Evil Geniuses

Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America
Kurt Andersen

I don’t know why Kurt Andersen keeps going on about nostalgia. He talked about it a lot in his previous book, Fantasyland, and does so again in Evil Geniuses, though in both cases it has only a tangential relation to the political and cultural phenomena that are his subject. Here, for example, nostalgia is simply a “comorbidity” of the redesigning of the American economy by big business, leading to deepening social inequality as the culture fails to renew itself and simply retrenches. It is a feeling, and political technique, that’s characteristic of our time, but finally ambiguous and hard to pin down.

The point being made here is fairly simple. Since the 1960s, and it’s a force that has only been picking up steam, there has been a “quite deliberate reengineering of our economy and society . . . by a highly rational confederacy of the rich, the right, and big business.” Because why wouldn’t they? It was a plan that took no great genius either to figure our or execute. Indeed, the economic theory part was a joke. What enabled it though was infighting among the left while the economic right only had their “one big, simple idea — do everything possible to let the rich stay rich and get richer.” I seem to remember Gore Vidal making the same observation many years ago. By now we’ve seen where the political philosophy that “government is bad” (morphing into “democracy is bad”) takes us, and it’s not the capitalist utopia of Galt’s Gulch.

Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy
Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum adds quite a lot in this little book to the vast literature trying to understand the Trump phenomenon and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism elsewhere in the West (in addition to the U.S. she also looks at developments in Britain, Poland, and Hungary).

I wonder, however, if we might say something in defence of the Trump voter. To be sure, the authoritarian personality is not very congenial, and the rage and resentment that fueled the rise of would-be strong men can get pretty ugly. As Applebaum notes, the new right “is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.” Including, most broadly, democracy and the rule of law.

But they have their reasons. For what has become the politics of grievance, some of the grievances are legitimate. It is a rigged system (in championing merit and competition Applebaum doesn’t appreciate how diminished a role these now play in the economy). The media is biased, albeit more in ways that favour their own penchant for alternative facts and divisiveness. Democratic politics has become unresponsive and unrepresentative, its only business being the servicing of elite interests. The irony is that the right-wing response to this dysfunction has been to “destroy what exists” by voting for even more corruption in government, and following media that only traffic in the most outrageous lies.

As for Trump, the person who hates everything became the perfect vehicle for the hate of so many. As that hate grows, there is sure to be someone to take his place.

Alexander the Great and Before and After Alexander

ALEXANDER THE GREAT: HIS LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH
By Anthony Everitt
BEFORE AND AFTER ALEXANDER: THE LEGEND AND LEGACY OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
By Richard A. Billows

Every generation, it seems, creates its own Alexander the Great. Or, as Anthony Everitt puts it at the beginning of his new life of Alexander, “their accounts reflect the concerns of their own age as much as they do of his.”

Alexander was a giant figure interpreted in various ways even while alive. Following almost immediately upon his death in 323 BCE there were two schools of Alexander biography, often described by scholars as the official and the vulgate. We’re more sophisticated today, but among contemporary historians there are still profound divisions. In the twentieth century the big divide was political, ranging from seeing Alexander as a progressive, unifying figure (Sir William Tarn) to a cruel dictator (Ernst Badian). More recently the split has been between those who accept Alexander as being truly great and others who try to diminish his accomplishments, usually by building up how much he inherited from his father Philip.

I wonder how much, and what, this most recent development in Alexander studies makes him more our contemporary. But I won’t speculate about that here. Suffice it to say that for Richard Billows, in the critical camp, he is “one of the most overrated figures in world history.”

The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip, and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonous, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and turning those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture. Without their efforts, the history and civilization of the lands and cultures of western Asia, Europe, and north Africa would be very different than they are today.

There’s a lot I could push back against here (obviously Alexander didn’t have the opportunity to turn his conquered lands into a viable empire), but given that it’s the final paragraph in Billows’ book it might be better to just quote from the conclusion of Arrian’s biography. In classical times Alexander had his detractors as well, and Arrian wants to fire back at them.

Whoever therefore reproaches Alexander as a bad man, let him do so; but let him first not only bring before his mind all his actions deserving reproach, but also gather into one view all his deeds of every kind. Then, indeed, let him reflect who he is himself, and what kind of fortune he has experienced; and then consider who that man was whom he reproaches as bad, and to what a height of human success he attained, becoming without any dispute king of both continents, and reaching every place by his fame; while he himself who reproaches him is of smaller account, spending his labour on petty objects, which, however, he does not succeed in effecting, petty as they are.

Like most scholars in the pro-Philip camp, Billows spends a lot of time talking about the innovations Philip made to the Macedonian army, and he does a first-rate job of this that I think even people who have read around a lot in the area will learn something from. He also goes into the story of the Diadochi (or successors to Alexander) in some depth, which is a complicated story that’s easy to get lost in (though it did get a solid book-length treatment recently in Ghost on the Throne by James Romm). Some of the supporting material, however, is third-rate. The pictures are drawn from Wikimedia Commons, and the introductory maps have mistakes like “Macadonia” and a note saying that Alexander died “in what is present day Baghdad” (Alexander died in Babylon, a city on the Euphrates River, some 80 km south of present-day Baghdad, which is on the Tigris).

I’m not sure we need more biographies of Alexander, but he’s a subject, like Napoleon or Lincoln, that just keeps cruising along. And as I’ve said, each generation has to make a new one, fashioned to some degree in its own image. This started as early as the Alexander Romance, wherein Alexander became the son of a pharaoh to the Egyptians and the brother of Darius to Persian readers. We can all pick and choose. Among modern biographies, I’m very fond of the books written by Peter Green and Robin Lane Fox, each well-written, learned, and opinionated in instructive ways. I don’t think either has been bettered, but Everitt is game for “a new look” that “reflects our own twenty-first-century hopes and fears, most particularly about the nature of power and the fascination – and impermanence – of military success.”

I wouldn’t have thought those concerns particular to the twenty-first century. Indeed, I would have thought them far less particular than they were to the century just passed. Instead, what makes Everitt’s book most of its time is its breezy voice. Everitt is starting to sound a bit like the popular historian Tom Holland, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The breezy style makes him easy to read, but it also carries a lot before it. “His [Alexander’s] life was an adventure story and took him to every corner of the known world.” This is the second sentence. It is not true. Even if we take “the known world” to just mean the Mediterranean Alexander obviously never visited the half of it. Rome and Carthage remained far outside his orbit. But “every corner of the known world” sounds good. Then, on the next page, we’re told, in what I’m sure is a typo, that Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire in the middle of the fifth century, which is off by a hundred years.

I think undemanding, general readers will enjoy Everitt’s book. It tells the story in a lively, contemporary fashion. Dramatic action is highlighted, like the scene where the general Cleitus saves Alexander’s life by cutting off the arm of an enemy who was about to administer a coup de grâce. Personally, I don’t think this happened, but it’s a great war story. Then there are chapter titles like “The Empire Strikes Back,” “A Passage to India” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” As far as interpretation goes, it seems fair enough, but again tends to blow past any caveats. Is it a “fact” that Alexander, facing a mutiny on the Indus, “never had any intention of marching to Ocean”? I think he might have kept going.

We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Alexander of history has kept going, and likely will continue to do so for many years to come. I am concerned, however, not so much at the picture of Alexander that is being drawn as the general quality of the biographer’s art. In terms of their scholarship and readability neither of these books seem to me to be an advance on Green or Lane Fox, which are now fifty years old. We’re marching on, but is it an advance?

Notes:
First published online December 29, 2020. For more on Alexander see my joint review of Guy MacLean Rogers’ Alexander and Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Jaron Lanier

I’ve been online for over twenty years, but I’ve always been unsure about calling what I do “social media.” Some people tell me it is, others say it isn’t. I’m not, however, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of those platforms, so I think I’ve preserved a kind of innocence.

The arguments for staying off social media are, by now, well established. Basically it manipulates us for its own profit, making us mean, miserable, and isolated (the “social” is a bitter joke) in ways that tend to be self-reinforcing, leading to “an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs.” The “shit machine” of social media creates a world (an economy, a culture) where “the crudest, most selfish, and least informed people” rise to the top, while “anyone who isn’t an asshole gets hurt the most.” It isn’t politically oriented right or left but “biased downward.”

We know this, but it’s like knowing all the very good reasons for becoming vegetarian and never getting around to it because so much of our environment (the economy, the culture) runs on other fuel. Jaron Lanier is a smart guy but a sketchy writer. His acronym BUMMER (for Behavior of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent) is anti-mnemonic, though he does score points for calling Facebook “an existential mafia.” But I’m left wondering how many people his arguments will persuade. Social media is an addiction, and its incentives are all skewed the wrong way. It will take quite an intervention to break the habit now.

The Death of the Artist

THE DEATH OF THE ARTIST: HOW CREATORS ARE STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE IN THE AGE OF BILLIONAIRES AND BIG TECH
By William Deresiewicz

A lot of what William Deresiewicz has to say in The Death of the Artist isn’t all that new. The collapse of the arts economy, mainly as a result of the digital revolution, has been well documented in such earlier books as Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? and Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash. Still, it’s an important transformation that needs to be recorded and analyzed, and I welcome any fresh perspective on the ongoing crisis.

Deresiewicz gives us that fresh perspective mainly through a series of interviews with artists who are trying to make it in the new entertainment order. These aren’t all tales of doom and gloom, though most of them are and the few success stories only underline just how much has changed. In talking with musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers Deresiewicz shows us how real lives have been impacted by our culture crash, as well as what coping/survival strategies have been adopted. While fascinating in their own right, such stories also relay some practical information relating to what is “the central question that is raised by this book as a whole: how to keep your soul intact and still make a living as an artist.”

Lanier has already made one dark prophecy, that in the future art may be the sole preserve of the privileged. But while Deresiewicz is alert to the danger of the arts becoming merely “a rich kid’s game,” that may be too pessimistic. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories out there. Unfortunately, while “success” (the word has different meanings) in the arts may be open to all, it is only so as a lottery. This being the preferred word of many interviewees to describe the current economy, and the one I would adopt as well.

Where I found the book most interesting is the stress that is (correctly, I believe) put on the way these transformations are tracking the widening inequality in American life more generally. “As institutions tremble and crumble, professionals across the board are losing their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth is moving upward everywhere, and everywhere the middle class is disappearing.” The arts are very much part of that “everywhere,” which means “the devastation of the arts economy . . . is rooted in the great besetting sin of contemporary American society: extreme and growing inequality.” Now ask yourself when you see such a trend being reversed.

This leads to the next important point. If things continue, as I think they will, on their present trajectory, what will the future of art look like? As Deresiewicz puts it, “What kind of art are we giving ourselves in the twenty-first century?”

We might not be surprised that Alexis de Tocqueville was here before us. Surveying the American literary scene in 1831 he wrote of how Americans “like books that are easily procured, quickly read, and that do not require scholarly research to be understood. They insist on facile beauties that are self-evident and that can be immediately enjoyed; above all, they demand the unexpected and the new.” “Need I say more?” he continues. “Who cannot guess what is to follow?” But we really don’t have to guess. We’re familiar with it already:

Taken as a whole, the literature of democratic centuries cannot present the image of order, regularity, knowledge, and art that literature exhibits in aristocratic times. Form will usually be neglected and occasionally scorned. Style will frequently seem bizarre, incorrect, exaggerated, or flaccid and almost always seem brazen and vehement. Authors will aim for rapidity of execution rather than perfection of detail. Short texts will be more common than long books, wit more common than erudition, and imagination more common than depth. An uncultivated, almost savage vigor will dominate thought, whose products will frequently exhibit a very great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will seek to astonish rather than to please and to engage the passions rather than beguile taste.

Deresiewicz doesn’t mention Tocqueville, but I find this vision of the future of American writing fits the contemporary scene pretty neatly, and not just in terms of its literary productions.

In attempting to define the spirit of the age (at least in the arts) Deresiewicz settles on the word “producerism,” which makes central the twin ideas that art is now just content and that everyone is an artist. However, while rejecting the latter notion as absurd (even if this runs the risk of making him appear “a snobbish old asshole”), I don’t think he addresses how much sense it makes within a lottery economy. In a lottery everyone has a chance to make it, and so everyone is an artist. Dan Brown. Stephenie Meyer. E. L. James. Are these not authors? Artists? By present standards I think we have answer that they are. Indeed they are the most successful – and so representative? – of the new paradigm. As Deresiewicz recognizes, it’s crazy to say that the cream is rising to the top. But whatever it is that is rising to the top of a flooded zone (one can’t resist referencing how shit floats), that’s where we’re at. Bad art drives out good. Which means it isn’t bad.

Or at least so the poptimists would tell us. Criticism has gone the way of the arts. Today’s reviewers and critics have little left to do aside from offering superficial commentary on the vagaries of celebrity while reporting on the rankings of box office and bestseller lists. Art appreciation is all about liking things, and how it is we like them.

So, just as everyone’s an artist, everyone is now a critic. And like the corpses caught in the web of the monster haunting the sewers of Derry in Stephen King’s It, everyone floats. In 2018 YouTube’s top earner was reported to be someone named Ryan, who generated over $20 million in income. Ryan, you may be surprised, is a critic. His YouTube channel is a review program. He was also, in 2018, 7 years old, and his reviews consisted of opening up boxes of toys and playing with them. Need I say more?

Notes:
Review first published online December 12, 2020.

The End of Tsarist Russia

The End of Tsarist Russia
Dominic Lieven

I thought this was a great account of Russia’s “march to World War I and revolution,” and would recommend it to anyone. It covers the terrain very well, emphasizing the importance of the Eastern front (“the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict”) and providing interesting commentary on such matters as the reception of Ivan Bloch’s work in Russia and Russia’s nationalism/patriotism deficit (at least compared to the other major powers). I’m less inclined to the view that Russia solely or primarily collapsed from within in 1917 and was still holding steady on the front. That was the case only, I would say, where they were facing the fading Ottoman Empire. In terms of both will and material I think the Russian army was licked, even without a mutiny in the trenches. The collapse was general, leaving the Bolsheviks to, as Lenin put it, pick up power where they found it lying in the street.

The Horror! The Horror!

The Horror! The Horror!
Jim Trombetta

American horror comics, at least of the notorious pre-Code variety, didn’t have a particularly long run. All of the examples in this weighty survey, less an anthology than a exhibition catalogue, were published between 1950 and 1954, the terminal date being when the Comics Code Authority was established.

Despite their all-too-brief flowering, the place these comics have in pop culture is hard to overstate. Was the 1952 story “Dungeon of Doom!” from Chamber of Chills an inspiration for John Carpenter’s They Live? I think it might have been.

The commentary by Jim Trombetta is a bit random, drawing from figures as diverse as Northrop Frye and Melanie Klein to introduce the different thematic sections. But what’s said is of interest, sometimes in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Trombetta’s commentary on the trope of shrunken heads.

The real meat of the book, however, consists of the reproductions, which are beautifully reproduced in all their full-colour glory — albeit tending to be yellowy with age, and sometimes suffering from those chromatic shifts brought on by the sloppy production process used to create the originals. Not that I would want any of this cleaned up. This is a volume worthy of classic trash.

The Braver Thing

THE BRAVER THING
By Clifford Jackman

In his widely heralded 2015 novel The Winter Family Clifford Jackman mixed pulp fiction with broader social and historical speculations as he told the story of a brutal gang of American outlaws. In his follow-up The Braver Thing he does something similar with the crew of the Saoirse, a pirate ship in the eighteenth century, though it’s a book that sails into different waters.

To be sure, the genre elements are all in place. This is a pirate novel so there’s a captain with an eye patch, a talking parrot, and sea battles that see men “pulped into tripe” with grapeshot and “hacked into meat” by swords. There are treasures lost and won, storms and duels and mutinies, and maybe even a giant sea beast at the end.

But in addition to all this swashbuckling there is a political theme introduced, signaled by an epigraph from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and chapter headings announcing the different forms of governance that are attempted on the Saoirse.

The ship of state is an ancient metaphor that goes back to Plato’s Republic, but it’s put to an extreme stress test here. That’s because these are men for whom violence isn’t a last resort but a profession and entire way of life.

As it sets out on its voyage the Saoirse is likened to “a wooden world . . . a parasitic nation at war with all the world, enemies of all mankind.” The crew are warrior monks of the sea: men without women, or much in the way of any human bonds at all. There are no female characters in the novel, and though lip service is paid to the notion of pirate brotherhood they are not a family. Real family being one of the few social units Winter presents as giving life purpose and meaning.

As with the gang of Winter desperadoes, the pirate ship in The Braver Thing is a radical anti-polis more than a microcosm of any sort of functioning society. The Gentlemen of Fortune and Honest Fellows, though bound together by articles of service and given to holding lots of shipboard meetings and votes, have little sense of loyalty or a social contract. The shipboard state, to use the language of political science, is prior to the individual.

What identity the crew have is submerged in rank and function. This is especially so at the top, where the isolation and burden of command results in self-flagellating pathologies. It’s not that absolute power corrupts so much as it breaks men into pieces.

The Braver Thing isn’t a novel that goes deep into the heads of any of its characters. There’s more a sense that anyone is expendable, with even the captains of the Saoirse coming and going almost by accident. But that is by design. Winter is less interested in psychology than he is in the behaviour of the group and the timely question of how to get by in a world where politics has gone mad and the ship of state is plunging into the blackness of darkness. Pro tips: keep your head down, do your duty, and you might get out alive.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 4 2020.

Rage

RAGE
By Bob Woodward

Rage is the sequel to Fear, and in the intervening years Bob Woodward has cooled toward his subject despite being granted greater access (seventeen on-the-record, taped conversations with Trump). But cooled only by a couple of degrees. Despite his conclusion, delivered in the book’s final sentence, that “Trump is the wrong man for the job,” this is a book that bends over backward to present the president in the best possible light. He is allowed to go on at length through many a “rambling, repetitious, often defensive monologue,” with little editorial comment by his interlocutor. His love letters to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un are quoted from with none of the contempt they deserve. “They reveal a decision by both [Trump and Kim] to become friends. Whether genuine or not, probably only history will tell.” I have to say that this takes a reluctance to draw conclusions a bit too far.

You could say that Woodward was only giving Trump enough rope to hang himself – and there are certainly moments of this kind to be appalled by – but that’s not the way most of it plays. Instead you get the sense that he’s actually trying not only to be fair but to understand the person he’s talking to.

But what is there to understand? What is the point of talking to Trump? He lies about everything, and whatever the subject at hand just switches it so that he can go over his long, familiar list of obsessive grievances. We never learn anything, any more than we learn anything from his press conferences or tweets. What you see is what you get, or, to paraphrase Michelle Obama only slightly, he is what he is.

What is that? Someone very stupid, with no attention span (a minus number, in the words of Anthony Fauci), a sense of insecurity so deep one may as well call it paranoia, and a bottomless reservoir of anger and resentment. Trump appeals to people who hate, mainly out of a paranoid belief that everyone hates them, is laughing at them, or is somehow ripping them off. Probably the most dramatic moment in Rage comes as Woodward watches him respond to a video of various Democrats watching his 2019 State of the Union address. “You’re seeing hate!” he cries. “Hate! See the hate! See the hate!” We can call it Trump Derangement Syndrome.

George Will once observed that Trump was like the boring drunk at the bar, holding forth with his uneducated and uninformed thoughts on what’s wrong with the world. Close, but Trump doesn’t drink and one suspects he thinks bars are gross. Instead he is an even more easily recognizable type: the bitter man who sits at home yelling at his TV. Listening to him is a hard task, and we have to listen to him a lot in Rage.

How do members of his court cope? I don’t think they’ve ever been under any illusions as to the breadth and depth of Trump’s stupidity. Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, would call him “a fucking moron.” James Mattis, secretary of defense, would describe the difficulty of imparting information to the president at briefings.

“But the facts would be dismissed, and we’d be off on one of those ramps that circled around and started going. And then you’re sitting there, and it’s not deference at that point. It’s grasping for a way to get it back on subject. And it was just very hard. And there wasn’t a lot of time for it.”

Mattis would later say that duty compelled him to put up with Trump’s stupidity, but when it went over the line to “felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.” This is a man who was under no illusions as to how ignorant, or felony stupid, Trump was. One imagines this must be a feeling shared by all those in Trump’s orbit, though many have opted to become enablers for some presumed gain. “Stay the course,” Mike Pence whispers in the ear of Dan Coats. “Stay the course.” But a course toward what? Regressive tax “reform” sucking more wealth into the hands of the plutocracy? “Conservative” judges?

It’s just possible, I suppose, that Jared Kushner actually respects Trump. His rationalizations for Trump’s erratic behaviour strike me as unconvincing though. Still, he is introduced to us here by Woodward in a manner that is polite and deferential to a fault. On the basis of what evidence could Jared Kushner possibly be described or even imagined as being “highly competent”? He sets up study groups and spouts business school jargon and gets absolutely nothing done. As a businessperson he’s been, arguably, an even more spectacular failure than his father-in-law.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic the course was set for ruin. But as Adam Smith once observed, there’s a lot of ruin in a country. Sarah Kendzior has described the Republican project for America as consisting of stripping the country down to its parts and then selling them off to oligarchs. After four years of Trump this is a process that is now well advanced, and it’s hard to see how the “dismantling of the state,” to use Steve Bannon’s name for it, is going to be reversed. What is the cure for rage? Because this is the virus that is destroying America, and Trump, while he may be a super-spreader, is only a carrier of the disease.

Notes:
Review first published online October 2, 2020.

Surviving Autocracy

Surviving Autocracy
Masha Gessen

Near the end of this terrific assessment of where the United States, and the West more generally, is at politically Masha Gessen tells us that “Three years of Trumpism has extinguished whatever remained in American politics of the language of solidarity or the idea of public welfare.”

I don’t want to sound superior or blasé about this, because that’s not how I feel, but this ship sailed a long, long time ago. Lewis Lapham has tracked for decades the falling fortunes of the word “public” in our civic discourse, from signifying something noble and valuable to referring to anything corrupt and worthless. The same cynical transformation in Russian political language is described by Gessen, with Trump only left to mock such notions as democracy and moral principle as fit only for suckers and losers.

Gessen comes at the issue of Trump’s aspirational autocracy (or, more broadly, what I would call Republican oligarch envy) from different angles but I think what she has to say about the corruption of language by way of Trump’s mangled “word piles” is perhaps the most on target. We don’t have an honest language at hand anymore to describe what has been happening to Western democracy. We can speak the names of the crimes we are witnessing, but they’ve lost their meaning.