The Apollo Murders

By Chris Hadfield

It’s tried-and-true advice for authors, especially new ones, to write about what they know. As Chris Hadfield is probably Canada’s best-known astronaut, and a former commander of the International Space Station, it’s a rule he was happy to follow in writing his first novel, The Apollo Murders.

The year is 1973, and in this alternate history the Cold War is still burning hot and is now being projected into space with the Soviets building an orbiting spy station while looking to mine the Moon for precious radioactive minerals. With Apollo 18 (the real Apollo missions ended at 17) the U.S. is out to frustrate these plans. It may be that the Soviets are one step ahead though, as they already have someone inside the Apollo program.

That’s the basic plot, and it’s solid. Where The Apollo Murders really sets itself apart though is in the level of detail Hadfield includes. And this isn’t just the usual hard-SF business of explaining fancy technology and dropping loads of acronyms on the reader (though there is plenty of that). Instead, what Hadfield brings to the table is how such a space adventure might feel.

It’s experiential SF brought home on a practical, tactile level. Things begin with a rush: a prologue written in the first person with a jet pilot having to make an emergency landing after losing his eye in a mid-air collision with a seagull. From there we proceed to the launch of Apollo 18 and the “Wham!” “Slam!” of staging, a physical gut-check which is likened to “crashing into a wall.” Then there are such mundane matters as the flatulence caused by the drop in air pressure in the cabin and the effect of throwing up inside one’s spacesuit (“the stink, the smeared visor, the stomach acid getting into their eyes, and trying not to inhale any of the floating chunks and bile”).

This isn’t window-dressing. The question of what to do with a corpse in space comes up at one point, and how it is dealt with plays a part in the plot. In such a confined space the smell and bloating are matters that have to be addressed.

None of this detail slows the book down. Time and again Hadfield shows how little things, like a missing lock wire on a nut or a sneeze while soldering one of the spaceship’s communications devices, have a huge impact. And some of the technical details can be fascinating in themselves. The description of the damage caused by bullets fired in space really freshens up one action scene.

The Apollo Murders is a hefty first novel but Hadfield’s clear enthusiasm for the subject is its rocket fuel. At one point in the early going a pair of characters turn away from watching a lunar training vehicle doing a practice run to look at a jet taking off because “Pilots like airplanes.” Hadfield obviously likes airplanes, and rockets and spaceships too. It’s a feeling that’s infectious, and one that takes us on quite a ride.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, October 14 2021.


Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife
Bart Ehrman

The concept of an afterlife that includes a judgment resulting in our eternal reward and/or punishment is so much a part of the Western cultural tradition that it’s hard to think ourselves back into its original historical context. Bart Ehrman presents that context with admirable clarity, though I think he strains a bit too hard in his insistence on some points. The afterlife was a concept that evolved over time, and the Bible, a book (or books) written over a long period shows some of that evolution, as do the writings of the early Church fathers — who were trying to forge a theology that was moral and just — in the second and third centuries CE. It should come as no surprise then that a lot of the language reflects a theology in flux, as can be seen in Ehrman’s discussion of what Paul might have meant by being raised a spiritual body.

As great a job as Ehrman does in giving order to a complicated story, it’s not possible to smooth out all the wrinkles. From my own reading I think it likely that Jesus did share in the belief, which was current at the time, of some sort of posthumous reward and punishment. I get the feeling that the notion of death as simple extinction fits better with Ehrman’s own, contemporary point of view. But as always when discussing these matters, much remains open to interpretation.

On Consolation

By Michael Ignatieff

Even the happiest life is filled with disappointments, heartaches, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And in such dark times we turn to others, both the living and the dead, for consolation, comfort, hope, and understanding.

Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation presents a series of thoughtful essays on some of the great works of consolation in the Western tradition, from essays and speeches to painting (El Greco) and music (Mahler), taking us chronologically from the Book of Job to Cicely Saunders, a British doctor who was a pioneer in palliative care.

The fact that there is such a tradition is essential to Ignatieff’s argument about how consolation connects us. The authors of the Psalms are our contemporaries, even if we don’t share their faith. A “chain of meaning” going back over two millennia carries the message that “we are never alone when we face pain and loss. There is always someone who has been there before, who can share the experience.”

If consolation is social in this sense, it is also intensely personal. Ignatieff deals with both private and public forms of consolation but clearly thinks the former more important, taking his cue from Samuel Johnson’s boast that “Public affairs vex no man.”

This might seem an odd position to take given Ignatieff’s own involvement in politics, but Cicero’s public spiritedness is here characterized as a kind of toxic masculinity, Condorcet is shown being destroyed by the Revolution that betrayed him, and Marx’s vision of a transformed society is written off as a delusion neither attainable nor to be desired. Political leaders can offer words of comfort at moments of crisis, but more often what we need is consolation from politics, an affirmation of the value of the individual in the face of oppression.

As you should expect in any book looking at 2,500 years of big questions relating to the meaning and purpose of life, there are some blips along the way. The idea that Stoic philosophy made no universal claims and was exclusively written by and for a Roman elite might have surprised Epictetus, for one.

Then there is the problem of fuzzy language. Words of consolation are notoriously easy to say, and unless they move us through force of rhetoric or the speaker’s character they only register as platitudes. Anyone writing about consolation will have trouble avoiding this, and Ignatieff can slip into banality, like quoting the words of a “wise friend” that “doubt is to certainty as shadow is to light.” That’s not a bit of wisdom for the ages.

Does consolation work? The passage of time probably does more to assuage the pain of grief and loss. Ignatieff also admits that today we are more likely to speak of self-help and therapy, as “consolation has largely passed out of the modern vocabulary.” What this erudite and heartfelt survey reminds us of though is that the need for consolation is timeless, as are the inspiring words and examples of those who walked this path before us.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, November 12 2021.


By Steve Benen

At the 2020 Republican National Convention, gearing up for that year’s presidential election, the Republican Party took the remarkable step of not issuing any kind of party platform, choosing just to recycle what they ran on in 2016. This became known as the “whatever Trump says” platform.
Give Steve Benen high marks for prophecy then, as the convention took place after he had finished writing Impostors, which concludes with a chapter criticizing the GOP for now being a post-policy (and hence post-platform) political party.

Clearly then what happened at the Convention wasn’t any kind of a break with the direction things had been going for some time. Trump was an accelerator but didn’t change a trajectory that Benen sees Republicans as having been on for some time. About the only change is in the shamelessness of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Republican Party. If hypocrisy is the price vice pays to virtue then in the twenty-first century the cost had become too high. When it came to governing responsibly, the words “not even interested,” “didn’t even care,” and “not even trying” become almost a mantra in Benen’s book. “On climate policy,” for example, the GOP made it “clear that it is unwilling to even pretend to be a governing party.” Uninterested in data or facts or really much of anything, they are without positions that can even be debated. They govern, in so far as they govern at all, in profoundly bad faith.

But perhaps this isn’t being quite fair, or not cynical enough. If one takes as a starting point the view that sees the GOP as being a wrecking crew, looting the till, determined only to dismantle the state and sell off whatever’s left for scraps, then that counts as a sort of anti-policy. This was what being the Party of No meant. President Obama had enacted what were generally successful policies with regard to Iran (the nuclear deal), border security, and health care. Trump, who hated Obama much as he tended to hate everyone and everything, set about tearing all of this down, but with no apparent intention of “even trying” to replace it with anything. There’d be no “beautiful” new Republican health care plan, no new deal with Iran, and no wall on the Mexican border.

It’s telling that under Trump the party had two overarching goals: tax cuts and deregulation (dismantling the state) and stacking the judiciary (not in order to enact any kind of policy agenda but to stay in power). Once these had been achieved, however, “the governing cupboard was bare.” Even conservative commentators expressed surprise at how little there really was on the agenda. “It would be a mistake to assume Republicans are incapable of effective policy making,” Benen concludes. But aside from rigging elections through voting rights legislation and gerrymandering (the point of the judicial appointments) they’re not much interested in anything else.

Impostors is a damning indictment of the contemporary Republican record. Whatever one thinks of the Democratic policies adopted during the Obama years, they were at least substantive and serious enough to be engaged with. One could judge them on their merits, and tweak them where needed. A post-policy party is a different beast. “Ours is an ailing political system that needs more than one governing party to recover,” Benen concludes. I think it more likely that this is how it all ends.

Review first published online December 6, 2021.

Dante’s Indiana

By Randy Boyagoda

Written in the early fourteenth century, the Comedy of Dante Alighieri (only later designated as “Divine”) is considered by many to be the greatest poem ever written in any language. One test of that status in our own time is the continuing popularity of its many translations into English and its widespread presence in contemporary culture.

Randy Boyagoda’s Dante’s Indiana, the second volume of a projected trilogy about a Toronto academic named Prin, takes that ongoing process of cultural assimilation as a starting point.

Following closely on the events of the previous novel, Original Prin, things kick off here with Prin experiencing a full-blown mid-life crisis. He has, in the language of Dante, lost his way. His marriage is under stress, and when a trip abroad leaves him with PTSD and unemployed he finds himself taken on in an advisory capacity by a family-run packaging business whose patriarch is building a Dante-inspired theme park in Terre Haute, Indiana whose goal is “to put fun back in the fear of God.”

Chaos ensues as the opening of the theme park runs into the buzz saw of life in twenty-first century America. Terre Haute is caught in the grips of the opiate epidemic and race riots break out when a young Black man is killed by the police. All of this has an immediate impact on the team Prin has joined at the park, and while he tries to keep everything on schedule he has to also juggle his disintegrating life. Prin’s family is threatening to come apart as he has to manage a long-distance relationship while an old boyfriend is making moves on his wife.

It’s the emphasis on family that connects all of the different stories in Dante’s Indiana. One of Prin’s co-workers has a daughter who is a heroin addict. The family of the murdered teen is another focal point, as is a Sri Lankan family that wants to adopt Prin.

Dante himself was married with children, but they don’t figure at all in the Comedy. He was interested in genealogy, but not family in the nuclear sense.

This is enough to let you know that Boyagoda isn’t interested in writing a modern version of the Comedy, on the order of what James Joyce did with Homer in Ulysses. He’s telling a story of redemption, but not following any formal model laid down by Dante, or even alluding to the Comedy much beyond a few obvious winks.

Still, given the precedent being invoked it’s clear that Boyagoda set himself a challenge, and it’s one that he’s up to. It is, for example, notoriously hard for writers to represent or evoke the sense of smell, but Boyagoda makes it seem easy with a series of apt similes: tap water in a public school that “smelled like flat Coke,” a truck interior that smells “like a lemon grove of baby wipes,” and fast food that gives a car an odour “like steaming bodies.”

This is the sort of imaginative verbal panache that in our own vernacular pays tribute to Dante as literary guide. As a spiritual guide the link is harder to make out, mainly because Boyagoda wants to explore domestic virtues – caring, mutual support, stability – that Dante was less interested in. The classics, however, are always reimagined in ways that respond to the personal anxieties and public crises of our own time. In the shattered funhouse of the twenty-first century we have to to redefine the content of a faith that sustains.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 3 2021.


Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Tom Holland

At the funeral ceremonies for the “dashing” Germanicus Julius Caesar in 19 CE the mood of the Roman populace started turning ugly – something his uncle, the princeps Tiberius, couldn’t help but be aware of. “Clinging as he was to the ears of the wolf, Tiberius could feel the rising of its hackles, sense the baring of its teeth, smell the hunger on its breath. He knew that it wanted meat.”

That sort of writing is typical of Tom Holland at his worst, the sort of thing that I described in my note on Millennium as being “stuffed with overwrought scenery and repetitive rhetorical emphases.” You could argue, however, that the style suits the tabloid/soap opera subject matter. The lurid history of the Julio-Claudian line is gone over again here with lots of dash and brio but in a way that will probably leave readers wanting something more substantial.

The Reckoning

The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal
Mary L. Trump

The election of Donald Trump gave his niece, or at least triggered in her, a case of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which eventually landed her in a treatment center in Tucson that specializes in handling such matters. If that strikes you as a bit precious then you’re in for a rough rest of the ride. Trump’s previous book about her uncle, Too Much and Never Enough, was a revealing and insightful biographical-psychological sketch that did a lot to explain the then president’s train-wreck of a personality, but this one paints outside the lines in dragging in a lot of stuff about race in America that isn’t on point. I’d be the last person to defend Donald Trump on a charge of racism – I think he exploited racism in America as much as he could for political gain – but given the enormity of his other outrages it feels off topic here. For a short book like this that lack of focus is a problem.

Landslide, I Alone Can Fix It, and Peril

By Michael Wolff

By Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker

By Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

For four years the mantra of the Trump presidency was that “there was no bottom.” Just when you thought he couldn’t sink any lower, some fresh outrage either to democratic norms or just plain decency would come along.
Still, it seemed that he’d reached a kind of nadir when January 6 brought a shambolic riot to the Capitol while behind the scenes an earnest albeit ham-handed effort was underway to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In the aftermath, the feeling one sensed, even in the media, was more one of relief at the end of a long national nightmare than the usual shock and disgust that Trump specialized in generating.

While in office Trump ruled the bestseller lists, and the most recent round of books, focusing on his final year in office, gives us what is perhaps (and hopefully) the final chapter. Written by authors who have covered the court of Trump extensively in previous books, and dealing with events already given saturation news coverage, do they have anything new to tell us?

Perhaps not much that’s new, but on at least a few points an indelible portrait is drawn of the calamitous final days.

In the first place, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi succinctly put it, the president at this time was “not well.” More precisely, his behaviour in fighting the election results was “a complete, total manifestation of insanity.”

This was not a clinical assessment, but while the talk of having Trump removed from office due to incapacity was always a non-starter, for many close to him, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, it was clear that in his final year Trump “had gone into a serious mental decline.” What the country was experiencing, in Michael Wolff’s words, was a chief executive suffering “mental derangement of a kind and at an intensity never before known at the highest level of the U.S. government.”

There was more to this than the Narcissistic Personality Disorder that Trump himself seemed to see as a super power, and that then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was being briefed on as soon as Trump took office. Trump was living in a fantasy world. He honestly believed, or at least affected to believe in the absence of any evidence, that Pfizer had deliberately withheld the rollout of a vaccine for COVID in order to hurt him politically, that the election had been stolen by various fraudulent means, and that he would be able to overturn the results in “his” courts.

The only word for this is madness.

The second point drilled home is that, at a time when the United States was faced with a major crisis, Trump basically quit his job. There had, of course, long been reports that Trump had no interest in doing the work of being president but only enjoyed being the center of attention. When COVID struck, however, what resulted was, in Leonnig’s and Rucker’s account, “a leadership vacuum,” where “the president had almost entirely ceased doing the business of running the country.” Then, according to Wolff, after the election he “put aside every other presidential function except the election challenge.” Which just meant watching more TV and flying off into foul-mouthed rages at everyone around him.

The final point is that this was a situation that the people closest to him (that is, his supporters) understood but that no one had the courage to speak out against. His immediate circle of family and aides thought he was living in an alternate reality, but they were either too sycophantic, afraid of him, or (as in the case of bizarre figures like Rudy Giuliani and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell) too far gone themselves to do anything about it.

One could take this a step further and wonder at the fact that Trump seems not to have had any real friends or confidants at all. What’s more, many of those who knew him and worked with him (and for him) more or less openly despised him. The Trump haters among his current and former officials constituted, according to Wolff, “a large club.” His one-time secretary of state Rex Tillerson famously thought him a “total fucking moron.” Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News was little more than a propaganda arm for Trump during these years, hated him, as did Ted Cruz, one of his staunchest defenders in the Senate. Meanwhile, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell had a “view of Trump [that] was as virulent as the most virulent liberal’s view: Trump was ignorant, corrupt, incompetent, unstable.”

No doubt this grated on Trump, making him feel even more isolated and resentful of the establishment “elites.” But it underlines that question of why people continued to support Trump even though they not only knew he was crazy but personally hated him as well. Obviously self-interest was part of it but Wolff gets at something more fundamental in what he has to say about the psychology of the political class:

The question that was asked since the beginning of the administration but that became even more urgent as Trump’s single-minded and senseless election challenge progressed was: Why would anyone tolerate this? The answer was simply that, in 2016, he had been elected, no matter how loopy and unexpected that was, and this was the nature of politics: you bowed down to the winner. (In fact, already some of that tolerance was seeping out because of the stark reality that he had not been reelected.) But the other answer was that, in politics, there was a whole professional class whose essential skill sets involved dealing with maximally difficult and damaged bosses. You took it and put up with it and tried to make the best of it, not in spite of everything, but because this is what you did; this was the job you had. And the more you could tolerate or accept or rationalize, the better you were at it and the higher you would rise in the universe, the brutalized universe of power.

Each book has its strengths and offers a slightly different perspective. Wolff’s account of the last days focuses mainly on the fight over the election and its fallout. Leonnig and Rucker give an account of Trump’s entire final year and so deal more with the COVID crisis. Woodward and Costa are broader still, even including a slightly off-topic look at the incoming Biden administration.

All the authors strain hard to be non-judgmental and present their sources in the best possible light. These books aren’t hatchet jobs. While Leonnig and Rucker refer to Trump’s “extraordinary capacity to say things that were not true” they balk at calling him a liar (Trump tells them he prefers “a more beautiful word called disinformation”). Meanwhile, the cabinet members and congressmen who enabled Trump are allowed to walk away with their excuses, if not their dignity, intact. But there are no heroes in this story.

Will there be a sequel? By all accounts Trump is enjoying life in his alternate-reality bubble at Mar-a-Lago. Leonnig and Rucker get an invite and are suitably impressed:

Here, beneath the gold-leaf ceiling of winged griffins and crystal chandeliers, Trump still rules, surrounded day and night by applauding fans, obsequious courtiers, and dutiful servants. At the perfectly manicured Mar-a-Lago, none of the disgrace that marked the end of his presidency pierces Trump’s reality. Here, he and his aides work to maintain the gospel according to Trump, with the most important revelations being that Donald Trump was the greatest president of all time and was unjustly denied a second term.

It sounds very nice, but given where things stand today, with Trump maintaining his position as the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, we shouldn’t be surprised if he tries a comeback. For a narcissist, fame is a powerful drug. There may be a new bottom yet. As Woodward and Costa conclude, “peril remains.”

Review first published online November 8, 2021.

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion
William Hogeland

Shays’ Rebellion was dismissed with a whiff of grapeshot, without a musket being fired by either side. The Whiskey Rebellion, less than ten years later, was over practically before it started, with no resistance offered to the arrival of federal forces in western Pennsylvania. Some twenty men were brought to trial for treason, leading to only two convictions, one of them being of a man mentally handicapped in some way. Both were pardoned.

It was then a minor, anticlimactic incident. William Hogeland’s account of it is, nevertheless, worth attending to for both its readability and for the picture it draws of Alexander Hamilton. In recent years – meaning in the wake of Ron Chernow’s award-winning biography and the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired – Hamilton has been presented in glowingly heroic terms. Here, however, he is the villain of the piece, which makes a nice corrective.

The Tyranny of Merit

By Michael Sandel

In my review of Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites I talked about how hard it is to define just what is meant by a meritocracy. In particular I asked what “merit” consisted of aside from getting ahead or making money. This is a point that I think Michael Sandel also has some problems with, though it’s not one he wants to take on directly. Still, it’s there in his opening chapter. One paragraph suffices to cover the twilight of America’s elites:

Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful. They won World War II, helped rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state, dismantled segregation, and presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to rich and poor alike. By contrast, the elites who have governed since have brought us four decades of stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008, a decaying infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a system of campaign finance and gerrymandered congressional districts that makes a mockery of democracy.

Haven’t governed well? They haven’t done anything well except the one thing they are good at: getting ahead and making money. This is, precisely and I think by definition, what makes them a meritocratic elite.

Put another way, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s a myth, a justification for power and privilege that, outside of a handful of endeavours like some professional sports, has no basis in talent, intelligence, hard work, or the social utility of what one does. Merit does not equal value on any level, however much its ideology insists.

In short, life is a lottery and the meritocratic elite are only the fortunate few. Sandel freely admits as much, drawing authority from as far back as the Book of Job, where the voice from the whirlwind sternly informs us that there is no point to the random blights and blessings that make up our lives, no moral logic or cosmic justice standing behind them. The biggest contributing factor to one’s social status, after all, is the class one is born into. But even in the broader economy it’s basically a crapshoot. The stock market? A casino. Bestsellerdom? A blockbuster movie? Internet stardom? Random lightning strikes. As the screenwriter William Goldman famously put it, when it comes to that kind of success nobody knows anything. Sticking to his own bailiwick, when discussing the increasingly painful process of admissions to prestigious universities, perhaps the key stage in the process of “meritocratic sorting,” Sandel, who teaches at Harvard, proposes that administrators simply “toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them [out of 20,000 – 25,000], and leave it at that.”

The only cure for the “meritocratic hubris” that Sandel sees as being baked into the mix of our current social hierarchy – that is, the tendency of winners “to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way” – is a humility informed by our sense of “the contingency of our lot.” We might reduce this to the form of a prayer: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.”

To recap: It is hard to say what “merit,” when referring to a meritocracy, consists of, but it’s likely to mean nothing useful. Hedge fund operators (who, on average, can’t even outperform the market) and cryptocurrency speculators make thousands of times more than agricultural and personal support workers, who are often little more than slave labour. It’s a readily observable fact that many who have risen to the top through effort and education are in fact no good at what they do, in whatever field, from business to politics to the arts. “Smart America,” as George Packer characterizes it in his more recent book on class sorting, Last Best Hope, is not as smart, or talented, or industrious as the rest of America at all.

Nevertheless, it’s human nature to see any social prominence as earned or deserved, so the language of “merit” automatically gets employed as a way of whitewashing this status. It’s no accident that Packer places himself in “Smart America,” or that David Brooks, writing in The Atlantic, sees himself as a member of a class of people who are wealthier, smarter, more talented, more creative, more open and diverse, and just plain better than the non-elite. They are “our class,” “we” and “us.” People who read The Atlantic. And Brooks wants you to know how much it pains them to have to admit their superiority. But . . . life isn’t fair.

Indeed, to his credit Brooks thinks the current system is insane:

The modern meritocracy is a resentment-generating machine. But even leaving that aside, as a sorting device, it is batshit crazy. The ability to perform academic tasks during adolescence is nice to have, but organizing your society around it is absurd. That ability is not as important as the ability to work in teams; to sacrifice for the common good; to be honest, kind, and trustworthy; to be creative and self-motivated. A sensible society would reward such traits by conferring status on them. A sensible society would not celebrate the skills of a corporate consultant while slighting the skills of a home nurse.

Where I’d differ from Brooks is on the more fundamental point of what the meritocracy consists of. For Brooks meritocracy is a real thing, however invidious and “batshit crazy” it may be as a way of ordering society. I don’t think it’s a real thing, or at least much of one, but rather a myth. It is also worse than useless as a way forward. Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in 2016, enthusiastically spoke of how “I want this [America] to be a true meritocracy. I’m tired of inequality.” This may have been sincere, but as rhetoric it didn’t fool enough people. “The meritocratic ideal,” Sandel writes, “is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.” That is its purpose.

There are two recent developments that are driving a lot of the interest in the meritocracy now, and its “toxic mix of hubris and resentment.” In the first place, while life has always been a lottery it’s becoming even more of a lottery than ever. Second: the prizes for winning that lottery have become ever greater, while runner-up status has come to mean being consigned to oblivion. When Sandel enters into his peroration and offers a prospective vision of “a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity – developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs,” he’s actually looking back to the golden age of the American middle class that entered into palliative care in the 1980s.

So what became of the common good? I don’t think there’s any spoiler alert necessary for the loss of community and the advent of a winner-take-all economy leading to growing levels of inequality, which then needed to find an ideological justification. During the only comparable levels of socio-economic inequality in America (the so-called Gilded Age) the gospel of social Darwinism had its first burst of popularity, and I don’t think today’s prophets of meritocracy are saying much that’s very different from what was said then. The meritocracy is essentially a natural order, the society it creates inevitable. Merit will out no matter what obstacles are placed in its path.

Sandel and Brooks are right in seeing in the myth of meritocracy a mighty engine for the generation of mass resentment. Meritocratic hubris leads to smug self-congratulation among the fortunate and anger among the left behind. “There is reason to think,” Sandel opines, “that popular antipathy toward meritocratic elites played a part in Trump’s election, and in the surprising vote in Britain, earlier that year, to leave the European Union.” People were confused at Trump’s railing against elites when he was himself, at least by his own reporting, a billionaire. But Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, didn’t talk about merit. He talked about winners and losers. And what Trump’s supporters recognized was that Trump was actually a giant loser: a serial bankrupt, serial divorced male, clinically obese, deeply ashamed of being bald, and acting out his various insecurities in giant rages on the most public of stages. His favourite word with which to tag anyone he hated was “loser.” This, like everything else about him, was pure projection. That loser rage, however, struck a mass chord. His anger – and he was anger incarnate – was a kind of therapy. His fear of being laughed at and humiliated was something everyone suffering from a loss of social esteem could relate to.

From politics to pop culture the language of meritocracy is part of the fabric of our lives now, however spurious. The “regime of merit,” Sandel writes, “exerts its tyranny in two directions at once. Among those who land on top, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.” I’m not so sure I agree with the psychological cost of hubris here (I think it more often leads to moral blindness and a pathological arrogance), but in any event we are all living under the tyranny of this bullshit now. And can we expect things to change?

Review first published online October 25, 2021.