American War

By Omar El Akkad

American War is a thought experiment in the form of a dystopian novel. What if the world’s sole superpower and global hegemon were a failed state and international charity case? Instead of being problems on the other side of the world, what if the states of the Deep South were the equivalent of today’s Syria and Palestine?

The story is set during the years of the Second American Civil War, which takes place between the years 2074 and 2095. The background is only sketched in, but catastrophic climate change leads the U.S. government to ban fossil fuels, which results in a group of southern “red” states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina – attempting to secede from the union. “The planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.”

If you’re wondering why Florida isn’t one of the rebel states, it’s because it’s under water.

Meanwhile, today’s conflict zones and developing economies have risen to the top of a truly new world order. The Muslim world has united into the powerful Bouazizi Empire, which now supplies the rebel American states with aid shipments, while the Red Crescent provides humanitarian relief. Closer to home, a Mexican “protectorate” has expanded deep into the American Southwest, presumably erasing any wall that might have been built. The world has turned upside-down.

Against this political backdrop Omar El Akkad, a former reporter for the Globe and Mail who was born in Cairo and grew up in Qatar, tells the story of the embittered rebel Sarat (a contraction of Sara T.) Chestnut. The dramatic narrative takes us through the key events in Sarat’s life, while intercutting excerpts from various documentary sources that give us background and insight into the bigger political picture. A detailed world is constructed, and even if it’s not that convincing as prophecy it provides a solid structure for the point El Akkad wants to make.

The Chestnut family hails from Louisiana, one of the “purple” border states. They are soon caught up in the violence of the civil war, however, and become victims of the tit-for-tat struggle between the forces of union oppression and “free state” terrorism. Sarat, however, leaves victimhood behind, going from being an innocent child playing on the banks of the “Mississippi Sea” to becoming the avenging fury of the South.

There’s no mistaking all the correspondences El Akkad draws between the events he describes and America’s current war on terror and the situation in the Middle East more generally. After being uprooted from their homes the Chestnuts flee to a refugee camp where a young and impressionable Sarat meets a sinister teacher who indoctrinates her into the movement. He also trains suicide bombers. Later, the refugee camp is raided in a manner meant to recall the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Drones fly overhead, now largely out of control but still capable of dropping out of the sky and randomly blowing up civilians. Resistance on the part of the occupied population is met with a “surge” from the North. There is a Guantanamo-like detention camp where rebel prisoners are waterboarded. There is a network of tunnels that the rebels used for getting into the union states. The world’s media looks on in horror.

All of this is familiar stuff, only now it is happening in America, to Americans.

The title is ambiguous, referring both to America’s Second Civil War and the American way of war. There is also a wicked irony in the claim made by an agent of the Bouazizi Empire that “everyone fights an American war.” Foreign agents are seen involving themselves in America’s domestic conflict because fighting Americans over here is better than fighting them over there.

The message to all of this, or “universal slogan of war,” is understood by Sarat to be that everyone caught in a cycle of conflict reacts in much the same way the world over. Put yourself in the shoes of the enemy or Other and you’ll realize that “If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
This is not a comforting political message for Americans, whose homeland has largely remained free of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by other nations in the modern age. But comfort is exactly what El Akkad is writing against. Sarat sees safety as “just another kind of violence – a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”

What if it happened here? American War asks us to imagine the uncomfortable.

Review first published online October 24, 2017.


The Age of Jihad

The Age of Jihad
Patrick Cockburn

There have been many observers who have looked at the wreckage of the post-Arab Spring Middle East and wondered went wrong (I’ve reviewed some of them here). During this time Patrick Cockburn has been a better situated observer than most, and his on-the-ground reporting, particularly from Iraq and Syria, provides an antidote to the state propaganda usually retailed in the news. He is both a resourceful journalist (he recommends visiting military hospitals to talk to eyewitnesses who are now lying around bored out of their skulls) and a brave man. With the advent of the Internet insurgent forces no longer need the media any more, which makes newsmen useful to groups like ISIS only as kidnapping targets.

As for what went wrong, a big part of the answer is that the local economies failed. As one Iraqi minister puts it, “if the Sunni could just get jobs and pensions all this fury would ebb away.” That’s a remedy that would go a long way to curbing the anger everywhere these days. But a more cynical answer would be that for many of the different groups involved nothing has gone wrong. One of Cockburn’s conclusions is that nationalism in the Middle East has been replaced by sectarian and tribal politics, and the undermining of nationalist projects has long been a Western goal in the region.

In addition, chaos has bred opportunity for groups looking to draw on U.S. or other foreign assistance, while as for the West, isn’t it better that “they” kill each other over there than us over here? Cockburn doesn’t buy into conspiracy theories, but he can see instances in all this where they plausibly gain traction. It’s a sad fact that even a humanitarian disaster as profound as we see in today’s Middle East is not without profit or usefulness to some. Given the dynamics we might expect desperate conditions to continue for a while yet.

Jesus Freaks

Jesus Freaks
Don Lattin

A pair of wannabe religious leaders came to California at the height of the Summer of Love and got ideas. All that naivety and idealism on display seemed ripe for corruption. They both set up cults and attracted a family of followers. Their main method for growing their church was to use young women as honey traps, “sacred whores” practising the art of “flirty fishing,” or just plain prostitutes to use the legal term.

One of the two, Charles Manson, was undone by paranoia and megalomania. The other, David Berg (who died in 1994), founded a kind of church (now known as The Family International) that is a continuing albeit marginal presence on the religious scene. At one point Ricky Rodriguez had been groomed to be leader of the Family, but he left the church and later planned a revenge on its leaders, who had abused him as a child. In the end he only killed one person before committing suicide. Jesus Freaks is thus, at least in part, a true crime story, but one where our sympathy is largely with the killer. More than that though, it reveals once again the darkness that lies behind so many religious origin stories. How close did Manson come to being bigger than The Beatles?

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 state 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.

Life on Mars

By Lori McNulty

None of the stories in this debut collection from Lori McNulty are set on the planet Mars, but nevertheless that destination is invoked in nearly all of them, most often as a way of alluding to feelings of distance and strangeness.

McNulty’s subject matter is grounded in a gritty lower- and working-class reality, but the Martian influence is never far away, sometimes being felt as a gentle tug and other times warping reality in surreal ways. The weirdness is most obvious in stories like “Prey,” where a fellow is directed by a squid to take a cross-continent trip from California to Newfoundland, or “Polymarpussle Takes a Chance,” where the narrator is transformed into an Indian deity. It is also, however, noticeable in McNulty’s style, which often goes for jarring metaphors rather than gentle similes. Sentences like this keep the reader on their toes: “Midnight is a flame tip in my skunky mouth, loitering near the Albert Street underpass, watching cars spit out of this shadow hole.” “Markus was a broken bridge over a spent creek.” “Tu’s thin and crooked, a dark, jagged line against the chalky white kitchen.”

“Metaphor” etymologically refers to a carrying over or across, and in its direct equation of one thing with another it performs an act of metamorphosis. McNulty’s style suits her theme here as metamorphosis is very much in the air. In “Ticker” a heart transplant recipient also becomes the host of the spirit of his deceased donor. In the aforementioned “Polymarpussle” story a man becomes a three-eyed god. In “Gindelle of the Abbey” a married member of the bourgeoisie transforms himself into a homeless man through the power of wardrobe and makeup. And in the best story, “Monsoon Season,” the main character is a new woman recovering from gender reassignment surgery she’s had done in Thailand.

People start off as one thing and end up something else, adding to a pervading sense of alienation and strangeness. You never know where you’re going with these stories, nor, after they’re over, can you be sure of where you’ve been.

The collection’s other focus is on relationships, and the way personal bonds are tested and transformed along with all the other changes going on. There is no “normal” state in play but only dysfunctional families and mid-life crises. And again we feel the call of the strange. The story “WOOF” draws its title from an acronym, “Wild Ones Over Forty,” and it deals with a woman of a certain age having a breakdown that seems to end in her going feral in an almost supernatural way, as though she’s become a lycanthrope.

Alienated from their significant others, and even to some degree from life on this planet, many of the characters are themselves off-putting. However, we feel, if not sympathy, then at least a kind of respect for their powers to adapt and endure in such unstable environments.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2017.