Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Flawed Ideal

Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit:

What’s Become of the Common Good (Farrar Strauss and Giroux)

 

“Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them.”  This catchphrase, a favorite of politicians of all political stripes, captures in shorthand the American idea of meritocracy. More formally, Merriam-Webster defines meritocracy as a “system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.”  In a modern democracy, one would be hard pressed to argue against the idea that life’s major opportunities should be open to all who can prove themselves through talent and hard work.

Renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel is not about to make that argument.  But in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, Sandel nonetheless delivers a searing critique of meritocracy today, primarily in the United States and secondarily in Great Britain.  Sandel, one of America’s best-known philosophers, begins The Tyranny of Merit by acknowledging that as an abstract principle, meritocracy has won the day in the United States, dominating the national debate about such matters as access to jobs, education, and public office.  “Our disagreements are less about the principle itself than about what it requires,” he writes. “When people complain about meritocracy, the complaint is usually not about the ideal but about our failure to live up to it” (p.119).

But in this provocative, against-the-grain work, Sandel asks us to consider the possibility that the real problem is not that we have fallen short in trying to live up to the meritocratic ideal, but that the ideal itself is flawed. Sandel’s argument rests on a straightforward premise: today’s meritocracy stratifies society into winners and losers, defined mostly by economic status and university diplomas, generating hubris among the winners and resentment and humiliation among the losers.

The winners, our elites, “believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work” (p.14),  Sandel writes.  They view success not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something earned through effort and striving, making success a “sign of virtue. My affluence is my due” (p.59).  The downside of meritocratic stratification is that those left behind—typically those without a college education—are perceived as being responsible for their fate, with “no one to blame but themselves” (p.14).  The result is that we have lost a shared notion of the common good and with it a sense of the solidarity that might bind us together in all our diversity.

The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, Sandel contends, the “less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves” (p.59).   Meritocratic hubris “banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for solidarity” (p.25).  Sandel links meritocracy’s hard edge to rising economic inequality at home over the past four decades, accentuated by what we term globalization—the form of capitalism associated with freer international trade, increasingly inter-dependent markets and, in the United States, the loss of blue-collar jobs to foreign locations with lower labor costs.

The jump in economic inequality in the United States began around 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, while globalization took off after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Today, Sandel points out, the richest one percent in the United States take in more than the combined earnings of the entire bottom half of the population, with median income stagnating for the past forty years. In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of America’s largest public corporations earned about twenty-one times what an average worker in the corporation earned; today, the ratio is 350 : 1.  One of Sandel’s key points is that rising economic inequality, combined with market-driven globalization, contributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 in the United States, to the Brexit vote that same year in the United Kingdom, and to the phenomenon known as populism in both countries and elsewhere around the world.

Sandel characterizes the Trump electoral victory as an “angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered” (p.17).   Trump’s victory tapped into a “wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer” (p.17-18).  It was also a rebuke for a “technocratic approach” to politics that is “tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind” (p.17).

The meritocratic promise, Sandel emphasizes, is not one of greater equality, but of “greater and fairer mobility” (p.85).   Allocating jobs and opportunities according to merit simply “reconfigures inequality to align with ability” (p.117); it does not reduce inequality.  This reconfiguration “creates a presumption that people get what they deserve” (p.117).  To be sure, Sandel sees nothing wrong with hiring and promoting people based on merit. In fact, he writes, it is “the right thing to do,” (p.33), dictated by both efficiency and fairness.

But if we are to overcome the “tyranny of merit,” we need to rethink the way we conceive success, question the meritocratic conceit that those on the top have made it on their own, and challenge the inequalities of wealth and esteem that are “defended in the name of merit but that foster resentment, poison our politics, and drive us apart” (p.155).    To move beyond the “polarized politics of our time,” we must have a “reckoning with merit,” (14), Sandel argues, a reckoning that begins with the two domains of life most central to the meritocratic conception of success, education and work.

* * *

The Tyranny of Merit treats both education and work throughout but builds up to a final chapter on each: “The Sorting Machine,” largely a discussion of the admission process at elite American colleges and universities; and “Recognizing Work,” a plea for restoring a  sense of dignity to the work of those without a college or university degree.  Linking the two is what Sandel terms “credentialism,” the meritocratic insistence that a college degree is the “primary route to a respectable job and a decent life” (p.73).

Credentialism and “disdain for the poorly educated,” (p.95), Sandel suggests, may constitute the last acceptable prejudice in an age when racism and sexism are frowned upon in most circles.  The constant call for working people to improve their condition by getting a college degree, however well intentioned, “eventually valorizes credentialism and undermines social recognition and esteem for those who lack the credentials the system rewards” (p.89).  Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a prerequisite for dignified work and social esteem, moreover, has a “corrosive effective on democratic life.  It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less educated members of society … and provokes political backlash” (p.104).

But if success in today’s meritocratic world is measured primarily by education and economic standing, it is unclear how the two fit together, part of a more fundamental question that runs through Sandel’s analysis: just who are meritocracy’s self-satisfied winners? How do we identify them?  Much of The Tyranny of Merit suggests that they are mostly the super-rich, such as Wall Street financiers and high-ranking corporate executives, along with top government officials, such as cabinet officers and leading legislators.  Sandel emphasizes—overemphasizes, in my view—the importance of a degree from an elite college or university, defined as one which admits less than 20% of its applicants.  But what about the Harvard graduate who goes on to be a high school math teacher?  Or the high school dropout who creates a wildly successful construction business and lives at the upper end of the upper middle-class?

 “The Sorting Machine,” Sandel’s chapter on higher education, focuses primarily on the differences in today’s meritocratic society between those credentialed with a college or university degree from an elite college or university, and those with degrees from other educational institutions, including community colleges.  Degrees from elite institutions are perceived all-too-often as the only reliable prerequisites for dignified work and social esteem—a ticket upward for those aspiring to rise on the economic ladder, and an insurance policy for those already there, that they don’t fall down the ladder.  But the majority of students at elite institutions, Sandel notes, still come from wealthy families, due in no small part to the many advantages that well-off parents can provide their children, giving rise to a “pervasive unfairness that prevents higher education from living up to the meritocratic principle it professes” (p.11).  Still, only about 20% of graduating high school seniors get caught up in the frenzied pursuit of admission to elite colleges and universities.

For the remaining 80%, Sandel writes, the “tyranny of merit is not about a soul-killing competition for admission but about a demoralizing world of work that offers meager economic reward and scant social esteem to those who lack meritocratic credentials” (p.188).   He quotes one of his students, a young man from Texas, who opined that one must work hard in high school to “get into a good college and get a good job. If not, you work in the oil fields” (p.77).  Becoming a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist, Sandel argues at another point, should be “respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League” (p.191).  That sentence more than puzzled me.

Had Sandel himself succumbed to the elitist conceit that the pathway to meaningful and important work is open only to graduates of a small sliver of higher education institutions, the very credentialism he seeks to discredit?  Or was he merely expressing the perception of many of his students, like the young man from Texas?  This binary view—the Ivy way or the highway­—may well be how the world looks from places like Harvard, within the belly of the elitist beast, but the real world is awash with leaders, movers, and shakers whose degrees do not come from hypercompetitive, elite American colleges and universities.

I am willing to venture that the president of just about any American college or university considered non-elitist would be delighted to provide the names of “famous” alumni and cite a litany of graduates who have gone on to important positions in the community and elsewhere in the world. As one personal example, while assigned to a United States Embassy in Eastern Europe, I worked under two different US Ambassadors, both extraordinary leaders with multiple talents, each a genuine superstar within the ranks of the US Foreign Service.  The first was a graduate of Arkansas State University, the second from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, neither likely to be on a list of elitist higher education institutions.

Sandel advocates more support, moral as well as financial, for non-elitist higher education institutions.  But his more pressing concern is to restore dignity to those without a college or university degree, a surprising 70% of the adult American population.  His chapter “Recognizing Work” focuses on the role of blue-collar workers in American society, particularly those who voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections—thus mostly white blue-collar workers.

Sandel notes that from the end of World War II to the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find good work, support a family, and lead comfortable middle-class lives.  Globalization and the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs have made this far more difficult today. Although overall per capita income in the United States has increased 85% since 1979, white men without four-year college degrees now make less, in real terms, than they did then.  Any serious response to working-class frustrations, Sandel argues, should start with rethinking our notions of the common good as they apply to those without a college degree.

How a society honors and rewards work is “central to the way it defines the common good” (p.205), implicating such questions as what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good and what we really owe to one another.  Today we operate under what Sandel terms a market definition of the common good, where individual preferences and consumer welfare are paramount. If the common good is “simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences,” Sandel contends, then market wages are a “good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want”  (p.208).

Sandel seeks to displace the market definition with a civic definition, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle and Hegel, the American republican tradition, and Catholic social thinking.  A civic definition is “inescapably contestable” (p.214), Sandel warns. We may never come to agree on its substantive terms but nonetheless need to engage in a debate over what those terms could include. This will require “reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives” (p.208).   Moving the debate about the dignity of work away from the market definition of the common good has the potential to “disrupt our partisan complacencies, morally invigorate our public discourse, and move us beyond the polarized politics that four decades of market faith and meritocratic hubris have bequeathed” (p.214).

Critical reflection on the common good and a renewed debate on the dignity of work are incontestably fine ideas, but is difficult to imagine any wide-scale debate in today’s United States that would take us in the direction of a wholesale change in the prevailing meritocratic ethos.   Yet, several pragmatic steps that could narrow the glaring economic disparities between the very rich and working-class Americans might, in turn, smooth some of the sharper edges of the meritocratic ethos and thereby enhance the dignity of work.

One place to start lies in changing tax policies.  A political agenda that recognizes the dignity of work, Sandel argues, would “use the tax system to reconfigure the economy of esteem by discouraging speculation and honoring productive labor” (p.218).  A consumption or “VAT” tax would be a modest step in this direction, along with a “financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy” (p.219).  A more progressive income tax with higher rates on the highest brackets—top tax rates in the 1950s reached 91%—would also help narrow economic disparities, as would higher estate taxes, which today exempt all estate wealth up to about $12 million.  Then there is my favorite: enhanced funding for the IRS to equip the agency to better pursue high level tax fraud and avoidance.

Narrowing the economic gap can also be accomplished from below by more generous social welfare benefits, not unlike those contained in President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better Act: universal and free childcare, affordable health insurance, and extending the Child Tax credit and Earned Income Tax credit.  More job retraining programs need to be established for workers whose jobs move overseas and higher education—at both elite and non-elite institutions—needs to be made more accessible for young people from lower income families (to include pathways to relief for student debt).  Sandel mentions each briefly.  Surprisingly, he doesn’t give much attention to the potential of a reinvigorated organized labor movement to diminish some of the most glaring economic disparities in American society, which could in turn provide a tangible statement of the dignity and value of work.  The term solidarity, after all, is closely associated with the American labor movement.

* * *

Sandel’s trenchant critique of the meritocratic ethos in today’s United States leads — inescapably in my mind — to the conclusion that changing that ethos starts with narrowing the space between those at the top of the economic ladder and the ladder’s bottom half.  Until then, The Tyranny of Merit’s eloquently argued case for a more humane version of the common good could be scintillating subject matter for a (Sandel-led) philosophy seminar at Harvard, but with little likelihood of gaining traction in the world beyond.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 23, 2022

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Politics

The Authoritarian Playbook for Uprooting Democracy

 

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020)

In late November of this year, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) issued its annual report showing democratic slippage and authoritarian ascendancy throughout the world, with the United States included among the world’s backsliding democracies.  The report’s ominous conclusion was that the number of countries moving in the direction of authoritarianism is three times the number moving toward democracy.  Less than a month later, US President Joe Biden opened a “Summit for Democracy,” in Washington, D.C., attended virtually by representatives of more than 100 countries, along with civil society activists, business leaders and journalists.  Alluding to but not dwelling upon the increasing threats to democracy that the United States faces internally, Biden described the task of strengthening democracy to counter authoritarianism as the “defining challenge of our time.”

The short period between the IDEA report and the democracy summit coincided with the time I was grappling with Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, a work that provides useful but hardly reassuring background on today’s authoritarian ascendancy.  As her title suggests, Ben-Ghiat finds the origins of the 21st century version of authoritarianism in the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, appointed in 1922 by King Victor Emmanuel II to head the Italian government as Prime Minister, an appointment that marked the end of Italy’s liberal democratic parliamentary regime.

Ben-Ghiat defines authoritarianism as a political system in which executive power is concentrated in a single individual and predominates “at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government” (p.5), with the single individual claiming that he and his agents are “above the law, above judgment, and not beholden to the truth” (p.253).    A professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University and a leading academic expert on Mussolini and modern Italian history, Ben-Ghiat uses her knowledge of the man called Il Duce and his Fascist party’s rule in  Italy from 1922 to 1943 as a starting point to build a more comprehensive picture of leaders who have followed in Mussolini’s footsteps – the “strongmen”  of her title, or “authoritarians,” two terms she uses interchangeably.

Ben-Ghiat divides modern authoritarian rule since Mussolini’s time into three general historical periods: 1) the fascist era of Mussolini and his German ally, Adolph Hitler, 1919-1945;  2) the age of military coups, 1945 to 1990; and 3) what she terms the new authoritarian age, 1990 to the present.  But  Strongmen is not an historical work, arranged in chronological order. Ben-Ghiat focuses  instead on the tools and tactics selected strongmen have used since Mussolini’s time.

In ten chapters, divided into three general sections, “Getting to Power,” “Tools of Rule,” and “Losing Power,” Ben-Ghiat  elaborates respectively upon how strongmen have obtained, maintained, and lost power.  Each chapter sets forth general principles of strongman rule, to which she adds illustrative examples of how specific strongmen have adhered to the principles.   For Ben-Ghiat, the key tools in the strongman’s toolbox are propaganda, violence, corruption and, most originally, virility.  Each is the subject of a separate chapter, but they are “interlinked” (p.7) and each is referred to throughout the book.

Ben-Ghiat’s cast of characters changes from one chapter to the next, depending upon its subject matter.  At the outset, she lists 17 “protagonists,” authoritarian leaders who are mentioned at least occasionally throughout the book, including such familiar contemporary leaders as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.  But eight dominate her narrative: Mussolini and  Hitler, who personified the Fascist era, with Mussolini making an appearance in nearly every chapter; Spain’s General Francisco Franco, a transition figure from fascism to military coup, a fascist in the 1930s and a pro-American client during the Cold War;  Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who modeled himself after Franco and embodied the era of military coups; and four “modern” authoritarians, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who served as Italy’s Prime Minister in three governments, from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011; Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who followed Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic attempt in the 1990s to establish neoliberal democratic institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union; Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi, more a transition figure from the age of military coups to 21st century authoritarianism; and yes, America’s Donald Trump.  Reminding readers how closely Trump and his administration adhered to the authoritarian playbook appears to be one of the book’s main if unstated purposes.

Among the eight featured authoritarian leaders, all but Gaddafi rose to power in systems that were in varying degrees democratic.  How authoritarians manage to weaken democracy, often using democratic means, is the necessary backdrop to Ben-Ghiat’s examination of the strongman’s playbook.   All eight of her featured leaders sought in one way or another to undermine existing democratic norms and institutions.  Ben-Ghiat excludes strong women political leaders, such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, for this very reason.  No woman leader has yet “sought to destroy democracy” (p.5), she argues, although she does not rule out the possibility that a future female leader could meet the authoritarian criteria.

Among the featured eight, moreover, only Gaddafi could be considered left of center on the political spectrum.  The other seven fit comfortably on the right side.  While there would be plenty of potential subjects to choose from for an examination of strongmen of the left – Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro all come readily to mind – Strongmen is largely an analysis of right-wing authoritarianism.  For Ben-Ghiat, as for President Biden, combatting this form of authoritarianism constitutes “one of the most pressing matters of our time” (p.4).

* * *

From Mussolini and Hitler to Berlusconi and Trump, the strongman’s rule has been almost by definition highly personal.  Strongmen, Ben-Ghiat argues, do not distinguish between their individual agendas and those of the nation they rule.  They have proven particularly adept at appealing to negative emotions and powerful resentments.  They rise to power in moments of uncertainty and transition, generating support when society is polarized, or divided into two opposing ideological camps, which is “why they do all they can to exacerbate strife”  (p.8).

A strongman’s promise to return his nation to greatness constitutes the “glue” (p.66) of modern authoritarian rule, Ben-Ghiat argues.  The promise typically combines a sense of nostalgia and the fantasy of returning to an imagined earlier era with a bleak view of the present and a glowing vision of the future.  In the chaos of post-World War I Italy, Mussolini invoked the lost imperial grandeur of the Roman Empire.  Putin speaks nostalgically of the Soviet era.  Trump’s 2017 inaugural address cast the United States as a desolate place of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” (p.58), the dystopian picture of contemporary America which underpinned his ubiquitous slogan Make America Great Again.

Franco and Pinochet were typical of right-wing authoritarians who organized the path to the glorious future around counterrevolutionary crusades against perceived leftist subversives.  But in what are sometimes termed “developing” or “Third World” countries,” the return to national greatness focuses more frequently upon the remnants of foreign occupation.  Rather than leading a revolt against pre-existing democratic institutions and norms, anti-imperialist leaders like Gaddafi use their peoples’ “anger over the tyranny of Western colonizers to rally followers,” while adapting “traditions of colonial violence for their own purposes” (p.36), Ben-Ghiat writes.

To gain and maintain power, strongmen utilize a style of propaganda which Ben-Ghiat describes as a “set of communication strategies designed to sow confusion and uncertainty, discourage critical thinking, and persuade people that reality is what the leader says it is”  (p.93).  From Mussolini’s use of newsreels and Hitler’s public rallies to Trump’s use of Twitter, authoritarians have employed “direct communication channels with the public, allowing them to pose as authentic interpreters of the public will”  (p.93).

Propaganda, moreover, encourages people to see violence differently, as a “national and civic duty and the price of making the country great”  (p.166).  General Franco murdered and jailed Spanish leftists at an astounding rate, both in the Spanish Civil war, when he was supported by Mussolini and Hitler, and during World War II, when he remained neutral.  His claim to legitimacy rested on the notion that he had brought peace to the land and saved it from apocalyptic leftist violence.  But his real success, Ben-Ghiat writes, was in “creating silence around memories of his violence” (p.232).

Augusto Pinochet, fashioning himself in the image of Franco, also strove to present an image of Chile as a bastion of anti-communist stability.  But central to Pinochet’s rule was the systematic torture and execution of Chilean dissidents and leftists, “not [as] isolated sadism but state policy” (p.165), according to an Amnesty International report. Pinochet’s secret police agency, the DINA, drew upon neo-Nazis living among the country’s large German population to execute its mission of “cleansing Chilean society of leftist influence and making Chile a center of the international struggle against Marxism” (p.178).

Gaddafi envisioned himself as the center of an anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist world, and bankrolled a wide range of revolutionary and terrorist movements across the globe while adopting terrorist methods at home to eliminate Libyan dissenters. He used television to present violence as mass spectacle, subjecting dissenting students to public, televised hangings, including the  entire trial and execution of a dissident in 1984.  And Donald Trump’s calls for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment and allusions to her being shot, shocking to many Americans, were “behaviors more readily associated with fascist states or military juntas” (p.62), Ben-Ghiat writes.

Almost invariably, strongmen use the power of their office for private gain, the classic definition of corruption.  In tandem with other tools, such as purges of the judiciary, corruption produces a system that tolerates criminality and encourages broader changes in behavioral norms to “make things that were illegal or immoral appear acceptable, whether election fraud, torture, or sexual assault” (p.144).  The term “kleptocracy,” much in vogue today, refers to a state in which the looting of public treasuries and resources often appears to be the central purpose of government.

Joseph Mubuto Sese Soko, the staunch anti-communist leader of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 to 1997, appears here primarily to illustrate what US Representative Stephen Solarz termed in 1991 the “kleptocracy to end all kleptocracies,” in which Mobutu set the standard by which “all future international thieves will have to be measured” (p.14).   Mobutu’s country, awash in raw materials estimated to be worth in excess of $24 trillion, has the dubious distinction of being the world’s richest resource country with the planet’s poorest population, according to Tom Burgis’ insightful study of kleptocratic African regimes, The Looting Machine (reviewed here in 2016).    By the time he was forced into exile in 1997, Mobutu had amassed a $5 billion fortune, but Zaire had lost $12 billion in capital and resource flight and increased its debt by $14 billion.

New patronage systems allow the strongman’s cronies and family members to amass wealth, offering power and economic reward.  Vladimir Putin places oligarchs in competition for state resources and his favor, treating the country as an entity to be exploited for private gain.  While he poses as a nationalist defender against “globalists,” Putin uses global finance to launder and hide money.  He and his associates have removed an estimated $325 billion from Russia since 2006.  By 2019, 3% of the Russian population held 89% of the country’s financial assets.

Silvio Berlusconi maintained a curious and secretive relationship with Putin that almost certainly benefited him financially, typical of how Berlusconi normalized corruption by bending the institutions of Italian democracy to “accommodate his personal circumstances,” and by “partnering with authoritarians and elevating himself above the law” p.161).  He retained control over his extensive holdings in television, publishing and advertising, putting family members and loyalists in charge.  The vastness of his media empire “made it hard to police his mixing of personal and business interests”  (p.159).  While Italy remained a nominal democracy under Berlusconi, he turned the Italian government into what Ben-Ghiat describes as a “vehicle for accumulating more personal wealth and power on the model of the illiberal leaders he so admired” (p.246), alluding to his particular partnership with Putin and an even stranger partnership with Gaddafi.

Ben-Ghiat goes beyond other discussions of authoritarianism by highlighting the extent to which virility — a cult of masculinity —  enables the strongman’s corruption by projecting the idea that he is “above laws that weaker individuals must follow”  (p.8).  Displays of machismo are “not just bluster, but a way of exercising power at home and conducting foreign policy,” she writes.  Far from being a private affair, the sex lives of strongmen reveal how “corruption, propaganda, violence and virility work together.” (p.120).

In portions of the book most likely to appeal to adolescent males, Ben-Ghiat details the unconstrained sex lives of Mussolini and Gaddafi.   Paradoxically, Gaddafi afforded Libyan women far more independence than they had enjoyed before he came to power in 1969.  He promoted women as part of his revolutionary measures, while privately constructing a system – modeled, apparently, on that of Mussolini – to “procure and confine women for his personal satisfaction” (p.132).

Silvio Berlusconi “used his control of Italy’s television and advertising markets to saturate the country with images of women in submissive roles”  (p.134).  The young female participants in Berlusconi’s famous sex parties often received cash to help them start a business, a chance at a spot in a Berlusconi show, or a boost into politics.   Bare-chested body displays constitute an “integral part” of Vladimir Putin’s identity as the “defender of Russia’s pride and its right to expand in the world”  (p.121), Ben-Ghiat writes.

As to Donald Trump, the infamous Access Hollywood tapes which were released amidst the 2016 presidential campaign, in which he bragged about groping non-consenting women, did not sink his candidacy.  Instead, the revelations “merely strengthened the misogynist brand of male glamor Trump had built over the decades” (p.138).  Trump’s campaign and presidency seemed dedicated to “[r]eclaiming male authority,” Ben-Ghiat contends, which meant “creating an environment in which men can act on their desires with impunity” (p.139).

Gaddafi was the last of the authoritarians who used violence openly as a tool to maintain power.  In the social media age, mass killings often generate bad press. New authoritarians need to gauge the tolerance of elites and the public for violence.  21st-century strongmen like Putin and Recep Erdogan tend to warehouse their enemies out of public scrutiny, preferring targeted violence, information manipulation and legal harassment to neutralize dissenters.  They use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to “target critics and spread hate speech, conspiracy theories, and lies” (p.111), and attempt to impoverish opponents and potential opponents by expropriating businesses they or their relatives might own.

Ben-Ghiat’s book appeared just before the 2020 American presidential election, weeks before the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, and before the notion of a “stolen election” took hold amongst a still-mystifyingly large portion of the American electorate.  But her insight that today’s authoritarians use elections to keep themselves in office, “deploying antidemocratic tactics like fraud or voter suppression to get the results they need” (p.49 ), reveals the extent to which former president Trump and a substantial segment of today’s Republican party, especially in key “battleground” states, are working off the strongman’s playbook.

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After an apt dissection of  the way authoritarianism threatens the world’s democracies, Ben-Ghiat’s proposed solutions may leave readers wanting.  “Opening the heart to others and viewing them with compassion” (p.260) can constitute effective pushback against strongman rule, she argues.  Solidarity, love, and dialogue “are what the strongman most fears” (p.260-61).   More concretely, she emphasizes that to counter contemporary authoritarianism, we must “prioritize accountability and transparency in government” (p.253).   Above all, she recommends a “clear-eyed view of how strongmen manage to get into power and how they stay there” (p.250).  This deeply researched and persuasively argued work provides just such a view, making it a timely contribution to the urgent contemporary debates about the future of democracy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 30, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under History, Politics, World History

Alarming Portrait of a Ruthlessly Ambitious Crown Prince

 

 

Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

(Tim Dugan Books)

Mohammed Bin Salman, better known by his initials, MBS, is today the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and seems poised to become Saudi King upon the death of his ailing father, 86 year old Salman bin Abdulaziz.  Still youthful at age 36, MBS has achieved what appears to be unchallenged power within the mysterious desert kingdom, the birthplace of Islam and the location of its two most holy sites.   Internationally, MBS is indelibly associated with the gruesome October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a murder he probably ordered, but if not almost certainly enabled.  Even apart from the Khashoggi killing, the Saudi Crown Prince has compiled a record that is awash in contradictions since his ascent to power began in 2015.

MBS seems bent on modernizing and diversifying the oil-dependent Saudi economy. He has taken highly publicized steps against corruption; clipped the wings of the clergy and religious police; and accorded Saudi women the right to drive.  Young Saudis appreciate that MBS is largely responsible for movie theatres opening and rock concerts now taking place in their country.  But MBS’s record is also one of brutal suppression of opponents, potential opponents and dissidents  – brutal even by Saudi standards.  His regime seems to be borrowing from the authoritarian Chinese model of extensive economic modernization, accompanied by limited and tightly controlled social liberalization, all without feigning even nominal interest in political democratization.  Saudi Arabia under MBS remains, like China, one of the world’s least democratic societies.

In MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman, Ben Hubbard, a journalist for The New York Times with extensive experience in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, has produced the first — and to date only — biography of the Saudi Crown Prince available in English.  Any biography of MBS is bound to be incomplete, given the wall of secrecy MBS has built up around himself, shielding much of the detail of what he has done and how he operates within the generally secretive royal Saudi circles.  But somehow Hubbard managed to scale that wall.  Using a wide array of sources, many anonymous, he has pieced together a remarkably easy-to-read yet riveting and alarming portrait of a man who has eliminated all apparent sources of competition.

Today’s Saudi Arabia is in unfamiliar territory, with power concentrated in a single individual, Hubbard demonstrates convincingly.  Everyone of consequence, from rich tycoons to the extensive royal Saudi family itself, answers to MBS.  There is little that Saudi Arabia’s old elites can do to counter the upstart Crown Prince.  The collegial days when seniority reigned, elder princes divided portfolios among themselves, and decisions were made through consensus are little more than memories of a by-gone era.  MBS has “destroyed that system” (p.267), Hubbard bluntly concludes.

* * *

Although MBS studied law at university and finished 4th in his class in 2007, at the time of his graduation there was little reason to expect that he would become anything more than, as Hubbard puts it, a “middling prince who dabbled in business and pitched up abroad now and then for a fancy vacation” (p.15).  Unlike many Saudi princes, the young MBS “never ran a company that made a mark.  He never acquired military experience.  He never studied at a foreign university.  He never mastered, or even became functional, in a foreign language.  He never spent significant time in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere in the West” (p.16).

All that changed in January 2015, when his father Salman became Saudi king at age 79.  MBS, 29 years old, was named Minister of Defense and placed in charge of the Royal Court, with a huge role to play in the kingdom’s finances.  Within days, he had reorganized the government, setting up separate supreme councils for economic development and security.  Although little known outside inner Saudi circles at the time, as Minister of Defense MBS was the force behind the Saudi military intervention in neighboring Yemen to suppress an on-going insurgency led by the Houthis, an Islamist group from Northern Yemen whom the Saudis had long considered proxies for Iran.

Touted as a quick and easy military intervention, the conflict in Yemen turned into a stalemate, with humanitarian and refugee crises that continue to this day. The decision to intervene militarily appears to have been that of MBS alone  — a “one man show,” as a Saudi National Guard official told Hubbard, undertaken with no advance consultation, either internally or with the Saudis’ traditional military benefactors in Washington.  The National Guard official told Hubbard that the Saudi intervention was “less about protecting the kingdom than burnishing MBS’ reputation as a tough leader” (p.91).

In April 2017, King Salman appointed MBS’ cousin, the considerably older Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN, as Crown Prince, with MBS named “Deputy Crown Prince,” second in line to the throne.  MBN had been the Saudis’ official voice and face in the war on terror, with deep CIA contacts.  The Americans thought he was the perfect “next generation” king.  But MBS had other ideas.  Although the Deputy Crown Prince remained outwardly deferential to his cousin, he appears to have been plotting MBN’s ouster at least from the time his cousin was appointed Crown Prince.  When the plot succeeded in June 2017, with MBS replacing his cousin as Saudi Crown Prince, the official Saudi version was that the appointment was the decision of King Salman alone.

Hubbard tells an altogether different story.  In his account, MBS in effect kidnapped his cousin to force his abdication.  When MBN refused to abdicate, a council friendly to MBS met to formally “ratify” what was presented as a “decision” of the king to make MBS Crown Prince.  Only then did MBN give in, signing a document of abdication.  He was placed under house arrest by guards loyal to MBS and removed of his counterterrorism and security duties, which were “reassigned” to a new security body that reported to MBS.   His bank accounts were frozen and he was stripped of many of his assets.  In March 2020, MBN was arrested on charges of treason and has not been heard from since, held in a location unknown even to his lawyers.

MBS attracted world attention few months later, in November 2017, when he invited many fellow members of the royal family, along with other movers and shakers within the kingdom, to the posh Ritz-Carleton hotel in Riyadh for what was billed as an anti-corruption conference.  Anxious to meet MBS and obtain insider advantages, the attendees eagerly came to Riyadh, only to be all-but-arrested and forcibly detained when they arrived.  The detentions at what was dubbed the world’s most luxurious prison lasted weeks and sometimes months.  By mid-February 2018, most of the detainees had “settled” with the government and were allowed to leave.  The Ritz detainments were what Hubbard describes as a pivot point in MBS’ ascendancy, an “economic earthquake that shook the pillars of the kingdom’s economy and rattled its major figures” (p.200), all of whom thereafter answered to MBS.

Less noticed internationally was a surprise royal decree stripping the Wahhabi religious police of many of their powers.  Henceforth, they could not arrest, question, or pursue subjects except in cooperation with the regular police. The decree, part of an on-going effort to curtail the authority of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, “defanged the clerics,” Hubbard writes, “clearing the way for vast changes [which] they most certainly would have opposed”  (p.63).  The changes involved some wildly popular measures, especially the opening of commercial cinemas and other entertainment venues, such as concerts and opera.  Equally popular was a decree allowing Saudi women to drive.

For decades, activist Saudi women had challenged, often at considerable cost to themselves, a ban on driving that was only a Wahhabi religious dictate, not codified officially in Saudi law (in 2017, I reviewed here the memoir of Manal Al-Sharif, one such activist).  But when MBS saw fit to declare women eligible to drive in June 2018, he did not give any credit to the activist women. They were never thanked publicly or even acknowledged; some were jailed almost simultaneously with the lifting of the ban.

MBS’ grandiose and upbeat plans for modernizing the Saudi economy by shifting away from its oil-dependency found expression in his Vision 2030 document.  Prepared in collaboration with a phalanx of international consultants, Vision 2030 projected that the kingdom would create new industries, rely on renewable energy, and manufacture its own military equipment, all in an effort to “transform itself into a global investment giant, and establish itself as a hub for Europe, Asia, and Africa” (p.67).  MBS presented his plan when he accompanied his father to a meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama, where it was perceived as a slick set of talking points, without much depth.

Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia and MBS all fared better when the administration of Donald Trump replaced the Obama administration in early 2017.  One of the greatest ironies of the Trump era, Hubbard writes, was that Trump, “after demeaning Saudi Arabia and its faith throughout the campaign, would, in the course of a few months, anoint Saudi Arabia a preferred American partner and the lynchpin of his Middle East policy” (p.107).  Saudi-American relations improved in the Trump years in no small part because of the warm if unlikely relationship that MBS struck with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, two young “princelings,” as Hubbard describes them, “an Arab from central Arabia and a Jew from New Jersey”(p.113).

The two princelings were “both in their thirties and scions of wealthy families who had been chosen by older relatives to wield great power.  They both lacked extensive experience in government, and saw little need to be bound by its strictures” (p.113). Their relationship blossomed because Kushner viewed MBS as someone who could help unlock peace between Israel and Arabs, while MBS expected Kushner to push the United States to champion Vision 2030, stand up to Iran, and support him as he sought to consolidate power.  But the Khassoggi killing in October 2018 temporarily flummoxed even the Trump administration.

Khashoggi had served briefly as one of MBS’s confidantes as the Crown Prince began his rise to power.  Their initial meeting led Khashoggi to believe that MBS was open to openness and had given him a “mandate to write about, and even critique, the prince’s reforms” (p.78).  But as Khasshoggi became a more visible critic of the regime from abroad, mostly in the United States where he was a permanent legal resident and wrote for The Washington Post, the relationship deteriorated.  Hubbard was an associate and friend of Khashoggi and dedicates a substantial portion of the last third of his book to the slain journalist and what we know about his killing.

Hubbard presents a plausible argument that MBS may not have actually ordered the killing  — essentially that MBS’s team was carrying out what they thought the boss wanted, without being explicitly ordered to do so.  Even so, MBS had “fostered the environment in which fifteen government agents and a number of Saudi diplomats believed that butchering a nonviolent writer inside a consulate was the appropriate response to some newspaper columns” (p.280).  The Khassoggi’s killing served as a wake up call for the world.  It “flushed away much of the good will and excitement that MBS had spent the last four years generating”  (p.276).

In the aftermath of the killing, President Trump issued a statement in which he insisted that United States security alliances and massive Saudi purchases of US weaponry were more important than holding top Saudi leadership accountable.  “We do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good,” Trump was quoted as saying.   After publication of Hubbard’s book, a new administration led by Joe Biden arrived in Washington amidst hopes that the United States would recalibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of the known facts about the Khassoggi killing.

* * *

Those hopes increased in February of this year when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a two-page summation of its investigation into the killing (the Trump administration had withheld the full report for nearly two years).  The ODNI concluded that MBS had “approved” the Khashoggi killing.  But its  conclusion was derived inferentially rather than from any “smoking gun” evidence it chose to reveal publicly.

The ODNI based its conclusion on MBS’ “control of decision-making in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.” Given MBS’s “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations,” the ODNI found it “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

To the disappointment of human rights activists, the Biden administration nonetheless determined that it would impose no direct punishment on MBS.  Sanctioning MBS, according to an anonymous senior official quoted in The Washington Post, would have been viewed in the kingdom as an “enormous insult,” making an ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia “extremely difficult, if not impossible.”  After having looked at the MBS case extremely closely over the course of about five weeks, the senior official said that the Biden foreign policy team had reached the “unanimous conclusion” that there was “another more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward.”  As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated at a public press conference, sounding eerily like former President Trump, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is “bigger than any one individual.”

The Biden administration did identify 76 other Saudi officials subject to sanctions for their presumed roles in the killing.  President Biden also announced the end of US military supplies and intelligence sharing for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. He has moreover refused to speak directly with MBS, restricting his contact to his father, King Salman.  For the time being, MBS’ Washington contacts as the Saudi defense minister stop at the level of the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin.

* * *

These protocol decisions will have to be revisited if, as expected, MBS becomes king when his ailing father dies.  One way or another, the United States will need to find a way to deal with a man likely to be a consequential figure on the world stage for decades to come.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 31, 2021

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, Politics

Digging Deeply Into The Idea of Democracy

 

James Miller, Can Democracy Work:

A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World

(Farrar, Strauss & Co.,) 

and

William Davies, Nervous States:

Democracy and the Decline of Reason

(WW Norton & Co.)

[NOTE: A condensed version of this review has also been posted to a blog known as Tocqueville 21: https:/tocqueville21.com/books/can-democracy-work.  Taking its name from the 19th century French aristocrat who gave Americans much insight into their democracy, Tocqueville 21 seeks to encourage in-depth thinking about democratic theory and practice, with particular but by no means exclusive emphasis on the United States and France.  The sight is maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies.  I anticipate regular postings on Tocqueville 21 going forward.]

Did American democracy survive the presidency of Donald Trump?  Variants on this question, never far from the surface during that four-year presidency, took on terrifying immediacy in the wake of the assault on the US Capitol this past January. The question seems sure to occupy historians, commentators and the public during the administration of Joe Biden and beyond.  If nothing else, the Trump presidency and now its aftermath bring home the need to dig deeply into the very idea of democracy, looking more closely at its history, theory, practice, and limitations, asking what are its core principles and what it takes to sustain them.  But we might shorten the inquiry to a single, pragmatic question: can democracy work?

This happens to be the title of James Miller’s Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World.  But it could also be the title of William Davies’ Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason. The two works, both written during the Trump presidency, fall short of providing definitive or even reassuring answers to the question that Miller, professor of politics and liberal studies at New York’s New School for Social Research, has taken for his title.  But each casts enriching yet altogether different light on democratic theory and practice.

Miller’s approach is for the most part historical. Through a series of selected – and by his own admission “Eurocentric” (M.12) — case studies, he explores how the term “democracy” has evolved over the centuries, beginning with ancient Athens.  The approach of Davies, a political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, is more difficult to categorize, but might be described as philosophical.  It is grounded in the legacy of 17th century philosophers René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, his departure point for a complex and not always easy to follow explanation of the roots of modern populism, that combustible mixture of nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear that seemed to have triumphed at the time of the 2016 Brexit vote in Great Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States later that year.  Davies is most concerned about two manifestations of the “decline of reason,” his subtitle: the present day lack of confidence and trust in experts and democratically elected representatives; and the role of emotion and fear in contemporary politics.

Miller frames his historical overview with a paradox: despite blatant anti-democratic tendencies across the globe, a generalized notion of democracy as the most desirable form of government retains a strong hold on much, maybe most, of the world’s population.  From Myanmar and Hong Kong to the throng that invaded the US Capitol in January, nearly every public demonstration against the status quo utilizes the language of democracy.  Almost all the world’s political regimes, from the United States to North Korea, claim to embody some form of democracy.  “As imperfect as all the world’s systems are that claim to be democratic,” Miller writes, in today’s world the ideal of democracy is “more universally honored than ever before in human history” (M.211).

But the near-universal adhesion to this ideal is relatively recent, dating largely from the period since World War II, when the concept of democracy came to embrace self-determination of populations that previously had lived under foreign domination.  Throughout most of history, democracy was associated with the danger of mob rule, often seen as a “virtual synonym for violent anarchy” (M.59).   Modern democracy in Miller’s interpretation begins with the 18thcentury French and American Revolutions.  Revolts against the status quo are the heart of modern democracy, he contends.  They are not simply blemishes on the “peaceful forward march toward a more just society” (M.10).  Since the early 19th century, representative government, where voters elect their leaders  — “indirect democracy” – has come to be considered the only practical form of democratic governance for populous nation-states.

* * *

But in 5th and 4th century BCE Athens, where Miller’s case studies begin, what we now term direct democracy prevailed.  More than any modern democracy, a community of near absolute equality existed among Athenian citizens, even though citizenship was tightly restricted, open only to a fraction of the adult male population.  Many of Athens’ rivals, governed by oligarchs and aristocrats, considered the direct democracy practiced in Athens as a formula for mob rule, a view that persisted throughout the intervening centuries.  By the late 18th century, however, a competing view had emerged in France that some sort of democratic rule could serve as a check on monarchy and aristocracy.

In revolutionary Paris in early 1793, in the midst of the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Condorcet led the drafting of a proposed constitution that Miller considers the most purely democratic instrument of the 18th century and maybe of the two centuries since.  Condorcet’s draft constitution envisioned a wide network of local assemblies in which any citizen could propose legislation.  Although not implemented, the thinking behind Condorcet’s draft gave impetus to the notion of representative government as a system “preferable to, and a necessary check on, the unruly excesses of a purely direct democracy” (p.M.86).

The debate in the early 19th century centered on suffrage, the question of who gets to vote, with democracy proponents pushing to remove or lesson property requirements for extending the franchise to ever-wider segments of the (male) adult population.  A cluster of additional institutions and practices came to be considered essential to buttress an extended franchise, among them free and fair elections, protection of the human rights of all citizens, and adherence to the rule of law.  But Miller’s 19th century case studies are instances of short term set backs for the democratic cause: the failure of the massive popular movement known as Chartism to extend the franchise significantly in Britain in the 1840s; and the 1848 uprisings across the European continent, at once nationalist and democratic, which sought representative political institutions and something akin to universal male suffrage, but failed everywhere but in France to extend the franchise.

In the second half of the 19th century, moreover, proponents of democracy found themselves confronting issues of economic freedom and social justice in a rapidly industrializing Europe.  Karl Marx, for one, whose Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, doubted whether democracy – “bourgeois democracy,” he termed it – could alleviate widespread urban poverty and the exploitation of workers.  But the most spectacular failure among Miller’s case studies was the Paris Commune of 1871, which collapsed into disastrous violence amidst tensions between economic and political freedom.  Ironically, the fear of violence that the Commune unleashed led to a series of democratizing political reforms throughout Europe, with the right to vote extended to more male citizens.  The organization of workers into unions and the rise of political parties complemented extension of the franchise and contributed to the process of democratization in late 19th and early 20th century Europe.

In the United States, a case apart in Miller’s case studies, a genuinely democratic culture had taken hold by the 1830s, as the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville recognized during his famous 1831-32 tour, ostensibly to study prison conditions.  As early as the 1790s, there was a tendency to use the terms “republic” and “democracy” as synonyms for the American constitutional system, even though none of the drafters of the 1787 Constitution thought of himself as a democrat.  James Madison derided what he termed pure democracies, “which have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention” (M.99).  The constitution’s drafters envisioned a representative government in which voters would select a “natural aristocracy,” as John Adams put it, comprising “men of virtue and talent, who would govern on behalf of all, with a dispassionate regard for the common good” (M.92).

The notion of a natural aristocracy all but disappeared when Andrew Jackson split Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party’s in two in his successful run for the presidency in 1828.  Running as a “Democrat,” Jackson confirmed that “democracy” from that point forward would be an “unambiguously honorific term in the American political lexicon” (M. 110), Miller writes.  It was during Jackson’s presidency that Tocqueville arrived in the United States.

Aware of how the institution of slavery undermined America’s democratic pretensions, Tocqueville nonetheless saw in the restlessness of Jacksonian America what Miller describes as a “new kind of society, in which the principle of equality was pushed to its limits” (M.115).  As practiced in America, democracy was a “way of life, and a shared faith, instantiated in other forms of association, in modes of thought and belief, in the attitudes and inclinations of individuals who have absorbed a kind of democratic temperament” (M.7).  Tocqueville nonetheless seemed to have had the Jacksonian style of democracy in mind when he warned against what he called “democratic despotism,” where a majority could override the rights and liberties of minorities.

Woodrow Wilson’s plea in 1917 to the US Congress that the United States enter World War I to “make the world safe for democracy” constitutes the beginning of the 20thcentury idea of democracy as a universal value, Miller argues.  But Wilson’s soaring faith in democracy turned out to be “astonishingly parochial” (M.176).  The post-World War I peace conferences in 1919 left intact the colonies of Britain and France, “under the pretext that the nonwhite races needed more time to become fully mature peoples, fit for democratic institutions” (M.190-91).

The Covenant of the League of Nations, the organization that Wilson hoped would be instrumental in preventing future conflict, “encouraged an expectation of self-determination as a new and universal political right” (M.191), even as the isolationist Congress thwarted Wilson’s plan for United States membership in the League.  For countries living under colonial domination, the expectation of self-determination was heightened after the more murderous World War II, particularly through the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Although a text without enforcement mechanisms, the declaration helped inspire human rights and independence movements across the globe.

Miller finishes by explaining why he remains attracted to modern attempts at direct democracy, resembling in some senses those of ancient Athens, particularly the notion of “participatory democracy” which influenced him as a young 1960s radical and which he saw replicated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement of ten years ago.  But direct democracy, he winds up concluding, is no more viable today than it was at the time of the French Revolution. It is not possible to create a workable participatory democracy model in a large, complex society.  Any “serious effort to implement such a structure will require a delegation of authority and the selection of representatives – in short the creation of an indirect democracy, and at some distance from most participants”  (M.232-33).

The Trump presidency, Miller argues, is best considered “not as a protest against modern democracy per se, but against the limits of modern democracy” (M.239).  Like Brexit, it expressed, in an “inchoate and potentially self-defeating” manner, a desire for “more democracy, for a larger voice for ordinary people” (M.240) – not unlike the participatory democracy campaigns of the 1960s.  At the time of Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Miller appreciated that he remained free to “protest a political leader whose character and public policies I found repugnant.”  But he realized that he was “also expected to acknowledge, and peacefully coexist with, compatriots who preferred Trump’s policies and personal style.  This is a part of what it means to be a citizen in a liberal democracy” (M.240)  —  a portentous observation in light of the January 2021 assault on the US Capitol.

Democracies, Miller concludes, need to “explore new ways to foster a tolerant ethos that accepts, and can acknowledge, that there are many incompatible forms of life and forms of politics, not always directly democratic or participatory, in which humans can flourish” (M.234).  Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, this sounds much like an acknowledgement that present day populism is here to stay.  By an altogether different route, Davies reaches roughly the same conclusion.

* * *

Davies is far from the first to highlight the challenges to democracy when voters appear to abandon reason for emotion; nor the first to try to explain why the claims of government experts and elected representatives are met with increased suspicion and diminished trust today.  But he may be the first to tie these manifestations of the “decline of reason” to the disintegration of binary philosophical distinctions that Descartes and Hobbes established in the 17thcentury — Descartes between mind and body, Hobbes between war and peace.

For Descartes, the mind existed independently of the body.  Descartes was obsessed by the question whether what we see, hear, or smell is actually real.  He “treated physical sensations with great suspicion, in contrast to the rational principles belonging to the mind” (D.xiii).  Descartes gave shape to the modern philosophical definition of a rational scientific mind, Davies argues, but to do so, he had to discount sensations and feelings.  Hobbes, exhausted by the protracted religious Thirty Years War on the European continent and civil wars in England, argued that the central purpose of the state was to “eradicate feelings of mutual fear that would otherwise trigger violence” (D.xiii).  If people don’t feel safe, Hobbes seemed to contend, it “doesn’t matter whether they are objectively safe or not; they will eventually start to take matters into their own hands” (D.xvi).

Davies shows how Descartes and Hobbes helped create the conceptual foundation for the modern administrative state, fashioned by merchants who introduced “strict new rules for how their impressions should be recorded and spoke of, to avoid exaggeration and distortion, using numbers and public record-keeping” (D.xiii), not least for more efficient tax collection.  Using numbers in this pragmatic way, these 17th century merchants were the forerunners of what we today call experts, especially in the disciplines of statistics and economics, with an ability to “keep personal feelings separate from their observations” (D.xiii).

The conclusions of such experts, denominated and accepted as “facts,” established the value of objectivity in public life, providing a basis for consensus among people who otherwise have little in common.  Facts provided by economists, statisticians, and scientists thus have what for Hobbes was a peace-building function; they are “akin to contracts, types of promises that experts make to each other and the public, that records are accurate and free from any personal bias or political agenda” (D.124), Davies explains.  But if democracy is to provide effective mechanisms for the resolution of disputes and disagreements, there must be “some commonly agreed starting point, that all are willing to recognize,” he warns. “Some things must be outside politics, if peaceful political disputes are to be possible” (D.62).

Davies makes the bold argument that the rise of emotion in contemporary politics and the inability of experts and facts to settle disputes today are the consequences of the break down of the binary distinctions of Descartes and Hobbes.  The brain, through rapid advances in neuroscience, rather than Descartes’ concept of mind, has become the main way we have come to understand ourselves, demonstrating the “importance of emotion and physiology to all decision making” (D.xii).  The distinction between war and peace has also become less clear-cut since Hobbes’ time.

Davies is concerned particularly with how the type of knowledge used in warfare has been coopted for political purposes. Warfare knowledge doesn’t have the luxury of “slow, reasonable open public debate of the sort that scientific progress has been built upon.”  It is “shrouded in secrecy, accompanied by deliberate attempts to deceive the enemy. It has to be delivered at the right place and right time” (D.124), with emotions playing a crucial role.  Military knowledge is thus weaponized knowledge.  Political propaganda has all the indicia of military knowledge at work for political advantage.  But so does much of today’s digital communication.  Political argument conducted online “has come to feel more like conflict” (D.193), Davies observes, with conspiracy theories in particular given wide room to flourish.

The upshot is that democracies are being transformed today by the power of feeling and emotion, in “ways that cannot be ignored or reversed” (D. xvii-xviii).  Objective claims about the economy, society, the human body and nature “can no longer be successfully insulated from emotions”  (D.xiv).  While we can lament the decline of modern reason, “as if emotions have overwhelmed the citadel of truth like barbarians” (D.xv), Davies suggests that we would do better to “value democracy’s capacity to give voice to fear, pain and anxiety that might otherwise be diverted in far more destructive directions”  (D.xvii).

Yet Davies leaves unanswered the question whether there are there limits on the forms of fear, pain and anxiety to which democracy should give voice.  He recognizes the potency of nationalism as a “way of understanding the life of society in mythical terms” (D.87).  But should democracy strive to give voice to nationalism’s most xenophobic and exclusionary forms?  Nowhere does he address racism which, most social scientists now agree, was a stronger contributing factor to the 2016 election of Donald Trump than economic disparity, and it is difficult to articulate any rationale for giving racism a voice in a modern democracy.

In countering climate change skepticism, a primary example of popular mistrust of expert opinion and scientific consensus, Davies rejects renewed commitment to scientific expertise and rational argument – “bravado rationalism,” he calls it  — as insufficient to overcome the “liars and manipulators” (D.108) who cast doubt on the reality of climate change.  But he doesn’t spell out what would be sufficient. The book went to press prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Were Davies writing today, he likely would have addressed similar resistance to expert claims about fighting the pandemic, such as the efficacy of wearing masks.

Writing today, moreover, Davies might have used an expression other than “barbarians storming the citadel of truth,” an expression that now brings to mind last January’s assault on the US Capitol.  While those who took part in the assault itself can be dealt with through the criminal justice process, with all the due process protections that a democracy affords accused law breakers, an astounding number of Americans who did not participate remain convinced that, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, Joe Biden and the Democrats “stole” the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump.

* * *

How can a democracy work when there is widespread disagreement with an incontrovertible fact, especially one that goes to democracy’s very heart, in this case the result of the vote and the peaceful transfer of power after an orderly election?  What if a massive number of citizens refuse to accept the obligation that Miller felt when his candidate lost in 2016, to acknowledge and peacefully coexist with the winning side?  Davies’ trenchant but quirky analysis provides no obvious solution to this quandary.  If we can find one, it will constitute an important step in answering the broader question whether American democracy survived the Trump presidency.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 17, 2021

 

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, United States History

Is Democracy a Universal Value?

 

Larry Diamond, Ill Winds:

Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (Penguin Press) 

Stanford professor Larry Diamond is one of America’s foremost authorities on democracy – what it is, how it works in diverse countries throughout the world, how it can take hold in countries with little or no history of democratic governance – and how it can be lost.  Diamond brings a decidedly pragmatic perspective to his subject.  His extensive writings focus in particular on how to sustain fragile democratic governance.  He rarely dwells on classical theory or delves into the origins of democracy.  He is more likely to provide an assessment of the prospects for democracy in contemporary Nicaragua, Nigeria or Nepal, or most anywhere in between, than assess the contribution to modern democracy of, say, Thomas Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  In the two decades following the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, Diamond’s bottom line seemed to be that democracy had the upper hand in most corners of the world – the Middle East being at best a giant question mark – and was steadily extending to numerous countries that had hitherto been considered unlikely places for it to take hold.

That was then. Today, Diamond says that he is more concerned about the future of democracy than at any time in the forty plus years of his career.  He begins Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, a distinctly more guarded assessment of democratic prospects across the globe than his earlier writings, by noting that the march toward democracy began to slow around 2006.  The independent Freedom House, which tracks democratic progress worldwide, found that 2017 was the twelfth consecutive year that the number of countries declining in liberty significantly outstripped those gaining.

Rather than democracy, it is now authoritarian government — sometimes termed “illiberal democracy” and often associated with nativist, xenophobic “populism” — that seems to be on the rise across the globe.  Throughout much of the world, Diamond notes, authoritarian governments and their autocratic leaders are “seizing the initiative, democrats are on the defensive, and the space for competitive politics and free expression is shrinking” (p.11).  Today’s world has “plunged into a democratic recession” (p.54), with democracy finding itself “perched on a global precipice.”  If authoritarian ascendancy and democratic erosion continue, Diamond warns, we may reach a “tipping point where democracy goes bankrupt suddenly – plunging the world into depths of oppression and aggression that we have not seen since the end of World War II” (p.293).

Diamond’s sub-title reveals that the “ill winds” of his title are blowing chiefly from a Russia rife with “rage,” and a China abounding in “ambition,” while the United States stands by “complacently” rather than blowing in the opposite direction, as it once did.  If the United States does not reclaim its traditional place as the keystone of democracy, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and their admirers “may turn autocracy into the driving force of the new century” (p.11).  Emboldened by the “new silence from Donald Trump’s America,” the “new swagger” emanating from Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia have allowed autocrats across the globe to “tyrannize their opponents openly and without apology”(p.58).

Diamond starts his urgent and alarming assessment with general, introductory chapters that provide a working definition of democracy and summarize the present world wide crisis, for example, “Why Democracies Succeed and Fail,” “The March and Retreat of Democracy,” and “The Authoritarian Temptation.”  He then devotes a chapter to each of his three main actors, the United States, Russia and China.  From there, he moves to a series of recommendations on how established democracies can counter the forces that seem to be leading many countries away from democracy and toward authoritarian styles of governance.  His recommendations include combatting public corruption (the “soft underbelly of authoritarian rule;” p.192); and making the Internet safe for democracy (the “global fight for freedom is inseparable from the fight for internet freedom;” p.259).

In a book about the future of global democracy, Diamond’s recommendations are oddly U.S. centric. They are mostly about how the United States can promote democracy more effectively abroad and render its internal institutions and practices more democratic.  There is little here about what other established democracies – for example, Great Britain, Germany or Australia — can do to be more effective abroad or more democratic at home.  Diamond moreover breaks little new ground in this work.

Few readers are likely to be surprised to learn that Russia and China constitute the world’s major anti-democratic actors; that Hungary and Poland, both part of the European Union, the quintessential  democracy project, are among the most prominent countries moving away from democracy and toward authoritarianism; or that countries otherwise as diverse as Turkey, India, the Philippines and Brazil are moving in the same direction.  Nor does Diamond venture into unfamiliar territory when he argues that the United States under President Donald Trump appears to be more on the side of the authoritarians and populists rather than those seeking to institutionalize democracy in their countries.

But Diamond is an accomplished  salesman for democratic governance, the product he has relentlessly pedaled for over four decades, and his salesmanship skills are on full display here.  Amidst all the reasons he provides for pessimism about democracy’s worldwide prospects, readers will be reassured to find more than a little of the optimism that characterized his earlier works.  Although authoritarians may seem to be on the rise everywhere, people across the globe are not losing their faith in democracy, he argues.   Democracy for Diamond remains nothing less than a “universal value” (p.159).  The world’s democracies quite simply “have the better ideas” (p.225), he writes.  But is modern democracy up to the task of halting and reversing the world’s authoritarian turn?  Is it capable of countering effectively Russian rage and Chinese ambition?  These are the questions Diamond wrestles with throughout this timely and passionately argued work.

* * *

For Diamond, democracy at its core is a system of government where people choose and can change their leaders in regular, free and fair elections.  Such a system should also include strong protections for basic liberties, such as freedom of speech, press and religion; protection for racial and cultural minorities; a robust rule of law and an independent judiciary; trustworthy law enforcement institutions; and a lively civil society.   Diamond says little here about the economic systems of countries seeking to establish and sustain democratic institutions.  But at least since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, most democracy experts agree that market economies allowing for free enterprise — along with ample room for state regulation in the public interest — are most compatible with modern democracy.

But sustaining democracy over the longer term depends more on culture than institutions, Diamond argues.  A country’s citizens need to believe in democracy and be “willing to defend it as a way of life” (p.25), in which case the level of economic development and the precise design of institutions matter less. When democracy lacks broad support, it will “always be a fragile reed” (p.25).   And the paramount component of democratic culture is legitimacy, the “resilient and broadly shared belief that democracy is better than any other imaginable form of government.  People must commit to democracy come hell or high water, and stick with it even when the economy tanks, incomes plunge, or politicians misbehave” (p.25).

Democracy is hardly restricted to those economically advanced countries we call “Western” (“Western” and “the West” include not just the countries of Western Europe and North America but also prosperous democratic countries that are not geographically part of the West, such as Japan and New Zealand).  A country does not have to be economically well off to institutionalize democracy, Diamond insists. Many African countries have made earnest starts.  But successful transitions to democracy nonetheless remain strongly linked to economic prosperity, he argues, citing the examples of Greece, Spain, Chile, South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa.

But Russia and China are undermining democracy in all corners of the globe, each blowing its own “ill winds” across the planet.  In Russia’s case, they are the winds of “anger, insecurity, and resentments of a former superpower;” with China, those of “ambitions, swagger, and overreach of a new one” (p.130-31).  Both are investing heavily in efforts to “promote disinformation and covertly subvert democratic norms and institutions” (p.12).   Among today’s foes of democracy, only two leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, have “enough power and ambition to undermine the entire global liberal order” (p.161).

Russia experienced some shallow and tentative moves toward democracy in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  But since Putin assumed power in 2000, the movement has been almost exclusively in the opposite direction.  Deeply insecure about the legitimacy of his rule, Putin believes that the West is “seeking to encircle Russia and keep it weak” (p.111).   The 2013-14 “Eurormaidan Revolution” in Ukraine, which brought down Viktor Yanukovych, a key autocratic partner, infuriated Putin.   The United States had “toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself,” as an American journalist put it.  “All that money American had spent on prodemocracy NGOs in Ukraine had paid off” (p.112).

Russia has mastered the use of social media to “stimulate division, increase social and racial unrest, and undermine the self-assurance of the major Western democracies – and work to divide them from one another” (p.112). Its most dramatic targets were Hilary Clinton and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Clinton “would almost certainly have won the Electoral College if there had been no Russian intervention” (p.118), Diamond asserts, although he offers no evidentiary support for this assertion.  In hacking the 2016 US election, Putin succeeded in both of his apparent aims: to “sow division and discord in American democracy . . . [and] to punish Clinton and elect Trump” (p.118).

But the 2016 election was just one instance of Russia’s use of social media disinformation campaigns to undermine liberal democracy.  These campaigns, assaults “on truth itself” and  on the “very notion that there can be ‘an objective, verifiable set of facts” (p.119), often aim to strengthen extremist political forces within established democracies.  They “do not need to – and do not really aim to – persuade democratic publics that Russia’s positions are right, only that a democracy’s government and political leaders cannot be believed or trusted” (p.119).  Russia under Putin has sought to wreak havoc within the European Union, aiming in particular to end the economic sanctions that Europe and the United States imposed on Russia in retaliation for its aggression in Ukraine.  Russia almost certainly provided significant illicit funding to the Brexit campaign, Diamond contends, helping to tip Britain into leaving the European Union, a “major achievement for a Kremlin that has the destruction of European unity as one of its major aims” (p.121).

But Diamond emphasizes that Russia is a declining power whose “malign intentions and nationalist bravado cannot disguise its outstripped economy and shrinking importance to the twenty-first century world” (p.124).  In the long run, the “ambitions of a rising China, not the resentments of a falling Russia” represent the greatest external challenge to global democracy.  Today’s China, still recovering from what many Chinese consider a century of humiliation at the hands of Japan and the West, is the world’s “most dynamic power” (p.144), with global reach and power that will “increasingly and inevitably dwarf Russia’s” (p.124).

China seeks hegemony over all of Asia and the Pacific, Diamond argues.  It also increasingly aspires to challenge the United States for global leadership, “economically, politically, and, some believe, eventually militarily” (p.131).  Its military spending is now second only to that of the United States and it may catch America militarily “sooner than we care to imagine” (p.142-43).  China has already established a claim to global dominance in such  transformative technologies as artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, and electric cars.

Manipulating social media massively and aggressively, China is also building a “sweeping surveillance state that aims to assess every digital footprint of every Chinese citizen and then compile each person’s ‘social credit score.’” (p.236).  It readily shares its “Orwellian tools” with other a autocratic regimes, “threatening an ‘Arab Spring in reverse’ in which digital technology enable ‘state domination and repression at a staggering scale’” (p.237).

China’s foreign aid goes disproportionately to the world’s autocrats, many of whom think that China has developed a secret formula.  While some authoritarian regimes dislike China’s heavy-handed attempts to win influence and gain control — sometimes considered a new form of colonialism — others are lured to China’s side by “money, power, ambition, and simple admiration for its sheer success” (p.144).  In addition to assisting the world’s autocracies and countries that could bend in that direction, China also focuses on influencing the world’s democracies.

Diamond sees China playing a longer and more patient game than Russia in its dealing with the West. Through media deals, investments, partnership agreements, charitable and political donations, and positions on boards of directors, it is seeking wider and deeper infiltration into what Diamond calls the “vital tissues of democracies” (p.133): publishing houses, entertainment industries, technology companies, universities, think tanks, non-governmental organizations.  Favorable views of China, he notes, exceed that of the United States in much of the world.

Prior to Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential candidacy, Diamond considered the United States uniquely qualified to lead the global resistance to Russian rage and Chinese ambition.  Since Trump became president, however, the United States appears to be more on the side of the authoritarians and populists rather than those seeking to institutionalize democracy in their countries – or, at best, on the sidelines while Russia and China seek to extend their influence and undermine democracy.  If there is any upside to the Trump presidency, Diamond notes, it is that it provides a glimpse into the alarming consequences of world without American leadership and steadfastness, a “far more frightening and dangerous place, with muscular, corrupt dictatorships dominating large swaths of the globe through blatant coercion and covert subversion” (p.287).

Trump’s unremitting insistence that the United States is being cheated by its friends and allies has propelled the country “down the self-defeating path of ‘America alone’” (p.301).  His decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 2016 twelve-nation Pacific Rim free-trade agreement, “so visionary and so necessary,” constitutes in Diamond’s view the “most grievous self-inflicted wound to America’s global leadership since the creation of the liberal world order after World War II” (p.144).  US withdrawal from the TPP amounted to a “massive gift to authoritarian China and a body blow to democratic aspirations in Southeast Asia” (p.144-45), serving  as a “stunning symbol – and accelerator – of both China’s rise and America’s descent.  As the great democracy that dominated world politics in the twentieth century retreated, the great dictatorship that aims to dominate world politics in the twenty-first could hardly believe its luck” (p.145).

Diamond provides an extensive set of recommendations on how the United States and other advanced democratic countries can deliver more sustainable assistance to aspiring and fragile democracies to counter Russia and China.  Priorities need to be combatting kleptocracy, public corruption, and international money laundering; making the internet safe for democracy; and improving  public diplomacy through  smarter uses of “soft power” to counter Russia and China’s “sharp power.”

Kleptocracy, a recent term now frequently used for high level state corruption, involves the theft of state resources that could have advanced the public good but instead were diverted for private gain – hospitals and schools that were not built, for example – and by definition constitutes a crime against a country’s citizens.  Kleptocracy depends upon using the international financial system to “move, mask, and secure ill-gotten fortunes across borders,” posing the “single most urgent internal threat to democracy,” a threat which renders fragile democracies “all the more vulnerable to external subversion” (p.184).  Many of the world’s democracies, not least the United States, are complicit in providing refuge for the ill-gotten gains of the world’s kleptocrats.  Global transfers of untraceable funds have enabled a “stunning array of venal dictators and their family members, political allies, and business cronies to acquire property and influence in the West as well as to corrupt democracy and the rule of law within free nations” (p.184).

Diamond’s recommendations for combatting public corruption and international money laundering are for the most part US-oriented (e.g. modernize and strengthen the Foreign Agents Registration Act; empower the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to conduct its own investigations).  But he also offers some general recommendations that all the world’s advanced democracies could and should follow (e.g. end anonymous shell companies and real estate purchases).

Today, moreover, the Internet and related technologies – email, text messaging, photo sharing – have the potential to uncover public corruption, as well as highlight human rights abuses, expose voter fraud, and organize demonstrations.   These technologies played a major role in the protests in 2011 that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak; and those that challenged Iran’s blatantly fraudulent 2009 elections.   But many modern authoritarian regimes – not just Russia and China — have developed sophisticated means to to “manipulate, manage, vilify, and amplify public opinion online” (p.234). Freedom House considers  growing state level manipulation of social media one of the leading causes of the steady eight-year decline in global Internet freedom.  Making the Internet a safe place for democracy requires a “concerted partnership among democratic governments, technology companies, civil-society groups, and individual ‘netizens’” (p.229).

Diamond also provides a set of recommendations for how the United States can fine tune its own internal democratic mechanisms through, for example, adoption of ranked choice voting, reducing the gerrymandering of legislative districts and the influence of money in politics — worthy objectives, but markedly out of line with the priorities of the Trump administration and today’s Republican Party.  Looking beyond the Trump administration, however, Diamond argues that the tide of authoritarianism can be reversed.

Few people celebrate authoritarianism as a superior system, “morally or practically” (p.225 ).  There are no large-scale surveys of public opinion showing a popular groundswell for authoritarianism.  Rather, in  surveys from every region of the world, “large to overwhelming majorities of the public, on average, said that democracy is the best form of government and that an unaccountable strongman is a bad idea” (p.159-60).  Within even the world’s most tenacious autocracies, “many people want to understand what democracy is and how it can be achieved.  Even many dictators and generalissimos know and fear democracy’s allure” (p.225).  In this networked age, “both idealism and the harder imperatives of global power and security argue for more democracy, not less” (p.200).

* * *

The best way to counter Russian rage and Chinese ambition, Diamond counsels, is to show that Moscow and Beijing are “on the wrong side of history; that people everywhere yearn to be free, and that they can make freedom work to achieve a more just, sustainable and prosperous society” (p.200).   Yet Diamond makes clear that checking the worldwide authoritarian tide depends to an unsettling degree upon the United States reversing its present course and prioritizing anew the global quest for democracy.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 26, 2020

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, World History

The Power of Human Rights

 

Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist:

A Memoir 

By almost any measure, Samantha Power should be considered an extraordinary American success story. An immigrant from Ireland who fled the Emerald Isle with her mother and brother at a young age to escape a turbulent family situation, Power earned degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, rose to prominence in her mid-20s as a journalist covering civil wars and ethnic cleaning in Bosnia and the Balkans, won a Pulitzer Prize for a book on 20th century genocides, and helped found the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she served as its executive director — all before age 35.  Then she met an ambitious junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and her career really took off.

Between 2009 and 2017, Power served in the Obama administration almost continually, first on the National Security Council and subsequently as Ambassador to the United Nations.  In both capacities, she became the administration’s most outspoken and influential voice for prioritizing human rights, arguing regularly for targeted United States and multi-lateral interventions to protect individuals from human rights abuses and mass atrocities, perpetrated in most cases by their own governments.  In what amounts to an autobiography, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, Power guides her readers through  the major foreign policy crises of the Obama administration.

Her life story, Power tells her readers at the outset, is one of idealism, “where it comes from, how it gets challenged, and why it must endure” (p.xii).  She is quick to emphasize that hers is not a story of how a person with “lofty dreams” about making a difference in the world came to be “’educated’ by the “brutish forces” (p.xii) she encountered throughout her professional career.  So what then is the nature of the idealist’s “education” that provides the title to her memoir?  The short answer probably lies in how Power learned to make her idealistic message on human rights both heard and effective within the complex bureaucratic structures of the United States government and the United Nations.

But Power almost invariably couples this idealistic message with the view that the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe is in the United States’ own national security interests; and that the United States can often advance those interests most effectively by working multi-laterally, through international organizations and with like-minded states.  The United States, by virtue of its multi-faceted strengths – economic, military and cultural – is in a unique position to influence the actions of other states, from its traditional allies all the way to those that inflict atrocities upon their citizens.

Power acknowledges that the United States has not always used its strength as a positive force for human rights and human betterment – one immediate example is the 2003 Iraq invasion, which she opposed. Nevertheless, the United States retains a reservoir of credibility sufficient to be effective on human rights matters when it choses to do so.   Although Power is sometimes labeled a foreign policy “hawk,” she recoils from that adjective.  To Power, the military is among the last of the tools that should be considered to advance America’s interests around the world.

Into this policy-rich discussion, Power weaves much detail about her personal life, beginning with her early years in Ireland,  the incompatibilities between her parents that prompted her mother to take her and her brother to the United States when she was nine, and her efforts as a schoolgirl to become American in the full sense of the term. After numerous failed romances, she finally met Mr. Right, her husband, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein (who also served briefly in the Obama administration). The marriage gave rise to a boy and a girl with lovely Irish names, Declan and Rían, both born while Power was in government.  With much emphasis upon her parents, husband, children and family life, the memoir is also a case study of how professional women balance the exacting demands of high-level jobs with the formidable responsibilities attached to being a parent and spouse.  It’s a tough balancing act for any parent, but especially for women, and Power admits that she did not always strike the right balance.

Memoirs by political and public figures are frequently attempts to write one’s biography before someone else does, and Power’s whopping 550-page work seems to fit this rule.  But Power provides much candor  – a willingness to admit to mistakes and share vulnerabilities – that is often missing in political memoirs. Refreshingly, she also abstains from serious score settling.  Most striking for me is the nostalgia that pervades the memoir.  Power takes her readers down memory lane, depicting a now by-gone time when the United States cared about human rights and believed in bi- and multi-lateral cooperation to accomplish its goals in its dealings with the rest of the world – a time that sure seems long ago.

* * *

Samantha Jane Power was born in 1970 to Irish parents, Vera Delaney, a doctor, and Jim Power, a part-time dentist.  She spent her early years in Dublin, in a tense family environment where, she can see now, her parents’ marriage was coming unraveled.  Her father put in far more time at Hartigan’s, a local pub in the neighborhood where he was known for his musical skills and “holding court,” than he did at his dentist’s office.  Although young Samantha didn’t recognize it at the time, her father had a serious alcohol problem, serious enough to lead her mother to escape by immigrating to the United States with the couple’s two children, Samantha, then age nine, and her brother Stephen, two years younger. They settled in Pittsburgh, where Samantha at a young age set about to become American, as she dropped her Irish accent, tried to learn the intricacies of American sports, and became a fervent Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

But the two children were required under the terms of their parents’ custody agreement to spend time with her father back in Ireland. On her trip back at Christmas 1979, Samantha’s father informed the nine-year old that he intended to keep her and her brother with him.  When her mother, who was staying nearby, showed up to object and collect her children to return to the United States, a parental confrontation ensued which would traumatize Samantha for decades.  The nine year old found herself caught between the conflicting commands of her two parents and, in a split second decision, left with her mother and returned to the Pittsburgh. She never again saw her father.

When her father died unexpectedly five years later, at age 47 of alcohol-related complications, Samantha, then in high school, blamed herself for her father’s death and carried a sense of guilt with her well into her adult years. It was not until she was thirty-five, after many therapy sessions, that she came to accept that she had not been responsible for her father’s death.  Then, a few years later, she made the mistake of returning to Hartigan’s, where she encountered the bar lady who had worked there in her father’s time.   Mostly out of curiosity, Power asked her why, given that so many people drank so much at Hartigan’s, her father had been the only one who died. The bar lady’s answer was matter-of-fact: “Because you left” (p.192) — not what Power needed to hear.

Power had by then already acquired a public persona as a human rights advocate through her work as a journalist in the 1990s in Bosnia, where she called attention to the ethnic cleansing that was sweeping the country in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.  Power ended up writing for a number of major publications, including The Economist, the New Republic and the Washington Post.   She was among the first to report on the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, the largest single massacre in Europe since World War II, in which around 10,000 Muslim men and boy were taken prisoner and “seemed to have simply vanished” (p.102). Although the United States and its NATO allies had imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia, Power hoped the Clinton administration would commit to employing ground troops to prevent further atrocities. But she did not yet enjoy the clout to have a real chance at making her case directly with the administration.

Power wrote a chronology of the conflict, Breakdown in the Balkans, which was later put into book form and attracted attention from think tanks, and the diplomatic, policy and media communities.  Attracting even more attention was  A Problem for Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, her book exploring  American reluctance to take action in the face of 20th century mass atrocities and genocides.  The book appeared in 2002, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  It also provided Power with her inroad to Senator Barack Obama.

At the recommendation of a politically well-connected friend, in late 2004 Power sent a copy of the book to the recently elected Illinois Senator who had inspired the Democratic National Convention that summer with an electrifying keynote address.  Obama’s office scheduled a dinner for her with the Senator which was supposed to last 45 minutes.  The dinner went on for four hours as the two exchanged ideas about America’s place in the world and how, why and when it should advance human rights as a component of its foreign policy.  Although Obama considered Power to be primarily an academic, he offered her a position on his Senate staff, where she started working late in 2005.

Obama and Power would then be linked professionally more or less continually until the end of the Obama presidency in January 2017.   Once Obama enters the memoir, at about the one-third point, it becomes as much his story as hers. The two did not always see the world and specific world problems in the same way, but it’s clear that Obama had great appreciation both for Power’s intelligence and her intensity. He was a man who enjoyed being challenged intellectually, and plainly valued the human rights perspective that Power brought to their policy discussions even if he wasn’t prepared to push as far as Power advocated.

After Obama threw his hat in the ring for the 2008 Democratic Party nomination, Power became one of his primary foreign policy advisors and, more generally, a political operative. It was not a role that fit Power comfortably and it threatened to be short-lived.  In the heat of the primary campaign, with Obama and Hilary Clinton facing off in a vigorously contested battle for their party’s nomination, Power was quoted in an obscure British publication, the Scotsman, as describing Clinton as a “monster.” The right-wing Drudge Report picked up the quotation, whose accuracy Power does not contest, and suddenly Power found herself on the front page of major newspapers, the subject of a story she did not want.  Obama’s closest advisors were of the view that she would have to resign from the campaign.  But the candidate himself, who loved sports metaphors, told Power only that she would have to spend some time in the “penalty box” (p.187).  Obama’s relatively soft reaction was an indication of the potential he saw in her and his assessment of her prospective value to him if successful in the primaries and the general election.

Power’s time in the penalty box had expired when Obama, having defeated Clinton for his party’s nomination, won a resounding victory in the general election in November 2008.  Obama badly wanted Power on his team in some capacity, and the transition team placed her on the President’s National Security Council as principal deputy for international organizations, especially the United Nations.  But she was also able to carve out a concurrent position for herself as the President’s Senior Director for Human Rights.   In this portion of the memoir, Power describes learning the jargon and often-arcane skills needed to be effective on the council and within the vast foreign policy bureaucracy of the United States government.  Being solely responsibility for human rights, Power found that she had some leeway in deciding which issues to concentrate on and bring to the attention of the full Council.  Her mentor Richard Holbrook advised her that she could be most effective on subjects for which there was limited United States interest – pick “small fights,” Holbrook advised.

Power had a hand in a string of “small victories” while on the National Security Council: coaxing the United States to rejoin a number of UN agencies from which the Bush Administration had walked away; convincing President Obama to raise his voice over atrocities perpetrated by governments in Sri Lanka and Sudan against their own citizens; being appointed White House coordinator for Iraqi refugees; helping create an inter-agency board to coordinate the United States government’s response to war crimes and atrocities; and encouraging increased emphasis upon lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender issues (LGBT) overseas.  In pursuit of the latter, Obama delivered an address at the UN General Assembly on LGBT rights, and thereafter issued a Presidential Memorandum directing all US agencies to consider LGBT issues explicitly in crafting overseas assistance (disclosure: while with the Department of Justice, I served on the department’s portion of the inter-agency Atrocity Prevention Board, and represented the department in inter-agency coordination on the President’s LGBT memorandum; I never met Power in either capacity).

But the Arab Spring that erupted in late 2010 and early 2011 presented  anything but small issues and resulted in few victories for the Obama administration.  A “cascade of revolts that would reorder huge swaths of the Arab world,” the Arab Spring ended up “impacting the course of Obama’s presidency more than any other geopolitical development during his eight years in office” (p.288), Power writes, and the same could be said for Power’s time in government.  Power was among those at the National Security Council who pushed successfully for United States military intervention in Libya to protect Libyan citizens from the predations of their leader, Muammar Qaddafi.

The intervention, backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution and led jointly by the United States, France and Jordan, saved civilian lives and contributed to Qaddafi’s ouster and death.  ButPresident Obama was determined to avoid a longer-term and more open-ended United States commitment, and the mission stopped short of the follow-up needed to bring stability to the country.  With civil war in various guises continuing to this day, Power suggests that the outcome might have been different had the United States continued its engagement in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s death.

Shortly after Power became US Ambassador to the United Nations, the volatile issue of an American military commitment arose again, this time in Syria in August 2013, when proof came irrefutably to light that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons in his effort to suppress uprisings within the country.  The revelations came 13 months after Obama had asserted that use of such weapons would constitute a “red line” that would move him to intervene militarily in Syria.  Power favored targeted US air strikes within Syria.

Obama came excruciatingly close to approving such strikes.  He not only concluded that the “costs of not responding forcefully were greater than the risks of taking military action” (p.369), but was prepared to act without UN Security Council authorization, given the certainty of  a Russian veto of any Security Council resolution for concerted action.   With elevated stakes for “upholding the international norm against the use of chemical weapons” Power writes, Obama was “prepared to operate with what White House lawyers called a ‘traditionally recognized legal basis under international law’” (p.369).

But almost overnight, Obama decided that he needed prior Congressional authorization for a military strike in Syria, a decision taken seemingly with little effort to ascertain whether there was sufficient support in Congress for such a strike.  With neither the Congress nor the American public supporting military action within Syria to save civilian lives, Obama backed down.  On no other issue did Power see Obama as torn as he was on Syria,  “convinced that even limited military action would mire the United States in another open-ended conflict, yet wracked by the human toll of the slaughter.  I don’t believe he ever stopped interrogating his choices” (p.508).

Looking back at that decision with the passage of more than five years, Power’s disappointment remains palpable.  The consequences of inaction in Syria, she maintains, went:

beyond unfathomable levels of death, destruction, and displacement. The spillover of the conflict into neighboring countries through massive refugee flows and the spread of ISIS’s ideology has created dangers for people in many parts of the world. . . [T]hose of us involved in helping devise Syria policy will forever carry regret over our inability to do more to stem the crisis.  And we know the consequences of the policies we did choose. For generations to come, the Syrian people and the wide world will be living with the horrific aftermath of the most diabolical atrocities carried out since the Rwanda genocide (p.513-14).

But if incomplete action in Libya and inaction in Syria constitute major disappointments for Power, she considers exemplary the response of both the United States and the United Nations to the July 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus that occurred in three West African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  United States experts initially foresaw more than one million infections of the deadly and contagious disease by the end of 2015.  The United States devised its own plan to send supplies, doctors and nurses to the region to facilitate the training of local health workers to care for Ebola patients, along with 3,000 military personnel to assist with on-the-ground logistics.  Power was able to talk President Obama out of a travel ban to the United States from the three impacted countries, a measure favored not only by Donald Trump, then contemplating an improbable run for the presidency, but also by many members of the President’s own party.

At the United Nations, Power was charged with marshaling global assistance.   She convinced 134 fellow Ambassadors to co-sponsor a Security Council resolution declaring the Ebola outbreak a public health threat to international peace and security, the largest number of co-sponsors for any Security Council resolution in UN history and the first ever directed to a public health crisis.  Thereafter, UN Member States committed $4 billion in supplies, facilities and medical treatments.  The surge of international resources that followed meant that the three West African countries “got what they needed to conquer Ebola” (p.455).  At different times in 2015, each of the countries was declared Ebola-free.

The most deadly and dangerous Ebola outbreak in history was contained, Power observes, above all because of the “heroic efforts of the people and governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone” (p.456). But America’s involvement was also crucial.  President Obama provided what she describes as an “awesome demonstration of US leadership and capability – and a vivid example of how a country advances its values and interests at once” (p.438).  But the multi-national, collective success further illustrated “why the world needed the United Nations, because no one country – even one as powerful as the United States – could have slayed the epidemic on its own” (p.457).

Although Russia supported the UN Ebola intervention, Power more often found herself in an adversarial posture with Russia on both geo-political and UN administrative issues.  Yet, she used creative  diplomatic skills to develop a more nuanced relationship with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin.  Cherkin, a talented negotiator and master of the art of strategically storming out of meetings, valued US-Russia cooperation and often “pushed for compromises that Moscow was disinclined to make” (p.405).  Over time, Power writes, she and Churkin “developed something resembling genuine friendship” (p.406). But “I also spent much of my time at the UN in pitched, public battle with him” (p.408).

The most heated of these battles ensued after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014, a flagrant violation of international law. Later that year, troops associated with Russia shot down a Malaysian passenger jet, killing all passengers aboard.  In the UN debates on Ukraine, Power found her Russian counterpart “defending the indefensible, repeating lines sent by Moscow that he was too intelligent to believe and speaking in binary terms that belied his nuanced grasp of what was actually happening” (p.426). Yet, Power and Churkin continued to meet privately to seek solutions to the Ukraine crisis, none of which bore fruit.

While at the UN, Power went out of her way to visit the offices of the ambassadors of the smaller countries represented in the General Assembly, many of whom had never received  a United States Ambassador.  During her UN tenure, she managed to meet personally with the ambassadors from every country except North Korea.  Power also started a group that gathered the UN’s 37 female Ambassadors together one day a week for coffee and discussion of common issues.  Some involved  substantive matters that the UN had to deal with, but just as often the group focused on workplace matters that affected the women ambassadors as women, matters that their male colleagues did not have to deal with.

* * *

Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016 left Power stunned.  His nativist campaign to “Make America Great Again” seemed to her like a “repudiation of many of the central tenets of my life” (p.534).  As an  immigrant, a category Trump seemed to relish denigrating, she “felt fortunate to have experienced many countries and cultures. I saw the fate of the American people as intertwined with that of individuals elsewhere on the planet.   And I knew that if the United States retreated from the world, global crises would fester, harming US interests” (p.534-35).  As Obama passed the baton to Trump in January 2017, Power left government.

Not long after, her husband suffered a near-fatal automobile accident, from which he recovered. Today, the pair team-teach courses at Harvard, while Power seems to have found the time for her family that proved so elusive when she was in government.  She is coaching her son’s baseball team and helping her daughter survey rocks and leaves in their backyard.  No one would begrudge Power’s quality time with her family. But her memoir will likely leave many readers wistful, daring to hope that there may someday  be room again for  her and her energetic idealism in the formulation of United States foreign policy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 26, 2020

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics, United States History

A Defense of Truth

 

Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth:

The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 

                           George Orwell’s name, like that of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, has given rise to an adjective.  “Orwellian” connotes official deception, secret surveillance, misleading terminology, and the manipulation of history.   Several terms used in Orwell’s best known novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, have entered into common usage, including “doublethink,” “thought crime,” “newspeak,” “memory hole,” and “Big Brother.”  First published in June 1949, a little over a half year prior to Orwell’s death in January 1950, Nineteen Eighty Four is consistently described as a “dystopian” novel – a genre of fiction which, according to Merriam-Webster, pictures “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.”

This definition fits neatly the world that Orwell depicted in Nineteen Eighty Four, a world divided between three inter-continental super states perpetually at war, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, with Britain reduced to a province of Oceania bearing the sardonic name “Airstrip One.”  Airstrip One is ruled by The Party under the ideology Insoc, a shortening of “English socialism.”  The Party’s leader, Big Brother, is the object of an intense cult of personality — even though there is no hard proof he actually exists.  Surveillance through two-way telescreens and propaganda are omnipresent.  The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a diligent lower-level Party member who works at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites historical records to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history.  Smith enters into a forbidden relationship with his co-worker, Julia, a relationship that terminates in mutual betrayal.

In his intriguing study, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, British journalist and music critic Dorian Lynskey seeks to explain what Nineteen Eighty-Four “actually is, how it came to be written, and how it has shaped the world, in its author’s absence, over the past seventy years” (p.xiv). Although there are biographies of Orwell and academic studies of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s intellectual context, Lynskey contends that his is the first to “merge the two streams into one narrative, while also exploring the book’s afterlife” (p.xv; I reviewed Thomas Ricks’ book on Orwell and Winston Churchill here in November 2017).   Lynskey’s work is organized in a “Before/After” format.  Part One, about 2/3 of the book, looks at the works and thinkers who influenced Orwell and his novel, juxtaposed with basic Orwell biographical background.  Part II, roughly the last third, examines the novel’s afterlife.

But Lynskey begins in a surprising place, Washington, D.C., in January 2017, where a spokesman for President Donald Trump told the White House press corps that the recently-elected president had taken his oath of office before the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.”  A presidential adviser subsequently justified this “preposterous lie” by characterizing the statement as “alternative facts” (p.xiii).   Sales of Orwell’s book shot up immediately thereafter.  The incident constitutes a reminder, Lynskey contends, of the “painful lessons that the world appears to have unlearned since Orwell’s lifetime, especially those concerning the fragility of truth in the face of power” (p.xix).

How Orwell came to see the consequences of mutilating truth and gave them expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the focus of Part I.  Orwell’s brief participation in the Spanish Civil War, from December 1936 through mid-1937, was paramount among his personal experiences in shaping the novel’s worldview. Spain was the “great rupture in his life; his zero hour” (p.4), the experience that lead Orwell to the conclusion that Soviet communism was as antithetical as fascism and Nazism to the values he held dear (Lynskey’s list of Orwell’s values: “honesty, decency, fairness, memory, history, clarity, privacy, common sense, sanity, England, and love” (p.xv)).  While no single work provided an intellectual foundation for Nineteen Eighty Four in the way that the Spanish Civil War provided the personal and practical foundation, Lynskey discusses numerous writers whose works contributed to the worldview on display in Orwell’s novel.

Lynskey dives deeply into the novels and writings of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamytin.  Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler set out what Lynskey terms the “mental landscape” for Nineteen Eighty-Four in his 1940 classic Darkness at Noon, while the American conservative James Burnham provided the novel’s “geo-political superstructure” (p.126).  Lynskey discusses a host of other writers whose works in one way or another contributed to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s world view, among them Jack London, Aldous Huxley, Friedrich Hayek, and the late 17th and early 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift.

In Part II, Lynskey treats some of the dystopian novels and novelists that have appeared since Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He provides surprising detail on David Bowie, who alluded to Orwell in his songs and wrote material that reflected the outlook of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He notes that Margaret Atwood termed her celebrated The Handmaid’s Tale a “speculative fiction of the George Orwell variety” (p.241).  But the crux of Part II lies in Lynskey’s discussion of the evolving interpretations of the novel since its publication, and why it still matters today.  He argues that Nineteen Eighty Four has become both a “vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future” (p.228), and an “all-purpose shorthand” for an “uncertain present” (p.213).

In the immediate aftermath of its publication, when the Cold War was at its height, the novel was seen by many as a lesson on totalitarianism and the dangers that the Soviet Union and Communist China posed to the West (Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania in the novel correspond roughly to the Soviet Union, China and the West, respectively).  When the Cold War ended with the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, the novel morphed into a warning about the invasive technologies spawned by the Internet and their potential for surveillance of individual lives.  In the Age of Trump and Brexit, the novel has become “most of all a defense of truth . . . Orwell’s fear that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It gripped him long before he came up with Big Brother, Oceania, Newspeak or the telescreen, and it’s more important than any of them” (p.265-66).

* * *

                            Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903 in India, where his father was a mid-level civil servant. His mother was half-French and a committed suffragette.  In 1933, prior to publication of his first major book,  Down and Out in Paris and London, which recounts his life in voluntary poverty in the two cities, the fledgling author took the pen name Orwell from a river in Sussex .  He changed names purportedly to save his parents from the embarrassment which  he assumed his forthcoming work  would cause.  He was at best a mid-level journalist and writer when he went to Spain in late 1936, with a handful of novels and lengthy essays to his credit – “barely George Orwell” (p.4), as Lynskey puts it.

The Spanish Civil war erupted after Spain’s Republican government, known as the Popular Front, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, narrowly won a parliamentary majority in 1936, only to face a rebellion from the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, representing Spain’s military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church.  Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy furnished arms and other assistance for the Nationalists’ assault on Spain’s democratic institutions, while the Soviet Union assisted the Republicans (the leading democracies of the period, Great Britain, France and the United States, remained officially neutral; I reviewed Adam Hochschild’s work on the Spanish Civil War here in August 2017).   Spain provided Orwell with his first and only personal exposure to the “nightmare atmosphere” (p.17) that would envelop the novel he wrote a decade later.

Fighting with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Spanish acronym: POUM), a renegade working class party that opposed Stalin, Orwell quickly found himself in the middle of what amounted to a mini-civil war among the disparate left-wing factions on the Republican side, all within the larger civil war with the Nationalists.  Orwell saw first-hand the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the Stalinist left at work in Spain, nurtured by a level of deliberate deceit that appalled him.  He read newspaper accounts that did not even purport to bear any relationship to what had actually happened. For Orwell previously, Lynskey writes:

people were guilty of deliberate deceit or unconscious bias, but at least they believed in the existence of facts and the distinction between true and false. Totalitarian regimes, however, lied on such a grand scale that they made Orwell feel that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ (p.99).

Orwell saw totalitarianism in all its manifestations as dangerous not primarily because of secret police or constant surveillance but because “there is no solid ground from which to mount a rebellion –no corner of the mind that has not been infected and warped by the state.  It is power that removes the possibility of challenging power” (p.99).

Orwell narrowly escaped death when he was hit by a bullet in the spring of 1937.  He was hospitalized in Barcelona for three weeks, after which he and his wife Eileen escaped across the border to France.  Driven to Spain by his hatred of fascism, Orwell left with a “second enemy. The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would, but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him” (p.18).  From that point onward, Orwell criticized communism more energetically than fascism because he had seen communism “up close, and because its appeal was more treacherous. Both ideologies reached the same totalitarian destination but communism began with nobler aims and therefore required more lies to sustain it” (p.22).   After his time in Spain, Orwell knew that he stood against totalitarianism of all stripes, and for democratic socialism as its counterpoint.

The term “dystopia” was not used frequently in Orwell’s time, and Orwell distinguished between “favorable” and “pessimistic” utopias.   Orwell developed what he termed a “pitying fondness” (p.38) for nineteenth-century visions of a better world, particularly the American Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward.  This highly popular novel contained a “seductive political argument” (p.33) for the nationalization of all industry, and the use of an “industrial army” to organize production and distribution.  Bellamy had what Lynskey terms a “thoroughly pre-totalitarian mind,” with an “unwavering faith in human nature and common sense” that failed to see the “dystopian implications of unanimous obedience to a one-party state that will last forever” (p.38).

Bellamy was a direct inspiration for the works of H.G. Wells, one of the most prolific writers of his age. Wells exerted enormous influence on the young Eric Blair, looming over the boy’s childhood “like a planet – awe inspiring, oppressive, impossible to ignore – and Orwell never got over it” (p.60).  Often called the English Jules Verne, Wells foresaw space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs.  His fiction imagined time travel, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering.  The word Wellsian came to mean “belief in an orderly scientific utopia,” but his early works are “cautionary tales of progress thwarted, science abused and complacency punished” (p.63).

Wells was himself a direct influence upon Yevgeny Zamatin’s We which, in Lymskey’s interpretation, constitutes the most direct antecedent to Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Finished in 1920 at the height of the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (but not published in the Soviet Union until 1988), We is set in the undefined future, a time when people are referred to only by numbers. The protagonist, D-503, a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, where mass surveillance is omnipresent and all aspects of life are scientifically managed.  It is an open question whether We was intended to satirize the Bolshevik regime, in 1920 already a one-party state with extensive secret police.

Zamyatin died in exile in Paris in 1937, at age 53.   Orwell did not read We until sometime after its author’s death.  Whether Orwell “took ideas straight from Zamyatin or was simply thinking along similar lines” is “difficult to say” (p.108), Lynskey writes.  Nonetheless, it is “impossible to read Zamyatin’s bizarre and visionary novel without being strongly reminded of stories that were written afterwards, Orwell’s included” (p.102).

Koestler’s Darkness at Noon offered a solution to the central riddle of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s: “why did so many Communist party members sign confessions of crimes against the state, and thus their death warrants?” Koestler argued that their “years of unbending loyalty had dissolved their belief in objective truth: if the Party required them to be guilty, then guilty they must be” (p.127).  To Orwell this meant that one is punished in totalitarian states not for “ what one does but for what one is, or more exactly, for what one is suspected of being” (p.128).

The ideas contained in James Burnham’s 1944 book, The Managerial Revolution “seized Orwell’s imagination even as his intellect rejected them” (p.122).  A Trotskyite in his youth who in the 1950s helped William F. Buckley found the conservative weekly, The National Review, Burnham saw the future belonging to a huge, centralized bureaucratic state run by a class of managers and technocrats.  Orwell made a “crucial connection between Burnham’s super-state hypothesis and his own long-standing obsession with organized lying” (p.121-22).

Orwell’s chronic lung problems precluded him from serving in the military during World War II.  From August 1941 to November 1943, he worked for the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service, where he found himself “reluctantly writing for the state . . . Day to day, the job introduced him to the mechanics of propaganda, bureaucracy, censorship and mass media, informing Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth” (p.83; Orwell’s boss at the BBC was notorious Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, whose biography I reviewed here in December 2017).   Orwell left the BBC in 1943 to become literary editor of the Tribune, an anti-Stalinist weekly.

While at the Tribune, Orwell found time to produce Animal Farm, a “scrupulous allegory of Russian history from the revolution to the Tehran conference” (p.138), with each animal representing an individual, Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, and so on.  Animal Farm shared with Nineteen Eighty-Four an “obsession with the erosion and corruption of memory” (p.139).  Memories in the two works are gradually erased, first, by the falsification of evidence; second, by the infallibility of the leader; third, by language; and fourth, by time.  Published in August 1945, Animal Farm quickly became a best seller.  The fable’s unmistakable anti-Soviet message forced Orwell to remind readers that he remained a socialist.  “I belong to the Left and must work inside it,” he wrote, “much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence of this country” (p.141).

Earlier in 1945, Orwell’s wife Eileen died suddenly after being hospitalized for a hysterectomy, less than a year after the couple had adopted a son, whom they named Richard Horatio Blair.  Orwell grieved the loss of his wife by burying himself in the work that culminated in Nineteen Eighty-Four.   But Orwell became ever sicker with tuberculosis as he worked  over the next four years on the novel which was titled The Last Man in Europe until almost immediately prior to publication (Lynskey gives no credence to the theory that Orwell selected 1984 as a inversion of the last two digits of 1948).

Yet, Lynskey rejects the notion that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the “anguished last testament of a dying man” (p.160).  Orwell “never really believed he was dying, or at least no more than usual. He had suffered from lung problems since childhood and had been ill, off and on, for so long that he had no reason to think that this time would be the last ” (p.160).  His novel was published in June 1949.  227 days later, in January 1950, Orwell died when a blood vessel in his lung ruptured.

* * *

                                    Nineteen Eighty-Four had an immediate positive reception. The book was variously compared to an earthquake, a bundle of dynamite, and the label on a bottle of poison.  It was made into a movie, a play, and a BBC television series.  Yet, Lynskey writes, “people seemed determined to misunderstand it” (p.170).  During the Cold War of the early 1950s, conservatives and hard line leftists both saw the book as a condemnation of socialism in all its forms.  The more astute critics, Lynskey argues, were those who “understood Orwell’s message that the germs of totalitarianism existed in Us as well as Them” (p.182).  The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 constituted a turning point in interpretations of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  After the invasion, many of Orwell’s critics on the left “had to accept that they had been wrong about the nature of Soviet communism and that he [Orwell] had been infuriatingly right” (p.210).

The hoopla that accompanied the actual year 1984, Lynskey notes wryly, came about only because “one man decided, late in the day, to change the title of his novel” (p.234).   By that time, the book was being read less as an anti-communist tract and more as a reminder of the abuses exposed in the Watergate affair of the previous decade, the excesses of the FBI and CIA, and the potential for mischief that personal computers, then in their infancy, posed.  With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of communism between 1989 and 1991, focus on the power of technology intensified.

But today the focus is on Orwell’s depiction of the demise of objective truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and appropriately so, Lynskey argues, noting how President Trump masterfully “creates his own reality and measures his power by the number of people who subscribe to it: the cruder the lie, the more power its success demonstrates” (p.264).  It is truly Orwellian, Lynskey contends, that the phrase “fake news” has been “turned on its head by Trump and his fellow authoritarians to describe real news that is not to their liking, while flagrant lies become ‘alternative facts’” (p.264).

* * *

                                 While resisting the temptation to term Nineteen Eighty-Four more relevant now than ever, Lynskey asserts that the novel today is nonetheless  “a damn sight more relevant than it should be” (p.xix).   An era “plagued by far-right populism, authoritarian nationalism, rampant disinformation and waning faith in liberal democracy,” he concludes, is “not one in which the message of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be easily dismissed” (p.265).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 25, 2020

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, European History, Language, Literature, Political Theory, Politics, Soviet Union

More Than Just an Abundance of Good Music

Danny Goldberg, In Search of the Lost Chord:

1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books, $25.95)

 Stuart Cosgrove, Detroit 67:

The Year That Changed Soul Music (Polygon, £9.99)

                With good reason, there is a profusion of literature on 1968, one of those years that seemed to change everything and in which everything seemed to change.  Across the globe, student-led protests challenged the post World War II status quo. In May 1968, students and workers nearly toppled the government in France, while the student-inspired “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia ended in a Soviet invasion in August.  In the United States, 1968 is remembered less for student protests, although there were plenty of those, and more for two devastating assassinations sixty days apart, Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June.  1968 was also the year of an infamous police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer, followed by a closely contested Presidential election in the fall that resulted in the election of future Watergate unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon.  By comparison, the previous year, 1967, has rarely been singled out for book-length treatment.

If that’s an oversight, it has been rectified with two recent books addressing the year that set the stage for 1968: Danny Goldberg’s In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea, and Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul Music.  As the titles indicate, the two works focus on different aspects of 1967.  In what he terms a “subjective and highly selective history” (G., p.17), Goldberg, today a prominent music industry executive, describes the “hippie idea,” an elusive notion sometimes referred to as the “counterculture.” Cosgrove, a British journalist, examines with much stylistic flair the city of Detroit and its Motown Record Company during a particularly fraught year: in July 1967, Detroit suffered a devastating civil disorder that accelerated a downward spiral in the city’s fortunes that has yet to be fully reversed (three other reviews on this blog address Detroit’s spiral downward, here, here, and here).

Goldberg’s hippie idea was the loose sum of a variety of different tendencies and groups — Goldberg calls them “tribes” — as often as not at odds with one another.  It was “like a galloping horse in the wild,” no one ever controlled it (G., 15), he writes.  Yet, somehow, “dozens of separate, sometimes contradictory ‘notes’ from an assortment of political, spiritual, chemical, demographic, historical, and media influences” collectively created a “unique energy” (G., p.16-17).  The hippie idea peaked in 1967 with what came to be popularly known as “the Summer of Love,” when the author was 16.  But by the end of 1967, the counterculture and Goldberg’s hippie idea had entered a new and darker phase, with the summer of love never fully recaptured.

Detroit’s phenomenally successful Motown Records by 1967 was a mind-boggling collection of talent that included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder, all under the tutelage of one Barry Gordy. Cosgrove’s lead character, Gordy was to Motown what Steve Jobs was to Apple: the founding father, driving force and marketing genius who put together a company that revolutionized an industry, popular music.  Motown lived through no summer of love in 1967 and, like Detroit itself, was on a downward spiral as the year ended.  Much of Cosgrove’s emphasis is upon how Detroit’s fall and that of Motown Records were intertwined.

1967’s popular music provides one key link between what otherwise appear to be two disparate works headed in different directions.  Motown had risen to prominence by making African-American popular music – initially called “Rhythm and Blues” or more simply “r & b” but by 1967 more frequently termed “soul” music – palatable to “mainstream” audiences, young and mostly white.  The world famous Motown sound “softened the rough edges of rhythm and blues, [and] draped the music in the familiar cadences of teenage love,” to the point that it was sometimes derided as “bubblegum soul” (C., p.5), Cosgrove writes.  But in 1967, young, white audiences were often looking elsewhere for their music, especially to the sound most closely identified with the counterculture and Goldberg’s hippie idea, perhaps best known as psychedelic rock, with Motown struggling to compete.

While young America was listening to an abundance of music in 1967, two overriding issues were tearing American society apart: the Vietnam War and the movement for full equality for African-Americans.  In different ways, these two weighty matters undermined both the counterculture and Motown Records, and constitute the indispensable backdrop to both authors’ narratives.  Richard Nixon’s narrow electoral victory the following year capitalized upon a general reaction in mainstream America to the counterculture and its excesses, which many equated with opposition to the Vietnam War; and upon reaction to the violence and urban disorders throughout the country, for which Detroit had become the prime symbol, which white America often conflated with the cause of African-American advancement.  As much as the music of 1967, the Vietnam War and racial unrest link these two works.

* * *

               One of the more enduring if anodyne songs from 1967 was Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco,” whose official title included a parenthetical sub-title “Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair.”  Among the song’s key lines: “There’s a whole generation/With a new explanation.” Goldberg’s work seems to strive to articulate that “explanation,” his hippie idea; it makes clear that San Francisco was indeed the place to experience that explanation in 1967.  The city where Tony Bennett had left his heart a few years previously was undoubtedly the epicenter of Goldberg’s hippie idea, especially its Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, in 1967 the “biggest counterculture magnet in the Western world” (G., p.30; nine summers hence, in 1976, I lived in the Haight neighborhood, a time when the summer of love was but a faded memory).

Although centered in San Francisco, Goldberg’s account also emphasizes what was going on in New York during 1967 – the Lower East Side was the Haight’s “psychic cousin” (G., p. 56) in 1967, he writes — with occasional looks elsewhere, including London.  Conspicuously absent is any discussion of the continent of Europe in the  year prior to  the earthshaking events in 1968 in France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere.  This is a work first and foremost about the United States.  At times the work reads like a college undergraduate textbook account of what  was going on in 1967 in and around the US counterculture, as if Goldberg were trying to enlighten those not yet born in 1967 on all that  their hippie parents and grandparents were up to and concerned about more than a half century ago, when they were the same age or younger.

Goldberg considers what was called a “Be In,” a musical event that took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, to be the unofficial start marking the year as unlike its predecessors.  Organized in large part by poet Allen Ginsburg, one of the leading 1950s “beatnik” literary lights who was fully at home with the much younger hippies, the event attracted some 30,000 people.  Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Gracie Slick performed; all lived nearby in the Haight neighborhood, not far from one another.  Radical activist Jerry Rubin pontificated about politics and it was a turn-off, not well received by the energetic young crowd. The event also marked LSD advocate Timothy Leary’s first West Coast public appearance, in which he repeated what would become his signature phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  But the main point of the event, Goldberg contends, was simply “for members of the crowd to experience one another” (G., p.53).

Goldberg was not present for the Be In, but he was in San Francisco for a good portion of the summer, and his experiences there and elsewhere that year are very much part of his story.  He candidly reveals how he used LSD and other mind expanding drugs,  as well as how the music of 1967 seemed to feed off the drugs.  As the years have past, he reflects, the music has proven to be the “most resilient trigger of authentic memories,” even as much of it has been “gradually drained of meaning by repetitive use in TV shows, movies, and commercials, all trying to leverage nostalgia” (G., p.27).

1967 was the year of the Monterey International Pop Festival, which introduced Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, and Janis Joplin to large audiences (Redding’s participation in that event was part of my review of his biography here in February 2018).   By 1967, Bob Dylan had already achieved mythic status.  “There is no way to overstate Dylan’s influence on other artists or on my generation” (p.167), Goldberg writes.  The Beatles in 1967 were in the “throes of a level of productivity that future artists would marvel at” (G., p.177).   Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant came out in 1967.  Judy Collins made a splash by introducing Leonard Cohen songs.  Joan Baez had some popular songs, but in 1967 was more political activist than singer.  Haight-Asbury hippies considered McKenzie’s “San Francisco” a “simplistic exploitation of their scene” (G., p.150).

The counterculture appreciated but did not prioritize the soul music of the type that Motown was churning out.  Along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones were staples of counterculture musical fare in 1967, but there were numerous additional British artists and groups vying for American audiences and American dollars that year.  Among them, the Scottish singer Donavon Phillips Leitch, known better as “Donavon” and known best for his 1967 hit “Sunshine Superman,” probably resonated most deeply with the counterculture.

Goldberg manages to lift his work beyond popular musical nostalgia and provide it with heft through his assessment of how the 1967 counterculture interacted with African-Americans’ struggles and the anti-war movement.  He also takes shorter looks at other weighty matters of the day, including the rise of women’s rights, environmentalism, and what we would today call gay rights.  Although strong support in the abstract for full equality for African-Americans was a non-negotiable common denominator of the counterculture, Goldberg rightly stresses the often-strained relations between the African-American community and the psychedelic world of the mostly white, frequently affluent hippies.

Goldberg confesses that he is perplexed and even ashamed today that Martin Luther King was not a more revered figure in the counterculture in 1967.  But in his last full year,King was the object of criticism from all sides.  His decision that year to oppose the war in Vietnam “permanently shattered his relationship with many in the liberal and moderate worlds” (G., p.202).  A fiery generation of younger black activists also challenged King in 1967, including Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, a group based in Oakland, California, across the bay from San Francisco.  The younger activists rejected King’s traditional civil rights vision of integration with the white mainstream, to be achieved through non-violence.  “Black Power” was their slogan, with black control of black communities their most immediate objective. They were loath to renounce violence as a means to obtain their objective.

Opposition to the war in Vietnam was less abstract for 1967’s hippies, given that males over the age of 18 were subject to the draft. For the hippies, Muhammad Ali was a more revered than King because of his resistance to the draft.  1967 was the year Ali refused to be inducted into the military, was tried and found guilty of Selective Service violations, and stripped of his boxing title.  But Ali, a recent convert to the Nation of Islam, was a curious figure for reverence.  His creed of no smoking, drinking or drugs, and his disapproval of interracial dating, was wholly at odds with the counterculture ethos.

Just as the African-American community and the era’s hippies were frequently not in sync, opposition to the war brought out tensions between the most dedicated anti-war activists and much of the hippie community, with the former considering the latter frivolous and unserious. Goldberg attributes much significance to a major October antiwar march in Washington, the March on the Pentagon,  “arguably the last time that liberals, political radicals, and countercultural hippies effectively combined energies” (G., p.284).  Already, the various tribes had started to go their separate ways and that parting accelerated as 1967 drew to a close:

Hippies often felt that the antiwar “leaders” were boring and/or too angry.  Radicals and liberals accused hippies of being self-indulgent.  The old left claimed that the new left had no discipline.  Young radicals were not all that impressed with what the old left had accomplished.   Within each of these broad categories there were numerous sects, which were frequently at odds with each other.  At the same time, the American government and establishment increasingly harassed the civil rights and antiwar movements (G. p.268).

Goldberg doesn’t hide a dark underside to the 1967 counterculture.  A few “violent, delusional members of the peace movement discredited the movement in its entirety,” he writes. “An earnest spiritual movement became obscured by stoned, pontificating buffoons” (G., p.27).  There were, he writes elsewhere, “a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing” who “tried to take advantage of psychologically damaged kids who had been attracted to the hippie culture” (G., p.261).  In 1967 Haight-Ashbury, the “open sexuality in hippie culture was exploited by a predictable number of macho jerks” (G., p.303).

Stating what now seems all too obvious, Goldberg finds it was very naïve in 1967 to think that there could be “instant world peace” (G., p.335).  The hippie idea of prioritizing peace and love, he cautions, wasn’t a “gateway into a new age, just a flash to indicate that something different was possible” (G., p.337).

* * *

               Unlike Goldberg, Cosgrove arranges his book chronologically, in 12 monthly chapters, with Gordy a presence in each.  More than any other individual of his time, Gordy grasped how to bring African-American popular music into mainstream — that is white — America.  But by 1967, Gordy was losing his grasp on what white America wanted in its music.  He was “uneasy with strident political opinion and saw the counterculture, especially drug inspired lyrics, as a dangerous distraction” (C., p.390).  Although he initially resisted efforts to allude to drugs, racial discontent and protest over the Vietnam War in Motown music, he relented toward the end of the year with Marvin Gaye’s iconic “What’s Going On,” which addressed all three.

Gordy moreover always considered Motown personnel to be one big, happy family and appeared flummoxed by growing disaccord that seemed to be on the rise among his stars throughout 1967.  His most visible internal problem was the in fighting within the Supremes, three photogenic young women with soaring voices, the main subject of Cosgrove’s early chapters.  A group whose origins were in the “the raw ghetto sounds of Detroit R & B,” the Supremes had been “magically transformed into the greatest girl group ever.”  Their songs “seemed to be blindly unaware of radical social change and looked backward with nostalgia . . . For some it was an audacious achievement and a triumph over racism; for other, it was a shimmering compromise” (C., p.329).

What many people listening to the Supremes in 1967 probably didn’t realize is that the group by then had become almost totally dysfunctional, due primarily to the breakdown in the relationship between two of its three members, lead singer Diana Ross and Florence Ballard.  By the spring of 1967, the two rarely spoke; they frequently took separate transportation to their engagements.  The third Supreme, Mary Wilson, was caught in the middle, unable to bridge the chasms and diminish the enmity that existed between her two partners.

Ballard had more than her share of personal and psychological problems; by 1967, she had become was a full-fledged alcoholic. Her erratic behavior prompted Gordy to line up a replacement for her when she was unable or unwilling to perform.  Ballard retaliated by filing suit against Motown, embroiling the company in litigation that lasted years.  She died of a heart attack in 1976, at age thirty-two.  Her early death “attached itself like a stigma to Motown, and for the remainder of his career it pursued Berry Gordy like a dark phantom” (C., p.421).

To complicate matters further for Gordy, Martha and the Vandellas, the number two girls’ group in the Motown pecking order, ended the year in a similar state of disaccord.  Martha Reeves, the group’s lead singer, had somehow managed to alienate her supporting Vandellas, Betty Kelly and Rosalline Ashford.  There is “no simple way to describe the layers of vitriol that surrounded the Vandellas,” Cosgrove writes, “fuelled by drug abuse, backstage jealousies and hurtful arguments” (C.,p.295-96).   As luck would have it, the Vandellas’ last high profile concert together took place at the Fox Theatre downtown on the weekend when the July civil disorder broke out a couple of short miles away.

Cosgrove’s July chapter is consumed by the disorder, an altogether too familiar story for Detroiters of a certain age – how it occurred on an early Sunday morning some 52 years ago, as police broke up what was known in Detroit lingo as a “blind pig,” an after-hours drinking establishment where most of the patrons had gathered that Sunday morning to celebrate a young man’s safe return from Vietnam; how it somehow spun quickly out of control; and how it devastated huge swaths of the city.  There’s nothing new or novel in Cosgrove’s account but, as always, it makes for painful reading for Detroiters who saw their city implode before their eyes.

Although Motown survived the July disorder “largely unscathed,” it marked the end of the “musical gold rush that had made Detroit the most creative black-music city ever” (C., p.268).   In the final months of 1967, Gordy began to contemplate what had previously been unimaginable, that Motown’s future might lie elsewhere than in Detroit: “The city that had given Motown its global identity and had been home to the greatest black-owned company in musical history was increasingly associated in the minds of the American public with urban decay, violent crime and social unrest,” Cosgrove writes. “Berry Gordy had begun to lose patience with one of his greatest romances: he had fallen out of love with Detroit” (C.p.297-98).  Gordy opened an office in Los Angeles in 1967 and moved all the company’s operations from Motown to Tinseltown in the early 1970s.

Playing in the background, so to speak, throughout Cosgrove’s month-by-month account is the kind of music Goldberg was listening to, the psychedelic rock that reflected the changing taste of the white middle class.  One Detroit group, the MC5 –“MC” standing for Motor City — achieved national prominence for a form which Cosgrove terms “insurrectionary garage rock” (C., p.12), far removed from the soft Motown sound (Goldberg mentions the MC5 briefly).  In the last months of 1967, Gordy moved lightly into the music of the counterculture with a hybrid form later known as “psychedelic soul,” reflected in the Temptations’ album Cloud Nine.

The unlikely spokesman for the local psychedelic hard rock sound was John Sinclair, who appears periodically throughout Cosgrove’s account, as if a foil to the straight laced Gordy.  Sinclair was an omnipresent promoter of many forms of music – he loved jazz way more the psychedelic hard rock – and also a promoter of mind altering drugs. He aggressively advocated the use of marijuana and much else, making him a target for law enforcement.  Sinclair spent time in jail for his promotion of the drugs and mind-altering substances of the type that Goldberg and his friends were indulging in and were at the heart of the counterculture.

* * *

               In an “Afterword” to the most recent paperback edition of Goldberg’s book, entitled “The Hippie Idea in the Age of Trump,” Goldberg valiantly strives to explain how a dormant form of the summer of love lives on in an era dominated by the current White House occupant.   Goldberg doesn’t try to draw a direct line from Nixon to Trump, but notes that the counterculture precipitated a “reaction of the right that we did not predict that is still reverberating today” (G., p.335).  Although immigration was not the issue in 1968 that it became in 2016, Trump’s narrow electoral victory capitalized on racial and cultural divisions similar to those that had helped pave Nixon’s path to the White House.

President Trump was a mere lad of 21 during the Summer of Love, but an improbable participant  – might the bone spurs that kept him out of the draft have also prevented him from traveling to San Francisco that summer?  The President seems unlikely to have fit into any of the disparate groups that make up Goldberg’s hippie idea; and it seems further unlikely that the man gets into his presidential groove today by listening to a collection of Greatest Motown Hits.  But wherever and whatever the President may have been fifty-two years ago, Goldberg and Cosgrove remind us not only how good the music was back then but also how much else was going on in 1967.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 26, 2019

2 Comments

Filed under American Society, Music, Music

Minding Our Public Language

Mark Thompson, Enough Said:

What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics 

          In Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics, Mark Thompson examines the role which “public language” — the language we use “when we discuss politics and policy, or make our case in court, or try to persuade anyone of anything else in a public context” (p.2) — plays in today’s cacophonous political debates.  Thompson, currently Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times and before that General Director of the BBC, contends that there is a crisis in contemporary democratic decision-making today that at heart is a crisis of political language.  Public language appears to be losing its power to explain and engage, thereby threatening the bond between people and politicians. “Intolerance and illiberalism are on the rise almost everywhere,” Thompson writes, and the way our public language has changed is an “important contributing and exacerbating factor” (p.297-98).

          Thompson seeks to revive the formal study of rhetoric as a means to understand and even reverse the contemporary crisis of public language.  Rhetoric is simply the “study of the theory and practice of public language” (p.2).  Rhetoric “helps us to make sense of the world and to share that understanding. It also teaches us to ‘pay heed’ to the ‘opposite side,’ the other” (p.361). Democracies need public debate and therefore competition in the mastery of public persuasion. Rhetoric, the language of explanation and persuasion, enables collective decision-making to take place.

        Across the book’s disparate parts, Thompson’s central concern is today’s angry and polarized political climate often referred to as “populist,” in which the word “compromise” has become pejorative, the adjective “uncompromising” is a compliment, and the “public presumption of good faith between opposing parties and factions” (p.97) seems to have largely evaporated.  Thompson recognizes that the current populist wave is founded upon a severe distrust of elites.  Given his highest-of-high-level positions at the BBC and The New York Times (along with a degree from Oxford University), Thompson is about as elite as one can become.  He thus observes from the top of a besieged citadel.  Unsurprisingly, Thompson brings a well-informed Anglo-American perspective to his observations, and he shines in pointing to commonalities as well as differences between Great Britain and the United States. There are occasional glances at continental Europe and elsewhere – Silvio Berlusconi’s rhetorical skills are examined, for example – but for the most part this is an analysis of public language at work in contemporary Britain and the United States.

          In the book’s first half, Thompson uses the terminology of classical rhetoric to frame an examination of what he considers the root causes of today’s crisis in public language. Among them are the impact of social media on political discourse and how the pervasive use of sales and marketing language has devalued public debate.  Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have given rise to a “Darwinian natural selection of words and phrases,” he writes, in which, “by definition, the only kind of language that emerges from this process is language that works. You hear it, you get it, you pass it on. The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius – a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill – is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art, but as algorithm” (p.187).  The use of language associated with sales and marketing serves further to give political language “some of the brevity, intensity and urgency we associate with the best marketing,” while stripping away its “explanatory and argumentative power” (p.191).

          In the second half, Thompson shifts way from applying notions of classical rhetoric to public debate and focuses more directly upon the debate itself in three settings: when scientific consensus confronts spurious scientific claims; when claims for tolerance and respect for racial, religious or ethnic minorities seek to override untrammeled freedom of expression; and when, after the unprecedented and still unfathomable devastation of the 20th century’s world wars, leaders seek to take their country into war.  Thompson’s analyses of these situations are lucid and clearheaded, but for all the common sense and good judgment that he brings to them, I found this section more conventional and less original than the book’s first half, and consequently less intriguing.

* * *

       Thompson starts with a compelling example to which he returns throughout the book, involving the once ubiquitous Sarah Palin and her rhetorical attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Before the ACA was signed into law, one Elizabeth McCaughey, an analyst with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, looked at a single clause among the 1,000 plus pages of the proposed legislation and drew the conclusion that the act required patients over a certain age to be counseled by a panel of experts on the options available for ending their lives. McCaughey’s conclusion was dead wrong. The clause merely clarified that expenses would be covered for those who desired such counseling, as proponents of the legislation made clear from the outset.

         No matter. Palin grabbed the ball McCaughey had thrown out and ran with it. In one of her most Palinesque moments, the one-term Alaska governor wrote on her Facebook page:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of heath care. Such a system is downright evil (p.4-5).

By placing the words “death panel” and “level of productivity in society” in quotation marks, Palin left the impression that she was quoting from the statute itself.  Thus presented, the words conjured up early 20th century eugenics and Nazi doctors at death camps.  To her supporters, Palin had uncovered “nothing less than a conspiracy to murder” (p.7).

        In the terminology of classical rhetoric, “death panel” was an enthymeme, words that might not mean much to a neutral observer but were all that Palin’s supporters needed to “fill in the missing parts of her argument to construct a complete critique of Obamacare” (p.30).   It had the power of compression, perfect for the world of Facebook and Twitter, and the effect of a synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole.  Its words were prophetic, taking an imagined future scenario and presenting it as current reality.  Palin’s claim was symptomatic of today’s polarized political debate. It achieved its impact “by denying any complexity, conditionality or uncertainty,” building on a presumption of “irredeemable bad faith,” and rejecting “even the possibility of a rational debate” with the statute’s supporters (p.17).

        Thompson considers Palin’s rhetorical approach distinct in keys ways from that of Donald Trump.    Writing during the 2016 presidential campaign, Thompson observes that Trump had “rewritten the playbook of American political language” (p.80). Trumpian rhetoric avoids cleverness or sophistication:

There are no cunning mousetraps like the “death panel.” The shocking statements are not couched in witty or allusive language. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again! – could hardly be less original or artful. Everything is intended to emphasize the break with the despised language of the men and women of the Washington machine. There is a wall between them and you, Trump seems to say to his audience, but I am on this side of the wall alongside you. They treat you as stupid, but you understand things far better than they do. The guarantee that I see the world as you do is the fact that I speak in your language, not theirs (p.79-80).

        Yet Thompson roots both Palin’s populism and that of Trump in a rhetorical approach that dates from the 18th century Enlightenment termed “authenticism,” a mode of expression that prioritizes emotion and simplicity of language, and purports to engage with the “lowliest members of the chosen community” (p.155).  To the authenticst, if something “feels true, then in some sense it must be true” (p.155).  Since the Enlightenment, authenticism has been in tension with “rhetorical rationalism,” which venerates fact-based arguments and empirical thinking.  Authenticism rises as trust in public leaders declines.   Authenticists take what their rationalist opponents regard as their most egregious failings, “fantasies dressed up as facts, petulance, tribalism, loss of control of one’s own emotions,” and “flip them into strengths.”  Rationalists may consider authenticism “pitifully cruel, impossible to sustain, downright crazy,” but it can be a compelling rhetorical approach for the “right audience in the right season” (p.356).

        Authenticism found the right audience in the right season in Brexit, Britain’s June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, with people voting for Brexit because they were “sick and tired of spin, prevarication and policy jargon” (p.351).   A single topic referendum such as Brexit, unlike a general election, requires a “minimum level of understanding of the issues and trade-offs involved,” Thompson writes. By this standard, the Brexit referendum should be considered a “disgrace” (p.347).  Those opposing Brexit had little to offer “in the way of positivity to counterbalance the threats; its Tory and Labour leaders seemed scarcely more enthusiastic about Britain’s membership [in] the EU than their opponents.  Their campaign was lackluster and low-energy.  They deserved to lose” (p.347).

        In understanding how classical rhetoric influences public debate, Thompson attaches particular significance to George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” the “best-known and most influential reflection on public language written in English in the twentieth century” (p.136).  Although Orwell claimed that his main concern in the essay was clarity of language, what he cared most about, Thompson contends, was the “beauty of language . . . Orwell associated beauty of language with clarity, and clarity with the ability of language to express rather than prevent thought and, by so doing, to support truthful and effective political debate” (p.143).  Orwell’s essay thus embodied the “classical understanding of rhetoric,” specifically the “ancient belief that the civic value of a given piece of rhetoric is correlated with its excellence as a piece of expression” (p.143).

* * *

      In the book’s second half, Thompson looks at the public debate over a host of contentious issues that have riveted the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years, beginning with the deference that democratic debate should accord to questionable scientific claims.  So-called climate skeptics, who challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, can make what superficially sounds like a compelling case that their views should be entitled to equal time in forums dedicated to the elaboration of public issues, such as those provided by the BBC or The New York Times.  Minority scientific views have themselves frequently evolved into accepted scientific understanding (one 19th century example was the underlying cause of the Irish potato famine, discussed here  in 2014 in my review of John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking).  Refusal to accord a forum for such views can easily be cast as a “cover up.”

         Thompson shows how members of Britain’s most distinguished scientific body, the Royal Society, once responded to public skepticism over global warming by becoming advocates, presenting the scientific consensus on the need for action in terms unburdened by the caution and caveats that are usually part of scientific explanation, and emphasizing the bad faith of climate change skeptics. Its efforts largely backfired. The more scientists sound like politicians with an agenda, the “less convincing they are likely to be” (p.211).   The same issue arose when a British medical researcher claimed to have a found connection between autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. The research was subsequently found to be fraudulent, but not before a handful of celebrities and a few politicians jumped aboard an anti-vaccination movement (including, in the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Donald Trump, when he was more celebrity than politician), with an uncountable number of parents opting not to have their children vaccinated.

       Thompson’s discussion of the boundaries of tolerance and free speech raises a similar issue: to what degree should democratic forums include those whose views are antithetical to democratic norms. While at the BBC, Thompson needed to decide whether the BBC would invite the British National Party (BNP), which flirted with Holocaust denial but had demonstrated a substantial following at the ballot box, to a broadcast that involved representatives of Britain’s major parties. In the face of strident opposition, Thompson elected to include the BNP representative and explains why here: the public “had the right to see him and listen to him responding to questions put to him by a studio audience itself made up of people like them. They did so and drew their own conclusions” (p.263).

       Thompson also delivers a full-throated rebuke to American universities that have disinvited speakers because students objected to their views.  The way to defeat extremists and their defenders, whether in faculty lounges or the halls of power, is simply to out-argue them, he contends.  Freedom of expression is best considered a right to be enjoyed “not just by those with something public to say but by everyone” (p.262-63), as a means by which an audience can seek to reach its own judgment. With a few exceptions like child pornography or incitement to violence, Thompson finds no support for the notion that suppressing ideas of which we disapprove is a better way to defeat them in a modern democracy than confronting and debating them in public.

       In a chapter entitled simply “War,” Thompson argues that war is today the greatest rhetorical test for a political leader:

To convince a country to got to war, or to rally a people’s courage and optimism during the course of that war, depends on your ability to persuade those who are listening to you to risk sacrificing themselves and their children for some wider public purpose. It is words against life and limb. [It includes the] need for length and detail as you explain the justification of the war; the simultaneous need for brevity and emotional impact; authenticity, rationality, authority; the search for a persuasiveness that does not – cannot— sound anything like marketing given the blood and treasure that are at stake” (p.219).

        Today, it is almost impossible for any war to be well received in a democracy, except in the very short term.  This is undoubtedly an advance over the days when war was celebrated for its gallantry and chivalry. But, drawing upon the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States in the 1960s, and to Britain’s decision to join the United States in the second Iraq war in 2003, Thompson faults anti-war rhetoric for its tendency to assume bad faith almost immediately, to “omit awkward arguments or to downplay unresolved issues, to pretend that difficult choices are easy, to talk straight past the other side in the debate, to oversimplify everything” (p.254-55).

* * *

      Thompson does not see today’s populist wave receding any time soon. “One can believe that populism always fails in the end – because of the crudity of its policies, its unwillingness to do unpopular but necessary things, its underlying divisiveness and intolerance – yet still accept that it will be a political fact of life in many western countries for years to come” (p.363).  He ends by abandoning the measured, “this-too-shall-pass” tone that prevails throughout most of his wide-ranging book to conclude on a near-apocalyptic note.   A storm is gathering, he writes, which threatens to be:

greater than any seen since the global infernos of the twentieth century. If the first premonitory gusts of a global populist storm were enough to blow Britain out of Europe and Donald Trump into the White House, what will the main blasts do? If the foretaste of the economic and social disruption to come was enough to show our public language to be almost wholly wanting in 2016, what will happen when the hurricane arrives?” (p.364).

       Is there anything we can do to restore the power of public language to cement the bonds of trust between the public and its leaders?  Can rhetorical rationalists regain the upper hand in public debate? Thompson argues that we need to “put public language at the heart of the teaching of civics . . . We need to teach our children how to parse every kind of public language” (p.322).  Secondary school and university students need to know “how to listen, how to know when someone is trying to manipulate them, how to discriminate between good arguments and bad ones, how to fight their own corner clearly and honestly” (p.366).   This seems like a sensible starting place.  But it may not be sufficient to withstand the hurricane.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 18, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, British History, Intellectual History, Language, Politics

Stopping History

 

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Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind:

On Political Reaction 

            Mark Lilla is one of today’s most brilliant scholars writing on European and American intellectual history and the history of ideas. A professor of humanities at Columbia University and previously a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago (as well as a native of Detroit!), Lilla first came to public attention in 2001 with his The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics. This compact work portrayed eight 20th century thinkers who rejected Western liberal democracy and aligned themselves with totalitarian regimes. Some were well known, such as German philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, but more were quite obscure to general readers.  He followed with another thought provoking work, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, a study of “political theology,” the implications of secularism and the degree to which religion and politics have been decoupled in modern Europe.

          In his most recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Lilla probes the elusive and, in his view, understudied mindset of the political reactionary.  The first thing we need to understand about reactionaries, he tells us at the outset, is that they are not conservatives. They are “just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings” (p.xii).  The mission of the political reactionary is to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” Lilla writes, quoting a famous line from the first edition of William F. Buckley’s National Review, a publication which he describes as “reactionary” (p.xiii). But the National Review is widely considered as embodying the voice of traditional American conservatism, an indication that the distinction between political reactionary and traditional conservative is not always clear-cut.  Lilla’s notion of political reaction overlaps with other terms such as “anti-modern” and the frequently used “populism.” He mentions both but does not draw out distinctions between them and political reaction.

            For Lilla, political reactionaries have a heightened sense of doom and maintain a more apocalyptic worldview than traditional conservatives. The political reactionary is driven by a nostalgic vision of an idealized, golden past and is likely to blame “elites” for the deplorable current state of affairs. The betrayal of elites is the “linchpin of every reactionary story” (p.xiii), he notes. In a short introduction, Lilla sets forth these definitional parameters and also traces the origins of our concept of political reaction to a certain type of opposition to the French Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment.

          The nostalgia for a lost world “settled like a cloud on European thought after the French Revolution and never fully lifted” (p.xvi), Lilla notes. Whereas conservative Edmund Burke recoiled at the French Revolution’s wholesale uprooting of established institutions and its violence but were willing to admit that France’s ancien régime had grown ossified and required modification, quintessential reactionary Joseph de Maistre mounted a full-throated defense of the ancien régime.   For de Maistre, 1789 “marked the end of a glorious journey, not the beginning of one” (p.xii).

         If the reactionary mind has its roots in counter-revolutionary thinking, it endures today in the absence of political revolution of the type that animated de Maistre. “To live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological change, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution,” Lilla writes (p.xiv). For the apocalyptic imagination of the reactionary, “the present, not the past, is a foreign country” (p.137). The reactionary mind is thus a “shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile” (p.xiii).

      The Shipwrecked Mind is not a systematic or historical treatise on the evolution of political reaction. Rather, in a disparate collection of essays, Lilla provides examples of reactionary thinking.  He divides his work into three main sections, “Thinkers,” “Currents,” and “Events.” “Thinkers” portrays three 20th century intellectuals whose works have inspired modern political reaction. “Currents” consists of two essays with catchy titles, “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” and “From Mao to St. Paul;” the former is a study of “theoconservatism,” reactionary religious strains found within traditional Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and neo-Orthodox Judaism; the latter looks at a more leftist nostalgia for a revolutionary past. “Events” contains Lilla’s reflections on the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo publication and a kosher supermarket.  But like the initial “Thinkers” sections, “Currents” and “Events” are above all introductions to the works of reactionary thinkers, most of whom are likely to be unfamiliar to English language readers.

            The Shipwrecked Mind appeared at about the same time as the startling Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, a time when Donald Trump was in the equally startling process of securing the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. Neither Brexit nor the Trump campaign figures directly in Lilla’s analysis and  readers will therefore have to connect the dots themselves between his diagnosis of political reaction and these events. Contemporary France looms larger in his effort to explain the reactionary mind, in part because Lilla was in Paris at the time of the January 2015 terrorist attacks.

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            “Thinkers,” Lilla’s initial section, is similar in format to The Reckless Mind, consisting of portraits of Leo Strauss, Eric Voeglin, and Franz Rosenzweig, three German-born theorists whose work is “infused with modern nostalgia” (p.xvii). Of the three, readers are most likely to be familiar with Strauss (1899-1973), a Jewish refugee from Germany whose parents died in the Holocaust. Strauss taught philosophy at the University of Chicago from 1949 up to his death in 1973. Assiduous tomsbooks readers will recall my review in January 2014 of The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, by Michael and Catherine Zuckert, which dismissed the purported connection between Strauss and the 2003 Iraq war as based on a failure to dig deeply enough into Strauss’ complex, tension ridden views about America and liberal democracy. Like the Zuckerts, Lilla considers the connection between Strauss and the 2003 Iraq war “misplaced” and “unseemly,” but, more than the Zuckerts, finds “quite real” the connection between Strauss’ thinking and that of today’s American political right (p.62).

        Strauss’ salience to political reaction starts with his view that Machiavelli, whom Strauss considered the first modern philosopher, is responsible for a decisive historical break in the Western philosophical tradition. Machiavelli turned philosophy from “pure contemplation and political prudence toward willful mastery of nature” (p.xviii), thereby introducing passion into political and social life. Strauss’ most influential work, Natural Right and History, argued that “natural justice” is the “standard by which political arrangements must be judged” (p.56). After the tumult of the 1960s, some of Strauss’ American disciples began to see this work as an argument that the West is in crisis, unable to defend itself against internal and external enemies. Lilla suggests that Natural Right and History has been misconstrued in the United States as an argument that political liberalism’s rejection of natural rights leads invariably to a relativism indistinguishable from nihilism. This misinterpretation led “Straussians” to the notion that the United States has a “redemptive historical mission — an idea nowhere articulated by Strauss himself” (p.61).

          Voeglin (1901-1985), a contemporary of Strauss, was born in Germany and raised in Austria, from which he fled in 1938 at the time of its Anchluss with Germany.   Like Strauss, he spent most of his academic career in the United States, where he sought to explain the collapse of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism in terms of a “calamitous break in the history of ideas, after which intellectual and political decline set in” (p.xviii). Voeglin argued that in inspiring the liberation of politics from religion, the 18th century Enlightenment gave rise in the 20th century to mass ideological movements such as Marxism, fascism and nationalism.  Voeglin considered these movements “’political religions,’ complete with prophets, priests, and temple sacrifices” (p.31). As Lilla puts it, for Voeglin, when you abandon the Lord, it is “only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Führer” (p.31).

        Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was a German Jew who gained fame in his time for backing off at the last moment from a conversion to Christianity – the equivalent of leaving his bride at the altar – and went on to dedicate his life to a revitalization of Jewish thought and practice. Rosenzweig shared an intellectual nostalgia prevalent in pre-World War I Germany that saw the political unification of Germany decades earlier, while giving rise to a wealthy bourgeois culture and the triumph of the modern scientific spirit, as having extinguished something essential that could “only be recaptured through some sort of religious leap.” (p.4). Rosenzweig rejected Judaism’s efforts to reform itself “according to modern notions of historical progress, which were rooted in Christianity” in favor of a new form of thinking that would “turn its back on history in order to recapture the vital transcendent essence of Judaism” (p.xvii-xviii).

          Lilla’s sensitivity to the interaction between religion and politics, the subject of The Stillborn God and the portraits of Voeglin and Rosenzweig here, is again on display in the two essays in the middle “Currents” section. In “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” Lilla explores how, despite doctrinal differences, traditional Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and neo-Orthodox Judaism in the United States came to share a “sweeping condemnation of America’s cultural decline and decadence.”  This “theoconservatism” (p.xix) blames today’s perceived decline and decadence on reform movements within these dominations and what they perceive as secular attacks on religion generally, frequently tracing the attacks to the turbulent 1960s as the significant breaking point in American political and religious history.

         Two works figure prominently in this section, Alastir MacInytre’s 1981 After Virtue, and Brad Gregory’s 2012 The Unintended Reformation. MacIntyre, echoing de Maistre, argued that the Enlightenment had undone a system of morality worked out over centuries, unwittingly preparing the way for “acquisitive capitalism, Nietzscheanism, and the relativistic liberal emotivism we live with today, in a society that that ‘cannot hope to achieve moral consensus’” (p.74-75). Gregory, inspired by MacIntyre, attributed contemporary decline and decadence in significant part to forces unleashed in the Reformation, undercutting the orderliness and certainty of “medieval Christianity,” his term for pre-Reformation Catholicism. Building on Luther and Calvin, Reformation radicals “denied the need for sacraments or relics,” and left believers unequipped to interpret the Bible on their own, leading to widespread religious conflict. Modern liberalism ended these conflicts but left us with the “hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativististic world of today. And that’s how we got from Luther to Walmart” (p.78-79).

        “From St. Paul to Mao” considers a “small but intriguing movement on the academic far left” which maintains a paradoxical nostalgia for “revolution” or “the future,” and sees “deep affinities” between Saint Paul and modern revolutionaries such as Lenin and Chairman Mao (p.xx).  Jacob Taubes, a peripatetic Swiss-born Jew who taught in New York, Berlin, Jerusalem and Paris, sought to demonstrate in The Political Teachings of Paul that Paul was a “distinctively Jewish fanatic sent to universalize the Bible’s hope of redemption, bringing this revolutionary new idea to the wider world. After Moses, there was never a better Jew than Paul” (p.90). French theorist Alain Badiou, among academia’s last surviving Maoists, argued that Paul was to Jesus as Lenin was to Marx. The far left academic movement’s most prominent theorist is Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s “crown jurist” (p.99), a thinker portrayed in The Reckless Mind who emphasized the importance of human capacity and will rather than principles of natural right in organizing society.

         The third section, “Currents,” considers  France’s simmering cultural war over the place of Islam in French society, particularly in the aftermath of the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which Lilla sees as a head-on collision between two forms of political reaction:

On the one side was the nostalgia of the poorly educated killers for an imagined, glorious Muslim past that now inspires dreams of a modern caliphate with global ambitions. On the other was the nostalgia of French intellectuals who saw in the crime a confirmation of their own fatalistic views about the decline of France and the incapacity of Europe to assert itself in the face of a civilizational challenge (p.xx).

        France’s struggle to integrate its Muslim population, Lilla argues, has revived a tradition of cultural despair and nostalgia for a Catholic monarchist past that had flourished in France between the 1789 Revolution and the fall of France in 1940, but fell out of favor after World War II because of its association with the Vichy government and France’s role in the Holocaust. In the early post-war decades in France, it was “permissible for a French writer to be a conservative but not a reactionary, and certainly not a reactionary with a theory of history that condemned what everyone else considered to be modern progress” (p.108). Today, it is once again permissible in France to be a reactionary.

          “Currents” concentrates on two best-selling works that manifest the revival of the French reactionary tradition, Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide francais, published in 2014, and Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel, Submission, first published on the very day of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, an “astonishing, almost unimaginable” coincidence (p.116). Le Suicide francais presents a “grandiose, apocalyptic vision of the decline of France” (p.108), with a broad range of culprits contributing to the decline, including feminism, multiculturalism, French business elites, and European Union bureaucrats. But Zemmour reserves particular contempt for France’s Muslim citizens.  Le Suicide francais provides the French right with a “common set of enemies,” stirring an “outraged hopelessness – which in contemporary politics is much more powerful than hope” (p.117).

         Submission is the story of an election in France of a Muslim President in 2022, with the support of France’s mainstream political parties which seek to prevent the far right National Front party from winning the presidency.  In Lilla’s interpretation, the novel serves to express a “recurring European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom – freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends – must inevitably lead to disaster” (p.127).  France for Houellebecq “regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self” as a result of wager on history made at the time of the Enlightenment that the more Europeans “extended human freedom, the happier they would be” (p.128-29). For Houellebecq, “by any measure France’s most significant contemporary writer” (p.109), that wager has been lost. “And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God”(p.129).

          Lilla’s section on France ends on this ominous note. But in an “Afterword,” Lilla returns to contemporary Islam, the other party to the head-on collision of competing reactionaries at work in the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and their aftermath.  Islam’s belief in a lost Godden Age is the “most potent and consequential” political nostalgia in operation today (p.140), Lilla contends. According to radical Islamic myth, out of a state of jahiliyya, ignorance and chaos, the Prophet Muhammad was “chosen as the vessel of God’s final revelation, which uplifted all individuals and peoples who accepted it.” But, “astonishingly soon, the élan of this founding generation was lost. And it has never been recovered” (p.140). Today the forces of secularism, individualism, and materialism have “combined to bring about a new jahiliyya that every faithful Muslim must struggle against, just as the Prophet did at the dawn of the seventh century” (p.141).

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          The essays in this collection add up to what Lilla describes as a “modest start” (p.xv) in probing  the reactionary mindset and are intriguing as far as they go. But I finished The Shipwrecked Mind hoping that Lilla will extend this modest start. Utilizing his extensive learning and formidable analytical skills, Lilla is ideally equipped to provide a systematic, historical overview of the reactionary tradition, an overview that would highlight its relationship to the French Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment in particular but to other historical landmarks as well, especially the 1960s. In such a work, Lilla might also provide more definitional rigor to the term “political reactionary” than he does here, elaborating upon its relationship to traditional conservatism, populism, and anti-modernism.  Through what might be a separate work, Lilla is also well placed to help us connect the dots between political reaction and the turmoil generated by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.  In less than six months, moreover, we will also know whether we will need to ask Lilla to connect dots between his sound discussion here of political reaction in contemporary France and a National Front presidency.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 5, 2017

 

 

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