• In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

    In the Basement of the Ivory Tower
    Professor X

    A few years ago there was a sudden flurry of debate and discussion over the development of a “bubble” in university education in the United States. (The debate wasn’t as intense in this country, though the work of scholars like James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar — see my review of Lowering Higher Education — belongs in the same genre.) The basic point is that the cost of a university education has kept going up despite the falling value of that education, at least outside of elite professional faculties. This was leading to dangerously high levels of student indebtedness (dangerous both because it was crippling young people financially and was likely never going to be paid back). You can point the finger of blame at various parties, though Professor X, a lowly adjunct professor of English (which means, in effect, someone who teaches basic writing skills), escapes much of it. One direction I think he might have gone in, but didn’t, is the state of K-12 education, which is clearly where his students have been most let down since they arrive at college unable to write. As he mentions at one point that he formerly taught at middle school it’s strange that he passed on this. He also avoids saying much about the state of the economy outside the ivory tower, the lack of jobs for young people that is forcing them to attend college and university as a way of deferring the misery of un- and underemployment, as well as the general hollowing out of the middle class, the group that has fueled the “massification” of higher ed. Despite these roads not taken, however, and a to-be-expected generous amount of padding (the book began as a magazine article), there is something here to consider. His main point, that higher education isn’t necessary or even advisable for everyone, should be obvious by now. This leads us to further questions, specifically about what kind of education best prepares young people for life in the twenty-first century. I don’t mean for what they’ll need to find a high-paying (or any decent) job, but just for what will help them to become healthy, happy, well-adjusted citizens. Such a syllabus may not include essay writing, or even reading books, but by now we really should be prepared for that.

  • World Order and Canada in the Great Power Game 1914 – 2014

    By Henry Kissinger
    By Gwynne Dyer

    In 1648 the Thirty Years War officially came to an end with the treaties now collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia. The Peace is usually credited with inaugurating the modern European state system: a pluralistic order made up of independent sovereign states, their relations regulated by a set of neutral rules and maintained by a balance of power.

    While admitting that “no truly global ‘world order’ has ever existed,” renowned diplomat (and controversial Nobel Peace Prize winner) Henry Kissinger sees this Westphalian system as the model for what “passes for order in our time,” with Europe now being just one regional unit in a new global edition.

    The global Westphalian system forms the backbone of Kissinger’s analysis in World Order, as he looks at the historical development and future prospects of today’s most important regional players: Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the United States (South America and Africa are scarcely mentioned).

    Given Kissinger’s expertise and experience, one expects more than World Order delivers, though its shortcomings are not unexpected from this author.

    The regional background briefs are good, and there is a surprisingly insightful chapter on the impact the Internet may have on politics, but much of the analysis of contemporary historical events comes with a clear political slant.

    To take one specific example, from among many: “Before the ayatollahs’ revolution, the West’s interaction with Iran had been cordial and cooperative on both sides, based on a perceived parallelism of national interests.” Given the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddegh, in a British and American coup d’état in 1953 that is indirectly adverted to a page earlier, this is a little hard to swallow.

    More frustrating, however, are the mushy platitudes that the great “realist” slides into when offering prescripts in full Olympian mode. “Order always requires a subtle balance of restraint, force, and legitimacy. . . . Wise statesmanship must try to find that balance. For outside it, disaster beckons.” Such generic advice tells the would-be diplomat nothing.

    Canada, which has never been a superpower, isn’t even listed in the index of Kissinger’s book, and there are only a couple of references to it in the text, both of which come from people who treat it as a bit of baggage to be claimed by America’s manifest destiny. Nevertheless, Canada has been, and continues to be, a player on the world scene, as Gwynne Dyer chronicles in his study of Canada in the Great Power Game.

    While it presents itself as a study of Canada’s role in foreign wars from 1914 to 2014, the dates are a bit misleading. If Kissinger’s seminal historical moment was the Peace of Westphalia, Dyer’s is the First World War: “the most profound trauma in Canada’s history,” and an event that has always had a special place in our national imagination and sense of collective identity (as anyone acquainted with Canadian fiction can attest).

    As a result of this historical emphasis, most of Dyer’s book is set in the first half of the twentieth century, with little time spared on current affairs (Stephen Harper, for example, is mentioned only once). His closer look at the myths and realities of Canada at war reveals a lot, but one still wishes he had spent more time in the present, and looking ahead.

    On the matter of the great game, where Kissinger is interested in the balance of power, Dyer is focused on “critical systems”: inherently unstable conditions subject to catastrophic failures. For Dyer, managing the critical system of international diplomacy should rightly fall under the purview of the United Nations – a body Kissinger has little to say about but which Dyer thinks has managed global affairs pretty well.

    The standard for diplomacy can’t be perfection. All political systems are temporary, and every age is an age of disorder. We will never put an end to war, but through the operation of a global balance of power and institutions like the UN we have been to avoid major conflicts for over half a century.

    Complex systems, however, do break down. Given the fragility of our current civilization – its interconnectedness, dependence on advanced technology, overpopulation and environmental problems, and increased capacity for destruction – perhaps the best we can hope for is a soft landing when the world order falls apart again.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star October 25, 2014.

  • The Dreyfus Affair

    The Dreyfus Affair
    Piers Paul Read

    The terrible thing, and the tragedy in this celebrated case, is that the justice system is not self-correcting. Unable to admit to error, it reinforces any mistakes it makes. It’s a system that, above all else, cannot be challenged. We live in a society of laws, after all, not men. So if a man gets screwed by those laws, that’s too bad. Few people at the top wanted to prosecute Alfred Dreyfus. Even those who thought he probably was guilty of spying thought the matter should be dropped. General de Boisdeffre, chief of the army general staff, told the chief Dreyfus investigator to spike it: “You’ve got nowhere with your Dreyfus. You’ve got nothing.” The investigator’s response correctly sealed Dreyfus’s fate: “Allow me to say, mon général, that the man you call ‘my Dreyfus,’ is also yours.” Dreyfus’s guilt had been adopted by the system, a conviction that would prove nearly impossible to shake even in the face of overwhelming evidence (most miscarriages of justice begin the same way, with the adoption of “tunnel vision” early in the proceedings locking in the guilt of a suspect). This is just the way the system works, how it is supposed to work. Here, for example, is Lord Denning upon turning down an appeal by the Birmingham Six: “Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial . . . If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. . . . That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.’” In other words, even if innocent it were better for the system that the accused not be allowed any further appeal. Luckily, in both cases the convictions were overturned, but only many years later and after much suffering and a public backlash. The system did not want to fix, or even acknowledge, its mistakes. This is because, its defenders argue, to do so would be to invite disorder, even chaos. Which isn’t true, but is an excuse that’s still being used.

  • Rooms

    By Lauren Oliver

    Ghosts tend to be location specific. Haunted houses are possessed by the troubled spirits of those who came to unfortunate ends within their walls. In America it’s a tradition that runs from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables through Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, all the way up to the cable show American Horror Story.

    Houses also express the personality of their owners, and haunted houses are no exception. Indeed, in many cases the identity of a ghost may be so closely bonded to their former home that after death the two become inextricable. They are codependents, experiencing mutual release only in the fall of the House of Usher, or whatever their address happens to be.

    Lauren Oliver’s Rooms is a novel solidly within this tradition. The novel begins with the passing of Richard Walker, who has the good fortune not to die at home. This is fortunate because those who die at the Walker home, an old country house that is now getting to be a bit run down, have a thing for hanging around. Two deceased former residents – Alice and Sandra – are the main narrators.

    Not having bodies of their own, Alice and Sandra take a great deal of interest in the bodies of others. When the rest of the Walker clan arrive to set Richard’s estate in order their physical frailties are dissected by the ethereal voyeurs: ex-wife Caroline has gotten fat, daughter Minna is a fragile, oversexed mental case, and teenage son Trenton is a limping, pimpled, masturbating wreck.

    Then there is the house itself, which is another body. The front door is likened to a mouth, the basement to “stopped-up bowels,” the staircase to a spine, the furnace to a mechanical heart, the plumbing to a circulatory system, and the attic to a spleen: “Ignored, forgotten, useless.”

    All of the Walkers, and the ghosts, have secrets. Naturally, the house does too. There are skeletons in several closets. But this isn’t really a mystery novel, or even much of a horror story. If there is anything scary going on it’s the train wreck of the Walker family as it descends into alcoholism, neurosis, and breakdown. The ghosts are mere observers, with only the slightest physical connection to the real world.

    What the house needs is not a rite of exorcism so much as a therapist. The ghosts are metaphors for the various issues and baggage we’ve accumulated through our lives, baggage that has made our personal relationships diseased and dysfunctional. As Sandra puts it, “life’s the sum total of all our small mistakes, little tragedies, bad choices.” They pile up like snow on the roof until the weight is too much and things collapse.

    But while Rooms may be psychologically realistic, it doesn’t have a contemporary feel. It’s telling that a children’s story written by Alice in the 1940s that is discovered in manuscript by the Walkers is judged by a Harvard professor to date from the mid-nineteenth century, and that Minna has to caution Trenton to not “be Victorian” on the occasion of the reading of their father’s will. There is a musty feel to such proceedings.

    Like the Walker home itself, the family structure of the mid-twentieth century is, in the early twenty-first, a shambles. The message to just “let things go” doesn’t mean as much when serial monogamy has become a social norm. Even in Hawthorne’s day the family homestead of Seven Gables seemed an anachronism, something set apart from the nomadic spirit of the age. In our own day homes have become even more temporary, if not disposable. Ghosts will have to adapt. Whoever heard of a haunted condo?

    But if Oliver’s novel is a throwback, it’s still an honest and effective one that makes interesting and imaginative use of its traditional genre elements. A pulpy page-turner that only comes undone a bit at the end, it makes the reader feel a touch of nostalgia for the anxious dreads of yesteryear.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star March 5, 2015.

  • The Day of the Jackal

    The Day of the Jackal
    Frederick Forsyth

    I believe I last read this book thirty years ago. I anticipated some disappointment returning to it, but found that after an awkward start it held up better than expected. The writing is only functional (Forsyth drew on his background in journalism and wrote the whole thing in a month), and at times the proceedings start to feel like working through a crossword puzzle. The dialogue is painfully robotic. But still, the style suits the story of a precisionist machine-man facing off against the powers of international bureaucracy, and the ratcheting of suspense is well handled. The best such books read downhill, and this one picks up speed nicely as the noose tightens and gives a quick jerk at the end.

  • Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free

    By Cory Doctorow

    Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is a book that’s very clear about what it is and what it isn’t. What it is, is a toolkit of information for anyone with a stake in making a “creative wage” out of our digital culture. What this mainly comes down to is a discussion of some of the ramifications of “copyfight”: the ongoing series of legal battles over copyright law relating to the Internet – a struggle that Doctorow has been prominently involved in for years.

    What the book isn’t is a look into the future. Doctorow, who is an SF author, is first to admit that SF writers always get the future wrong. Everybody gets the future wrong. And so his book promises to “equip you with the critical skills required to have a non-zero chance of making a living as an artist today, in the world as it is.”

    Doctorow is the ideal person to write such a book. Though he warns us in advance that he may be wrong, he will at least be well informed. And so he is, drawing on his experience as a successful Internet artist/entrepreneur as well as copyfight advocate. His arguments are entertainingly presented, forcefully made, and easy to follow. The book is organized around three basic “laws,” and the toolkit is handily boiled down to three main points at the end.

    If there is a caveat to be entered it’s that Doctorow’s prescriptions are so closely tied to what has worked for him. His vision of an optimal state of affairs is attractive. He is against the over-regulation of “the nervous system of the twenty-first century,” and wants to see the arts develop on the Internet in the freest, most diversified way possible.

    But would this best of all possible worlds lead to the best set of outcomes for artists? Would it raise all boats, or result in greater inequality? Would it lead to the creation of better, more diverse art, or would it create a global, homogenized mass culture? While Doctorow is persuasive when taking on the current power structure, we need to also be careful about what he’s wishing for.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2014.

  • El Narco

    El Narco
    Ioan Grillo

    I took up this book with the hope of understanding something more about the spectacular violence of Mexico’s cartel wars. Despite respecting the depth and insight provided by Ioan Grillo’s reporting, I’m not sure I came away any clearer on this point. Yes, there’s a lot of money involved in the drug trade in Mexico, and a lot of fighting between the different gangs and the police and among the gangs themselves. But I’m not sure what explains the level of wholesale slaughter, cruelty, and brutality that has come to characterize this criminal “insurgency” (a loaded word that Grillo has to unpack). There seems to be more to it than just wanting to send a message. One wonders if there are roots for it in Mexican culture, or if it’s more a product of American cultural influences (movies like Scarface and violent rap and videogames). Whatever the cause, a kind of moral bottom seems to have dropped out of historical norms for violent criminality, taking the cartels beyond the bounds of even common garden variety psychopathy. What happened to those better angels of our nature? Are they only fair-weather friends?

  • The Afterlife of Stars

    By Joseph Kertes

    In one of his most quoted lines, James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say that history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. The date was Bloomsday, 16 June 1904, which was before a pair of World Wars, the Holocaust, the rise and fall of communism, and many other horrors left a permanent stain on the twentieth century.

    For the Becks, a Jewish family living in Hungary, history is something to try and escape. After narrowly surviving the Holocaust they know what to expect when Soviet tanks rolls into Budapest in 1956. In full flight mode they pack up as much of their stuff as they can carry with them and catch the last train to Austria.

    Their plan is to go from Vienna to Paris, and then, perhaps, to Canada. But the Becks – brothers Atilla and Robert, father Simon, mother Lili, and grandmother Klari – soon find that history is not so easy to elude.

    In his new book, Joseph Kertes, who escaped with his family from Hungary after the crushing of the revolution in 1956, returns to native ground and a familiar group of characters. The Afterlife of Stars is basically a sequel to his award-winning 2008 novel Gratitude, picking up the story of the Beck family some twelve years later.

    The narrator is Robert Beck, who is 9.8 years old (he has a love of decimals). The relationship between Robert and his brother Attila (13.7 years) occupies the center of the story, and Kertes handles it very well. Robert is the perfect narrator: observing everything without ever being an important actor, or for that matter even understanding all that is going on.

    His brother Atilla is a more fiery, active figure (as you probably will have guessed from his name). Atilla takes the lead in driving most of the book along, consumed by a passion for uncovering as much as he can of the Beck family’s recent history.

    Together, the two brothers make an odd but engaging couple, in Robert’s formulation representing the Sudden and Gradual approach to life. One of them wants to elude history, while the other rushes to meet it.

    When Kertes sticks with the brothers and their misadventures – on the bloody streets of Budapest during the revolution, in bed together with an obliging housemaid, sneaking through the sewers beneath the streets of Paris – the novel successfully weaves together the personal and the political, imaginatively humanizing history through a child’s wondering eye and inquisitive point of view.

    Where the novel flags is in the awkwardly introduced family backstory that Atilla drags out of his parents, grandmother, and great aunt. The memories are painful, and they are painfully brought forth in stiff and unnatural exposition. Instead of running through history on short legs we feel we’re staggering on stilts.

    This is a danger most books dealing with important historical events and personages face. When Kertes is writing about the trials of the Becks, and people like Raoul Wallenberg (a friend of the Beck family, and one of the people Kertes dedicates the book to), the narrative gets heavy with its own earnestness.

    The Afterlife of Stars, in other words, has trouble escaping the past. When describing the novel’s time present, and Robert and Atilla’s immediate experience of their chaotically changing world, it’s lively and imaginative without forsaking a real sense of being in the historical moment. When the brothers start to interrogate their family’s past, or rummage through a trunk filled with memories and mementoes, the narrative seizes up.

    Despite this erratic quality, The Afterlife of Stars is a vivid and honest account of how people manage to keep their heads above water in violent times and in the wake of giant tragedies. Like the diaspora of light tossed off by distant stars, the past surges all around us, affecting each of us in different ways. Resistance is probably futile, but may also be heroic. Survivors learn to stay just in advance of history’s turbulent flow.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star October 25, 2014.

  • Wage of Rebellion

    Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt
    Chris Hedges

    At the end of his previous book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges was openly calling for rebellion: “There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt or you stand on the wrong side of history.” Wages of Rebellion doesn’t miss a beat, announcing that “We live in a revolutionary moment.” What this means, in Hedges’s analysis, is that the corporate-fascist powers-that-be have lost any credibility, running the global economy into the ground while destroying the environment. As a result, the middle class have lost hope in the essential myth of progress, that they can better their own and their children’s lives. This makes an overthrow of the ruling class, and the capitalist system, necessary. Leading the revolt, however, will take a special kind of character. Revolt is ultimately an irrational act, a leap of faith, and the true rebel will only be someone possessed of “sublime madness.” But while the odds against the rebel are insurmountable, to keep on the present course is to be doomed. That said, the greatest danger may be that we are led into the wrong sort of rebellion. Revolutions have a way of going off the rails and heading in dangerous directions. Hedges is aware of the danger, but accepts the risk, believing that these are desperate times. If he’s right, then hope and fear hang in the balance.

  • Reagan: A Life

    By H. W. Brands

    On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Ronald Reagan received a videotaped message from his former vice-president George Bush, telling him that “they’ll get you on Mt. Rushmore yet.”

    That was meant as a joke, but since then there has been a serious movement to have Reagan’s face added to the famous cliff side. And it has to be said that his craggy features, captured in stony black and white on the cover of this new biography, do have a sculpted, monumental look.

    The legacy of Ronald Reagan continues to be a lively topic of debate, but in this new political biography H. W. Brands tries for a more objective look. Reagan: A Life sticks almost entirely to primary sources, leaving arguments over their meaning and interpretation to others. This is Reagan in his own words.

    There is at least one very big problem with this. Brands’s declaration that “the most important source of information on Ronald Reagan is Reagan himself” has to be carefully qualified: “most important” does not always mean “best.” In his memoirs, letters, speeches, and even in his diaries, Reagan cultivated an image. He knew he was writing for posterity and consciously crafting advertisements for himself. He could also be forgetful, make mistakes, and fudge the truth.

    Given Brands’s approach, it’s not surprising that his version of Reagan is a very familiar, genial figure.

    But that persona was Reagan’s gift. He was a broadcaster, an actor, and a corporate pitchman before entering politics. For Brands, what drove Reagan into politics was the need for attention, an audience, a stage to perform on.

    He was, however, also a fierce ideologue, and one of his greatest political achievements was to put a happy, optimistic face on American conservatism. Barry Goldwater scared people, but Ronald Reagan made them feel comfortable with policies equally as extreme (indeed, Goldwater had occasion to challenge Reagan for going too far). Hence his title as the Great Communicator.

    But Reagan was already an old man when first elected for president, and as ideologues age they tend to experience a hardening of their ideology. With regard to the entire messy Iran-contra affair in particular Reagan was so sure that what he was doing was right, he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. As George Shultz, his secretary of state, observed, what he believed “was true to him, although it was not reality.”

    Today, love him or hate him, Reagan is usually seen as one of the two most consequential American presidents of the twentieth century, a judgment Brands agrees with. But with the perspective of nearly thirty years since his leaving office, does this still hold true?

    It seems less so in the area of foreign affairs. Reagan is often trumpeted as the man who won the Cold War, and it’s true that resistance to what he dubbed the evil Soviet empire was one of the keynotes of his administration. But many high-ranking diplomats have since opined that he may have actually prolonged the Cold War rather than hastened its end, and his rhetoric served mainly to create a myth of American triumphalism in the conflict with negative effects still being felt today.

    Brands tries hard to play up the importance of Reagan’s summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, as a way of justifying the book’s blow-by-blow accounts of their painstaking progress. “Never in world history had the heads of two major powers of an era argued matters more portentous for so many people in so many countries across the planet. Almost literally, Reagan and Gorbachev held the fate of humanity in their hands.” But the fact is these meetings came to nothing even in the short run, and were based on false premises and marked by deceit on both sides.

    On the domestic front, Reagan levelled endless rhetoric against big government, but government grew under his watch, as did the nation’s debt. Perhaps his primary achievement was to acquiesce in the interests of the financial elite and big business, thus beginning the long ramp upwards into ever higher levels of economic inequality, the results of which are all around us.

    Barack Obama thought Reagan one of the few presidents to have “changed the trajectory” of American politics. Both domestically and abroad, however, he affected the course of events very little.

    What he did achieve, however, or at least what he signaled, was a shift in America’s mental make-up. If there was a Reagan revolution it was in how people thought about politics. This marked a dramatic change, for good or ill.

    Review first published July 25, 2015. For more on Reagan see my reviews of The Invisible Bridge and The Man Who Sold the World.