2020: It Was a Very Good Year


Wait, did I just say that? Yes, of course I did. I’m still alive, with a mind of my own. My home planet is green and wily enough to heal itself of all of mankind’s follies, eventually. There’s peace in that. Plus, we humans might still have a good run.

As Epictetus wrote almost 2,000 years ago, “I laugh at those who think they can damage me. They do not know who I am, they do not know what I think, they cannot even touch the things which are really mine and with which I live.”

Epictetus at work (Image: Daily Stoic)

The first part of this passage sounds a little snotty for Epictetus, and, furthermore, not very applicable to my life. Why would I be laughing at anyone? I doubt seriously anyone is “trying to damage me,” and in any case my acquaintances surely know what I think. At least when it comes to the big stuff, I keep no secrets. I write everything down in these pages.

But I do recognize that the forces of history are, at this moment, mounting a not-so-subtle threat to the freedom of conscience that I practice here. Although I’m not expecting the midnight knock on the door next week or next month, I do realize that the growing ranks of reactionary yokelism, given the opportunity, would rather send in the cops and book burners than leave me in peace. They’ve been strong before: they’re looking for a comeback.

For now, though, “the things which are really mine and with which I live” remain inviolate. I added to my store of treasure in 2020 despite the raging of several convergent shit storms, and for that reason, it was a very good year.

Not-so-random Vonnegut quote to establish tone: “‘Sometimes the pool-pah,’ Bokonon tells us, ‘exceeds the power of humans to comment.’ Bokonon translates pool-pah at one point in The Books of Bokonon as ‘shit storm’ and at another point as ‘wrath of God.'”

Hence my use of the phrase.

As usual, I had no plan, except to read, and comment. I read what I liked. I bookended the year (pun intended, I guess) with Joan Didion–Democracy, Miami, South and West, and Where I was From in January, then–what else?–The Year of Magical Thinking in December. It seemed apt. It was.

Mostly what I liked this year was Big Explainers, books that plotted the long course of culture, history, and human destiny.

I’ll start with the biggest. For years I had put off reading Jared Diamond’s landmark 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, but no longer. I read it this year, and it is superb. Diamond argues powerfully that it is not the innate cleverness of people in today’s developed nations that explains the wealth and order they enjoy. Rather, hundreds of thousands of years ago, climate and geography gifted certain parts of the earth with robust agricultural potential, mostly in the form of protein-rich grains. These, in turn, determined the sizes of local populations and eventual development of governing bureaucracies with concomitant needs for abstract knowledge. The rest is literally history. If you live where the growing was good in the late Neolithic age, lucky you.

A curious discovery: one reason why ideas and technology have tended to spread on an east-west axis rather than a north-south one is that good growing climates tend to resemble one another along latitudinal lines. As good ideas about cultivation spread left-right over the eons, so did other information. This is why, for example, the United States is more like China in complexity and social organization than Brazil.

Although I would not know it until I was well underway, I found a companion book to Diamond in Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Published in 2019, Gods of the Upper Air is a cultural biography of Franz Boas and his circle of grad student proteges, which included Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston. Between Boas’s rise from obscurity in the 1880s and his academic prominence in the 1940s, he and his colleagues invented the discipline of cultural anthropology. In doing so, they debunked one of the firmest, most deeply-rooted myths in the Anglo-European consciousness, “an intensely modern fiction; that the highway of human social development led straight to us.” The human story did no such of thing, of course; it led every which way, and we are all simply along for whatever ride our ideas, totems and taboos take us on.

The excellent history The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914 by Philipp Blom argues that technological change in turn-of-the-century Europe drove such rapid societal change, life was literally disorienting. People went crazy from not knowing what was happening around them because it was all happening so fast. I reviewed Blom here.

As satisfying as The Vertigo Years is, at 488 pages, it is a hundred pages too short. Somehow a book about the drama of rapid technological change failed entirely to address the invention of powered flight and its nearly immediate effects on culture, politics and the economy. Luckily, I was able to fill this gap by reading David McCullough’s biography The Wright Brothers. One thing many Americans might not know about the invention of the airplane is that is was primarily European demand for flight technology that drove Wright Brother’s pursuit of it. There were hardly any American believers in Wilbur and Orville’s mad scheme early on. McCullough recounts this history with page-turning energy.

Personally, I usually find McCullough stodgy and jingoistic. He has made a career of out of choosing unassailably patriotic topics (the Brooklyn Bridge! Lewis and Clark!) and praising them to high heaven. And although his bias as a court historian is evident throughout most of The Wright Brothers, he still occasionally brings out intrinsically thrilling themes and episodes. When the reader sits alongside Wilbur and Orville in their first Kitty Hawk beach shack in 1901–actually little more than a tent–and feels the burlap covering of their camp chairs as they sketch, calculate, plan and dispute, one experiences with them the highest form of human flourishing, which consists, not in consumption, comfort and and satiety, but in feverish inquiry and discovery. Wilbur and Orville are sitting on sackcloth; they are hungry, mosquito bitten, alone, but they just don’t care, they are so driven. They are possibly the happiest people on earth, and they are dirt poor.

McCullough also touches on the most socially consequential aspect of the Wright Brothers’ work–the pace of change it sparked. In 1908 Wilbur Wright, alone, flew his plane in front of 150 people in Le Mans, France. He was a barely known American inventor on the tenuous cusp of a breakthrough. Not one other plane on earth could fly like his in 1908, and no one else on earth knew how to pilot as he did. One year later, crowds of 50,000 would gather in Reims, France to watch 22 pilots race 22 different kinds of planes. The speed and extent of this breakthrough put me in mind of the first two driverless vehicle rallies, sponsored by the U.S. government and held in California’s Mojave Desert in 2004 and 2005. In the first year, not one car completed the 132-mile course, and most failed early and spectacularly. The best vehicle in 2004 didn’t even make seven and a half miles. The next year, every entrant but one passed that mark, and five vehicles completed the whole course. These days, they all finish; driverless cars are old hat. The Wright Brothers were perhaps the first human beings to acquaint us with this intense pace of technological change. You can reject it or embrace it, but the world is changing around you, accumulating and compounding social disruptions at a speed we are ill-equipped to grasp.

Americans, it turns out, were never really ready for modernity. For all our claims to be wise, critical and clear-sighted, we come from belief communities that were congenitally weird and gullible–you know: morons. See Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History for an elucidating study of the brazen credulity that has always distinguished Americans’ beliefs. I reviewed it here. It will make you weep for our epistemic lostness, or at least it should.

A more clinical diagnosis of our parlous grasp of reality can be found in Tom Nichols’s 2018 book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. In a country where “nobody tells me what to think” is a real attitude, Nichols argues persuasively that the obligations of good citizenship include being informed consumers of expertise. Epistemic humility, not cognitive arrogance or in-the-know skepticism, is the order of the day. A nation that cherishes free thought and rebellion against authority, though, is always at risk of becoming acutely stupid, even if that nation has a bounty of accomplished and generous experts to help us find our way. Welcome to where we are though.

Perhaps the most satisfying book I read this year was David S. Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (which I reviewed here). Whitman was not just a man stirred to poetry by the mystical promise of our country. Our country was falling apart before his eyes in the 1850s, and Whitman was on a very literal mission to try hold it together with a national cycle of poems. That’s why he wrote Leaves of Grass, and then kept rewriting it and rewriting it as America changed and went to war with itself. Read Reynolds for a wonderful exploration of how Whitman’s poetic development paralleled historic shifts in American politics and especially the struggle to abolish slavery. (Can’t wait to read Reynolds’s new book on Abraham Lincoln next year.)

Don’t tell my wife, but I fell in love with another woman this year and developed a crush on another one. I couldn’t help it: both of them are Big Explainers.

The most consequential book I read this year was Jill Lepore’s 2019 These Truths: A History of the United States. An endowed professor at Harvard, Lepore believes elite national historians should, at the peak of their careers, produce single-volume histories of their subjects, something that used to be traditional. The big picture needs to be painted. But for too long in recent decades, Lepore writes, U.S. historians have neglected big questions about the nation’s purpose and vision, tending instead to toodle around in arcane specialty areas. Americans, however, want to understand the epic story of their country, and as Lepore tartly points out, “They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.” Ceding the field to whoever has an angle (Bill O’Reilly is America’s best seller of “history” books: let that sink in.) is a recipe for disaster. “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation,” warns Lepore, “when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”

And so Lepore wrote These Truths as a corrective, a “common history for a people” to try to ward off the disaster of populism. “The American experiment rests on three political ideas–” Lepore writes in the introduction, “‘these truths,’ Thomas Jefferson called them–political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. [. . . ]. The real dispute is between ‘these truths’ and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?” In the 900 pages of Lepore’s book, we get the best answer to this question an American historian has offered in decades. It is an extraordinary success.

Lepore is a heroine of the post-ideological world. She holds all of history in her hands but somehow manages to come across as a mom from down the street (which she is), a close friend who happens to be a Harvard professor. She writes angelically and effortlessly, it seems. One suspects that her frequent essays for the New Yorker are simply worked-up versions of her class notes, they appear so regularly. I fell head-over-heels for Lepore this year, also reading by her: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (2012); Book of Ages: The Life and Opinion of Jane Franklin (2013); The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2010), reviewed here; Joe Gould’s Teeth (2016); This America: The Case for the Nation (2019); and her latest, just out in October, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future (2020). It would have been a very good year even had it only included Lepore.

But there was more. I also found I could not stop reading the novels of Lionel Shriver. Shriver is the ultimate topical novelist. She just keeps taking up subjects that define our national unease and laying them out in 3-D detail. Reading her books is like rubbernecking a freeway pileup but instead of being told to look away, Shriver says to us, “I know you want to look, so open your eyes and take in every last gory bit.”

And so Shriver has ended up documenting our national pathologies in high definition, from school shootings in We Need to Talk about Kevin (which I reviewed here as the novel of 1990s America); to morbid obesity in Big Brother (also reviewed here); to healthcare and dying in So Much for That (commented upon here); to national debt and monetary policy (yes, really) in The Mandibles (also reviewed here); to the political usefulness of terrorism in The New Republic. Shriver was easily my most reviewed author this year. I abhor her politics, which tend toward a kind of jaunty libertarianism, but I admire her artistic courage. And obviously I can’t resist her stories. Shriver is my nomination for the definitive turn-of-the-century American novelist. She shows us how the American Century came and went.

If you couldn’t tell, one of the main things I’m constantly seeking big explanations for is my country. I think any American could be forgiven for feeling they live in the most interesting country on earth, narcissistic as that sounds. I know I do. For me, this feeling springs from having experienced the denouement of the American Century at a far remove but in a way that felt up close–in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Italy, Germany–and then having to find my way into a new era that is certainly not the American Century anymore but which nonetheless bears the stamp of our ideas and ambition. How do I feel about all this? I suppose if a junior Roman bureaucrat who had spent most of his life administering things up in Gaul had felt sufficiently world-weary long about 430 C.E. to wonder what all the blood and treasure had been for, that’s what I would say I feel like right now. It feels like the Goths and Vandals already have their run of the place.

One of the best books I read this year spoke directly to this searching sense of melancholy. It was actually a re-read, and it was actually three books, not one–the America Trilogy by John Dos Passos.

I read Dos Passos to try to explain my country to myself. His is a story about freedom, identity, and how hemmed in Americans have always been by economics, even when riches are flowing our way. Money changes us, and we are always chasing money.

There are many broad themes laid over the stories of the characters’ lives in the series’ books–The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money–but the message that sticks with me is this: To prepare the American public to enter World War One, the government, led by Woodrow Wilson, had to force-feed our citizens certain grand and flattering myths that had always just sort of hung inertly in the air–myths about our national genius and moral benevolence and relationship with hard work. Today these ideas are easily recognizable as propaganda, but Wilson & Co. put a lot of effort into making them seem natural at the time. (For some excellent reading on how the media became the delivery system for such myths, see Walter Lippmann’s pathbreaking 1922 book Public Opinion.)

The active, deliberate promotion of our myths produced lasting social consequences, most of them bad. When Dos Passos has working class characters beaten down again and again in the America trilogy, it is almost always the war-going propaganda of the moneyed class that justifies the outrages. Dos Passos spares no details, for example, in retelling the lynching of Wesley Everest, a logger and labor rights activist on Armistice Day 1919 in Centralia, Washington. A World War One veteran, Everest was dragged from his jail cell by a an anti-union mob and hanged on the main bridge in the city. Some reports say he was castrated before the hanging. Who did this lynching? Dos Passos knows something about them:

The timber owners, the sawmill and shinglekings were patriots; they’d won the war (in the course of which the price of lumber had gone up from $16 a thousand feet to $116); . . . they set out to clear the reds out of the logging camps; free American institutions must be preserved at any cost.

The America trilogy is often described as a fascinating but pointless tapestry, a long series of character sketches and camera-eye impressions that goes nowhere. True, the series is light on plot, but it’s not true that it stops without a proper ending. The terrible climax of the trilogy is the execution in 1927 of Boston anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, falsely convicted of murder. Dos Passos renders a bitter, devastating judgment on this event. The moneyed class, he writes, showed in executing Sacco and Vanzetti that it owned the state outright and could use its sanctioned monopoly on violence for whatever it wished. The American oligarchy may not be an overt dictatorship of terror, but Dos Passos reminds us that no nation can be brave and free if 99 percent of its citizens walk the streets bent down with knowing that the rich hold the the legal power of life and death over them.

Also deeply rewarding was a series of books as wide and storied as Texas–Robert Caro’s award-winning biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson. To be honest, I only started reading the five-book series because I had to find out where Caro’s passion for political biography came from. I wasn’t all that interested in LBJ himself. Caro, who is 85 and has been a writer all his life, has only written about two politicians–LBJ and the New York City planner Robert Moses. After profiling Moses in the 900-page The Power Broker in 1974, Caro has basically spent his whole life since then researching and writing about LBJ. So, as I said, that’s why I took up Caro’s series.

I am only two books into The Years of Lyndon Johnson (which is still awaiting its fifth and final installment), but I will certainly finish it. It is Tolstoyan in its wide sweep of American and Texan politics. But it also illuminates Johnson as a Dostoyevskan figure, driven by raw ambition and demoniac exertions of will. Above anything else life had to offer, LBJ wanted to dominate other men. Though I didn’t take up Caro as a Big Explainer, that’s what he is. He assesses that LBJ is the pivotal U.S. president of the 20th century president. In trying to close the 100-year chapter of post-Civil War reconstruction and fulfill the promise of liberal governance, LBJ instead opened the door to unprecedented social change, which fueled fundamental distrust of the government. We haven’t been the same since.

I greatly appreciated Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, which I reviewed here. The packaged impression that many westerners have of Soviets is that their lives were thoroughly dictated to them: they hated and feared their political masters and  never authentically believed in the ideology the Kremlin forced down their throats. This is how we like to picture the subjects of the USSR, as subjugated victims, waiting for the capitalist west to free them. The most important message of Secondhand Time is that, contrary to this view, many Soviets really did believe what they were taught, even if they knew their teachers were brutes. It turns out that real people found real reasons for believing in communism despite the horrors, large and small, that propped it up–the gulags, the informants, the secret police, the cult of Stalin, the show trials, the bread lines, the work camps, the mass relocations. Alexievich does the hard, honest work of reporting on the lives and memories of these real people.

(Wanting to make sense of the Soviets’ means of oppression, I also read Gulag: A History and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Appelbaum. Both are excellent.)

Here is another aspect of communism that sticks in most Americans’ craws: that it could possibly grow in the soil of American political culture. But it did, and, moreover, American communists “prodded the country into becoming the democracy it always said it was,” as Vivian Gornick’s mother told her in the 1960s. Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism invites the reader to examine the widespread belief that communism–or any form of leftism–is organically un-American. Americans are political freedom fighters, Gornick reminds us, and some Americans wish to be free of crass consumerism and structural poverty as an imposed way of life. In the 1930s and 40s such Americans joined the communists in the thousands, out of a glowing conviction that “the party was possessed of a moral authority that lent concrete shape to a sense of social injustice made urgent by the Great Depression and World War II.” If you don’t have time to read Gornick’s 300-page book, she summarizes its arguments vividly in this essay in the New York Review of Books of April this year.

Toward the end of the year I read Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Sometimes I wish I weren’t an amateur literary critic, and this was one of those times. The thing is, I was expecting The Overstory to beam out a life-changing message of immense power and beauty. That’s why it had been on my list since last year. The book is about the unimaginably large, patient role of trees in sustaining life as we know it. I was deeply moved and enlightened by The Overstory, which is why I didn’t enjoy having a few small misgivings about it along the way.

So first, don’t get me wrong. The Overstory is great. It is, in various places, subtle; it is deeply informative; it is passionate without being preachy; and it is, in the end, wise. The last hundred pages are near heartbreaking in their depiction of lost and bereft humans conjuring up hope from less than nothing. But it suffers from three nagging imperfections. First, for its overall stylistic excellence, it is occasionally noticeably conventional, even vapid. Two activists take off for a protest one day on “an unbelievably beautiful morning.” Although there are only a handful of these clunkers–maybe half a dozen in a 500-page book–they stand out because the rest of the writing is so good.

Second, one of the main characters, Olivia, remains bafflingly vague in how she came to care about trees as deeply as the plot demands of her. She simply has a near-death experience, which awakens her to ethereal presences that turn out to be arboreal. End of backstory: the trees are trying to reach her. In a book that should be making exquisite and compelling arguments for real, existing tree love (and often does), Powers just inserts a supernatural proxy into Olivia’s head somewhere offstage. And again, the flaw stands out for its stark exceptionalism. Most of Powers’s characters are beautifully drawn, in ways that illuminate their connections to the natural world and broaden the reader’s imagination.

Third, the almost smug satisfaction that some of Powers’s characters feel at the prospect that Earth’s biosphere will fight back and cleanse itself of the human stain is uncomfortably close to the religious fanatic’s lurid desire for apocalypse. I know this feeling, because I have a grain of sympathy with it. It is the idea that Kurt Vonnegut voiced when he hoped this aloud:

When the last living thing has died on account of us, how poetical it would be if Earth could say, in a voice floating up perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, “It is done. People did not like it here.”

It is the novelist’s job, of course, to fictionalize real people with real feelings, so I am not quite blaming Powers for portraying characters who evince this ungenerous attitude. I suppose my unease is with myself. It’s somehow okay–even enjoyable, a kind of atheist’s pornography–to observe the religious believer wishing childishly for all of humanity to be extinguished as a price for taking him out of the picture. It is less satisfying, though, to encounter a shadow of this attitude in oneself. It is never pleasant to discover one’s own blind spots.

Which leads to my next book, a different kind of Big Explainer. Big explanations almost always come packaged in imperative and declarative sentences. Here, they say; believe this.

In one of the most searching books I read this year, a different kind of explanatory argument is made, in the form of a question. If Europe laid such confident claim to reason as the pathway to ending human suffering (through the project of Enlightenment), how did it end up inflicting so much suffering on so many? Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, by Laszlo Foldenyi, is a collection of essays that probes this and related questions about inadequacy of reason to reflect humanity’s whole, true self. There is a vast part of human life–and it can even be an imaginative, fulfilling life–that has nothing to do with being an enlightened European or believing in John Rawls’s theory of justice. While we cannot, and should not deny the clear, systematic advantages bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment (vaccines, anyone?), Foldenyi inspires us to ask, in the tradition of Dostoevsky, what price we might pay if we deny there is a dimension of our existence that is not bounded by–and therefore not ameliorable by–reason. There is a real part of us that may take real nourishment from Walpurgisnacht. I am instinctively skeptical of the romantic line of inquiry, but as long as it is taken by thinkers as humane and intelligent as Foldenyi, it deserves serious attention.

Reading Foldenyi turned me on to the unusual 1975 Holocaust memoir novel Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz. This sounds impossible, but Kertesz tells of a journey from 1944 Budapest to near death in Auschwitz and back in an off-kilter tone that can only be compared to The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek. Like Schweik and his participation in World War One, Kertesz’s antagonist, trundled off to Auschwitz, accepts, almost cheerfully, the inner logic of the camps and every part of his experience in them. Back in Budapest after the war, he rejects the advice of his friends and family to obliterate his memories of the camps and make a completely clean break with the past. A real life, he protests to them, is a continuum; it cannot be broken off and started again. Auschwitz is part of him. Fatelessness is a meditation on what it means in extremis to accept time and chance as worthy of determining our identities.

For all the long, ruminative books I read this year, the one that really electrified me was short and powerful. It hit me like double espresso. It was Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless, the book that aired the ideas that dissolved the Iron Curtain and ended authoritarian rule in eastern and central Europe in the 20th century. I close with a few remarks on it, and my own weird country.

The problem that confronted the dissident Havel in 1977 Czechoslovakia was this: The countries of the Warsaw Pact were ruled by a regime grounded in lies so crude that not even a child could believe them. Everyone knew they were being lied to all the time about things big and small–factory output, the availability of bread, everything. How could this work as a system? Guns and tanks were not enough. Certainly guns and tanks could be used–and were used–to help hold the lies together, but they couldn’t do all the work all the time. The thing Havel discovered is that, for the system to work, ordinary human beings had to accommodate the lies and live as if they were true. Sincerity was not necessary. Havel explains:

Individuals need not believe all the mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

Many of my fellow citizens live within and accommodate a ghoulish complex of lies that outdo the Soviets’ in terms of sheer audacity. They say an election has just been stolen from their dear leader, who is secretly crusading against a cabal of child-trafficking, blood-drinking Jews and leftists. They say anyone can see what is happening; the evidence is so obvious they take it as a mark of disingenuousness to ask for it. A former three-star general openly incited sedition in support of this movement this very week. As I noted at the start, the jackals and troglodytes of reaction have been strong before, and they want a comeback.

The most humiliating thing for adults living in America still capable of competent citizenry is, unlike Havel’s fellow denizens of the Warsaw Pact, who were subjugated by Soviet arms, no one is forcing the trumpist louts to mouth these crude and childishly stupid lies. This is a voluntary movement of vehement delusion.

So, what is to be done? Havel called for the simplest, most powerful of antidotes–living within the truth. Create an inviolable self that answers to its inner priorities of creativity and discipline. Insist on a governing system that reflects the discipline and understanding necessary for this project. Will this be enough? Not even Havel knew, back in 1977. But he knew enough to admit democracy’s victory was not inevitable. The system of mass delusion could be kept up by active measures, he warned, “coming closer to some dreadful Orwellian vision of a world of absolute manipulation, while all the more articulate expressions of living within the truth are definitively snuffed out.”

2020 was a very good year. I insisted on articulating expressions of living within the truth. The results may have been embarrassingly bad, but at least I kept a light on, showing the jackals and troglodytes where they will have to knock if they want to send in the book burners. 2021 will be a very good year too.

Why Orwell Had No Words for Fascism


In an excellent talk on George Orwell in 2004, Christopher Hitchens almost casually mentions that Orwell, for all of his thousands of essays and articles, never wrote a single critique of fascism. The political thinker of the 20th century trained all his fire on the left, not the right.

This was because, Hitchens reasoned, there was a viable set of arguments on the left that needed debunking. Communism at least started with the intellectually attractive premise that it could eliminate the exploitation of the great majority of people–the working class.

Fascism, though, was simply pornographic sadism given political form. It needed no dialectical rebuttal.

Hitchens draws this point out between 16:58 and 17:45 of his talk on Orwell:

But you can read him exhaustively, as I have done, . . . and he hardly writes anything about fascism at all. He doesn’t write a single essay about it and why you should be against it. He takes it for granted that, when you look down the gun barrel of Hitler and Mussolini and Franco and fascism and Nazism, that you don’t need to be told what’s wrong with it: here’s everything you hate. Here’s every bullying father, . . . every sadistic prison warden, every capitalist exploiter, every racist and Jew-baiter, every thug, . . . all rolled into one and double distilled and redone again so you’ve got the absolutely pure essence of everything that’s hateful.

I live in a broken country. Millions and millions of my fellow citizens are able to look down the barrel of Trumpism, which is a shabby, yokelized version of fascism but fascism nonetheless, and instead of beholding “the pure essence of everything that’s hateful,” and recoiling from it, they draw closer. They chant that Fauci should be fired; they clamor for Michigan’s governor should be locked up. They applaud the open calls to sedition Trump makes when he demands election laws be overridden to stop votes from being counted.

The overruling of institutions and the overriding of the law by gangs is vigilantism, an ugly and dangerous enough thing by itself. But give that kind of movement a national leader with real political power, and it becomes fascism.

There’s plenty to dislike in Biden. I’m not sure he’ll act fast enough on climate change. I’m not sure he can build the coalition he needs to revamp healthcare. But those are arguments to be had. Evidence will have to be sifted, tradeoffs weighed, and so forth. That is ordinary politics.

Trump and his Q-Anon base, his MAGA vigilantes, do not want politics. They do not want arguments, or evidence, or debates. They want the jails filled, guns everywhere, and facts-based discourse obliterated. They want you in your corner, afraid to come out because you’re not like them, and they can bludgeon you for being different.

Today is election day. I am probably having the worst political day of my life, and it’s because my country has put itself in a position where we actually have to make an argument against fascism. Orwell was wrong, and it breaks my heart to know he was wrong. You can’t just look at fascism and know it’s immoral–or 40 percent of our citizens cannot do so. It is humiliating that we have to summon reasons and arguments in the fight against fascism. But, we can put those arguments into one word, and the word is: no.

James Baldwin’s Misunderstood Radicalism

A Review of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.


(This review includes quotations of dated racial terms.)

In 1891, the Baltimore author and lawyer William Cabell Bruce penned “The Negro Problem,” a long essay that purported to explain the racial inferiority of African Americans, a status he said made them unfit to be citizens. Bruce was elected as a U.S. senator three years later and went on to write several well-received books, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Benjamin Franklin. He died wealthy and renowned.

Although Bruce’s essay was debunked in its substance over the years, it established a frame of reference that has proven highly durable. Neither writers nor sociologists nor politicians have escaped the viewpoint Bruce established in “The Negro Problem,” which was that African American pain was essentially self-inflicted.

This idea seems to come naturally even to progressives. It was the same viewpoint taken by four-time senator David Patrick Moynihan in 1964, when he led an in-depth study of the failures of African American families to achieve economic outcomes on par with white families. Although the resulting report was a well-intentioned attempt to redress structural economic injustices, it was widely perceived as a case of victim-blaming. It basically asked, What were black families doing wrong that kept them so poor?

Of course the concept of the “negro problem” is older than Moynihan, older than Bruce. As a political construct, it is at least as old as the three-fifths compromise, devised in 1787 by the founders at the Constitutional Convention. (The compromise was literally a statement of how much less black lives mattered, and it was precise in its answer.)

The weight of centuries of such white-shaped history was bearing down on novelist and essayist James Baldwin in the summer of 1968 when he sat for an interview with Esquire, and the first question posed to him was: “How can we get black people to cool it?” Protests had broken out in more than 100 American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th of that year. Forty three people died in the violence, and ultimately more than 20,000 were arrested. This hot season of protest followed what had been dubbed the “long, hot summer” of 1967, in which 159 riots broke out and 83 people died.

So when Esquire asked Baldwin–with astounding glibness–how black people could be brought to “cool it,” Baldwin was being asked the 1968 version of the question behind “the negro problem”: What was wrong with blacks now?

Baldwin’s reply was to the point: “It is not for us to cool it,” he said.

He went on,

It’s a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they’re in the streets. I know of this moment they maybe don’t know it, and this is proved by the reaction to the civil disorders. It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders. It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States. And now you ask me if we can cool it. . . . What causes the eruptions, the riots, the revolts- whatever you want to call them- is the despair of being in a static position, absolutely static, of watching your father, your brother, your uncle, or your cousin- no matter how old the black cat is or how young- who has no future.

(My emphasis)

Baldwin is given too little credit for achieving what was essentially a Copernican revolution in thinking about race relations in the United States, putting whites at the center of “the negro problem.” The role reversal was only vaguely indicated in the Esquire interview, but Baldwin had already made it crystal clear five years before in his greatest essay, “The Fire Next Time.”

There, he accepted the premise that there was a “negro problem” but argued it was clearly and exclusively of white authorship. Furthermore, the problem’s intractability completely dissolved, he said, when it was recast in these terms. American society has a baseline setting, not of colorlessness, but of whiteness, Baldwin argued, and the burden of measuring up was laid on blacks. The supposedly neutral conception of race relations in America was that blacks were defective versions of whites.

But as Baldwin told Esquire, it was not for black people to assess what was wrong with this setup–still less explain their anger about it in 1968;–wasn’t it clear? It was for whites to figure out how they had managed to found a country on the basis of universal human liberty while also establishing, on the same territory, a totalitarian regime for the subjugation and enslavement of a whole class of people.

As Baldwin argues in “The Fire Next Time,” the history of the white ruling class in America is one written in blazing all-caps that tells of the tyrannizing of enslaved Africans, the reaping of unrequited capital from their work, and the disenfranchising and social disappearing of their descendants. The real crime, though, was the deliberate whitewashing of this history–the tossing of it all down the Orwellian memory hole. In 1963 virtually all of white America simply pretended history of any racial consequence whatsoever stopped with the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870. That’s when our society started being color neutral, according to our newly foreshortened perspective. Baldwin writes,

[T]his is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. . . . But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Baldwin was misunderstood by both his audiences, black and white. The whites who read him were put off by the directness of his accusations and the uncompromising anger he often vented (he will never forgive them). His black audience saw him as pandering to whites; he wanted to help them get better, make themselves whole. Baldwin’s main black critics objected that, if African American liberation was their community’s essential cause, it need have nothing to do with bringing whites onboard, still less saving their souls. Freedom would have to be taken, not given, as far as they were concerned.

It is in this dialectical corner, trapped between two audiences–and two moral imperatives–that Princeton historian Eddie S. Glaude Jr. reevaluates the works of Baldwin in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. I highly recommend Glaude’s book. It is a supremely readable cultural biography of Baldwin’s writings on race and politics.

(Image: Amazon)

Begin Again presents a clear, insightful analysis of the evolution of Baldwin’s thought throughout his career. It also voices a wonderful appreciation the power Baldwin’s writing still has to awaken the American conscience.

Baldwin’s writings were deeply shaped by his personal life and the pivotal events of the civil rights movement. The reader (like me) who mainly knows the raw, electrifying power of the content of Baldwin’s writings can learn a great deal about their context from Begin Again. I knew a fair amount about the effect of Baldwin’s exile to Paris from 1950 to 1956, and how it shaped his early novels and essays. But I knew hardly anything about his years spent later in Istanbul, where he sought the isolation of Ottoman city squares where he did not know the language.

Baldwin’s career was infamously up-and-down, and Glaude explains a great deal of this turbulence in terms of his changing role in the civil rights movement. The young Baldwin played a formative role in midwifing the civil rights movement (even referring to early activists as his children), and his writing in those years led up to the hopeful ideas of reconciliation expressed in “The Fire Next Time” in 1963. After MLK’s assassination in 1968, though, Baldwin felt (and expressed) sympathy with the more strident voices of black liberation, including members of the Black Panther Party. This pessimistic turn led to the other great literary signpost in Baldwin’s political writings, the long 1972 essay “No Name in the Streets,” (written mostly in Istanbul).

The common thread running through both these phases of Baldwin’s career was the idea of renewal, Glaude tells us. Whether radical reconciliation would come through writing, reflection and persuasion or through the Black Power strategy of showing white America how few peaceful options blacks had left, Baldwin believed change could come. Or, rather, he believed that this hope had to be held up.

The real gift of Begin Again is Glaude’s ability to both relate Baldwin’s message of hope and to amplify it in his own prophetic voice, which is clearly concerned with the present day. The best chapter of Begin Again is the last one, in which Glaude admits that even the exacting Baldwin might recognize some signs of real truth-telling about race in America today, such as the establishment of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama (often called the “Lynching Memorial”). But Glaude also argues how far back our truth-telling must go if we are to effect real reconciliation: all the way. “To do your first works over,” Glaude quotes Baldwin, “means to re-examine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.”

As good as Begin Again is, though, Glaude only glances on the thing that makes Baldwin truly radical, and truly great: his deep perception of the human condition. Baldwin, a black, gay, poor, popeyed man–whose father had constantly told him throughout his youth that he was unlovable and, despite two attempts at suicide, turned himself into a tower of literary and moral force–saw straight into the struggle that makes human individuality. This struggle is the root of all our trouble, but also the root of any beauty or excellence we eke out in our brief time on earth.

We are responsible to life, Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time.” We create and re-create ourselves every day. And if white Americans were monumentally bad at bearing up under this level of responsibility, that’s because everyone was. When Baldwin wrote to Robert Kennedy after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he begged to be “allowed” to share in the family’s grief, writing, “As we know in these trying days to come, you share our struggle, for our struggle is the same.” The challenge Baldwin saw for white Americans was the same challenge faced by any Americans, and indeed any human. it was the challenge of living honestly with oneself, which most people refused to do. Instead, as Glaude reads Baldwin, most of us “were too willing to hide behind the idols of race and ready to kill in order to defend them.”

The main conclusion of Begin Again is that this natural human inclination to believe the best about ourselves even when it is a barefaced lie has been made unusually easy for whites. We are born with a script prepared for us about the way our country works. It becomes natural for us to read straight from that script, starting from our school days, or even earlier. But James Baldwin was born with a very different script to read from. He was taught by his father he was unlovable; taught by his ghetto he was expendable and essentially worthless. It is hard simply to toss scripts like these out. Instead, as Glaude reminds, we have to “go back to our first works” and re-write them. We must keep re-writing them every day. That task is for all of us, and it does not know the color of our skin.

The Dog Who Suspected Some Kind of Terrible Mistake Had Been Made


I’m chipping away at writing a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. It’s not going well.

The subject of Slaughterhouse Five is the aerial firebombing of Dresden, which killed 38,000 Germans on the night of February 14, 1945. The Allies, the good guys, did it. And we did it for the sake of retribution. The war was almost over, and Dresden had no military value. We just decided that burning down a Baroque city of opera houses and picture galleries would be a nice touch.

The event made no sense; it surpassed the human ability to comment. But still, Vonnegut was there. He bore witness. He had to write about it, and for years he called the working manuscript his “big, important Dresden novel,” poking fun at his own pretension and his own meager capacity to comment.

I’m in the same boat, trying to write about something much bigger than me. How do you say anything intelligent about a novel whose subject matter was chosen because it defies intelligent commentary? The recursive trick can only be pulled off once, I feel, and Vonnegut already did it.

While I was busy feeling stuck on Slaughterhouse Five, I needed a pick-me-up. So I re-read Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s eighth novel. It is zany and wise but not a masterpiece. On its release in 1973 it was widely panned for being cheaply outrageous. Even to me, a huge fan, Breakfast of Champions gives the impression in places of following a well-worn formula. But in a way it also offers proof of Vonnegut’s greatness. If Breakfast of Champions is the kind of thing Vonnegut can reel off on a bad day, truly we stand in the presence of a genius.

I’m going to prove it. And I’m going to prove it by cheating.

Rather than churning out one of my turgid, philosophical essays about hidden structures and moral realism and so forth, what I’m going to do is: march straight through the text of Breakfast of Champions and give you the money quotes. I will proffer only the smallest soupcons of comment along the way, promise. I just can’t be bothered to think very hard today.

Hi ho.

Where better to start than with the founding of our country, by enlightened commercial privateers whom Vonnegut calls “sea pirates.” A good 35 years before the New York Times1619 Project” claimed that rapaciousness and subjugation were organically part of our colonial founding, Vonnegut was already on point:

Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.

The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything.

Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away. The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.

More or less, the sea pirates thought they were doing the copper-colored people a favor in 1492. That’s what we learned as kids in school, right?

The teachers told the children that [1492] was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

Breakfast of Champions is a novel of ideas, but not in the usual sense. Rather than tracing one or two big ideas all the way though, it goes different directions. Sometimes it’s about bad ideas and how humanity has survived despite having so many of them. Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s favorite made-up science fiction writer, does yeomen service looking into this question. He comes up with some answers, too.

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.

The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of year, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.

. . . And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse.

In our time, of course, our idea badges have been put to serious use, thanks to our tools. Cold War economics was instructive in this area:

Dwayne Hoover’s and Kilgore Trout’s country, where there was still plenty of everything, was opposed to Communism. It didn’t think that Earthlings who had a lot should share it with others unless they really wanted to, and most of them didn’t want to.

So they didn’t have to.

Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold on to it. Some Americans were very good at grabbing and holding, were fabulously well-to-do. Others couldn’t get their hands on doodly-squat.

Mostly we get our idea badges from school. Regarding Kilgore Trout’s chidlhood education in Ohio:

His high school was named after a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.

So it goes.

Dwayne Hoover, Breakfast of Champions’s antagonist, is psychotic, Vonnegut tells us. It’s because of bad chemicals in his brain. Moreover:

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads. But there were thousands upon thousands of other people in the city who bought bad chemicals and ate them or sniffed them–or injected them into their veins . . .

People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn’t own doodley-squat, so they couldn’t improve their surroundings. So they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead.

Well, it is hard being human. Kilgore Trout, impoverished, unknown science fiction writer, knows this:

[Street life] had given him a life not worth living, but it had given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.

And people in America aren’t just ravaging themselves over this dilemma. They’re doing it to the ground beneath their feet, too. As Kilgore Trout hitchhikes through West Virginia, he is positioned to observe:

The surface of the state had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

The surface of West Virginia, with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity. It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it. Its mountains, which had once found it easy to stand by themselves, were sliding into valleys now.

The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.

That last part is the kicker.

Life is not just institutionalized in demented ways in the America. Bad craziness seeps into every aspect of life, making you wonder if the gods themselves are crazy. This passage is allegorical–it’s about a dog–but you’ll get the point, I think. Lancer, the dog in question, is a greyhound, nervous and active by breed. He is kept

in a one-room apartment fourteen feet wide and twenty-six feet long, and six flights of stairs above street level. His entire life was devoted to unloading his excrement at the proper time and place. There were two proper places to put it: in the gutter outside the door seventy-two steps below, with the traffic whizzing by, or in a roasting pan his mistress kept in front of the Westinghouse refrigerator.

Lancer had a very small brain, but he must have suspected from time to time, . . . that some kind of terrible mistake had been made.

We build our own hells. Or we placidly occupy them while we allow them to be built around us. Lancer didn’t ask for the life he had.

Although I’m a sturdily happy person and feel like forging ahead through all of life’s challenges right up till the end, I also feel, in a certain way, that an insuperable hell is being built around me. Vonnegut suggests something of it here:

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on.

Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

There are more great quotes from Breakfast of Champions, but this is the one I will close with, because it sums up certain discontents that I feel as keenly as Vonnegut does. I find myself done in by the idiot choices of my countrymen in the same way.

To wit: The society in which I live is consciously designed as a shooting gallery. It makes no more sense than Lancer the greyhound’s mad setup, but it is worse because it kills. In any encounter between law officer and citizen in America, both parties have a presumptive right to carry and use lethal force. And the reason the situation is this way is because gunfighting is the most meaningful story that Americans can bring themselves to believe about their lives–that it’s a frontier struggle, which is fun and exciting.

But it’s not. Life is chaotic: it lacks any point that we do not give it. We are compelled to give an unformed life narrative shape. Why did we give it this one? My brain is small, but I feel some terrible mistake been made.

The Philosophy of Loyalty


In Lionel Shriver’s 2010 novel So Much For That, two of the main characters are financially ruined by medical disasters. And what Shriver has in mind by “medical disaster” is something virtually all of us will eventually do–die non-suddenly.

How can this be? in the world’s richest, most developed country, how have we created such a rigid formula for impoverishing people for being mortal?

One of Shriver’s best-drawn characters in in So Much For That is Flicka, a 16-year old girl with a wasting, terminal illness whose life is a 24/7 schedule of intense, often humiliating medical therapies. Statistically speaking, she is bound to die before the age of 30.

Flicka refuses to pretend she will ever have a normal life. She resists doing algebra, and the rest of her homework. All the fine things meant to decorate the human soul are meaningless in the face of her daily miseries and her fast-approaching mortal horizon. The role of the game child-patient, Flicka believes, is a construct whose purpose is exclusively to buoy up everyone around her–not herself. When her mother, aching for a moment of normalcy, prepares a nice dinner party, Flicka takes care, in front of the guests, to blend the meal’s components in the food processor and inject the resulting slurry into her stomach tube. Shriver is excellent at depicting this kind of performative acerbity.

Flicka’s parents persist, of course, in trying to get her behind the idea of life even if her particular version of it hovers chronically at the level of pure misery. What else can they do?

In this passage, Flicka puts a sharp edge on her objections to having to pantomime a meaningful existence:

There’s no point in training me to be a productive member of society when I’ll barely make it to being a grown-up. My having to go to school at all just exposes the whole thing as a big baby-sitting service. I don’t need to learn about the causes of the Civil War, and you know it. What’s gonna happen to all those facts? They’ll be cremated. They’ll literally go up in smoke.

It’s a striking observation. With variations allowed for our individual funeral arrangements, all of us will ultimately face this realization. The facts in my brain will be cremated, too. So will the memories, the attachments, and everything else that made this mortal vessel of mine and its penumbra of experience worth nourishing. Flicka’s question, Why stuff our brains with perishable facts? gives way to a broader question, Why stuff our lives with any organized content at all?

As it turns out, being a productive member of society is not a bad first stab at answering this question. We want our successors to have a decent, prosperous society in which to live out their lives. It appears, though, that some lives can hardly factor into this equation when we put them to Shriver’s severe test. Flicka seems to be correct in her assessment that she can neither contribute to nor benefit from society’s “productivity.”

I propose that the thing most of us are aiming at when we say “productive member of society” is actually the idea of a loyal member of society–someone who stays true to society’s essential purposes and discovers a role for oneself in service of those purposes. There is a stream of human experience that we are born into, from which we absorb the elements of our self, and which will go on after our deaths. That is the proper object of our loyalty.

This is not my own idea. I came across it several months ago as I was reading Atul Gawande’s excellent 2014 book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. It is a hard read, but a highly useful one. Being Mortal is a call to do the hard work of envisioning not just one’s death, but one’s mortal demise. The process of dying can go on quite a long time, and it can rob you of the resources a person needs to make rational decisions (not least, money, as Shriver illustrates amply in So Much for That). Make as many of your hardest decisions about end-of-life care now, counsels Gawande, and you will do your family and your medical care givers an enormous service. Don’t wait till you’re a wreck.

Josiah Royce

But the passage I have in mind today is one in which Gawande identifies a service we can do for ourselves as mortal beings: read the American philosopher Josiah Royce on the subject of loyalty. As all our lives slip toward some version of Flicka’s demise (more merciful, we hope, but who knows?), we all face the same question she did–why bother standing up to life’s miseries and indignities by developing a structured, purposive self? The crematorium will surely send that structured self up in smoke. Drawing on Royce’s 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty, Gawande put his response this way:

What more is it that we need in order to feel that life is worthwhile? The answer, [Royce] believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need. The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small (a building project, the care of a pet). The important thing was that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning. Royce called this dedication to a cause beyond oneself loyalty.

You can pick up Royce’s 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty cheap (I got my Kindle copy for 99 cents), or you can read it for free on Google Books. Either way, read it if you can. It’s great.

Gawande gets the thrust of Royce’s idea about right, but he leaves out a key part. Royce sees life as following a kind of arc, a progression of development. Early on in life, people have experiences that expose them to all kinds of potential causes. Even if we regard ourselves as strict individualists, we are all born into this ecology of ideas, traditions, institutions, and a whole host of other social constructs. It’s the idea that Kurt Vonnegut was having fun with anytime he would say, “Hey, I just got here.” He meant that, experienced as he was, all the world’s foibles, indecencies and crying shames were already here before he came around.

But so were its glories and beauties–the things worthy of our passion, discipline, and sacrifice: what Royce called causes. This is the key part of Royce’s idea that Gawande leaves vague. All the elements that go into making up our cause predated our existence. Wherever we got them from–parents, school, church, Boy Scouts, the Army, books–they were gifts to us, and we helped ourselves to them. Part of living a loyal life is to keep one’s faith that such things will go on, for our successors to seize on. I guess Vonnegut has subverted me, because I cannot help being slightly jokey about my own cause–it is “serial mortality.” You need not live forever to be useful. It is enough to live in a way that makes your own loyalty contagious–to cause others to want to cultivate their own loyalty.

LBJ’s Very Trumpian Campaign of 1948


Even as early as 2016, pundits began writing that the signs and precursors of Donald Trump’s rise to power had been there all along, visible to all who had eyes to see. Although I’m no pundit, I did my share of this, too. And I stand by it. Historical analysis is the best guide, sometimes the only guide, we have to try to understand the ever-unfolding present.

(I also stand by cognitive psychology when it says we should avoid overvaluing hindsight. It turns out that almost everyone has eyes to see when it comes to explaining things after they occur.)

Still, you don’t want a specific interpretive framework to take over everything you think. Even though Trumpism’s treasonous assault on our democratic institutions dominates the whole political horizon right now, it will, in all likelihood, be rebuffed and turn into a touchstone that future historians will use to try to understand new trends.

So when I took up Robert Caro’s epic biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson over the summer, I did so fully intent on taking it neat. I just wanted to read the thing from cover to cover, from as neutral a perspective as possible, not writing little notes in the margins about Trump and Trumpism.

For the most part, I’ve succeeded. Caro’s five-book biography is a love letter to American politics, and it can be cherished by any observer of that drama, from the left, right or center. Caro takes you into a sprawling, Tolstoyan embrace of our country’s political life and transports you straight to the heart of Texas’s Hill Country, where LBJ’s unlikely rise to power began. It is a huge story of naked ambition, played out in uniquely American terms. It teaches much of broader interest along the way–about geography, about elections, about media, money and influence, and, of course, about power. But the core of the story is very much LBJ’s story.

Caro’s work stands alone, excellent on its own merits. But his main argument is, like all good history, relevant to the present. Politics changed in fundamental ways as a result of how LBJ sought, gained and used power, Caro writes. And in LBJ’s watershed career, nothing was more of a watershed than his 1948 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The things he did to win that race left deep marks on our political culture.

Most of LBJ’s legacy has nothing directly to do with Trump. But then again, what does? Trump is such an accidental phenomenon. He wouldn’t have become anything if our culture didn’t already value swagger, wealth, celebrity, egomania, and other, far less endearing character traits before he came along. Writing long before Trump evinced any interest in politics, Caro draws out several of LBJ’s features that helped prepare our political culture for Trump’s arrival. We’re constantly hearing how Trump is breaking with time-tested traditions and setting new precedents. LBJ’s 1948 Senate campaign, though, shows that most of the tricks in the Trump playbook were not actually new.

Here are the ways I noted LBJ prefigured Trump in Caro’s account of the 1948 Senate campaign.

  1. He discovered the power of lying, emphatically and all the time. In 1948 Johnson was running against Coke Stevenson, a beloved former two-term governor known as “Mr. Texas,” who was deeply admired for his discipline, work ethic, and integrity. Flinty and stoic, Stevenson refused to campaign for elections tit-for-tat for the same reason some Civil War generals refused to use spies–he thought it was low and unbecoming of a gentleman. He was determined to win clean by running on his record alone. Johnson, who knew he was far behind Stevenson in early polls, sniffed out an obscure issue having to do with a controversial labor law and turned Stevenson’s reticence on it (Stevenson was reticent on everything) first into an innuendo then into an outright lie. By the end of the campaign, Johnson was openly accusing Stevenson (Mr. Texas!) of being a communist. Johnson’s campaign managers told Caro in interviews that they knew they were lying, but they also knew they could count on Stevenson’s refusal to speak up for himself. Since he would just sit there and take it, they repeated the lie about Stevenson thousands of times over the course of several months. It appeared in speeches, newspapers, radio shows, mailers, ads, and even in the mouths of “missionaries”–local people paid to spread lies in their towns’ gathering places. Basically the core of LBJ’s campaign was that one lie, told over and over. See Orwell on how all authoritarian regimes use this tactic.
  2. He normalized name-calling. While Trump feels compelled to coin denigrating nicknames for all his opponents, LBJ was more of a dabbler. He did it when he thought it was necessary. But unlike Trump, he could leave off the schoolyard insults and and impersonate a statesman when he needed to. In 1948, mostly because LBJ didn’t have a policy angle for getting to Stevenson, he started calling him “Old man” (Stevenson was 60, LBJ 40) and “Do-Nothing Stevenson.” Eventually, he stopped using Stevenson’s real name, only using the nicknames, and his supporters followed suit. Sound familiar?
  3. He used the power of spectacle–and the spectacle of power. Coke Stevenson drove thousands of miles along Texas’s long, dusty roads in his own car to meet his supporters in 1948. Johnson’s aides wanted their man to cover more ground, so they leased him a helicopter. (Actually, Johnson’s friend at the helm of contractor Brown and Root, Herman Brown, paid for most of it.) In a proto-Trumpian touch, Johnson had his name painted on the side of the big Sikorski S-51. In 1948, helicopters were brand new. They hadn’t even been used in combat in World War II, just three years before. But Caro records how Johnson showed remarkably little interest in the main questions that would occupy an ordinary man’s mind about the contraption–Is it safe? Will it work? “When they were up in the air, what Johnson was watching was not the control panel but the faces of the people on the ground,” Caro writes. Johnson took to calling out through a PA system, “Hello down there! It’s your friend Lyndon Johnson.” His was a voice from on high. And it worked. “[A]s he neared a town where a landing was scheduled, he could see below him not only people running through the streets toward the landing site, but, in the countryside outside the town, plumes of dust moving along dirt roads. Farmers . . . were racing to see the helicopter land.”
  4. He courted the ignorant. Who can forget Trump’s brash admission in 2016 that he loved the “poorly educated!” LBJ did too. Or, he knew he needed their support. Caro recalls that, once LBJ had Texas’s business leader sewn up, he went after the rural demographic: he knew he had to aim “squarely at unsophisticated farmers.” And, since he calculated there was no time to bring them up to speed on the issues, he would appeal to their emotions instead: “He had to make them angry at [Stevenson],” Caro recalls. How did he do this?
  5. He used fake news. In August 1948, LBJ’s staff created a fake newspaper and mailed it to 340,000 rural mailboxes. They calculated that, while it wouldn’t fool many city dwellers, it might just work among country folk. And, Caro reports, they were right. Most rural Texans who received the Johnson Journal gave it the credibility of a newspaper simply because it looked like a newspaper. And of course it was stuffed with lies, innuendo and propaganda written to look like straight political reporting. In Trump’s case, fake news is more sophisticated and a lot of it is provided free of charge by volunteers. But it’s not new.
  6. Repeat, repeat, repeat. At a critical point in the campaign, Texas business leaders asked Johnson to start giving populist speeches about Stevenson and his (fake) labor supporters, decrying them as “racketeers,” “goons,” and “mobsters.” The precedent for this demagoguery had been set by one of Johnson’s former opponents, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who would “just drum, drum, drum with his little catch phrases–” a contemporary observed, “‘labor leader racketeers, ‘Communist labor leader racketeers’, . . . You just wouldn’t think there would be that many ways to get ‘labor leader racketeers’ into a sentence.” But it worked. Johnson, who was at first loath to stoop this low, found the little catch phrases indeed caught on, and before long the voters were using them spontaneously despite their lack of connection to reality. “Voter fraud,” anyone?
  7. He was fueled by narcissism. All of Johnson’s campaigns were emotional rollercoaster rides, Caro relates. The man had huge ups and downs (and not just in the 948 campaign). But his biggest ups all came in one of two varieties–either humiliating his subordinates or basking in the adulation of crowds. “People who had known him for years,” Caro write, “said they had never seen Lyndon Johnson so ‘high'” as when he was being adored by an audience. And the helicopter gave him this rush over and over. “He really thrived on the helicopter,” recalled a friend, “and the crowds that would come out. He was energized, he was really charged up.” Who knows, if fist pumping had been a thing in 1948, maybe there would have been some of that too.
  8. He used the military as a prop. Unlike Trump, who connived to avoid military service, LBJ actually did a hitch. As a U.S. Congressmen in 1941, he had told his supporters that, if war broke out, he would take up a rifle and fight on the front lines alongside their sons, husbands and brothers, “in the mud and blood with your boys,” as he put it. What he actually did was to arrange a cushy Naval reserve commission as a Lieutenant Commander and spend five and a half months driving up and down the U.S West Coast mostly partying with a friend, occasionally drumming up contracting business and building political connections. On a brief fact-finding trip to the South Pacific in June 1942, he did in fact experience combat on an Army Air Corps B-17 bomber. He didn’t really do anything except be inside the B-17 as it got shot up by Zeroes for 13 minutes over New Guinea, but eye-witnesses said he was exceptionally calm. Although the crew, who took heroic measures to get their crippled plane back to base, went unrecognized, LBJ was awarded a Silver Star–the military’s third-highest honor–for his ride along. Unsurprisingly, Johnson immediately began to embellish the episode, and by the time he ran for Senate in 1948, he was telling crowds that he had fought extensively with their boys throughout World War II. He wore his Silver Star on his lapel and would hold it high for the crowds to see. He told flat lies (“I was in the jungles of New Guinea.”). His most shameless acts, though, were his deliberate use of war veterans as campaign props, and not just any veterans. Caro reports that LBJ’s campaign manager was given the specific task of seeking out vets “whose service and sacrifice had been dramatized by the loss of a limb” to introduce Johnson’s speeches. Eventually, there was hardly a man with all his limbs, Caro writes, trotted out to introduce LBJ. Trump, whose only positive regard for military service seems to be based in movies, does not miss a chance to bask in the glow of military honor, at least as he narrowly and cynically conceives of it.
  9. He transformed the election campaign into an amoral contest to be won at any cost. One of the reasons Caro made an entire book in his series about the 1948 Senate campaign was to draw an historic contrast between Johnson and Stevenson. Stevenson, in Caro’s estimation, was the last of his kind–a politician who felt a duty to present himself honest and unadorned to the tribunal of the vote. There was something hard and Roman about him. And, not to get all sentimental, but there was something hard and Roman about American politics writ large. Not after LBJ though. LBJ introduced the idea to American politics that the ends justified any means when it came to winning a campaign. And Americans, it turns out, kind of liked this idea, sleaze and all. When Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby!” this meant, “Cheat if you have to,” and we all knew that. Not to give him too much credit, but Trump and his enablers are sort of the Oakland Raiders presidency. The thing about our democracy, however, is that it falls apart once everyone starts pursuing victory at all costs. Rules are the glue that hold institutions together. If you normalize the idea that they are mere impediments to winning, you’ve started down the road to obliterating democracy. Without a culture of rule-following, there are no rules.
Johnson used his Sikorsky S-51 to land in hundreds of small Texas towns on the 1948 campaign trail. Sometimes if he saw a lone farmer in a field he would tell his pilot to set down for a handshake. LBJ’s good friends at Brown and Root picked up most of the bill for his chopper.

In closing, I want to be clear about one thing: By dabbling in history and drawing some ho-hum-looking comparisons between Trump and LBJ, I am not trying to downplay how bad Trumpism is for us. Trump’s amplification of LBJ’s foibles (along with other, more toxic faults) has brought our system of governance and politics to the brink of ruin. So, in putting some key facts down in black and white, I am merely attending to one of Orwell’s cardinal reasons for writing: the “[d]esire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” If posterity is to recover from the sickness of Trumpism, we need to understand now how it got here. Part of it, at least, got here in a helicopter.

P.S. Actually I want to be clear about one more thing. Lyndon Johnson was a reprehensible man defined by naked ambition, but unlike Trump he was also enormously complex. He was capable of superhuman levels of work, and he constantly fought and won political battles that looked unwinnable. He was much more than Trump’s political Vorgänger, as my post might suggest. I called Caro’s books about LBJ Tolstoyan, but there was something more Dostoevskian about LBJ himself–something deeply mysterious at his core that drove him to demonic exertions of will. He remains worthy of study. Trump, in contrast, is a one-dimensional clown. As many serious historians will bother setting down his biography as will serious personages bother attending his funeral. Zero.

James Baldwin’s Path to Liberation


James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time” is one of the greatest essays in the history of American letters. Long before the New York Times‘s “1619 Project,” Baldwin argued with electrifying power that America’s racial reckoning could only be achieved through courageous introspection and extensive public education. Americans are “still trapped,” Baldwin wrote, “in a history which they do not understand.” And only when a large majority of them stopped believing the lies and omissions that made up their country’s founding story could our national life be made sane and decent.

One big lie was this: The European colonization of America was a fundamentally good start at building a democratic republic. Although the project has required modifications over the years, the basic approach was sound.

A related omission was this: In the beginning, there were only freedom-seeking settlers, striving alone by the sweat of their brows to tame a wild land. Okay, there were Indians, too, who helped the settlers, but the enslavement of African people came later, as America’s economy expanded. The “peculiar institution” became a tragic subplot to our founding narrative, which anyway was made negligible by the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The day may come when I try to write an essay about all the big reasons why “The Fire Next Time” is so great. It clearly evinces what we would today call a strong “through-line,” describing what it means to be black (and white, and other colors) in America. I have already written a little bit here celebrating the moral clarity of Baldwin’s writing. I find his essays comparable with Orwell’s and Camus’s; the beauty of Baldwin’s writing shines with unmatched beauty in “The Fire Next Time.”

But every time I read Baldwin’s greatest essay, I get caught up in the trenchancy of its individual sentences and paragraphs. I can’t take the whole thing in. Today is such a day.

Before Baldwin became a writer, he was a preacher. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (which I reviewed here), is a fictionalized account of how this happened and how he lost his religion in relatively short order.

James Baldwin at home in southern France (Image: NBC)

The stumbling block, as we learn in “The Fire Next Time,” is that Baldwin, in the maturity of his thought came to believe that, “If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this,” he writes, “then it is time we got rid of Him.” In the end, Baldwin rejected not only his own charismatic-Christian version of theism, but indeed the whole idea of being tyrannized by a heavenly father.

As I picked up “The Fire Next Time” recently and read (again) about Baldwin’s path out of religion, it occurred to me that his key turns of mind are like stations of the cross. They guide reflection. Although Baldwin’s prose is incisive in this passage, which spans barely three pages, each crisis of faith he describes broadens out into an expansive critique of theism as a whole. These are the stations in Baldwin’s path of liberation:

  1. Notice that large groups of sane people believe differently than you. Most of Baldwin’s high school peers were Jews, he recalls, and they evinced no compunction whatsoever in ignoring the Christian Gospels. This came as a shock to the young Baldwin, who grew up believing you either had to accept Christianity or consciously reject it. He did not know that simply ignoring it was an option. Interesting news indeed.
  2. Accept the human authorship of the Gospel texts. Baldwin’s Jewish friends pointed out to him something he hadn’t learned in church–that the Biblical texts he thought of as divine were in fact written by ordinary men long after the reported events occurred. Although many Christians eventually come to accept the textuality of the Gospels, this topic tends not to be discussed early on in one’s “faith journey.” Blind, passionate belief is a more effective starting point for religion.
  3. Read the Gospel message for what it says. Jolted out of complacency by his friends’ disbelief, Baldwin reads with new eyes the pamphlets he’d brought to school in search of converts. Repent! they said. Be washed in the blood of the Lamb and win eternal life! “[T]hey were indeed,” he wrote, “unless one believed their message already, impossible to believe. I remember feeling dimly that there was a kind of blackmail in it.” Believe what I say based on faith, or go to hell: blackmail doesn’t come any starker than that.
  4. Question the genuineness of “divine inspiration.” Christian faith, for many people, is primarily a system of defense mechanisms against doubt, and Baldwin had one such tactic at the ready when confronted with the human authorship of the Gospels–namely, that the authors of the Gospel texts were “divinely inspired.” Well, as an anointed preacher, Baldwin knew something about this kind of confidence trick: he was, as he put it, “behind the curtain.” “I knew,” he reflects, “how I worked myself up into my own visions, . . . .” Divine inspiration is really just human flimflammery baldly asserted as authority, and Baldwin knew it.
  5. Reject the very idea of thought crime. As a born-again convert and later, as a preacher, Baldwin says, “I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done.” I know what he means. I was a teenager once too. The idea that an all-seeing God can convict someone for thoughts arising in the privacy of one’s own minds is morally repugnant. All modern dictators aspire to it.
  6. Reject the Biblical doctrines of race and slavery. The authors of the Gospel texts were not merely human, Baldwin realized; they were white. Unsurprisingly, they encoded a racial hierarchy of white supremacy in their sacred texts, which Baldwin experienced as a concrete reality. He reflects, “I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave.” When Baldwin witnessed Catholic priests blessing young Italian men in New York leaving to go fight for Mussolini and fascism in Ethiopia, he could not fail to appreciate that the church’s racial hierarchy was still very much alive. Indeed it was demonstrably sadistic in its desire to kill and subjugate black Africans.
  7. Give no one a religious pass for their cruelty. Baldwin’s father, who was also a preacher, abused him physically and psychologically. Naturally, Baldwin hated him; they were locked in a lifelong grip of fearful hostility. Both were intensely pious, but what good had it done them?–The very center of their lives was a jagged, painful ruin. One of the last times Baldwin’s father struck him, knocking him across the room, Baldwin realized that “all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me–I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing.” The saving power of the Gospel is said to be able to redeem a whole world of lost sinners, but it couldn’t even help two of its most ardent believers stuck in a small apartment together in Harlem.
  8. Follow the money. Baldwin learned early on that the church–any church–is a money-making racket. There may be fine talk and rousing songs there about saving your soul, but it’s your dollars they really want. “I knew how to work on a congregation,” Baldwin recalls, “until the last dime was surrendered–it was not very hard to do–and I knew where the money for ‘the Lord’s work’ went.” His senior pastor owned a Cadillac. The congregants owned next to nothing and were constantly on the verge of starving.
  9. Reject the learned masochism that the church demands. The worst part of the idea of an almighty God is not his ability to convict one of thought crime, although that is repellent enough. The ghastliest evil of the Gospels is that God commands the faithful to rejoice in all the tyranny, crime, outrage and tragedy he is pleased to visit on them. Heaven will balance these debts, says the church, so just bear up, like Job. As Baldwin instructed the youth in his congregation, their “copper, brown, and beige faces” staring up at his, he said he felt he was “committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to win the crown of eternal life.” And this is merely the most common social expression of God’s demand for abasement. On an individual level, it is far worse: God creates us sick, the theory goes, and commands us to be well–and to love him for it. This is pure, sadistic evil. If you poisoned your own child with an illness, commanded him to heal himself and then sat back to observe his tears and pain–all the while demanding an endless string of apologies and “I love yous,” you would be guilty of several real and heinous crimes. But God gets a pass. Go figure.
  10. The church is a mask of self-delusion. “When we were told [in church] to love everybody,” Baldwin writes, “I thought that that meant everybody.” But then the pastor told the congregants they should never, under any circumstances yield their bus seats to white people, even a the old or infirm. Although Baldwin appreciated the political salience of this rule, he wondered how it had managed to vanquish the Gospel’s doctrine of radical, transformative love. “What was the point, the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?” Baldwin asked. The church’s official promotion of selfless love was really a smokescreen for tribal animosity, Baldwin came to understand–“It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.”
  11. Religion is an instrument of political power. “The spreading of the Gospel . . . was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag,” Baldwin writes. “Priests and nuns and schoolteachers helped to protect and sanctify the power that was so ruthlessly being used by people who were indeed seeking a city, but not one in the heavens, and one to be made, very definitely, by captive hands.” Questioning the authority of the ruling religious ideology by anyone, Baldwin observes, “contests the right of the nations that hold this faith to rule over him.” Challenge the faith, and the state will most certainly come down on you.
  12. Christian civilization has proven to be suicidal. Baldwin shuddered at the horror of the Holocaust, less than a decade gone by when he traveled to Europe to seek a new home in 1950. “Millions of people in the middle of the twentieth century, and in the heart of Europe–God’s citadel–were sent to a death so calculated, so hideous, so prolonged that no age before this enlightened one had been able to imagine it . . . .” But that was not the breaking point for Baldwin. It was the nuclear moment that he said changed “the nature of reality and [brought] into devastating question the true meaning of man’s history.” Christendom was the Leitkultur that produced nuclear weapons as man’s crowning glory. “We have taken this journey, . . . to the threat of universal extinction hanging over all of the world,” Baldwin writes, “and arrived at this place in God’s name.” What kind of God was that to crown mankind in this way?

So there are only 12 stations of the cross, not 14, in my re-reading of Baldwin’s path to liberation. So be it. Two more might weary the point.

And what is the point? That you cannot pattern your life on any of the frauds perpetrated in holy books–that you are much better off trying to make your own way even if you feel unmoored from tradition and set off alone from the people around you.

In another essay, “In Search of a Majority,” Baldwin showed, however, that he had not entirely dropped the concept of God despite his very public renunciation of Christianity. But he qualified that the idea needed to be made bigger. He wrote:

To be with God is really to be involved with some enormous, overwhelming desire, and joy, and power which you cannot control, which controls you. I conceive of my own life as a journey toward something I do not understand, in which the going toward, makes me better. I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.

Something I do not understand, in which the going toward, makes me better. Amen.

Review of “The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914” by Philipp Blom


The French have been crazy about bicycles since day one. No sooner had they produced sleek, new sporting bikes in 1899 than they invented the Tour de France, just four years later, to race them. On machines that looked like ten-speeds still look today, the Tour champions zoomed down hills and mountains at 60 mph. Crowds turned out in the thousands to see them.

And the crowds bought their own bikes too. Not those Victorian contraptions with the comically huge front wheel ridden by men with bowler hats, but new machines that looked like what the champions rode. And just like that, ordinary people could really go places. They might not zoom down hills at 60 mph, but they could get on their bikes and reach destinations of their choice at a fraction of the walking time, and on their own schedule. It was a gusher of freedom. How much freedom?

In 1912 a writer in the journal Je sais tout (“I know all”), a popular science magazine, calculated that you would have to be 15 meters (50 feet) tall to walk as fast as a bicycle would carry you. To match a train’s speed, you’d have to be 51 m (168 ft) tall.

It’s enough to give you vertigo.

In turn-of -the-century Europe, society wasn’t changing in small increments anymore. It was changing dramatically, and overnight. The thing about social change, even when fraught and palpable, is that the people going through it can only have the vaguest sense of what it all means. What, for example, does the current “datafication of everything” portend for us denizens of the early 21st century?–We have no idea.

Although I like to believe that we have such a large, generous, and knowledgeable set of public intellectuals at our disposal that we at least can learn from them what kinds of questions to pose about the future, we are probably not much better off than Europeans were in 1914 when it comes to getting a grip on what is really happening to us and what’s waiting around the corner. You would have to live long enough to read the history books of the future, the books that explain large-scale change.

Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914 is an outstanding exemplar of this kind of book. Published in 2010, it makes two wonderfully simple propositions: (1) that social change in turn-of-the-century Europe happened so fast and on such a large scale that it was fundamentally disorienting for European civilization, and (2) that the era of this dramatic change is best understood without the (usual) baggage of hindsight.

Yes, we all know what was waiting around the corner for Europeans in 1914, and we can too easily think of the march to World War One as inevitable. But the years Blom narrates were a dreadfully anxious time, and the thing about anxiety is that it occurs because things are not inevitable. Anxiety is literally a fear of what might happen. We can really only get inside the skins of Europeans in 1914, Blom argues, if we do our utmost to imagine how deeply uncertain they felt about their future and, even, present.

Europeans had ample reason to feel uncertain at the turn of the 20th century. For Britons, simply the passing of Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign in 1901 signaled that whatever had seemed permanent and good and established could vanish in an instant. Great Britain’s statesmen went from confidently believing “that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen,” (as Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain put it) to nearly being beaten by a band of Dutch-South African farmers in the Boer war. Then there was generally having to clean up the messes of the louche, feckless King Edward. As land came to be replaced by raw materials and financial services as the main source of wealth in Britain, the aristocracy, in the space of a generation, lost its 400-year old grip on power.

France was coming off a series of territory-losing wars that marked its fall from scientific, cultural and military preeminence in Europe. To compensate for its very public decline, Paris ruthlessly conquered colonies in Africa, Asia and South America, and, in falsely convicting Dreyfus for espionage, created a grand conspiracy theory that said Europe’s Jews were moneyed outsiders who constantly connived against the native establishment. Et voila: there was a new, multipurpose enemy to be blamed for whatever ailed European societies.

Germany, on the other hand, was on the climb. Formed from various German-speaking principalities only in 1871, Germany’s wealth, population, and industrial output were eclipsing its neighbors at a dizzying speed by 1900. Its emperor, Wilhelm II, was known as Wilhelm the Sudden. He enjoyed stoking the engine of the imperial train’s locomotive to the maximum, sometimes pushing it to its full speed of 145 kph. Wilhelm traveled eight months out of the year, raced yachts, forced his guests to do calisthenics with him. Blom writes, he “had a famously short attention span and constantly wanted to do something.”

In Russia, the Tsar was testing the core proposition of feudalism, which seeks to know how deeply the poor can be immiserated without provoking violent revolt. For the 99 percent, Russia was a cauldron of misery. There were no state schools, illiteracy was the given condition of the masses, and peasants worked the famously unforgiving land without reward. They moved to the city to work in factories and lived like animals, kept so ignorant they could not organize politically despite living cheek by jowl. Women were the most repressed of all: they absorbed the all fury of the violent, alcoholic men undone by the Tsar’s system of mass exploitation.

Though westerners tend to recall the Communist Revolution of 1917 as the day Russia changed, Blom reminds us that that sudden-seeming event was actually the culmination of a tectonic shift that started with the peasant revolution of 1905. That was the day Tsar Nicholas II (only 1/128th part Russian) received the answer to feudalism’s core proposition about keeping the people down. He ignored it. On 22 January 1905, later known as Bloody Sunday, tens of thousands of peasants marched on Nichlas’s palace in St. Petersburg to beg him for the tiniest scraps of democratic rule and workers’ rights. His troops fired on the peasants, and he arrested their leaders, including Father Gapon, a priest who cried out, “There is no God! There is no Tsar!” Just like that, in the course of a week, the idea was born among Russia’s poorest that they need no longer believe the two myths that had propped up feudalism’s power for centuries.

Much of this captains-and-kings history of Europe has been covered in, not least, Barbara Tuchman’s miraculously great 1966 book, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890 – 1914. (This would be one of my 100 desert island books, by the way.) Where Blom breaks new trail is in his exploration of the undercurrents of European society and the inner workings of–for lack of a better term–the European mind. Everyone was going a little crazy in fin-de-siecle Europe, and some were going very crazy.

Blom devotes an entire chapter to one particular insane person, the German schoolteacher Ernst Wagner from near Stuttgart. One day in September 1913, Wagner woke up, killed his wife and four children, and then calmly went about the rest of his day. He was arrested and tried, of course, but was not executed, as would have been common for such a crime in Wilhelmine Germany. Instead he was institutionalized and studied. By the time Wagner died, 25 years after his crime, he was in regular correspondence with his therapist and, from all appearances, was contrite and nearly sane again.

Naturally, Wagner’s case induced a bout of national soul searching. How had such an advanced, well-governed, culturally gifted society as Germany’s produced such a cold monster? If Wagner, the very picture of a good, docile Bürger, could snap in such a spectacular way, couldn’t anyone?

For Blom, Wagner’s personality was a petri dish of all the strains and anxieties eating away at Europeans since 1900. Moral disorientation was one of these. Writing between 1872 and 1888, Nietzsche had shattered confidence in the Christian morality that had guided Europe’s elites and commoners alike since Charlemagne. Moral “laws,” Nietzsche argued, were really just social fictions backed up by nothing more than the will of those who imposed them. There were no rules decreed by heaven anymore. It was Wagner’s getting dressed and carrying on with the rest of his day after the massacre that illustrated what a fully emancipated, post-Nietzschean man might look like, a man who authored his own moral laws and suffered no compunction over applying them ruthlessly.

One of the reasons Wagner was kept alive by the German state was academic. He proved to be a trove of fascinating information for specialists–an educated, forthcoming man who could describe what it was like to go murderously mad. Since Freud’s publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, psychoanalysts across Europe had adopted a whole new paradigm of the human personality that saw it as a miasma of hidden motives and influences, many of them dark, sexual, and violent. Freud prepared Europeans intellectually to accept that their streets were teeming with repressed rapists and murderers, and Wagner brought this lesson crashing home in a visceral way. The fact that he later regained his sanity–or at least a semblance of it–proved more disquieting than reassuring. Had he been sick and then cured, or did he show Europeans that there is a morass of criminal drives inside them all, and a “normal” human life may course in and out of this dark territory?

Further, Wagner’s case showed how European men were being increasingly unmanned, in more ways than one. First, industrial technology and deskwork were rendering masculine physical strength obsolete. Women, suddenly, could do the same work as men, and wanted to. Medical science helped this trend along, providing reliable contraception and safer abortion techniques. Blom underlines that the suffragist movement took off like a rocket as soon as women began to grab hold of a real stake in the world of making and doing and thinking that had always belonged to men. So, it wasn’t just that Wagner’s job wasn’t as safe as it used to be–his whole social realm was poised to be wrested from men’s control.

Second, the increasing specialization of work meant that men no longer plied trades that provided them the feedback of well-made physical products or anointed them with a craftsman’s identity. Labor became alienated. The new men went to an office or stood on an assembly line where their “job” was to integrate with a system, which had its own, bureaucratically defined criteria. Frederick Taylor, the American champion of managerial efficiency, urged this model on Europeans like a prophet, exhorting them, “In the past, Man has been first. In the future the system must be first.” There could hardly have been a louder clarion call announcing the priorities of the 20th century.

One of the responses of European men was, I suppose, to be expected. Threatened in their very masculinity, they manned up. Blom reports that Europe’s streets in this era were filled as never before with bearded, uniformed men, many seeking to fight duels. Most German industrialists joined the reserve officer corp, and almost all civilian officials had military-style uniforms. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II converted large ranks of military officers to civil servants, grandly uniformed but unqualified to fill their new roles. Europe’s military men also enlisted industry to produce bigger, badder weapons of all kinds. Germany and Great Britain vied intensely to outdo each other’s battleships, contributing directly to a broader European arms race.

Not yet at war with each other, European armies turned their weapons for the time being on colonial territories in Africa and Asia. But they didn’t just occupy lands, dictate laws, and extract resources. They killed defenseless civilians on a massive scale. King Leopold II of Belgium slaughtered as many as 10 million Congolese between 1885 and 1908, enslaving millions more. Germany, coming late to the Africa game, killed as many as 125,000 Hereros and Namaqua in its colony of Namibia. Modern, wholesale sadism was also in the mind of Ernst Wagner, who wrote copiously about his act of familial slaughter in 1913. What he realy wanted to do, he said, was to destroy the world, or at least rid it of people he considered useless. “I wish I were a giant as big and tall as the mass of the universe,” he wrote, “I would take a glowing pike and would poke it into the body of the earth.” He went on:

A comprehensive reform of humanity is imperative. . . . I have a sharp eye for everything sick and weak. If you make me the executioner no bacillus shall escape. I can take 25 million Germans on my conscience without it being even one gram heavier than before. . . . Pity [for] the weak, the sick, the crippled is crime, is first and foremost a crime against those who are pitied themselves.

Wagner’s family was pitiable, yes, but that was, in his mind, perhaps the main reason they needed to die. How did Europe come to this, where an obscure, insane murderer spoke the fever dreams aloud that would shape the continent’s history for 30 years and cause the death (in a dark coincidence) of 25 million people? It was no simple matter of national strongmen killing their enemies en masse. Europe had lost faith in its own civilization–and lost it so completely that it nearly had to commit suicide before it would regain its senses.

Blom writes, European civilization wound down for a combination of reasons that were immensely complex but clearly interrelated. At the bottom of the unwinding, there was a loss of faith in mankind’s ability to know himself and his world. This crisis of unknowing was the pivot on which all the disruptive trends of the era turned–the drive for speed, the mad militarization, the proliferation of media, the systems-building, the great shifts in wealth and ruling power. As science peered deeper into reality at the turn of the century, it began to discover, for the first time in history, not illuminating facts but deeper mysteries: the subconscious, the atom, the gene, the relativity of space-time, the inscrutability of language. Blom summarizes, in the incisive final chapter of The Vertigo Years:

The new world taking shape in the 1900s was a creature of reason, of experts and scientists, statisticians and engineers. Until this era, reason had demystified the world, tearing away the veils of superstition in the tradition of Descartes, Hume and Kant. . . . Now reason no longer fulfilled this function. . . . If reason was not providing certainty but breaking it down, salvation must lie in instinct, in primeval forces, many intellectuals proclaimed.

In a speech in 1923 Virginia Woolf claimed, somewhat boldly, that human nature itself had changed–and in 1910 at that. “All human relations have shifted,” Woolf announced, “those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” Blom reports throughout The Vertigo Years on how artists were kicking out at this baffling, comprehensive change and giving it shape even as it was happening. From the weird, crashing atonality of Schonberg’s symphonies to the wild, expressive shaman shapes of Kandinsky’s paintings, something was deeply astir in human nature in 1910, and Woolf may have come as close as anyone to guessing what it was.

“The identities of the ‘new’ men and women of this time,” Blom concludes, “were always torn between old loyalties and new aspirations, between nostalgia and social reality. They were transitory and haunted by fragility, by decline, by impotence, . . . . Change occurred too fast; rationality had outstripped experience.” Change has been happening at an even faster pace since 1914. We should take courage that civilization is still here, but we should also take caution at what civilization can do to itself in times of doubt. If it is not too morbid, perhaps any group, any tribe, any nation would do well to recall that Ernst Wagner killed his whole family and declaimed lunatic prophecies to justify his crimes before he started to wake up and become sane again.

Vaclav Havel: Living Within the Truth


A few days ago I wrote about Václav Havel’s ingenious analysis of post-totalitarian political culture in his 1978 pamphlet “The Power of the Powerless.”

The main point was that, under a post-totalitarian system, masses of ordinary people could be brought to participate willingly in their own disenfranchisement. The Soviets figured out that they could run a state in a way that made it too inconvenient for people to be their authentic selves or stand up for what they believed in.

Yes, of course there was real terror at the base of Soviet system, but Moscow’s big discovery was that most of the time it wasn’t necessary: they could get people to go along with the system out of habit. By the time a peasant or factory worker woke up and realized they’d been mouthing slogans they didn’t believe for decades, there was just too much water under the bridge to bother changing. Besides, they always knew they could get that midnight knock at the door if they got too far out of line.

In today’s post, I will focus on Havel’s call to reject this mode of life and politics. The antidote to living within a lie is to live instead within the truth.

It sounds too easy.

Just live within the truth? Havel must mean something more than that you simply stop believing falsehoods and start believing the truth instead. To be quite specific, he meant you should stop mouthing those slogans you never believed in–what we might today call performative obedience. But Havel wasn’t really focused on what you literally believed or disbelieved. His concern was how individuals’ lives could be–and were–submerged in a swamp of performative obedience. His interest was in the question whether people lived in conformity with the whole program of government lies.

The answer to the question, How does one live within the truth?, for Havel, is a paradox.  To resist a system, you must start by having your own, inviolable life. You create such a life on the basis of things you know to be true. These things become impervious to official lies.

But this answer just pushes the question back one step. How does one build a life of inviolable truths? Math, after all, consists of inviolable truths. Should one become a mathematician?

Well, Havel points out, there’s something to that. Mathematicians might just make good dissidents. When Havel looked at Czechoslovakia’s budding resistance movement in 1977, he saw that “a ‘dissident’ is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are merely doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime.”

Havel young
Václav Havel (Image: Radio Free Europe)

Another dissident Havel knew was a beer brewer. He typified what Havel called the “small-scale work” of dissent. He stood out because he was an excellent brewer, and he wanted the brewery (where Havel worked at the time) to produce excellent beer. Driven by inner priorities, he analyzed the problems of his workplace and made recommendations. The brewer’s assumption that his colleagues shared his desire to do better made everyone around him uncomfortable, including the power structures of the Communist Party. He was labeled a “political saboteur” and stripped of the little authority he possessed. He had, Havel wrote, “come up against the wall of the post-totalitarian system.” Just by trying to brew good beer.

No one, of course, consciously constructs their lives with this kind of function in mind. No one brews beer, plays guitar, models with clay or writes sonnets primarily to defy the government. But done with integrity, Havel argues, leading lives fueled by disciplined, creative energy has this effect nonetheless. As he puts it, “every piece of good work is an indirect criticism of bad politics.” Here is the paradox of living within the truth restated, more directly this time: To be your best political self, you must cultivate a robustly apolitical self.

Dissent comes from a realm that Havel called the “pre-political.”

I turn, as I so often do, to Orwell to add depth to this idea.

In 1941 Orwell was worried that Great Britain would cave to Nazi Germany and accommodate the wave of fascism rolling across Europe. But curiously, Orwell wasn’t that worried. He thought  the English, although capable of making peace with fascists, could never be very good fascists themselves. Why not? Among other things, Orwell wrote (in “England Your England”), they would laugh at the way fascists march. It was part of the English national character, he explained, to scorn in-your-face military swagger:

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.

The matter of what one finds ridiculous is deeply encoded in your character, seemingly as an instinct. What you hold in laughable contempt says volumes about who you are at your pre-political core.

What was it about the English in 1941 that Orwell thought set them against fascist theatricality at this basic level? Part of it is that the English did not and simply could not lead the kind of lives that could be invigilated in every detail by some overweening authority. Britons were too full of their own ideas and pursuits. And it was not important that these ideas and pursuits be lofty, which they emphatically were not, in Orwell’s estimation. What is important about the lives of the English is that they were theirs. Orwell writes:

[A]nother English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it . . .  is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. . . . Like all other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, ‘co-ordinated’. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.

Wait. Is Orwell, the great political thinker, honestly telling us that the English are good libertarians because they do crosswords and collect stamps? Orwell’s greatness, though, often consists in seeing what is right in front of his nose. The fact that the English were accustomed to having lives of their own–so much so they were not even aware of their condition–did not make the private sphere any less sacred or special. It made it more sacred and special, something worth guarding and sacrificing for.

For Havel, the oppressiveness of the communist regime made it abundantly clear what it felt like to be deprived of a private self. It was the same thing Orwell noticed but without having to be oppressed: “Individuals,” Havel reflected, “can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence.”

Why do totalitarian governments form corporate states, a vast apparatus crowded with youth clubs and holiday camps and and ministries of culture, and that sort of thing? Because they want their citizens to assemble their entire identities from component parts that are optimized by the regime for surveillance and control. They don’t want excellent brewers or even Orwell’s humble stamp collectors, because such people are doing their own thing. Totalitarian systems are allergic to privacy, a hidden sphere of being. Havel writes that a totalitarian government “is perfectly aware of the potential power of ‘living within the truth’ rooted in the hidden sphere, and well aware too of the kind of world ‘dissent’ grows out of: the everyday human world, the world of daily tension between the aims of life and the aims of the system.” So it tries its best to abolish the everyday human world.

In a 2006 letter, Kurt Vonnegut had this advice to give to five students of St. Xavier High School of New York:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seen from the perspective of Havel and Orwell, this was deeply political advice. Because when you follow your inner imperatives, when you discover and express who you are in a way that makes your soul grow, you can be assured there is an authority somewhere who dislikes what you’re doing. Your inner excellence is an indirect criticism of their bad politics.

I should note that the Soviet Communist Party was not the only organization in the world that stood to benefit by abolishing privacy and shaping the component parts from which an obedient citizen is expected to build their lives. Our system does this too, with a smiling, indulgent face. Ours is no Soviet system based in state terror (at least for most of us); it hollows out lives and wastes them rather than repressing them or killing them outright. Our system gives us mass culture, bad food, the menace of gun violence everywhere, and public environments built for cars and corporations rather than people, and we voluntarily assemble our lives from these parts. We convince ourselves the parts are great because, aren’t we great, and aren’t we made of those things?

Every time I go for a “good” walk in the suburbs, I indirectly critique bad politics in the way Havel foresaw. The sidewalks, you see, do not connect with one another in the suburbs. They appear and disappear. They don’t go anywhere. Isn’t a sidewalk a kind of path? And aren’t paths by definition supposed to go somewhere? I cannot try to go for a good walk without pointing up the badness of the policies that led to the sidewalks’ design. This complaint on its own seems trifling, but it is connected to a host other objections to be raised about the built environment. Together, these complaints indicate a lie, in which we are constantly pressured to live. That lie is: the built environment is for humans. In reality, though, the aims of the system diverge from the aims of life: the system is not for humans. Pretending otherwise is humiliating, because people are not meant to accept lies as the framework of their lives.

So walking becomes a way of living within the truth.

There’s one last thing I think Havel would want us to know about living within the truth; it is a project that can be taken up immediately. This is because, as Havel notes, it is an answer to a sense of responsibility, and responsibility is something we carry with us everywhere. In this regard, the decision to live within the truth is like Christianity’s notion of a sudden conversion. Just like Christianity, Havel writes, living within the truth “is a point of departure for me here and now–but only because anyone, anywhere, at any time, may avail themselves of it.”

Vonnegut emphasizes this too. Once you ascertain the best thing about life–that it is irrevocably yours–you may act on this good news immediately. Right after encouraging the students of St. Xavier High to grow their souls through art, Vonnegut exhorts them, “Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of [your teacher], and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

Notice one more thing. That list of “artwork” looks a lot like Orwell’s catalog of private English pursuits–so humble and ordinary! All those things are connected up with what Havel calls the “aims of life.” Pursue them with discipline and vision and you will eventually find yourself in conflict with the aims of the system. To live within the truth by making your soul grow is a refusal to identify with the system; it is a refusal to be the system. There is nothing more important than this.