Active Measures

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

We can often be forgiven our sins of omission. We let small duties slip, under-perform just slightly on challenges to our integrity. If the harm done is not too great, and we buck up and pledge to do better, fine. We can’t be expected to attend to every little thing all the time.

Take Hi C Fruit Punch. I was raised in a time when adults believed it was good for kids, because, read the label, it has vitamin C. Back then, there were no science-based warnings like this one that say, for the love of god, DO NOT give this diabetes bomb to innocent children. It was a sin of omission.

But not anymore. Now we know. In just a few few minutes you can inform yourself, using reliable sources, about what Hi C is–a dyed mixture of water and corn syrup containing more sugar than Coke. And, so informed, you need never again be implicated in the peculiar form of child abuse for which this product was designed.

This past week I was reminded that, in some cases we are not merely guilty of passive, Hi-C-in-the-1970s-style ignorance, but we sometimes take active measures to achieve the levels of stupidity our corporate masters desire of us.

If you don’t believe in the Devil, you can go ahead and believe in this, which is far worse: we humans will actively harm our intellects to keep from knowing things that threaten to constrain our other appetites.

chimps

For example, it is no secret that lobby groups have for decades suppressed any kind of scientific research into gun violence. The CDC wants to do this analysis, since gun violence is a leading cause of death, but it can’t get the funding. For anyone with eyes to see, this is clearly because the gun industry does not want to have a Hi C moment. Almost everyone who looks at the available data knows, for example that, if you of keep guns in the house to defend against “home invasion,” you are much more likely to end up killing or wounding yourself, your spouse, or someone else in your family than an intruder. To put the point slightly technically, gun possession in the home makes self-harm a more likely outcome than successful home defense.

But here’s the rub. The point cannot be put more than slightly technically, because the necessary science has been prevented. (Orwell wrote with bitter disdain about the “prevention of literature” in an authoritarian political culture. He would have loved the idea that the authorities could also prevent science. Not.)

Suppose for a second that you are a rational actor seeking to make an informed decision about whether to keep guns in your home. (I’m not sure there are rational actors, since the work of Tversky and Kahnemann, but the concept is at least a useful fiction. It makes a certain kind of liberal politics on which our laws are based possible, so let’s go with it.)

What you want is a sound cost-benefit analysis, a comparison of the most likely risks and rewards presented in your dilemma. The perceived rewards in this case are generated inside your head. They are derived from horrific, or possibly heroic scenarios of you confronting psychopathic home invaders bent on harming you and your family. Movies and TV help supply these images. But drawing on one’s cinematic intuitions of home invasion as a data source does not really give us a running start at making a rational choice. However, we have to start somewhere. Let’s table this side of the analysis and take a look at the other side.

The data on the other side, about the potential costs of keeping guns in the house, comes from . . . nowhere. That’s because, as I noted, it has been forbidden to do the required research. Since the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which drastically cut funding for gun violence research, no major studies have been done on the potential linkage between gun ownership and various kinds of self-harm. And the spirit of that law has been vigorously reinforced over the decades by the energetic lobbying of the NRA. Anytime some crusading university or think tank starts thinking about trying to reinvigorate gun violence research, the NRA meets with the senator(s) who are capable of shutting it down. And shut down it is. It’s money well spent, if your objective is never to know anything substantive about linkages between guns and gun death.

The last, probably only rigorous study of the risks and rewards of keeping guns in the home was done in 1993. It said if you kept a gun at home you tripled the chances that someone would be shot there, and that someone was rarely an intruder. Specifically: “The researchers found that a majority of victims, 76.7 percent, were killed by a spouse, family member or someone they knew, and that in 85 percent of cases there was no forced entry into the home.”

Research, if it is to be effective, must be done and re-done. Its results must be challenged, validated, put into new contexts. Much has changed since 1993. Or has it? When it comes to gun deaths, we really don’t know. Many gun advocates with even a rudimentary understanding of statistics are probably looking at that figure from 1993 that says keeping a gun at home triples the risk and saying to themselves, “Well, okay, that’s a change in risk, but what’s the absolute risk level? If it’s small enough, I might still make a rational choice to keep a gun in my home. That tripling figure might not be decisive for me if it means the risk factor goes up from .01 percent to .03. Going from one percent to three, though?–that might be a different story.

But we’re on course to never know the real figures. Active measures are being taken to prevent the pertinent knowledge. Ambient levels of ignorance among the public are not good enough for the NRA, so they are funding active resistance to scientific research.

Here is the nub of the problem: corporations and their lobbyists (and therefore our government) are doing whatever it takes to deprive us of the science necessary to ground a rational choice. No matter which side of the debate our instincts lie on, it is impossible for us to discover enough to upgrade our emotive instincts to reasoned arguments. We’re allowed to know about the effects of Hi C on blood sugar (thank goodness), but the effects of guns on the home and family are officially off limits.

You know that bumper sticker, Guns don’t kill people. People kill people? The NRA pays our government millions of dollars to make sure scientists never turn that quip into a testable hypothesis. It works because it remains a bumper sticker. Ignoring the potential link between guns and gun violence is a (forgivable) sin of omission but only as long as the relevant scientific knowledge is never generated.

This topic came up last week because the latest federal budget included a provision that said a teensy weensy bit of research might happen sometime. As weak as the clause is, it should be child’s play for the lobbyists to kill it.

So stopping science before it starts is one way to promote mass ignorance. Another one is to take a hammer and wreck scientific results after they have been produced.

An article in the Atlantic Monthly last week brought this kind of active measure into the light. Basically, this is what has happened. A federal agency tightly under the control of the current regime (yes, it is a regime), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), got ahold of research produced by the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) that had been used to underwrite emissions restrictions put in place by the former administration.

The EPA had rolled out this research in the usual way, by publishing a detailed explanation of the science behind it and a transparent record of how it got incorporated into policy recommendations. This is the kind of boring, thankless job that civil servants do each day for the citizens and leaders of the country. It gets done not for glory or money, but because individual experts are committed to public service and professional standards.

This kind of boring, deliberate process, by the way, is necessary in a republic because it allows citizens and lawmakers to judge for themselves whether the laws and rules that regulate our lives comport with reason and reality. It’s the kind of thing you would read with interest if you suspect big government ever tends to get too big. This kind of transparency is one thing that makes the difference between a law and a decree. When a government just says whatever it wants, without accountability or reason, that’s a decree.

And the NHTSA did such a shoddy job of showing its work on its latest emissions study that its conclusion looked an awful lot like a decree.

For decades, the EPA and NHTSA had coordinated closely on their work on tailpipe emissions, and their conclusions and policy recommendations were more or less issued jointly. But in 2018 the NHTSA took the most recent joint report on emissions and, without the EPA’s knowledge, re-jiggered its most important assumptions and re-did much of its math. The conclusion they came up with–and I am not making this up; if you don’t trust the Atlantic you can read the scientific paper on which its story is based–the conclusion they came up with was that increasing the weight and carbon emissions of American cars would save American lives.

This conclusion came out, unsurprisingly, without the long, tedious explanation that is required to accompany a change in federal rules. In the 7th grade, this is what you get a D for–writing a thesis sentence without any supporting evidence. It turned out, though, that there was something behind the study that was supposed to look like evidence, . . . kind of.

I had no idea what a turducken was before I read this article, but hats off to its author for describing the NHTSA’s reasoning behind this conclusion as a turducken of errors.

So instead of just coming out and making the baseless claim that we’d all be better off in bigger cars that emit more greenhouse gases, some apparatchiks in the NHTSA used a crayon–who knows, maybe it was a sharpie–to falsify the science behind a painstaking analysis to the contrary. The peer-reviewed science paper that rebuts NHTSA’s work says it “cited incorrect data and made calculation errors, on top of bungling the basics of supply and demand.”

I use the term apparatchik with due consideration. When Soviet regime loyalists needed to pull the wool over the people’s eyes, which was pretty much all the time, they would go back and change the written record to do so. They would simply make events or people disappear from books and newspapers. Or, insert new persons and events. And as Orwell illustrated in 1984, changing the documentary record with sufficient force and assiduousness is as good as changing the underlying reality.

Give an editor enough power, and s/he literally controls the truth. The NHTSA is trying to exercise this kind of power. It is trying to take a rule based in science and replace it with a decree based in the regime’s say-so.

The active suppression of facts–about guns, cars, what have you–flies in the face of what it means to be American. We are not supposed to be scared of information, or of the intellectual disciplines that test information and put it in theoretical context. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “[L]et facts be submitted to a candid world,” and the world can evaluate them. The current regime, which has already outraged so many other American values, thinks we are unworthy of knowing facts, prefers that we put our faith in memes and bumper stickers instead. This active maiming of our own intellectual faculties is what makes decrees possible.

Our country was created for the bold exercise of intellectual courage. It’s part of our national purpose. Alexander Hamilton wrote about this in Federalist No. 1, the very first essay that made a case for what our country would be for. First and foremost, he said, the United States would be an experiment:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Sins of omission happen by the hundreds. Have I read every rule explanation that deals with, say, implementing the Clean Water Act? Nope. I’ve let my intellectual responsibilities slide. But I have a certain amount of justified faith that the pertinent explanations are available and have been designed by reflection and choice. I have been able, so far, to get by on a certain amount of trust that my government makes laws, not decrees.

But the government’s active measures to induce intellectual sloth and cowardice compromise this trust. Greater vigilance is called for. When we let a government cancel science and shout down reason, we make way for a life ruled by accident and force.

 

 

 

Review of “From Russia with Blood”

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

When Russian oligarch Mikhail Lesin ended up bludgeoned to death in his Washington D.C. hotel room in November 2015, the circumstances seemed suspicious.

Lesin was the founder of the English-language TV news channel Russia Today, and before that he had been Russia’s Minister of Mass Communications, twice, under Vladimir Putin. The job he had done for Putin was to eliminate the independent news media and replace it with talking heads that would silence the opposition and kowtow to the Kremlin. He was known as the bulldozer.

So, today, when Putin and other senior Russian officials appear on TV to smirk about the untimely deaths of the Kremlin’s political opponents–as they have done dozens of times–it is mostly Lesin they have to thank for enabling them.

And if you’ve never checked out Lesin’s brainchild, RT, you should. Its production values are just north of Fox News’s and its objectivity just south. Well, maybe. It depends on the day. RT’s mission, which it carries out well, is to make you feel like a sophisticated news consumer for believing there is no such thing as journalistic integrity. There are only messages out there, no truth. So take your pick.

But back to Lesin in that hotel room. The funny thing was, he was scheduled to meet with investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice the day his body was discovered. Despite years of being a loyal propaganda master to Putin, he had fallen out of the Kremlin’s favor since 2012, by drinking too much and squirreling away a suspicious amount of money in his new second home in Los Angeles, where he’d moved in 2011. Ostensibly he had needed the place in LA to establish RT’s beachhead in the U.S., but by 2012, he was starting to look settled there. Too settled. He owned two mansions in Beverly hills, his son was a Hollywood producer, and his $40 million yacht was docked nearby.

All that money came from somewhere, of course, and it probably wasn’t clean. That’s where the DoJ came in. By 2014 the feds knew Lesin was running scared from Putin’s assassins, and Washington was probably eager to make a deal. It would use an investigation of Lesin’s money laundering to strike a quid-pro-quo, offering to go soft on the oligarch’s financial crimes if he would cough up intelligence about Putin and the Kremlin’s inner workings.

Which is basically one of the best ways that exist to end up bludgeoned to death in your D.C. hotel room.

But funny enough, that’s not how the D.C. cops saw it. When the coroner determined Lesin had died of repeated applications of blunt-force trauma to the head,  the police concluded Lesin had done it to himself, by getting falling-down drunk and, well, falling down. Many times, and very hard. They didn’t know what to make of an unidentified person seen on CCTV going to Lesin’s room that night, so they dismissed the footage. Lesin had just had a really weird, bad night that ended in a bizarre tragedy. On the night before he was to meet with the DoJ. Is it too much to believe? Well, there is no truth out there, only messages. Take your pick.

From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin’s Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West by BuzzFeed journalist Heidi Blake, is a painstakingly researched, ferociously reported story of the Kremlin’s increasingly bold killing of opponents abroad and at home.

Lesin’s death, while luridly fascinating, is only a side show to the string of 14 suspicious killings of Kremlin opponents that have occurred in the United Kingdom since 2006. That was the year two Russians poisoned the defector and former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive element polonium. Polonium is so radioactive that the two assassins who spread it on Litvinenko’s teacup left a trail of it all over London and inside the commercial airliner they used to escape back to Russia. The cleanup cost several million pounds. A doctor determined the assassins had used 26 times the lethal amount of polonium to kill Litvinenko. The substance could be, and ultimately was, traced to a unique source in Russia.

This meant two things. One, the Kremlin intended Litvinenko’s murder to be an emphatic warning, a deliberate atrocity carried out with Soviet giganticism. Twenty-six times the lethal amount of poison is like shooting someone 100 times with a pistol.

But it wasn’t a shooting, which would have caused a scene and possibly an arrest. So, two, Putin wanted just enough plausible deniability to brush off Britain’s criminal accusations but no more. Like any mob boss, he wanted the victim’s family and supporters to know who had ordered the hit. No sooner had Putin denied the killing with typical icy deflection than a loyal deputy in the Duma said of Litvinenko, “The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am sure his terrible death will be a warning to all the traitors that in Russia the treason is not to be forgiven.

We didn’t do it, but if we did, the rat deserved it.

And it didn’t stop there. The alleged assassins, safe back home, were trotted out and interviewed on Russian news channels, establishing their innocence and complete befuddlement at being caught up in such wild international accusations. It is likely that many ordinary Russians watching the two men knew what the world’s intelligence services knew: that those men were really Russian agents and they really had killed Litvinenko. But ordinary Russians liked it that Putin could stick it in the world’s eye by bulldozing the truth and killing traitors wherever he found them.

From Russia

From Russia with Blood tells an infuriating story of how the Kremlin has been bulldozing the truth and flexing its mob muscle since Putin rose to power in 2000. From the most recent outrage on international law, the brazen poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal in March 2018 in the UK, all the way back to Putin’s recruitment of Mikhail Lesin in 2000 to eliminate the free press in Russia, all the people now dead who were linked in any way to Litvinenko shared a trait that makes them potentially very dangerous. They were all knowledgeable of a credible criminal theory that implicates Putin in acts of state terrorism dating back to the beginning of his career as a national politician.

The causal news consumer in the West can be forgiven for believing the standard line on Putin–that he is a little authoritarian around the edges but not fundamentally different from any strong national leader. In the early 2000s our own leaders, George W. Bush and Tony Blair foremost, worked hard to cultivate this image of Putin. It was part of bringing Russia into the liberal world order after the chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

What the Western leaders didn’t know–or, what they refused to believe–was that Putin had likely orchestrated the bloody national emergencies in the heart of Russia that had helped propel him to power, starting with a string of apartment building bombings in late 1999. Although the bombings, which killed more than 300 people, were blamed on Chechen separatists (launching a bloody but highly convenient war), Litvinenko methodically uncovered evidence (about the FSB, the very agency in which he worked) that directly implicated Putin.

By the time Litvinenko defected to the UK in 2001, he had all the evidentiary material he needed to establish Putin’s guilt, which he wrote down in a book, with the shockingly frank title Blowing Up Russia. (You think meeting with the American DoJ to talk about Putin is a good way to get yourself whacked?) It built on an earlier book by Litvinenko, with the less explosive title The Gang from Lubyanka, advancing the eye-popping accusation that Putin’s rise to power had been a criminal enterprise from the beginning because he was in so thick with the mafia.

From Russia with Blood is a clear-eyed, highly readable account of what happened to every Russian (and many foreign associates) who knew of, promoted, or were even looking into the evidence behind Litvinenko’s theories. By the time you put the book down, you cannot fail but take seriously Blake’s thesis that Putin has long gotten away with murder and intends to do so again. It is the foundation of his power. From Russia with Blood is a glaring, violent morality tale of what happens when a vindictive strongman accrues unaccountable power.

 

 

 

Russians

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Gore Vidal once declined to take an interviewer’s bait suggesting that he might be hiding a warmer layer beneath his icy, patrician surface. Vidal said if you cracked his frozen surface you would find only cold water beneath it. Not the slightest hint of the warmth the interviewer was going for.

Vidal had a very cold eye for American politics.

Among his more memorable observations, two always stand out in my mind.

There is only one party in America, he said on more than one occassion, and it has two right wings–the party of property. This was to remind Americans that by the 1950s, a whole range of decisions we had been trained to label as “left wing” was, in fact, the stuff of plain old governance, which, for most of our history, ran toward the center-right. This included the provision of schools, hospitals, and the rest of the public infrastructure on which a modern economy depends. Many American adults used to know, for example, that you could not have a road without paying for it and the way to pay for it was agreeing to pay a tax.

Which leads to Vidal’s other standout observation.

He also decried the info-tainment revolution in political discourse, not because it was shabby, but because it forever changed the subject of political debate. Politics, Vidal was wont to say, used to be an adult conversation about who gets what from the state, how they get it, and what they wish to to do with it. This dry sort of talk has been replaced by celebrity trash mongering.

The serious conversation about money still goes on, of course, but its architects have learned they can hold it in private if they just fling to Us the People enough mentions of guns, abortion, and scandal.

Vidal was never what you would call coy in his opinion of the body politic, but by the end of his career he stopped even being polite. “Your lack of education is the joke of the world,” he told Americans in one of his last interviews, in 2009. “And it’s not a very nice joke,” he added, in the spirit of helping, I suppose.

So, looking back at a proposal Vidal had made in a 1992 essay about forming an economic union with Russia, it is easy to read the cynical politics between the lines of what appears to be an all-business deal. What Vidal wrote was:

Although we don’t have much money left to give [Russia], a lively president and a few corporate magnates with no more than average IQs could start making deals to develop Russian oil and other resources. This would generate the money for the Russians to buy our consumer goods, which, in turn, would make us prosperous again.

So far so good. (I find Vidal, the storied leftist, gets far too little credit for his mastery of Realpolitik. He once said with a straight face that the only reason America should go to war, other than self defense, is if it needs the loot.)

But then Vidal tacks on this observation, originally made by an even colder eye, on why an economic union with Russia would be a good fit:

H.L. Mencken noted many years ago that the “Russians were like the Americans. They, too, were naturally religious and confiding; they, too, were below the civilized average in intelligence; and they, too, believed in democracy, and were trying to give it a trial.”

One gets the disquieting sense that Vidal is not making his recommendation in good faith. He seems already to have relegated the American people to the status of a joke. If we are intent on being nothing more than crass, profligate consumers with a very large military, we should go all in, he seems to suggest, and find our natural friends, with whom to make common cause. He is at pains to say these friends would not be the up and coming Japanese or Chinese, who would have no use for us. Drifting downward, and on the wrong side of history, we would be left with the Russians.

Elsewhere (I can’t find the source at the moment), Vidal comes completely clean and says the real reason America should ally itself with Russia is a combination of culture and geopolitics: we are both fighting rearguard actions to defend the industrialized supremacy of a shrinking population of white people in the global North. Of course Vidal did not believe in this cause per se. He abhorred bigotry and all other kinds of narrow-mindedness. What he meant was, we belonged with the Russians, and we should have the courage to say so. When Americans decry Russians as blockheaded, thuggish, parochial and cruel, we should at least have the honesty to admit it is our own image we see in the mirror they are holding up to us.

If we are going to be so monumentally stupid as to turn the 21st century into an age of racial war against Asia and Africa and the whole global South, we should square up and recognize who our closest allies in the fight would be–the Russians. Let the doughfaced pugilists of the moneygrubbing world unite!

Understand, please, I am only commending Vidal’s thoughts on this topic as an intellectual exercise. It is instructive to analyze everything that is “wrong” with Vidal’s position. (I also suspect Vidal of some deep Socratic irony here, so let’s run with that.)

I was reminded last month–more than once–of how grossly Vidal underestimates the Russian national character. Or, to adapt the words of the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, how distatsefully close Vidal comes to “us[ing] the word ‘Russians’ to mean goons.” We have equated Russianness with Putinism.

When in 1992 Vidal said, in effect, oh, go ahead America, make common cause with Russia, he was imagining an alliance formed between our lowest common denominators. Deplorables, if you will. (One can see this script being flipped to great ironic effect, by the way. It is all too easy to imagine a Russian Gore Vidal chiding the desperate poor in his country that if they could only buy as many guns as their American comrades, they could accelerate to a mad, Hunter S. Thompson rush what has been depressing, Gogolian slog toward suicidal nihilism. Live free or die? America’s armed peasants show you can have it both ways!)

In actuality, most of the 3 million people who identify as Russian Americans came here seeking shelter from authoritarianism. This authoritarianism was born, furthermore, of the very elements of “Russianness” that Vidal in 1992 wished us to recognize as our own, the potential basis of an alliance with Russia–militarism, materialism, nationalism, and a religious Weltanschauung that was–Mencken war right–below the civilized average in its intelligence.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Russian American are among the most eleoquent defenders of America’s unique brand of political freedom. Also unsurprisingly, they are acutely sensitive to the biggest threats to it.

In a passionate but clear-eyed essay in the New York Review of Books, Russian-American dissident Gary Kasparov warns that the rise of Trumpism, which was consolidated by the U.S. Senate’s refusal last week to hear witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, bears too many similarites to the slow-motion coup of Vladimir Putin to ignore. Trump has exploited plain-as-day loopholes in our laws, Kasparov says, left there by our assumption that the president would always be a minimally decent person with a rudimentary commitment to public service. There are lines in the sand, drawn by custom and tradition.

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The pro-Putin group Nashi (“Ours”) wants to make Russia great again [image: RFE/RL]
Well, Kasparov knows better than most what little power custom and tradtition have when systematically challenged. Here, he describes how frail a legal barrier custom and tradition can be when it comes under bold frontal assault:

After three years of his increasingly disgraceful behavior, Trump’s critics still seem to believe there are lines he will not cross in order to protect himself and his power. This is a common mistake, and a natural one. A disregard for anything but oneself is a type of evil superpower in politics (and business). It allows such people to constantly surprise their rivals by doing what others find unthinkable. Every time I hear someone say, “But Trump would never do x,” I recall all the times we were told by tut-tutting Western pundits that surely Putin would never jail his opposition, would never return to the presidency, would never invade Ukraine, etc. He would and he did.

Institutions, we once thought, would always stand up to an autocrat. We were as wrong about that as Putin’s Russians were wrong about Putin. Starting with political parties, our institutioins are failing to do their jobs, as Kasparov warns:

Leading the way to political perdition is the American Republican Party. The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan is now slavishly loyal to a corrupt reality-TV host whose only demonstrable allegiances are to his own image and Vladimir Putin. GOP legislators of the past pushed back against Richard Nixon, against Gerald Ford, and even against Reagan and George W. Bush. That someone of the high crimes and low character of Donald Trump now commands complete Republican fealty says more about the state of the GOP, and perhaps the country, than about Trump—and it says nothing good.

Worse, the GOP sees Trump not as an embarrassment to endure but as a working model to perpetuate. What Trump believes matters not at all; it only matters that he won and holds power. Worst of all, Trumpism looks set to outlast Trump himself—with whichever equally unqualified family member tries to succeed him in the finest autocratic tradition. Trump’s victory in the 2016 election validated his personal bombastic political style. There is still time to relegate it as a terrible mistake, a tragic fluke of tiny electoral college margins, an unpopular opponent, foreign intervention, and media gullibility. But Trump’s reelection in 2020 would validate his political methods and have a long-lasting impact on America and the world.

Russian-American journalist Anastasia Edel describes with great eloquence how fluidly American attitudes toward Russians have shifted since her family fled the USSR for the US in the 1970s:

To be a first-generation Russian-American in the age of Donald Trump is a somewhat nutty experience. As “Russians,” the identity into which we were born, we are now associated less with Dostoevsky and Pasternak, and more with election interference, troll farms, and other subversions of democracy. Yet as “Americans,” our hard-earned new identity, we are the citizens of the very democracy that the “Russians” are believed to have sabotaged. The set-up seems almost purposely literary. In the age of Trump, we are America’s Trojan horse, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov in one person. If the Russians didn’t exist, it would have been a good idea to invent us.

And again, it is the Russians’ exposure to the varieties of the totalitarian experience in the old country that shapes their consciousness as liberal democrats in America. They’ve seen the goons, gulags and other forms of state repression arrive on the scene before, and they know authoritarianism sometimes creeps before it runs. Edel writes:

In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and a perestroika-era symbol of Russia’s democratic rebirth, was gunned down not far from the Kremlin. That March, the then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told the Daily Mail about “an award and a beautiful letter” he had received from Vladimir Putin. Over the course of the year, he praised Putin’s “leadership,” called him “brilliant,” and said he would “get along” with him. For Russian-Americans like myself, this was the time when Russia “came home.” No surprise that early warnings against Trump’s authoritarianism came from “the Russians”—public figures like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Garry Kasparov, and Masha Gessen. “Holy autocrats,” “Father Tsars,” and “Fathers of All Nations” have ruled our land for centuries, so we can spot the type even when he comes in the guise of “Make America Great Again.” We agonized when our American friends told us Trump could not win. Our memories of totalitarianism were too fresh to discount gut feeling in favor of opinion polls.

Elections are not equivalent with democracy. They can lead to that broad, sunlit upland, but they can also lead into a wilderness. It takes a full range of robust institutions and a motivated, informed public to keep a democratic republic.

We passed a grim milestone this week, in which our own institutions did not just falter in checking the president’s aspirations for monarchical power, but they actively supported and succored them. Any Russian Americans watching could have easily seen shades of the Politburo in the Capitol rotunda.

Back to Gore Vidal’s sour question, then: Are we Russia?

Edel thinks it’s a comparison worth considering. She writes:

Perhaps the real bottom line, as Nina Khrushcheva says, is that Americans are much more like Russians than they care to admit. Both live in large, multinational countries. Both are not averse to messianic ideas and a belief in their unique path. The other side’s faults are magnified in the mirror that we hold up to each other. The blacker the colors with which we paint our adversary, the brighter we appear by comparison. To believe that Russia is the reason for, rather than amplifier of, the disturbing tendencies in American society is tempting, because if Russia goes away, so will those tendencies. The danger is that we may be taking our desires for reality.

We should listen to “our” Russians. Most of them came here because they recognized their country for what it was and decided they could not be fully themselves there. They would need a new home, and America held out, as it always had, the world’s best guarantees that they could come and pursue happiness unmolested by state repression. They may not have a monopoly on truth, but they know what it looks like when the liberal order gives way to the illiberalism of a strongman. They know it doesn’t have to come to this, to Putinism. That’s why they are here. We should listen to our Russians.

 

Militarism and National Pride

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

What kinds of things should Americans be proud of?

Only since the late 1940s have we been proud of military might as a token of national strength. In a way, being a military superpower wasn’t something we asked for. World War Two started in far away places, and we joined the fighting only when our hand was forced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (And, less noticed, because FDR increasingly came to see the war as a global, existential conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism, from which we could not in good conscience absent ourselves.)

So we had to build a war-winning machine, which we did. The scale of the task was larger than in times past, but we prepared for war in 1941 the way we always had–on the fly. These days it’s difficult, if not impossible, to recall a time when our country was not on a permanent war footing.

We didn’t used to consider war a normal part of life. Before the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, we had had a Department of War, not Defense, and we only had that intermittently, when necessary.

To put that in perspective, our country existed for 171 years without a permanent department to organize the provision of national defense. We also lacked a standing army for most of that time. But when World War Two ended, not with a clear and decisive victory for liberal democracy but with a lingering, persistent threat of conflict with the USSR, it became necessary to form permanent institutions of defense.

This was, in my estimation, a national tragedy. Our hand may have been forced, but in any case the country turned a corner and became something it had never been before, a national security state.

With the passage of the National Security Act, the resulting colossus of a defense- and intelligence bureaucracy imbricated itself with a massive network of defense industries and educational institutions. The whole thing became precisely what Dwight Eisenhower warned could overtake our national purpose–a military industrial complex.

And of course, Ike had no idea what a corporate lobbyist was, or he would have referred to them as part of the MIC too. This suave and canny battalion of retired generals grow rich promoting the business of defense–and in doing so they keep the permanent war economy humming.

Today the U.S. national security state is unstoppable. This is primarily because it is politically unquestionable. In 1981 Ronald Reagan immunized the national military budget against meaningful review, saying in a speech that defense was “not a line item expense.” He meant that defense was a fixed cost, to be paid out before the leftovers–which make up the discretionary budget–are divvied up.

You can see the legacy of this doctrine today in the way the defense budget is set aside. Although politicians give lip service to the idea that we gauge our future military to specific threats we anticipate, this argument is mocked by the way the budget is really drawn up.

As Jessica Mathews wrote in the New York Review of Books in July 2019, “For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending, underway now on Capitol Hill, no longer probes where real cuts might be made (as opposed to cuts in previously planned growth) but only asks how big the increase should be.”

Regardless of all the work that scientists, intelligence analysts and other experts put into understanding future threats against which to calibrate our military capabilities, the Pentagon spending graph simply describes an unthinking upward arrow. It represents a percentage of national wealth fixed by dogma, not intelligence, imagination or empirical information.

The uncritical conviction with which we accept this arrangement is relatively new. Americans viewed President Lincoln’s first-ever levying of an income tax as an emergency measure necessary to win the Civil War, and they were eager to turn it off as soon as the war was won.

There was no permanent income tax until the 16th amendment to the constitution was ratified in 1913. Today the tax spigot runs night and today into the Defense Department, at full blast. I’m not sure how many Americans understand how much political choice has been taken away from them by the normalization of unquestioned defense expenditures and the national security state that perpetuates them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hippie peacenik. I served in the military. So did my dad. So does my sister. We have all fought in foreign wars. I believe in having a strong enough military to provide for a national defense. I even acknowledge that some costly overseas military commitments that were once characterized as unwelcome “foreign entanglements” have evolved into constructive alliances and real friendships. Our abiding military alliance with Germany, for example, is the world’s best guarantee that vibrant, powerful, ingenious countries will not be tempted once again into the darkness of militarized fascism.

The necessity of having a national security state is what the political scientist John Mearsheimer calls the “tragedy of great power politics.” The logic of security competition dictates that the safest place in a dangerous world is at the top of the military power order. So, if you live in a big, powerful country, you are always gunning for that goal. Second place is not good enough.

In line with this logic but without anyone voting for it, our number one national priority became military supremacy sometime between 1945 and 1947. Then, it was fixed as law. And whatever onerous job Americans take on, we take pride in doing it well. We became great military-industrialists.

I’d like to take a few minutes to think about the unseen, neglected costs of this development. What kinds of great accomplishments we had taken pride in in the past, before we became militarists?And what kinds of great accomplishments ought we to take pride in going forward? The shadow cast by our overwhelming military power obscures many other things we used to be good at and consider vital to our national character–things worthy of national pride.

Pride and patriotism have gone out of fashion with much of my tribe of progressives and communitarians. Pretty much the whole left started going silent on national pride since Vietnam, and the theme hasn’t picked up much since then. This is a mistake.

In his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, the philosopher Richard Rorty argues that national pride is essential to good politics whether of the left or right. He writes:

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with one’s country–feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history–is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation probably will not occur unless pride outweighs shame.

Whatever causes we may have for pessimism at particular moments in history, our longer-term national faith in progress requires that we override them. “Democracy,” wrote William James, “is a kind of religion, and we are bound not to admit its failure.”

We have a deep need to believe in our country and to find reasons to be proud of it. Ideally, there should be some consensus about what these reasons are, but the pursuit of this consensus must be guided by moral seriousness. As the Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in the introduction to her 2019 book This America: The Case for the Nation:

Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will. The endurance of nationalism proves there’s never any shortage of fiends and frauds willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence. When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.

Liberalism, the cause on which our country was founded, is at risk of dying? That sounds dire. But, Lepore continues, more hopefully:

Liberalism is still in there. The trick is getting it out. There’s only one way to do that. It requires grabbing and holding onto a very good idea: that all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws. This requires making the case for the nation.

Notice what she said there at the end. We must make the case for the nation. Not the laws; those will be determined by the question, What is the nation for?

this america

There are three reasons, I believe, to look beyond our country’s military strength for the sources of inspiration capable of renewing our sense of national pride and making the case for the nation.

The first is that, even if military might can be seen as an intrinsically noble national characteristic, it is one that has been forced upon us by the logic of state-level security competition. As such, it is more a reflexive adaptation to global circumstances than an informed, creative choice about what our nation is for. When I think of the struggles and accomplishments that underwrite my self-respect, I think first of the things I freely chose, such as studying hard or having children, over adaptations forced on me by circumstances. Make no mistake, one’s responses to unbidden challenges are certainly a mark of character, but surely it the the things we must first imagine before pursuing them that lie closer to the glowing core of  who we are.

Second, military might is a value-neutral characteristic, neither good nor bad in itself. Abraham Lincoln built a military juggernaut between 1861 and 1865 to defend the cause of liberal democracy. But then, Josef Stalin did the same from 1941 to 1945, in the service of monstrous authoritarianism.

My point is, any country with a certain amount of resources and organizational capacity can become militarily powerful without affecting their internal character. Don’t we want to focus first on the character we are seeking to defend?

Third, and this is relatively new, militarism at the national level has trickled down to the individual level, poisoning communal life by turning every public space you enter into a potential armed standoff. The same tragic circumstances our government is forced to confront in the international arena we have voluntarily re-created in our home lives. Stand Your Ground and Guns Everywhere laws mean the citizen is now legally obliged to regard normal life as armed conflict. And it touches us at our most tender points. In public schools across the country, the normalization of mass shooter drills and the corresponding provision of armed guards make up “rational” solutions to a problem that no decent, morally literate people would ever choose. But choose it we have.

Was this what our country was created for? To promote such a robust common defense that its by-products of military chauvinism and runaway gun culture dominate our social and cultural existence?

Thomas Jefferson, our greatest rhetorical defender of freedom, thought not. In the 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl surveys the yawning gap between where Jefferson saw our nation going and where we have actually come:

“[T]he care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good governance,” [Jefferson wrote]. A politics that spreads guns, blocks health care and defunds schools seems to have forgotten Jefferson’s basic principle. Behind these agendas are core assumptions that the happiness of a select few persons takes precedence over the care of a great many others.

All of the things that make me proud of America have something to do with care. I love Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of the National Park system. It was a grandiose but deeply humane way of caring for our natural endowment. I love Ellis Island, and the idea that our land can take in broken, desperate lives and give them a new chance. I love the creation of frontier- and Freedman schools in the 19th century. They show we cared about children, and the mind. I love Walt Whitman. He wrote a poem that said all Americans are creating and re-creating ourselves all the time. We care so much about our destinies we are always working on them, perpetually busy, as Bob Dylan would put it, being born.

In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty wrote this about art and politics and pride:

Nations rely on artists and intellectuals to create images of, and to tell stories about, the national past. Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.

And, to adapt Jill Lepore’s observation above, you can get those symbols from conscientious students of our history, or you can get them from reactionary jackboots.

In closing, here are the symbols of American greatness that get my vote. They are the wellspring of the stories I would want to have told about us. They may not describe us in our totality, but they say something vitally important about who we are at our best.

We have safe public spaces with a robust built environment that helps the most people go the most places and do useful, desirable things. There are few if any lethal weapons in my America but lots of sidewalks, bike paths, libraries and ice cream shops. The poor and infirm go into these space and are not walled off from the rich and healthy, or useful destinations. The elderly are not made to live shut-in lives after they stop driving. Cars take second place to people. That would make me proud.

Healthcare is good and accessible to all. We abandond the sadistic fantasy that says helthcare is a scarce commodity and the poor and middle class people must compete with the rich to get it. Healthcare is a human right, and we have the laws to protect it as such. Most of the world’s developed countries understand it is wrong to price people out of widely available healthcare resources.

We have great public schools, and teachers are paid on a scale commensurate with the job they do. Educating the next generation is the most important task there is in a republic. It is the sine qua non of having a great country. At a rough guess, I would say pay all public school teachers twice what they are getting now. I would be proud of that.

I could go on, but i think you get the flavor. For much of our nation’s life, we’ve been busy pioneering, creating, envisioning, becoming something bigger. As we create new reasons to be proud of our nation, I think it is worth looking back on what made us bold and inventive in the past. And then looking forward, to imagine a new republic, in which we re-order our priorities in creative, life-affirming ways.

 

This Is the End: Thoughts on Mortality and the Meaning of Life

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In his justly famous 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin writes this luminous passage on the sacredness of human life:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

In a way, Baldwin is presaging Bob Dylan’s sentiment, to come in 1965, that “He not busy being born is busy dying.” But we are all busy dying, as Baldwin makes clear. The important thing is to do the work that builds a meaningful life, else we are busy only dying. I’m pretty sure that’s what Dylan meant too.

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(Image: Shutterstock)

The myth that we will not die is not just an idle reflection of a childish wish, I believe. It does actual harm. It is a fantasy that decent, thinking people ought to avoid, threatening to lure us into all those diversions that Baldwin says can make us “sacrifice all the beauty of our lives.”

And it can do worse than that.

Consider the family of one rural Missouri teenager who shot and killed himself on Christmas day 2014 after being snubbed by a girl. In his 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl, records an interview with the boy’s aunt. The boy’s family is coping with the unimaginable trauma, says the aunt, by reflecting on “the fact that we know my nephew is in heaven.”

The fantasy of heaven is infinitely useful. It can divert our minds from almost any kind of loss or tragedy. One of the difficulties the dead boy’s family had to cope with was that he killed himself with one of two handguns lying loaded near his parents’ bed, put there for “home defense.” But, the boy’s suicide “absolutely has not changed [the aunt’s] view about guns,” Metzl reports. Nor were the boy’s parents moved to change their views.

I do not mean to sound uncharitable, but using the fantasy of never-ending life to erase one’s share of responsibility for the death of one’s child–as the parents did in this case– is inexcusably sordid and wicked. It is a shameful indulgence in the kind of demeaning religious escapism Orwell notes in his wonderful 1949 essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”:

Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.

No need to tell that family in Missouri that life is mostly suffering. I imagine it suffuses their whole existence now. But how much wiser and better prepared for life they would have been had they taken seriously the idea that their guns could very well end the only life each member of their family would ever have. “The meaning of life is that it ends,” wrote Philip Roth. Imagine life going on forever, and it means nothing.

The fantasy of immortality robs life of moral seriousness. It teaches us, among other things, that we’re all bound for a court date in the real life to come, so a great deal of thoughtlessness, recklessness, and a brutish disregard for the sanctity of this life are permissible and normal, so long as one’s pieties and religious prejudices are kept intact.

Ivan Ilyich is in physical anguish as he lies dying in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. But more traumatic is the mental realization that he had let his whole life pass by unexamined, hypnotized into believing the mass delusion that death does not exist. When he eventually senses the dishonesty in this dogma, it devastates him. At several points in his last, bedridden month of life, Ilyich rages against being “enmeshed” in a web of lies–an intricate deceit constructed by everyone around him that neither he nor they are dying.

The most heartrending part of Ivan Ilyich’s death is the depth of his estrangement from his family. At the end, when death is certain, he openly hates his wife and is coldly distant from his children. On rumination, he sees this horrible, decisive separation had its insensible germ in the decades of his “ordinary” past, as he and his family built separate, self-serving lives. They could have been building real connections based on love. (Ilyich had married for rank, his wife for money.) All those years he could have been busy being born, he was busy dying.

The prospect of dying urges us out of a transactional attitude toward others. “Only connect!” it tells us. E.M Forster knew this.

Forster’s best novels show us that binding our lives with others is not just our noblest purpose on earth, but that the act of connecting realizes life’s highest beauties and most abiding passions–the things we count as worthwhile on our deathbeds. In A Room with a View, the freethinking Mr. Emerson tries to kindle a spark between his reticent son George and pretty Lucy Honeychurch in the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. There is much more at stake than young love and concupiscence (but don’t discount those!). Love is the best, possibly only way of striking out against finitude’s meaninglessness. “We know that we come from the winds,” Mr. Emerson tells Lucy, “and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice. I don’t believe in this world sorrow.”

But sorrow surely comes, for all of us. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a tragic reminder of what happens when death arrives unannounced. One lesson is clear. If you are going to earn your death in the way Baldwin means it, you must begin to do so in the thick of life.  You cannot wait for the ravages of the dying process to strip you of this capacity.

When Baldwin says in “The Fire Next Time” that too many of us are willing to sacrifice the beauty of our individual lives for some trumped up, death-denying ideology, he is actually understating the case. Some of us are so eager to believe that an eternal amusement park awaits us in heaven that we positively long for not just our own deaths, but a species-wide extinction that is said to be necessary to clear the ground for the fun-filled Kingdom of Heaven.

In a 2007 essay that has somehow avoided wide publication, “End of the World Blues,” Ian McEwan dissects the religious fundamentalist’s lurid fascination with apocalypse and extinction. The apocalyptic frame of mind, McEwan observes, responds to an anxiety we all must eventually feel–that (1) the world will go on existing after we die, and (2) its existence will not be fixed to any particular endpoint or purpose that gave sense to our lives (like the ones usually defined in holy scripture, such as the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem and the reign of Christ on earth). In other words, life is, and will remain, higgedly piggedly. No one knows what it is leading up to, if anything.

As Mr. Emerson puts in in A Room with a View, “There is no cosmic plan.”

This prospect is awfully hard to take while one is poised at the edge of an all-enveloping destiny that approaches with unfeeling determination–the dark eternity that will take one back into the same vastness from which one came. One wants a good story instead. I was was the star of my show for so long, we feel, it cannot be that there was never really a show to begin with. “What could grant us more meaning against the abyss of time,” McEwan suggests, “than to identify our own personal demise with the purifying annihilation of all that is.”

In other words, if I am bowing out, then the whole story, stage and all, must come to an end. As patently childish as this attitude is, end-of-the-world fantasies are ubiquitous and have had impressive staying power. Almost all “civilizations” still nurse dreams of apocalypse that exert significant control over the human imagination. “Our secular and scientific culture,” McEwan writes, “has not replaced or even challenged these mutually incompatible, supernatural thought systems.”

It is no surprise that religions provide climactic, end-of-the-world stories. That’s sort of what religions do. Oddly, though, when we occasionally see cults and other fanatics acting out their own squalid apocalypse narratives in the real world, we can easily espy the wickedness and delusion inherent in them. When Jim Jones brought his followers to drink poison in Jonestown or Joseph Goebbels killed his five children and then himself as the scenery of the Nazi pageant was collapsing around him in Berlin in May 1945, we clearly perceive their acts as evil incarnate. But when we blithely send our children off to Sunday school or Bible camp to have them imbibe bloodier, more comprehensive visions of apocalypse (replete with “earthquakes and fires, thundering horses and their riders, angels blasting away on trumpets, magic vials, Jezebels, a red dragon, and other mythical beasts,” as McEwan catalogs), we catch not the slightest whiff of the death wish wafting from them.

It’s strange.

The idea that the whole world must end with my death, McEwan observes, is a way of resisting the revocation of meaning that looms as one’s demise comes clearly into focus. If for several decades my life meant everything, how can it simply (“absurdly” is Camus’ word for it) slip back into the eternal nothingness that preceded it?

Thus we come back to Baldwin and the idea of death as a gift. If death must come into focus, wouldn’t it be nobler, more hopeful, and altogether better to use it in the service of wisdom rather than dramatize it as part of a tawdry fantasy? Isn’t the wise use of death exactly what we have in mind when we draw up bucket lists or conjure up scenes of our deathbeds to clarify our big-picture priorities?

Dogmas of immortality would have us believe that the eternal bliss that awaits us is all that really matters: whatever slings and arrows assail us in the here and now are to be discounted as mere nothings. Jorge Luis Borges draws a fundamental paradox from this view in his short story “The Immortal.” Imagine yourself living forever in heaven or hell–and Borges means really try to imagine it, eon upon eon of foreverness. Whatever your experience is in this eternity, it was determined by an infinitesimally small segment of your total existence, an aburdly, vanishingly small flash of a microsecond when compared with the cosmic span of your eternal repose. Doesn’t this make it clear, Borges writes, that even the religiously-minded person knows instinctively that it is this life that has ultimate value?

I close with his words:

I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those first hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.

 

 

 

Review of “These Truths: A History of the United States” by Jill Lepore

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

“The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable,” James Madison reflects in Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States.

But it was not so with America. We have a clear record of the founding acts. Madison himself kept detailed notes about the crafting of the constitution. There were numerous newspapers that recorded the goings on in Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1787. The flourishing businesses that were enriching young America kept extensive books and made reports of their commerce. They thrived on, and archived a wealth of, factual information about the tastes, ambitions, and livelihoods of Americans at the time of our founding.

Perhaps most famously, three of our country’s founders, Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, wrote the Federalist Papers, 85 essays on why the Americans of 1787 should form a single nation under the constitution written in Philadelphia rather than remain in a loose confederation of independent states.

You can pick up the Federalist Papers for a couple bucks, by the way. Now that I’m in my 50s I don’t really care if I sound like a scold when I say: Please do acquire and read your own copy. Or, refrain from making any political arguments that start with, “Well, the Founders believed . . . ” If you’re going to do the latter, you must do the former. And do keep quiet if you cannot bother to acquaint yourself with the intellectual record of a country founded on a basis of literacy.

Jill Lepore, a scant two months older than I am, manages to strikes a friendlier tone than I do as she invites you to read the history of our country. She is an acclaimed Harvard scholar and writes clear, incisive, often beautiful prose so effortlessly (it seems), she has time to contribute frequently to the New Yorker. So, if you aren’t moved by my harangues to come to grips with the Federalist Papers, try Lepore instead.

I recently read These Truths, in about a week despite being busy with job, family and all the usual. It is a breathtakingly good book. This is less a review of it than a zealous appeal to read it for yourself.

These Truths

Why did Lepore write a one-volume history of the United States? A fair question. It is long–933 pages with notes, 753 without. But for Lepore, it is the through-line of our whole history that gives sense to the big question she wants to ask.

The purpose of the book, Lepore writes, is to work out a 2018 answer to a 1787 question, posed by Alexander Hamilton:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Reflection and choice. Or accident and force. That dichotomy is the lens through which Lepore examines the whole history of our country. It is a simple device that produces magnificent clarity.

When our country began, accident and force determined (among other things) that African slaves were to be treated as property, not persons. Even as the founders debated, disputed and drew up an explicit plan for liberal democracy, they mutely allowed the growth of a parallel totalitarian regime to rule the enslaved humans in America who did not count, in Hamilton’s formulation as “men,” capable of choosing, forming, or participating in a government.

Our history is a record of the long struggle to stop pretending that this regime did not exist, and that accident and force did not frequently overmaster reflection and choice as our guiding principles.

But make no mistake, These Truths is not a simple, prosecutorial history of slavery and repression and all the ways America has gone wrong because of its original sin. It is a much more complicated and satisfying story of how Americans have, with courage and daring and vision, persisted in seeking an answer to Hamilton’s question despite the original sin and despite the wrong turns along the way. I urge you to read it.

 

It Was A Very Good Year — 2019

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The best thing about being a citizen of a republic of letters is that you always feel at home, no matter where your feet are planted on Earth. The books you read hold you in place.

You can always submerge yourself in fascinating stories about what it means to be human. I think we can all relate to that. For about 30 years now I have believed that all good novels are in some way about human destiny–being “prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” Orwell wrote that in the last year of his life.

Orwell is known as the ultimate political thinker. But the funny thing is, politics came in a distant second place for him in the overall scheme of life. Orwell viewed political systems as powerful corruptors of human feeling and believed that you had to perfect a feeling of loyalty among your intimates first, before you could hope to achieve anything in politics. Hear, hear.

Looking back, I spent an unusual amount of time this year enjoying familiar places in the old republic of letters, re-reading just about every major novel that is important to me, revisiting old intimates. I hatched no plan to do this; it just happened.

Of course, I re-read Ninety Eighty-Four, twice. The second time through (this year), I wrote some detailed notes about the first two chapters, analyzing Orwell’s thoughts on privacy and moral decency line-by-line. I live for that sort of thing. Reading Orwell as an adult is  what reading the Bible was for me as a child.

The background reading for my re-look at Nineteen Eighty-Four was Avishai Margalit’s The Decent Society, a philosophical consideration of collective moral responsibility. The whole point of having the institutions that form society, Margalit argues, is to prevent us humiliating our fellow man. In the present moment of assertive stupidity and coarseness and hostility toward the weak, I cannot recommend The Decent Society highly enough.

A great novel reveals the large-scale forms of life that have crept over humanity without our noticing them–the million and one little decisions we humans have made which could have gone this way or that and which in the end add up to unassailable systems. The most important novel to me in the world is The Castle, by Franz Kafka, because it shows how the office has in this manner become a predominant form of social organization. The implements and principles of bureaucracy dictate our routines and tyrannize our lives. I re-read The Castle for about the tenth time, because I am always wondering if we humans are doing the right thing. We should choose the things that tyrannize us carefully, I think.

I also re-read Don Delillo’s Underworld. I consider it the best American novel of the 20th century. Published in 1998, it plots the subconscious trendline of our country as we groped in the dark toward Y2K and the strange future that globalization brought. If you believe, as I do, that 9/11 rather than “changing everything” about America actually caused us to become more who we already were, Delillo’s masterpiece will speak to you. It showed what our anxieties consisted in just before 9/11 pushed us over the edge.

Probably because I regard Underworld as the American Magic Mountain, I also went back and re-read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It is certainly one of the best novels of the 20th century, possibly the best. If Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov is a novel about the existence of God, as is often said, The Magic Mountain is a novel about the existence of philosophical dualisms upon which European intellectual culture is built–mind-body, war-peace, sickness-health, east-west, action-contemplation, and the one that anchored them all for Mann–space-time. Mann writes from a Kantian tradition that says the mind imputes basic dualisms (including space-time) to reality as a necessary entry point to sense-making. Whether the dualisms really exist we may never know. Mann takes you down the rabbit hole of this unknowing, if you care to go.

I re-read much of Nietzsche, prompted by the very stimulating biography of him, I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche, by Sue Prideaux. Although there is no good way to simplify Nietzsche’s ideas, Prideaux does a wonderful job of humanizing him as a writer and making the evolution of his thought accessible to almost anyone. It is the book for getting at Nietzsche if you have ever thought of trying but put it off.

I doubt many Americans know of The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek, which is a pity. Set as World War One opens, Schweik is a drunken, simpleminded wag who subverts every aspect of Europe’s war fever by volunteering vociferously to fight for God and empire. He is too good a soldier. A comic antihero, Schweik is what would happen if Sancho Panza were the main character instead of Don Quixote.

Actually, the eve of World War One was kind of a theme for me this year. I also read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. Musil’s novel is a long (1,000 pages!) meditation on how the elites of Central Europe sleepwalked into the catastrophe of total war. Your grasp of Vienna’s special place in Europe’s intellectual history, from Freud to Klimmt to Wittgenstein, can only be improved if you take in Musil’s slow-moving masterpiece.

The Proud Tower was a revelation, easily one of the best books I read this year. Tuchman has an amazing gift for historical narrative. Exhibit One: she manages to make a 50-page chapter on Richard Strauss un-put-downable, a completely engrossing story of European elites not so much sleepwalking toward war as giddily clamoring for it–fiddling as they prepared to burn Rome, so to speak.

Enticed by what he believed was Nietzsche’s overthrow of conventional morality, in the 1910s Strauss writes operas that lead the Germans first on a “roaming of the gutter,” luxuriating in vices dark and decadent ranging from plain sexual scandal to depictions of sadistic murder and dismemberment. From these lower depths, Strauss rises up and goads das Volk toward a peak of cultural resentment. Strauss composed one over-the-top masterpiece after another at the pinnacle of a century of German cultural achievement, marked by Kant, Beethoven, and Goethe. “What they lacked and hungered for,” Tuchman writes of the Germans, “was the world’s acknowledgment of their mastery.” (This dynamic itself embodied a Hegelian idea, which Tuchman curiously fails to note.) At the lead of this national longing for recognition, Strauss helped drive his countrymen to war, anthemizing their grievances in “an atmosphere of uproar; everything was larger, noisier, more violent than life.” Well, we all know what came next. While Germany certainly did not embody everything that was wrong with the world in 1914, its ills remain a useful focal point for understanding the history of so many of our man-made catastrophes.

Randomly accessed quote on this theme: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history . . . . [S]ome vast shaking of the soul, [the crowd] brings with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day . . . .” (Don Delillo, Underworld)

It was not all Sturm und Drang in 2019, of course. The year had its lighter moments too.

I ended up–I can’t recall how–re-reading The Code of the Woosters, which is certainly the masterpiece of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves novels. But of course, you cannot simply read The Code of the Woosters alone, forming as it does, the middle of a trilogy that is the best run of all the Wooster and Jeeves books. So, of course, I went back and re-read Right Ho, Jeeves and Joy in the Morning. It’s amazing to me how Wodehouse’s comedic writing has held up for more than a century. In a way, it’s sad to think that his humor might pass away, but I suppose it will. I know, for example, that certain lines in Shakespeare are said to be funny, but I have never actually laughed at any of them. Does the same fate await Wodehouse? Do yourself an immensely pleasurable favor and read him while he is till fall-down funny.

Even the new books I read this year had something old about them. Reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, I was reminded why I enjoyed his standout 2001 book The Corrections so much. Franzen is an unreconstructed throwback of a novelist. With hardly any “theory” or attack on literary convention to guide him, Franzen simply delivers thick, savory stories about his contemporary countrymen using plot, theme, and characterization. Dickens would be proud.

The best “new” novel I read this year was A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. It was a delight from start to finish. Lighter than the only other Naipaul novel I’ve read, A Bend in the River, Biswas somehow also manages to be more deeply satisfying than that grim story. It is about a poor man seeking enough money to buy his own house so he can have something like a life. Don’t we all want something like that? I often wonder why the political right has such a paucity of literary forces behind it. Naipaul is a rare literary standard bearer of the right.

Reading Tom Wolfe’s final (2012) novel Back to Blood also felt like a comfortable reminiscence. I came late to Wolfe. The first novel I read by him was his buzzy and engaging A Man in Full, which came out in 1998. Ostensibly about stoicism, wealth, and the new American economy (it really could float on air!), A Man in Full was really about the place where Wolfe set his story–Atlanta. It’s a wonderful portrait; take it in if you have time. A magnificent chronicler of America, Wolfe has always told us exactly where things are happening.

Back to Blood continues this theme, and although Wolfe’s plot is a little formulaic this time, his sociologist’s antennae are still finely tuned. America is fracturing, he observes. Vanishing is the idea that wealth, splashed plentifully and haphazardly across the land would unite us, and, sated, we would become one people under money or God or democracy–or whatever it was we thought we were getting out of this grand experiment. And so, moving the epicenter of the American Dream southward from A Man In Full‘s Atlanta to Miami, Wolfe reports on a great American climbdown. From a people defined by ideals, we are reverting to to a patchwork of tribal identities. Miami’s confection of Cubans, African Americans, Jewish retirees, and Russian nouveau riche occupies center stage in this menagerie. Want to know why every white mayor of a major American city hires a black chief of police if he can? You already know, but read Wolfe anyway. Read him for his final report on America.

I read two rewarding books by famous American malcontents–Pornography, by Andrea Dworkin, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. One word that inevitably comes up when you mention either of these figures is radical. Strictly speaking, this is a fair and appropriate use of the word. Both writers are trying to get at the root (Latin: radix) of a troubling issue.

But of course, radical usually has negative connotations, often meant to disparage someone as extreme, wild-eyed, overwrought or infirm. But when you read Dworkin and Malcolm X, two sharply countervailing qualities come into view. First, it is clear that both writers acquired their “radical” antipathies honestly, not through any liberal act of re-imagining. Dworkin was brutally abused by her husband, who pushed her to be more exhibitionist in her sexuality. She also met many women who had been monstrously coerced into becoming porn “performers.” Dworkin knew whereof she spoke when she unmasked pornography as a not-quite-victimless crime. If the claim strikes you as “radical” (in the scurrilous sense) that pornography is an industry set up and monetized by men for men, to advance a view of men as physically dominant over women and deserving of complacent, adulatory attention, you should probably try to work out what you think pornography really is.

As for the case of Malcolm X, the opening paragraph of his autobiography paints picture of definitive racial violence in, well, primary colors. It is imperishable among American letters for its cold clarity:

When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to stand for my father’s “spreading trouble” among the “good” Negroes of Omaha . . . .

Malcolm X’s father had a troublesome turn of mind, it emerges, because he had never felt quite welcome in white America. Three of his five brothers had been killed by white men, one by lynching. He and a fourth brother would eventually die at the hands of whites too. Born into this world, was it “radical” for Malcolm X to conclude that America had a white problem rather than a black one?

Second, far from sounding undisciplined, the voices of Dworkin and Malcolm X both strike notes of steady erudition and reasonableness. Their prose reflects a calm command of facts and arguments not to be found in a firebrand. Dworkin is extremely well read and would have become an insightful, highly readable writer in whatever field she ended up in had she not become a “radical, militant feminist.” Malcolm X, for his part, literally read his way up from street hustler to Muslim Nation revolutionary, to cold-eyed social critic. His life is a project in learning.

I also read a good many topical books this year, some of which I already reviewed here. Educated, by Tara Westover, was phenomenal, as was Dopesick, a profile of the opioid crisis, by Beth Macy. I thoroughly enjoyed Spying on the South:An Odyssey Across the American Divide. In it, Tony Horwitz (who died tragically just months after finishing the book) retraces the route of Edward Olmsted through the antebellum South, getting to know the people behind populism.

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media and War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century were both excellent analyses of the ever-blurrier distinction between online and offline war. Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation was a frightening reminder that this new war is happening in the hearts and minds of our own people. Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States made the worthy point that jackassery as a political style did not emerge fully formed in 2016–it has a history, much of which played out over the airwaves in the 1980s and -90s.

This seems as good a place as any to mention Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, which was so good I read it twice. In it, Lynskey reminds us that Orwell believed radio was an inherently authoritarian medium, enabling as it did, a single voice to present itself as the consensus of masses. (Orwell had conflicted feelings about working as a broadcaster at the BBC.)

Finally, I read several books about artificial intelligence, anchored by Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom. I read about AI because I want to know what kind of world our machines will create for our children. Technological change is approaching at an inhuman pace, which is precisely what the computer scientists shaping our future are aiming for. They are designing algorithms that will be better at designing algorithms than humans. When this tipping point happens, all of life will change irrevocably. Algorithms, we know not which, will lead us to our destinies.

My immediate response to this prospect is immense sadness. When my father died, he could have possessed (and probably did possess) a roughly accurate picture of how life would unfold for his kids, even decades in the future. In our 70s we might be boarding a new model of Boeing jet or interacting with a new kind of communication device, but the shape and elements of our future lives would still resemble those of his own. He could entrust us to the future because it was tractable.

robot

The AI-driven future that awaits my children, though, defies imagination, and I don’t mean the way a sci-fi movie defies imagination, with photon torpedoes and intergalactic visitors. What I mean is, AI could destroy the supervening forms of social organization we have created here on Earth which have made our lives recognizably human for millennia.

Take work. I will do my best to help my kids prepare for work, possibly even careers or professions. But will there be such things as jobs or professions in a future where AIs will outperform humans in almost all kinds of knowledge work? Machines will be our entrepreneurs; they will set the pace of change and design the technologies that determine our modes of social organization. Name an institution that anchors your imagination in a recognizable past–school, family, clinic, church, sports team. Its existence will soon be up for grabs. We are giving machines the power to re-wire society right now.

Don’t believe me? Do you have a smart home assistant? Does it influence the behavior of your family? If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have purchased it. The Alexa of 2050 will likely anticipate, tailor and deliver whatever neural correlates of essential human acts you and yours used to get from the real world, including sex, exercise, doctors’ visits and so forth.

Call me a wild-eyed radical if you wish, but there is no denying that the transfer of innovative power to machines is precisely what AI specialists are trying to do, and this makes it a real threat. If I went about saying the sky was falling you would be right to call me a nut. But if it turned out there were an entire global industry of physicists doing their damnedest night and day to figure out how to make the sky fall, would you still call me a nut? Their task might sound like madness, but that does not stop them from pursuing it. And pursuing it they are.

But back to work and its place in the future. How many “professions” will my children have to have in such a fast-changing world? I had two, and some people considered that excessive. My kids might go through four or five before they just decide there is no point. Let the machines cope. It’s their world, after all.

The historian Juval Noah Harari looks ahead to this future (in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which I also re-read this year) and says the best things we can teach our children are flexibility and resilience. They will probably live longer than us and certainly will have to adapt to technological change that outpaces anything we have known. It will also reshape the institutions that held our lives in place.

The old republic of letters might prove useful to our children too. As I said, you can feel at home in it no matter where your feet are planted on Earth and–I suppose–no matter how much the Earth is changing around you. Will our children’s ideas of human destiny be at all like ours, which have seemed familiar to us since the Greeks? I hope that they will, but maybe that’s just an old superstitious attachment. Whatever they do, they should write about themselves, the only thing that has kept us sane so far.