though having an ignorant buffoon who openly admires him and wants to do business with him were not preferable to an anti-Russian hawk.

At what point do you give up? When whataboutism reaches the point of asking the media to focus on Joe Biden’s handling of the Ukraine file instead of “condemning Trump based on dubious narratives and foreign connections”? (In Cohen’s defence, this was before Trump’s cynical attempt to withhold money from Ukraine until they performed political favours for him, but still elides the crucial difference that Biden was acting in a public capacity and executing state policy, whatever you think of that policy, while Trump’s dealings were all under the table.) Or when the Steele dossier is held up as “the foundational document of the Russiagate narrative” despite this being categorically untrue at the time and more recently rejected even by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee? Cohen prefers a memo on the matter released by Devin Nunes. Any port in a storm. This is a mind not only closed but with the door locked and the windows boarded up.

In the repetition of the farthest of alt-right talking points we see the real Trump Derangement Syndrome in action: the compulsion to defend Trump at any cost to one’s own self-respect or intellectual integrity. Has any president been treated as harshly by the press as Donald Trump has? I would say probably not, but this is due to Trump being the most corrupt and dishonest president in American history. For Cohen it’s because the media and the political establishment are out to get him. This is how TDS works.

Mere hate is elevated by Cohen into forebodings of the apocalypse. Not only is the squabbling over Ukraine a new Cold War (something which is, in turn, “an elite project”), it is an even more dangerous Cold War than the first (with the attendant neo-McCarthyism worse than the first time around as well). Indeed, Cohen calculates that the Russiagate scandal is the single greatest threat facing the United States today. Not Russia, mind you, but Russiagate. That is, the hoax, the witch hunt. It comes in several notches above the proliferation of nuclear weapons (number four on the list of threats) and climate change (number five).

With such dramatic stakes there can surely be no compromise with the enemy. Sides must be taken, and there can be no going back. Cohen has taken his leap of faith, but gives us no reason to follow him through the looking-glass.

Review first published online April 24, 2020.

First World War: Still No End in Sight

First World War: Still No End in Sight
Frank Furedi

This is a curious, somewhat meandering book that presents a new interpretation of the legacy of the First World War. In brief, that legacy is presented as a series of responses to the post-war breakdown in the authority and legitimacy of traditional political ideologies (liberalism, nationalism, capitalism, etc.). The old beliefs were shown to be hollow but there was nothing to replace them with. After much shuffling of the deck, we arrive at today’s culture wars and identity politics, which have resulted from a de-politicization of politics and a turning inward. I’m not convinced that much of this has any connection to 1914-18, but it does make for an interesting overview of a chaotic century.

The New Right

By Michael Malice

In his White House memoir Team of Vipers, Cliff Sims offers up a telling bit of praise for his boss the president. Donald Trump, he writes approvingly, is “history’s greatest troll.”

I thought this a strange compliment to direct at anyone, much less the purported leader of the free world. But I hadn’t at that time read Michael Malice’s book The New Right. Malice identifies himself, I think with some pride, as a troll. This is an occupation he defines as political provocateur, someone who gets other people (those being trolled) to act out. “Trolling is meant to be clever,” he writes, immediately entering a qualification. It’s not always clever, but it aspires to some kind of cleverness. “At its best,” another qualification, “it is the art of turning an audience into a performer by exploiting their flaws for comedic effect.”

In other words, trolling mainly consists of pushing people’s buttons. This is not all that hard to do. For example, in the sentence immediately following the above definition we are told that there is “a huge overlap between racism and trolling. But this is in large part,” and so not solely, “due to race being such an easy way to get the sensitive to act out.”

By acting out I think what Malice means is being offended. So if you can find some subject that offends people or makes them angry, as for example racism, then that is good troll material.

Malice calls the New Right an innovative cultural movement (created by low-status white men), which seems to mean something different than a political movement with any sort of agenda. So, if the point of trolling is only to somehow expose its victims as hypocritical or insincere, what, I kept wondering, does the troll believe in? Or is trolling only an end in itself, a form of entertainment or even an art? As political theatre that would go some way to explain many of the successful populist leaders of our time, professional comedians who, once in power, had no clear idea of what to do aside from maintaining high ratings/poll numbers. The cynicism could be breathtaking, and indeed Malice references one media guru (Ryan Holiday) who explains exactly how manufactured outrage is used by the troll as a form of marketing:

Someone like Milo [Yiannopoulos] or Mike Cernovich doesn’t care that you hate them – they like it. It’s proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. . . . The key tactic of alternative or provocative figures is to leverage the size and platform of their “not-audience” (i.e. their haters in the mainstream) to attract attention and build an actual audience.

Cynicism, or nihilism? Does a troll care if what he says is right or wrong? Or do they even believe in such labels? Most trolling, in my experience, riots in the assertion of falsehoods. But I return to the question of what the troll believes in, aside from trying to trigger others.

We know what they stand against, very roughly. It’s something – a very made-up something, I would say – that the New Right call the Cathedral, an unholy composite of universities and the media (with the government later included as the third leg of this leftist stool). The Cathedral is the bullhorn of what, in contrast to the New Right, Malice calls the evangelical left.

But the Cathedral, progressivism, and the evangelical left are all bogeymen. Maybe it’s the perspective of living in Canada, but I have a hard time seeing a liberal media in the U.S., unless you define liberal as anything that isn’t Fox News.

What is the New Right? Malice’s definition falls back, again, on what it’s opposed to, not what it stands for:

A loosely connected group of individuals united by their opposition to progressivism, which they perceive to be a thinly veiled fundamentalist religion dedicated to egalitarian principles and intent on totalitarian world domination via globalist hegemony.

So the New Right is nationalist (against globalist hegemony), non-egalitarian, and . . . well, it’s hard to say what is meant by being against both progressivism and totalitarianism, since these two ideas are pretty much political opposites.

Malice himself identifies as an anarchist, but also claims Alexander Hamilton as his “biggest idol,” which he says may make him “monarchist-adjacent.” I don’t think there’s any sorting this mush out. As for anarcho-capitalism, that sounds to me like a flat contradiction in terms. But to criticize a troll for not being consistent would be missing the joke. And what’s the point of arguing politics with people who use the word Anschluss but don’t even know what it means?

Malice strikes me as a being a very shallow political philosopher, mainly interested in scoring rhetorical points that don’t stand very much looking into. In other words, pushing buttons. Some of his analysis is just plain wrong, like the idea that the Overton Window is moved to the left by progressives, with conservatives only trying to hold the fort. This is a matter that has been studied and the drift has been all the other way, led by the radical right. It could hardly be otherwise. What politician wants to raise taxes, or be seen as soft on crime? Meanwhile, under Trump, establishment Republicans who only a decade ago would have seemed fringe figures on the far right have been purged from a party that is much more extreme than in the past.

That said, I don’t think Malice is trolling in The New Right. He seems to be genuinely interested in what’s going on and in trying to get to the bottom of our current “Era of Ill Will.” And his book is a breezy and informative read. But it’s also a glimpse into a subculture that is a silo, intellectually divorced, it seems to me, not only from the mainstream (which it frankly despises) but from any kind of self-understanding. He makes a lot out of the left as being an alternative religion, and makes some good points. But the culture he describes is that of a cult.

Review first published online March 20, 2020.


Adrian Goldsworthy

The noblest Roman of them all? I don’t think anyone has tried to make that argument. Adrian Goldsworthy will, however, grant that Augustus was a mostly benevolent military dictator who, contra the adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely, actually mellowed as he ascended to divinity. Goldsworthy goes into most detail talking about Augustus’ rise to power, which is fitting given that it is the most complicated and remarkable part of his story. I’m still not sure how to explain it better than Shakespeare’s “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” He was the golden child.