• The Age of Acquiesence

    By Steve Fraser

    The news has been full of stories recently about the growing gap between the 1%, or even 0.1%, and the rest of us.

    However, much like the environment, inequality is a problem (when it is seen as a problem) that nobody wants to do much about.

    It was not always thus. Previous peaks of inequality – like that, for example, experienced during America’s “Gilded Age” at the end of the nineteenth century – gave rise to social and political movements that fought the “money power” to remarkable effect.

    The question of why things are so different today, why we have gone from an age of resistance to acquiescence in the past half century, is one that has exercised commentators quite a bit lately. Among the earlier attempts made to address the subject, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone sought to describe the general withdrawal from group action and politics that has characterized the period, while Linda McQuaig drew attention to the phenomenon in The Cult of Impotence.

    Those books came out fifteen years ago. Since then, things have only gotten worse. In The Age of Acquiescence Steve Fraser looks at the difference between then and now, and tries to explain what happened.

    The key points in that explanation are by now familiar to anyone who has followed the debate. Private sector unionization has declined precipitously, leaving workers powerless in the face of globalization’s race to the bottom, technology has devalued traditional forms of labour, the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate) has cannibalized much of the economy, and the government is controlled by elites who can dictate legislation that operates to their own benefit (typically involving regressive taxation and corporate subsidies).

    From this outline of what happened, Fraser moves to a consideration of why there has been so little outcry against it, why the public (and in particular the middle class) has gone from a response of outrage to “fatalistic resignation” and acquiescence.

    There are a number of different explanations, but they can be seen as together constituting a dominant ideology or myth that has taken hold, one to which, in Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase, there is no alternative. While the money power poses the same threat as in the first Gilded Age, today “capitalism seems the only answer to the riddle of history. We have become the slaves of a kind of fateful determinism, gussied up by supplications at the altar of technology and the marketplace.”

    In Fraser’s analysis the ideology takes many forms: from the emphasis on individualism and identity politics (which frustrates class solidarity), to “state-sponsored paranoia” (which tricks us into loving Big Brother), to the endless distractions of the culture wars, to the cult of the business titan (a sort of folk hero or “plebeian liberator” whose triumph has had the paradoxical effect of camouflaging the existence of a ruling elite).

    But perhaps what makes the Age of Acquiescence such a truly strange development is that it has occurred despite one of the most striking differences between then and now.

    A hundred years ago inequality was growing rapidly but there was still a widespread belief in material progress – and this was a belief grounded in reality. Most if not all boats were rising.

    That’s not true today, where the middle class is shrinking and real incomes have been stagnant or in decline for decades. Measured against other developed nations, American standards of living have been falling even faster. The United States is a “society in retrogression . . . a country in the throes of economic anorexia.” This is a stark repudiation of one of the nation’s founding myths, that the New World is the land of Progress.

    With that dismantling, hope has been replaced by fear. Dreams of Utopia have been replaced by anxiousness over economic or environmental meltdown. Acquiescence has become a strategy for survival.

    Review first published May 16, 2015.

  • It’s All the Rage

    It’s All the Rage
    Wendy Kaminer

    There is an ineluctable political drift toward harsher criminal laws in a democracy. What politician doesn’t want to get “tough on crime”? Alas, the rhetoric doesn’t always fit reality, as Wendy Kaminer argues in this attempt to inject a bit of clarity into the debate. At the core of her argument is the contradiction between different models of imagining the modern self and its relation to the state. By what set of  standards – between those privileging individual or social values – do we judge and punish crime? And if we opt for an individual-oriented standard, how do we deal with the fact that, individually, we are so poorly equipped to deal with such questions? Or does it matter? Isn’t crime and punishment in the twenty-first century just a form of therapy and entertainment? We don’t do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves because the care of the self is non-transferable. Our only concern is for safety and revenge.

  • The Word Exchange

    By Alena Graedon

    If it’s true that science fiction projects present-day anxieties into the future, then the closer those projections are to the present the more acute we might expect the sense of nervousness to be.

    Alena Graedon’s debut novel is a very nervous book set in the near future, and addresses a concern shared by many over the impact of the digital revolution. As the question is popularly expressed: Is the Internet making us stupid?

    The short answer offered by The Word Exchange is Yes.

    Our young heroine, Anana Johnson, gets bored after a couple of minutes of reading, and she’s considered a rather bright light. It seems that as our machines have gotten smarter, we have become duller and more dependent, “our capacity for language – and perhaps, then, thought – becoming so seriously compromised that even scanning headlines, telling bedtime stories, greeting family . . . have become tasks requiring help from a device.”

    That “device” is the key. In Graedon’s vision of the future, instead of reading books, watching television, or even surfing the Internet, people browse streams of data sent to them directly by personal communication devices, the latest generation of which takes the form of an implant that bonds directly with users’ own neural networks.

    It’s the kind of thing guaranteed to stick your head in a cloud, and while it may sound like cybertopia to some, things really go to hell when the devices (known as “Memes”) are infected with a sinister language virus or “word flu” that leaves its victims stricken with a high-tech form of aphasia that threatens to send us all back to Babel. Before long even the brainiest of word nerds are sounding like Alex and his Nadsat-spouting droogs in A Clockwork Orange and civilization is heading into meltdown. Only the deaf and the Amish are safe, at least for a while.

    The Resistance to the new verbal anarchy is led by a Diachronic Society made up of a real rogues gallery of “former booksellers and librarians; teachers; writers, editors, and agents; publishers and publicists; lexicographers and linguists . . . translators and poets, critics and readers” and even “devotees of old zines.” Look out, Google!

    Much like Peter Norman’s recently published fantasy Emberton, a sharp line is drawn between the old world of print and the new digital dispensation. As in Emberton, the hero of The Word Exchange is employed at the moribund head office of a dictionary, which is about as old school as it gets. Anana is there because her father is one of the dictionary’s lead editors, but she has a foot – and a love interest – in both worlds: ex-boyfriend Max is a tech start-up wizard while promising newcomer Bartleby is a humble lexicographer.

    You can guess who has the inside track to getting lucky.

    Readers will recognize just from this outline traces of many other books, from Emberton to Stephen King’s Cell and Tony Burgess’s language-virus classic Pontypool Changes Everything. These echoes only highlight how deep a cultural anxiety Graedon is addressing. Anana is not alone in seeing something end-of-the-worldish in the war on the word:

    As more and more of our actions are mediated by machines . . . there’s no telling what will happen, not only to language but in some sense to civilization. The end of words would mean the end of memory and thought. In other words, our past and future.

    “It may seem to some,” she acknowledges, “that the dystopian future we’re imagining is exaggerated or, at the very least, a long way off. We can only hope, for all our sakes, that they’re right.”

    The Diachronic Society have pills for the word flu, but the best antidote may be a return to old-fashioned, slow reading. This is, of course, a self-serving position for a novelist to take, but one still worth heeding in our diseased time.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star April 11, 2014.

  • Oklahoma City

    Oklahoma City
    Andrew Gumbel and Roger G. Charles

    Sheer bureaucratic incompetence does a lot to drive conspiracy thinking. We like to think that the professionals know what they’re doing, and can be trusted to do a responsible job. This trust is often misplaced. A case in point is the investigation into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which was sloppily handled throughout mainly due to petty inter-departmental squabbles, careerism, and the sort of tunnel vision that so often accompanies such things. “Conspiracy” is then invoked to explain the muffed job, while at the same time helping to fill in the spots left blank. I still think Timothy McVeigh did most of this one alone, but it seems likely that a number of other people were loosely in the know. Conspiracy is a hard legal case to make, and the evidence here was murky, but there’s no denying a lot was missed and even deliberately ignored.

  • Can’t and Won’t

    By Lydia Davis

    Most authors recoil at being called “a writer’s writer,” and for good reason. It’s nice to be well thought of within one’s profession, but what the label mostly suggests is a writer nobody else but another writer would want to read.

    American author Lydia Davis certainly has her fans, having won awards for her translations of Proust and Flaubert as well as the prestigious 2013 Man Book International Prize for her own fiction. She has also heaped up moraines of critical praise (a lot of it, yes, coming from other writers).

    With Can’t and Won’t, however, it’s hard to see her grabbing any wider audience – even in the unlikely event that this was her goal.

    Davis is an idiosyncratic writer best known for her microfictions: stories that may be only a dozen words long. The title refers us to the use of contractions, and may be taken as signaling Davis’s formal interest in cutting out redundant or superfluous elements, a technique of extreme compression and condensation. What we are left with may be no more than a description of basic shapes, colours, and sounds.

    In fact, it’s hard to think of all of the “stories” collected here as stories. They may be short poems, aphorisms, lists of items, finger exercises, or even telephone-pad doodles. Digital natives may find something in them akin to blog posts or tweets.

    And if mention of blog posts and tweets also makes you think of writing that is ephemeral, banal, and narcissistic, you won’t be far from the sensibility of this volume. Davis’s voice is endlessly self-regarding, to the point of being neurotic.

    Again and again we see the narrators here perseverating over trivialities and indulging in static self-analysis. How many candies were in the box of candies she bought? Is that a typo on the restaurant menu, or a misspelling? And here are some of the fascinating points brought out in the piece “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could be a Little More Comfortable”: “My thumb hurts,” “My navel orange is a little dry,” “The back of my neck is prickly,” “My fork is too short,” “My tea water takes too long to boil” (this goes on for seven pages).

    One can understand the point Davis is getting at – that in an aesthetic of extreme contraction, minutiae rule – but this is an idea that is neither profound nor memorably expressed. It can be lightly amusing, but only in the way of a Seinfeld episode “about nothing.” Here, for example, is one character confronting the moral dilemma posed by a box of chocolates:

    She wondered whether it was right to eat a chocolate by herself, and, if it was right, then whether one had to be in a certain mood or frame of mind to eat a chocolate by oneself. It did not seem right to eat a chocolate out of anger, or resentment, or greed . . . But if one did eat a chocolate by oneself out of greed, was it less wrong if the chocolate was very small?

    Perhaps to provide ballast against moments like these, some anecdotes from the letters of Flaubert are thrown into the mix. These come as a relief, as the other “letters” we get all sound like people talking to themselves. Also included are a number of dreams. Davis is no doubt aware of the axiom that nothing is as boring as listening to someone else’s dream, but one assumes she doesn’t care. Your boredom is not her problem. If life is trivial and dull, then that’s where she’s going.

    One may be charmed or repelled by Davis’s self-absorbed, faux-naif pose. In true neurotic-blogger fashion, she herself seems to find it a source of anxiety. Near the end of the book she even registers some dismay at her own writing, feeling what the novelist David Shields referred to as “reality hunger”: a disappointment with fiction and a greater need to connect and engage with the world. And so she wonders if perhaps she should be moving on:

    What I should do, instead of writing about people who can’t manage, is just quit writing and learn to manage. And pay more attention to life itself. The only way I will get smarter is by not writing anymore. There are other things I should be doing instead.

    The rest should be silence.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star May 4, 2014.

  • Thieves Like Us

    Thieves Like Us
    Edward Anderson

    My but these early American crime novels were cool. When Nicholas Ray made this one into a movie — changing the title to They Live By Night — he turned it into a teen-oriented love story (Rebel Without a Cause was coming up). That angle is there in the novel, but in a far less demonstrative sort of way. Bowie is more of a laconic tough than Farley Granger would play him, with little desire to go straight, while Keechie is a dull bit of luggage to be dragged around. The style is as economical as the emotions, a minimalism that literary noir revelled in (this was another difference between it and the film genre). Anderson was a newspaper man, and if you compare the fragments of newspaper clippings here with the rest of the text you can see the narrative influence: a story built for speed, stripped to its essentials. If he wants, he’ll punch out a striking simile as a flourish, but that’s it for rhetoric and scenery. The rest is dialogue and action.

  • The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio

    By Hubert Wolf

    Long before the current landslide of reports of child sexual abuse became headline news, the Catholic Church was a hotbed of scandal. Indeed, the link goes back as far as the dawn of the modern mass media, with prints of all the debaucheries going on behind cloistered walls making great propaganda material during the Reformation. Catholic theme porn was off and running.

    More recently, an entire sub-sub-genre of semi-mainstream Eurotrash films in the 1970s dubbed “nunsploitation” took convents as the setting for tales of sexual perversion. A notorious precursor was Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, which even managed to get banned in many countries.

    The fact that Russell’s film was based on an actual story of mass hysteria in a French convent in the seventeenth century tells us that where there’s smut, there may be fire. Sometimes even the most shocking and sensational stories of priests and nuns gone bad are true.

    Which brings us to the scandal that overtook the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century. The story begins with one of the convent’s nuns, a minor German princess, begging her cousin (an archbishop close to the pope) to rescue her from Sant’Ambrogio, where she said the nuns were behaving in various wicked ways and even trying to poison her.

    The subsequent investigation conducted by the Church’s Inquisition confirmed the princess’s accusations, and then some. As Hubert Wolf discovered when poking about the newly opened archives of the Inquisition, “what had sounded like an outrageous fantasy turned out to be a true story of a convent in scandal.” Heresy, all kinds of sexual delinquencies (at least by nineteenth-century Catholic standards), and even murder had occurred behind Sant’Ambrogio’s walls.

    In a paralegal proceeding taking over two and a half years the Inquisition slowly dug out the truth. The malefactors were punished (though those with the best connections got off easy), and then . . . the Church buried the story. It sat in the archives for 150 years, waiting for someone to discover it.

    A lot of modern true crime reporting has a tendency to get bogged down in the mountain of evidence thrown up by a trial. It’s the problem of having too much information. Wolf was faced with the same difficulty here, as he had to wade through all of the extensive interviews and reports made by the Inquisition and somehow turn them into a coherent narrative. He mostly succeeds, helped along by just how sensational the revelations were, but there are times when he might have condensed and streamlined his account a bit, especially as the witnesses kept changing their stories.

    As a Church historian, however, Wolf is very good at both describing the process of the investigation and then explaining its fallout. He also provides helpful insights into the nature of convent life and Church politics in nineteenth century Italy, which was in many ways more medieval than modern.

    But despite that sense of temporal dislocation, it’s still a story with an obvious contemporary relevance and message. Scandal and secrecy go hand in hand. A more open Church would have fewer fires to put out.

    Review first published May 2, 2015.

  • Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City

    Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
    Russell Shorto

    Russell Shorto tells two stories in this sometimes personal history of his adoptive hometown. In the first place there is the biography of Amsterdam from its founding, through its seventeenth-century golden age, down to the present day. Then there is the triumph of liberalism, which Shorto sees as the city’s distinctive gift to the modern world. That both the city and its political philosophy have been so successful, albeit not without experiencing crises and setbacks along the way, makes it both a happy story and one with continuing relevance for our own time.

  • Flashpoints and When the Facts Change

    By George Friedman
    By Tony Judt

    Things aren’t going very well in Europe these days. And by “Europe” what I mean is the European Union, the organization of states (currently sitting at 28 members) that has slowly grown and evolved over the last nearly sixty years.

    That union has been tested by economic downturns, high unemployment, demographic challenges brought on by aging populations and increasing immigration, and, following on all of this, political instability. The recent election in Greece is just the latest bit of bad news for unionists. No doubt there’s more on the way.

    Such problems should not come as a surprise. The European Union came about as a product of a unique historical circumstance (the Cold War, which kept the peace) and economic good times. Then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed those good times were going to keep on rolling.

    But these ideal conditions are now threatened. As the geopolitical forecaster George Friedman notes: “Peace depends on prosperity, and that prosperity is waning.” Fighting has already broken out in Ukraine. Other “flashpoints” that Friedman identifies (mostly borderlands with a history of conflict) are easily identified. Might things fall apart?

    They might. Friedman is convinced they will. Any collapse of the middle class in particular will be the testing point, and one that the EU will be hard pressed to deal with. In Flashpoints he locates various hot spots where fracture is most likely to occur.

    Not surprisingly these are places, like Eastern Europe and the Balkans, that have a history of conflict. Flashpoints spends a lot of time going over that history because Europe is a continent with long memories, and it’s those memories, more even than economic realities, that Friedman sees as the driving force behind the emerging crisis.

    The late Tony Judt specialized in this history, and was equally concerned about what the future holds. When the Facts Change is a collection of essays looking at the past and future of Europe, the UN, Israel, the United States, and what’s come to be known as the New World Order.

    He is no more optimistic than Friedman. Already in 1996, referring to the “grand illusion” of European unity, Judt remarks that “the European Union cannot realistically promise even its existing members a future as secure and as prosperous as its past.” The light has failed. “The cold war is indeed behind us, but so too is the post-cold war moment of hope.” Nor is there anywhere else to turn for help. America’s leadership is compromised. The UN can only do so much, and that not enough.

    What led us to this pass? Judt sees a lot of blame to pass around, but much of it boils down to a failure of historical memory. Europe may have long memories, but they aren’t always true ones. America, meanwhile, with far less history to draw on, has still managed to forget most of that.

    “What is significant about the present age of transformations is the unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not merely the practices of the past but their very memory.” Without such a grounding in a common culture and experience, what, Judt asks, will hold us together? Market forces? A global economy? But there again the memory of earlier failures should put us on our guards.

    This is why history matters, providing both a warning and a guide that will be of use in dealing with tough times ahead, in Europe and around the world.

    Review first published March 28, 2014.

  • Critical Mass

    Critical Mass
    James Wolcott

    The critical essay, usually taking the form of a review, is one of the most ephemeral of literary forms. In choosing this selection of favourite pieces from four decades spent in the trenches, James Wolcott (who has spent most of the last two of those decades at Vanity Fair) was reminded of this. Many of his subjects now stand on the edge of oblivion: famous authors who have “receded into the marsh mist,” and once popular TV shows that are nothing but “a chunk of space debris.” What remains is the graceful and lively recording of impressions made upon a cultivated mind, and a reminder of how, in the right hands, criticism can still be an art.