John Mosier

The historian John Lukacs was fond of saying that all history is necessarily revisionist. It’s an observation I’ve often made myself, though for slightly different reasons. That said, I think the pursuit of “lost histories,” as this account of Verdun dubs itself, can be oversold. In my notes on Jack Beatty’s The Lost History of 1914 I said much the same of another attempt to uncover something missing from the well-worn record of the First World War. Here it’s even more in evidence.

For some reason John Mosier thinks it significant that the battle of “Verdun” actually covered a wider geography and longer history than is usually credited. But of course there was a broader theatre of operations, and it was characteristic of many First World War battles to turn into bloody campaigns. That there were actually nine (by Mosier’s accounting) battles of Verdun, of which the fifth is the most famous, tells us nothing. Troy was razed any number of times, but we only care about the destruction of Troy VII.

It’s too bad that Mosier insists on being so contrarian. He might have written a decent history of the fighting around Verdun, even keeping his critical brief against the French GQG, in which I find much to agree with. His discussion of artillery and topography is excellent. But one also has the sense that the book was composed in a rush. The treatment of how casualties have been (mis)calculated is confusing. The writing is very choppy and the crude maps are worthless. Some of the conclusions are a stretch (Hindenburg’s rise was only indirectly connected to what happened at Verdun). And still there is the constant straining to somehow set the record straight when that record is mostly just the straw man of contemporary propaganda. “There are limits to writing histories based on government press releases,” Mosier tells us, but how many historians, especially recent ones, have been guilty of such misconduct? For all the insistence revisionist historians place on setting the record straight, I suspect little history has been lost.

Review first published online November 7, 2019.

The Gilded Rage

By Alexander Zaitchik

There has been much written over the past few years about the Trump voter. The trouble with defining this semi-mythical beast is that people had different motivations for supporting Trump and it’s difficult to come up with a single, if necessarily composite, portrait.

That said, Alexander Zaitchik’s interviews with various Trump supporters while following the candidate’s campaign in 2016 allow us to make some generalizations. A few of these reinforce what has become a stereotype. The Trump voter tends to be older. Most of the people Zaitchik interviews are middle-aged or retired. They are white. They are male (the women we hear from are mostly just echoes of their partners). While some of them are casualties of economic disruptions, many others are relatively well off. A number of them run their own small businesses.

This is the demographic. As far as the psychology goes, it is dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hate. “What you’re seeing is an angry America,” one West Virginian Trump voter explains. The first interviewee we meet is described as “affable” but immediately said to be “twice angry” because of having to walk so far to a Trump rally and because his mother’s house had been blocked in by Trump protesters (an inconvenience that has, in turn, sent her directly into the Trump camp). Then, when he finally arrives at the rally, he gets a full dose of the candidate’s “hot and burning hatred.”

As is the case with most angry people – that is, people who aren’t upset at one specific thing but who are just angry – their anger is unfocused but invariably directed outward. The two favourite targets are government and the media. We meet one fellow who blames Obama for his marriage breaking down, and another who blames Jimmy Carter for the auto accident he was in. What government and the media represent are the “elites,” meaning groups that should represent, reflect, and be responsive to their rage but which instead are seen as at best uncaring and at worst mocking them.

Racism and misogyny, two of the more popular accusations made against Trump voters, come across as secondary, if present at all. Instead, what they most despise is the government, and the public sector more generally. They are true believers in capitalism and markets, despite what those forces may have done to them. Hence the importance to them of Trump’s status as a businessman. Even acknowledging his many failures and multiple bankruptcies doesn’t change this. It’s not important that Trump be a successful businessman; it’s enough that he has market values at heart, that he understands the world of business and isn’t someone just feeding at the public trough.

Meanwhile, what these people have really been betrayed by is the ideology (the preferred term these days is neoliberal) that they so want to believe in. They’ve indeed been screwed, just not by the people they blame the most. Trump the failure becomes, in turn, the perfect vehicle to express their misdirected rage.

Review published online October 15, 2019. The diagnosis of anger has been so well analyzed now that I think it stands as more fact than theory. The literature is vast. See, for example, my reviews of Gavin Esler’s The United States of Anger and Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin
Peter Ackroyd

Not all biographies are of much help in understanding or interpreting an artist’s work, but in the case of Charlie Chaplin some knowledge of where he was coming from is useful. The man’s creative output was a direct consequence and reflection of his unhappy childhood. Raised in poverty, with an alcoholic (soon deceased) father and a mad mother, he quickly had to shift for himself by going on stage. And so in later life he would be obsessed with money and mistrustful of others, becoming a distant father and a self-directed control freak. He was also hard on women (who he both sentimentally idealized and lusted after). As Peter Ackroyd points out, there was much of Dickens here, and a little of Hitler as well. An auteur — and Chaplin was as total an auteur as one could imagine — is a dictator. Ackroyd briskly covers the bases in this short bio, though he avoids any penetrating critical judgments. In preferring to be suggestive, however, he suggests enough.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible
Peter Pomerantsev

The most disturbing line in Peter Pomerantsev’s account of his adventures in modern Russia comes right at the end, in an interview with a lawyer fighting Russian corruption. “We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end-point of evolution,” the lawyer explains, and that in their interactions with countries like Russia the West would be negotiating from a position of strength. The Cold War was over, after all, and it was the end of history.

But in fact the West has proven to be highly vulnerable to exploitation by the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-rule of law regimes of the post-Communist world. Indeed, it is the condition of modern Russia that many in the West now openly aspire to: a “postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.” This is all very sad, and more than sad.

Pomerantsev’s Russia is mainly Moscow, a city that seems to be both imploding (with construction projects competing to be ever closer to the imperial centre of the Kremlin) and spreading everywhere at the same time (Pomerantsev works in the television business, TV being “the only force that can unify and rule and bind” such a giant nation). I suppose today we’d also want to include the Internet, but in any case Moscow is where the magic happens. Black magic to be sure, but it’s still not clear how any society can fight the real fake media.

On Saudi Arabia

On Saudi Arabia
Karen Elliott House

Karen Elliott House has several different ways of imagining Saudi Arabia. It is, for starters, “a family corporation,” one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. It is also likened to “a grand hotel,” with Saudi citizens checking in at birth and being kept in an artificial but luxurious lifetsyle by an army of poorly-paid foreign workers. And finally it is a 747 jet, “richly appointed but mechanically flawed . . . losing altitude and gradually running out of fuel.”

Each of these reflects a different characteristic of the truly bizarre Saudi political regime. The real question then becomes how such a dysfunctional state has managed to keep going for so long. There are obvious answers: oil wealth, for starters, and the fact that nobody wants to see the state fail. But House also indicts the character of the people: a “somnolent and passive” population without any tradition of individual initiative or enterprise. In both politics and religion submission to authority is paramount, and freedom is undervalued, when it is given any value at all. House thinks many Saudis find freedom frightening. There is something in this that is more ancient or antique than medieval, but in either case it’s anti-modern and suggests a terrible reckoning when the plane inevitably runs out of gas.

World Without Mind

By Franklin Foer

Over the last twenty years (I think it’s been that long) there have been any number of books published about the impact of the digital revolution on the economy, on culture, on politics, and even on our brains. And while I haven’t done a thorough statistical analysis I think it’s safe to say that the majority of these books have taken a negative view of that impact.

In that regard Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is nothing new. There are two points that he emphasizes that are worth taking note of though. Both stem from his focus on Big Tech not as some impersonal force of nature, but as the expression of a targeted corporate agenda.

In the first place, Foer stresses how we are “not just merging with machines, but with the companies that run the machines.” “Technology” is not an abstraction. It does not provide a public space. There are no neutral platforms. When you interact with the Internet, even if just browsing, you are interacting with a corporation that is monetizing that interaction in some way. We tend not to think about the invisible corporate structures and algorithms that shape our experience of the digital world but we should, because they influence not just what we buy and sell, but what we like and dislike and how we feel about ourselves and others. And this is not a shaping that is taking place naturally. Big Tech is taking a guiding hand. “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.”

The second point Foer makes is related to this same hidden corporate influence. We have a tendency to see the outcomes of the digital revolution as being the result of impersonal, and immeasurably vast, economic forces. The collapse of newspapers or the taxi business are just what happens when billions of consumers decide they want something cheaper, or more convenient, or more immediate. But this is to again underestimate Big Tech’s agency. Foer, editor of a journal that was purchased by one of the accidental Facebook billionaires, had a front-row seat at what was really happening in the world of print media. For the platforms to be profitable, content (or information, or knowledge) had to be made free. Which is to say worthless. This was done deliberately. “The Big Tech companies didn’t just benefit from the economic collapse of knowledge. They maneuvered to shred the value of knowledge, so that the old media would come to helplessly depend on their platforms.” Amazon lowers the prices of books because they don’t want the books themselves to have any value. The value will be in its devices and its site. Google and Facebook punish companies that don’t share their vision of intellectual property. Which vision has it that, as long as it isn’t Google’s or Facebook’s intellectual property, it should be free. At which point, its value lost, it can be absorbed by the tech giants and remonetized.

The knock-on effects have been catastrophic. “By collapsing the value of knowledge, they [Big Tech] have diminished the quality of it.” And this is just the cultural industry we’re talking about. Much the same goes for most goods and services. Yes we can blame consumers for some of this, if blame is the right word, but we should not ignore the pecuniary motives of those who have profited the most from this great transformation.

Review first published online September 3, 2019.

Inside Hitler’s Bunker

By Joachim Fest

The classic account of the endgame of the Third Reich, at least for English readers, has long been Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler. Trevor-Roper was there on the spot at the end of the war and his book, which came out in 1946, has mostly stood the test of time. Still, some update after sixty years was probably necessary and one couldn’t ask for a better guide than Joachim Fest, whose work on the history of Nazi Germany stands alone for its readability and insight.

Fest begins by making a bold claim for the importance of Hitler’s last two weeks on (or under) earth. “Nothing gets to the root of what drove [Hitler] all his life better than to examine his behavior during those weeks, when he shut himself off from the world more than ever before.” All of his character traits were, in this period, “concentrated and intensified.” As Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg observed, “Hitler in the bunker – that’s the real Hitler!”

As excellent a “historical sketch” as Fest provides us, I can’t accept this premise. Hitler at the end was a physical and mental wreck. To be sure many of his personal qualities and obsessions became even more exaggerated, but he also went off in some new directions. When he said, for example, that he wanted his epitaph to read that he was “the victim of his generals,” this was in response to his feelings of being abandoned and betrayed at the end. It’s not the kind of thing he would have considered just a few years earlier.

As he did in his superb biography of Hitler (still the best one-volume account available, for my money), Fest intersperses more general reflective and thematic chapters into the narrative account of life in the monkey house (to borrow Trevor-Roper’s name for the Nazi court). In the final one of these he sums up Hitler’s world view, which was strictly (social) Darwinist in its positing of life being an endless war of all against all. In his less guarded moments Hitler would “mockingly denounce morality, religion, and all humanitarianism. In the real world, he declared, more ‘naked’ laws applied.” All moral and political codes meant to protect one human being from another were dismissed not only as deceptive and cowardly but as a sin against Nature, which was both the one true God and an “iron law of logic.”

All of which is a fair description of Hitler’s belief system. The depressing, even frightening thought is that it stands as an equally fair description of a lot of today’s politics as well. Longstanding political principles once held to be sacred, like democracy and the rule of law, are increasingly seen as the sort of “twaddle” Hitler derided. The only thing that matters is winners and losers, Lenin’s “Who, whom?” “What makes Hitler a phenomenon unlike any other in history is that his goals included absolutely no civilizing ideas,” Fest concludes. Perhaps not civilizing, but durable.

Review first published online August 28, 2019.

Transparent City

Transparent City

A work as singular as Transparent City left me with a lot of questions. Foremost among these was where Ondjaki drew his strange prose style from, which abandons all initial capitals and periods.

Whatever its origins, it gives an impression of collage, which fits with the nature of the novel itself: not so much a story as a collection of vignettes relating to life in Angola’s capital, and particularly within one apartment building.

The meaning of transparency is the other major question I was left with. Does Ondjaki mean something like the invisibility of the lower classes — that, as one character puts it, “we’re invisible because we’re poor”? Or is it, as later expressed, that transparency symbolizes a certain authenticity among the people? I think both, and the overlap is probably significant. In the novel it is only one character who is slowly disappearing but he represents a more general cultural erasure, and senses that he suffers “the illness of national malaise.”

Sons of Cain

By Peter Vronsky

Toronto author and filmmaker Peter Vronsky has written several books on serial killers, and in the introduction to his latest, Sons of Cain, he explains how his fascination with the subject got started.

In 1979 a twenty-three-year-old Vronsky literally bumped into Richard Francis Cottingham, the “Times Square Torso Ripper,” in the lobby of a hotel in NYC they were both staying at. As The Ripper walked past him, a cloth bag he was carrying bonked into Vronsky, with what Vronsky thought might be bowling balls inside. In fact, they were the heads of a pair of Cottingham’s victims.

It’s a wonderfully macabre anecdote and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. Sons of Cain covers a lot of ground in its informative, entertaining, and at times idiosyncratic take on serial killers.

In addition to providing a plethora of case studies and forensic background Vronsky also draws from such sources as zombie movies and cultural anthropology. This may be the best way to proceed, as serial killers as we have come to know them are semi-mythical figures, having a place both in the annals of true crime and in the collective consciousness shaped by the media and pop culture.

There is little consensus even among experts on such fundamental matters as how to define a serial killer and how to explain their behaviour. Are they born or made? Are taxonomies of different types useful? And to these basic questions Vronsky adds another: Why has the activity of serial killers seemed to surge at different times and places? Are their numbers going up or down?

Vronsky’s own approach sticks mostly to male, fantasy-motivated sexual killers who are driven by their primitive, reptile brain. He suggests from this that “Serial killers are what Mother Nature intended all of us to be in the wild before civilization.” Each of us has an inner Hannibal Lecter that we have to properly socialize in order to restrain. A provocative thought, but it may be taking evolutionary psychology too far.

Of course the stories are the main draw here. Fans of true crime will enjoy going through the catalogue of evil, stocked with names famous and obscure. But while there’s plenty of carnage to rubberneck there are also lots of interesting and original observations along the way, and perhaps something to be learned. You never know who you might bump into in a hotel lobby.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 17, 2018.

War of Attrition

War of Attrition
William Philpott

The First World War is usually described as a war of attrition, and in this general history of the conflict William Philpott takes that as his guiding theme, especially as attrition developed into the war’s “determining strategic principle.” Attrition, however, is more a default setting that any war reverts to when equal sides find themselves in a drawn-out struggle. In 1914 it was a type of war that nobody wanted or initially planned for, and when it finally came to pass with the lockdown on the Western front the opposing sides simply had to make the best of it.

I like how Philpott takes an expansive notion of the concept of attrition, bringing factors like morale into the equation. I don’t go all the way with him, however, in his defence of the generals (most notably Haig) and their hit-and-miss execution of a grim strategy they were forced into. Attrition was a strategy, but perhaps not the only or the best one available. It quite easily could have been a losing strategy for the allies had the U.S. not entered the war. And while the generals are often unfairly criticized for being donkeys, I think equally mistaken is the notion that they were doing as well as could be expected and were at least learning all the time. Some did learn, but some didn’t. Some of those who did only did so very slowly. A fair assessment probably lies somewhere in between. We might at least observe that among the generals few stood out, and there were no heroes.