My Country Right and Wrong: A Review of “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography” by David S. Reynolds


I’ll be the the first to admit I can be kind of a grump in these pages. I’m constantly bemoaning how badly my country fails to live up to its ideals.

Just last week I was writing about how horrible it was that we adopted greed as our national ideology in the 1980s and school shootings became our defining trait in the 90s. I often contend that most Americans are too fatheaded to see how indecent our society has become. With the cheapest of bribes–junk food, reality TV, violent spectacle, gameshow religion, and so forth–the established powers buy our bovine loyalty. And they ensure  a generous supply of guns, drugs, and booze for the self-euthanizing of the weak, the useless, whoever can’t hack.

See? There I go again.

I think I make it pretty clear, though, that my scolding is done in the spirit of self-improvement. My critique is a measure of respect for our principles. If I didn’t care so much about our failure to live up to our ideals, I wouldn’t bother with all the anguished soul searching.

Still, here’s a thought: If you were in a relationship with someone who was constantly berating you for your moral failures and who was assuring you they wouldn’t be so critical if they didn’t love you so much, wouldn’t you want to hear their positive case for being in the relationship? Don’t we all need to hear a simple, heartfelt “I love you” now and then?

Well, America will get by with or without my professions of love. But still, I wonder sometimes why this part of the relationship is so much harder for me than the Maoist program of self-criticism. If I believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, that our union consists not just in adherence to a set of philosophical principles, but in “bonds of affection,” should I not feel that affection–a simple, untroubled fondness for my country?

Feeling are morally significant after all. Aristotle wrote that being virtuous is a matter of choosing the best action and doing so on the basis of good character. But that is not the end of the story. Having a good character should not just inform our choice of actions (like, say, an algorithm could), but should also implicate an experience of corresponding emotions, which Aristotle’s expositors call “proper moral affect.” For Aristotle, a true patriot would not just make patriotic choices based on critical study of right and wrong but would also feel the emotions appropriate to patriotism, primarily as love of one’s country.

Do I ever really feel this? Yes, I do.

The America that I love is the America of Walt Whitman. I was reminded of this this week as I was reading David Reynolds’s absolutely superb 1995 book, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. It tells in scholarly and loving detail how Whitman’s writings created a therapeutic image of a joyous, unified, benevolent America out of the elements of a fracturing society in the 1850s.


The last time I read Leaves of Grass, four or five years ago, I was so overwhelmed by the feeling it exuded of confident patriotism that I forgot how deeply divided the country was as Whitman was writing it. As I read, I pictured America simply as the lush Arcadia was painting in his poems. But this was not the actual state of the nation. The country was in deep trouble, and Whitman was forging an overt, calculated work of propaganda to try to keep it from falling apart.

A little context is needed here. In 1854 Whitman was in the midst of preparing the first edition of Leaves of Grass for publication, to come out the following year. As events unfolded, the 1855 edition and the next two–in 1856 and 1860–would all be framed by America’s deepening political crisis and Whitman’s evolving attitude toward it. Whitman thought Leaves of Grass could be the thing to save America, but the damage was mounting fast, and the America that needed saving kept changing right in front of his eyes.

In May of 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which called for any new states admitted to the union to hold popular referendums on the legality of slavery. The law overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had said there would be no new slave states north of the 36°30′ parallel, period. Thugs from Missouri crossed into Kansas in November 1854 and March 1855 to vote for pro-slavery governments, paving the way for Kansas to become a slave state.

Things were coming to a head across the country. In Boston on July 4th 1854, famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned the U.S. Constitution after a court ruled that Anthony Burns, an escaped slave, must be returned to his Virginia owner in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act. Deploring the failure of U.S. institutions to stand up to the South’s power, Whitman agitated for something close to open revolt in the streets. In his notebook he wrote that the Fugitive Slave Act was “to be defied in all parts of These States, . . . by speech, by pen, and, if need be, by the bullet and the sword.” In his poetry, soon to be published, he wrote, “Agitation is the test of the goodness and solidness of all politics and laws and institutions.– If they cannot stand it, there is no genuine life in them, and they shall die.”

Whitman had very recently been a stalwart of the Democratic party and and advocate of orderly political participation, but as the country spun into disarray in 1854, he came more to believe in a free-flowing populism that would overthrow and replace party politics. He saw a potential saving power in the masses, “the tens of thousands of young men, the mechanics, the writers, &c. &c. In all this, under and behind all the bosh of regular politicians, there burns, almost with fierceness, the divine fire which more or less, during all ages, has only waited a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants.” The citizens would be the heart and soul of his poem.

But the divine fire of civil liberation wasn’t the only spirit burning in America as Whitman was preparing the second, much larger edition of Leaves of Grass. In May 1856, Missouri ruffians again crossed into Kansas, and in Lawrence they kidnapped several free-state politicians, burned their houses, and destroyed the printing presses of two free-state newspapers. After Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner called the marauders the “drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization” and condemned his South Carolinian colleague Andrew Butler for serving “harlot slavery,” the same cause as the Missouri thugs’, Butler’s cousin Preston Brooks walked into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner nearly to death with a gold-headed cane. Two days later, in Pottawatomie, Kansas, the radical abolitionist John Brown hit back at pro-slavery forces, massacring five pro-slavery settlers with homemade broadswords. Kansas was bleeding; the nation had no political center.

And so in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman strained even harder to try to stop America from tearing itself apart. The new collection was, Reynolds writes, more scattershot in its approach–offering something for everyone–and more polarized in its content. In a new poem, “Respondez,” Whitman condemns the republic to the ruin he seems to believe it deserves after the infamy of the Burns decision, the caning of Sumner, and the bloodletting of Pottawatomie. “Let there be no God!” he writes; “Let all the men of These States stand aside for a few smouchers! Let the few seize on what they choose! Let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey. . . . Let the infidels of These States laugh all faith away. / Let the white person again tread the black person under his heel!” (A smoucher is a greedy-guts, usually with political connections in Whitman’s writings.)

But then in the same volume, Whitman swings to the other pole, trying even more earnestly to bring America back from rock bottom. In another new poem, “Song of the Broad-Axe,” Whitman proffers new, more soaring visions of popular sovereignty as a mystical force, capable of replacing politics. Going straight to the point, he writes, “I see the headsman withdraw and become useless, . . .” The masses in Whitman’s nation are competent to take charge and purge the old system. He sees an America where “the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases, / Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons, / . . . Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority, / Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, . . . ” Ordinary people built America, Whitman says, so let them run it.

But America’s downward spiral continued, even as disappointing reviews came in for the 1856 Leaves of Grass, spurring Whitman to form up for still another charge. By the time the next edition came out in 1860, events were making a political solution to America’s deepening crisis appear even more remote. In 1857 the U.S Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves were not citizens, based on their race, and thus were deprived of any possible legal protections of their rights. In October 1859, after relocating from Kansas, John Brown launched his doomed attempt to spark a slave revolt by seizing the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He was captured and hanged. Politically, there seemed no hope even for a clear, decisive contest between pro- and anti-slavery forces at the ballot box: four candidates crowded the field for the following year’s presidential election, virtually guaranteeing the winner would lack majority support. Indeed this came to pass. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, he won less than 40 percent of the vote, and he didn’t even appear on the ballots of ten southern states. Whitman didn’t like him. (Although he would come to revere Lincoln later.)

Through all this trouble and murk, Reynolds relates, Whitman tried to legislate the mystical unity of Americans by poetic fiat. (“What I assume, you will assume.”) And his words have such power, they almost pull it off. The America he describes in this most forceful, expansive edition of Leaves of Grass is the one I love. It overflows with natural beauty, material wealth, purposeful work, selfless affection, sexual freedom, marshal determination, artistic novelty, scientific curiosity, everything that can make a people bold, dignified and large-spirited.

So it might not be simple, but it is heartfelt: here is my “I love you.” I owe much of it to Whitman, and to his America, which Reynolds limns so expertly.

Before all other qualities, the America that I love is a written country. We have inscribed and printed everything that says who we are. Our Declaration of Independence is a letter to the world. The debate over how to put our independence into action and make it compatible with freedom is contained the Federalist Papers. Nothing less than the Constitution followed. The meaning of our revolution for the world is boldly set forth in Thomas Paine’s essays. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography indicts our besetting sin of slavery and demands our republic rid itself of it. The Seneca Falls Declaration proclaims the equality of women as inherent in our founding principles and deserving of constitutional protection. Whitman’s belief that a written work would be the thing to save the nation was completely in keeping with our best and deepest traditions as a country that was written into being. I would love America best of all countries for this quality alone. (And, I would add, Whitman’s poetry continues the writing of America.)

Second, my America guards the sanctity of conscience. Because it takes in people of all faiths, America encompasses all faiths. We share a broad, generous vision of ecumenism, where many countries have an established religion instead. This goes well beyond the polite tolerance of other faiths or the hyphenization of them as “American.” American ecumenism, for Whitman, is the very ur-ground of all religion, the center of man’s universal search for meaning. We contain multitudes. Whitman effuses, “I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god, / I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies are true, without exception.” Even further, Whitman holds up of an ideal of an American “[w]ho believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons.” All new, as-yet uninvented faiths are also possible here.

As a liberal democrat, these are sacred pronouncements for me. They say to the whole world, come to America, because here your conscience reigns supreme. Your thoughts will not be policed; you may lead an inviolable life seeking whatever essential purposes you choose. I, Matt Herbert, might have hearty contempt for the particular articles of humankind’s religions (and I do), but I have the ultimate regard for the privacy of conscience from which they spring. When I stand up for your right to believe, I do so with the same, full affirmation as Whitman, adopting each of your theories, myths, gods, and demi-gods.

Third, the America I love is growing, dynamic and prosperous. In Whitman’s lifetime, the population of the United States grew six times faster than the rest of the world, Reynolds points out, reaching 30 million by 1860. Our national wealth grew from $8.4 billion in 1850 to nearly $50 billion in 1880. Whitman’s father was a carpenter in Brooklyn, where Walt spent most of his working life (for a while as a house builder himself), and where the family felt this growth rate personally. It was dizzying. Brooklyn’s population skyrocketed from 40,000 in 1840 to 250,000 when the first edition of Leaves of Grass came out in 1855. And while the city faced all the usual challenges that come with explosive urban growth, it evolved government institutions that met those challenges. Whitman believed then, and I believe now, that dynamic growth gives ordinary people the opportunity for adventure and purpose, grand enough for celebrating in poems. After the Civil War, large corporations drove growth on a new scale, which Whitman praised in his 1871 “Song of the Exposition”:

I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art,
To exalt the present and the real,
To teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade,
To sing in songs how exercise and chemical life are never to be
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
To plant and tend the tree, the berry, vegetables, flowers,
For every man to see to it that he really do something, for every
woman too;
To use the hammer and the saw, (rip, or cross-cut,)
To cultivate a turn for carpentering, plastering, painting,
To work as tailor, tailoress, nurse, hostler, porter,
To invent a little, something ingenious, to aid the washing, cook-
ing, cleaning,
And hold it no disgrace to take a hand at them themselves.

Finally, my America has an urban cultural core, which I cherish. Those of you who know me at all might wonder where this is coming from. I grew up in rural Missouri, 10 miles outside the closest town, which had 360 people. And when I felt like escaping that scene, which I assuredly did, I went west, to seek adventure under the high, arid skies of America’s desert and mountain wildernesses. The parts of America I still long to see are great, lonely spaces–Glacier National Park, Montana, the mountains of southeast Alaska, Wyoming’s Wind Rivers. Nature is and will always be restorative for me; my American heart will always beat somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range.

But the city fuels the life of the mind. Socrates taught in Athens, not on some god-forsaken rock outcrop of an island. I didn’t live in my first city until grad school in Chicago, and that happened late in life, at 29, but it changed me. Today I would not choose a hometown that lacked bustle or, more importantly, pedestrian access to the things that stimulate the mind–libraries, schools, theaters, museums, stadiums, monuments, bars, cafes, train stations, harbors, and, yes, businesses of all kinds. I’m a convert. My heart may beat in the big-sky wilderness, but my mind hums in the city. Americans in Whitman’s day certainly felt the pull of urbanization. Only 6.5 of Americans lived in cities in 1830, but 22 percent did by 1880.

The most fascinating part of reading Walt Whitman’s America is seeing how all the elements of our culture that Whitman would synthesize into a national poem came to him in our most vibrant city, New York. Everything he needed to fire his vision was within a short walk of his newspaper office. An archetypal image of Whitman that’s easy to muster is him striding across the whole of the country taking everything in, from prairie to bayou to mountaintop to metropolis. But this never happened. Except for a nine-month job in New Orleans, Whitman really only worked out of Brooklyn, frequently taking the ferry into Manhattan to go the theater or whoop it up with young roughs from the Bowery. From his urban cockpit, he drew in all things current and American: Quakerism, political oratory, hokey pop music, sensational journalism, daguerreotype technology, high and low theater, minstrel shows, tent-revival religion, the quackery of spiritualism, pseudo-science such as phrenology and harmonialism, new biology, the transcendental philosophy of Emerson, and more. Had Whitman not lived in America’s buzziest city, his poetic vision would have been that much less. City life made Whitman, and Whitman, in his way, made America.

I’d like to leave this “I love you” at that, but I can’t. There are too many caveats, and Reynolds does such a masterful job of helping us understand them that I cannot let them go unmentioned.

Just as America was changing rapidly right before Whitman’s eyes in the crucial decade he was writing and revising Leaves of Grass, it has continued to change. It still does, even faster. Some of the cultural sources that Whitman drew on in the 1850s to compose his vision of a harmonious, bountiful, self-confident America no longer exist. Much of this change has been for the good: who needs phrenology or Christian Science anymore? But there are other losses that ache. Since the America I love is basically Whitman’s America, I have to say I mourn some of the things now departed.

For one thing, labor is now thoroughly alienated. Jobs are not as meaningful as they were in Whitman’s time; nor are they likely to be as secure or subjectively satisfying. For most people today, work simply cannot form the basis of a compelling, dignified life narrative. Many of the physical tasks about which Whitman rhapsodizes–say digging or hoeing–are no longer invigorating parts of holistic professions but have been isolated for efficiency’s sake and made the focal point of shit jobs–jobs so hard, unpleasant, repetitive, or mind-numbing they will only be done by the most surplus of surplus labor. Think Caesar Chavez’s grape pickers. Others of us have bullshit jobs–organizational busy work (admittedly sometimes demanding and well-paid) that serves no discernably human purpose and leaves no mark on the world worth having. If your job is described primarily using buzzwords (say, “data-driven content manager”), chances are you have a bullshit job. Gig work, which may incorporate elements of shit- and bullshit jobs, presents symptoms of a grievous new pathology that designs maximal precariousness into work.

I’m not trying to berate anyone here for working for their living. The point is only this: Today, a much smaller portion of the laboring masses knows what their job is for or how it connects to a wider community or an essential purpose of humanity. These things were hardly mysterious in Whitman’s time. If you were a dairy farmer, you got milk from cows for people to drink. And significantly, you did the whole job, from raising the cows to contracting with a dairy to come buy the milk and take it away. Today, if you are one of the 1,200 employees of the country’s largest dairy farm, you’re either stuck in accounting, or you specialize in dosing the cows with hormones and antibiotics. Maybe you put on a hazmat suit and remove excrement eight hours a day–literally a shit job. Point is, your usefulness to wider society has shrunk to the same vanishing point as that of Henry Ford’s assembly-line drone who affixes doodad A to doodad B.

So why is this important? The saving power that Whitman perceived in ordinary Americans lay precisely in their work identities. Late in life, he even thought the great, engrossing work of professionals would be America’s crowning glory. He wrote of this in millennial terms:

A new worship I sing,

You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours.

[. . .]

After the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work,

After noble inventors, after the scientist, the chemist, the

geologist, the ethnologist.

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

Even in Whitman’s simpler, bardic visions, he thought an America that was working purposively was united–“singing.” His choice of a working man’s garb reflected his faith that “beneath the ‘scum’ of social rulers lay the hearty goodness of average workers.” Reynolds also records how, when the young Whitman started learning the newspaper business in the 1840s, an editor ran the whole show, from the nuts and bolts of type-setting to reportage, to choosing a business model and selling ad space. This was how Whitman learned to work, as someone who saw the whole value of his job, to himself and others.

So that’s all gone. Or rather, meaningful work is now so unevenly distributed in complex societies that its social capital threatens to vanish altogether. The optimist in me says we can (in fact must) look elsewhere for the elements of our individual identities–the basis of political action. But I don’t feel optimistic. Right now my analysis of the future of work is pretty much the same as Yuval Noah Harari’s, who believes that technology will keep taking our jobs and depriving us of stable professions. Constant, frenetic “retooling” awaits us all. My main fear for my children’s generation is that they will lack the inhuman level of resilience and flexibility required to cope with the coming cascade of disruptions to the very idea of work. We sit on the edge of this deluge now. We are, at present, coming to grips with the prospect of having a growing class of useless people. In fifty years, the useless class will claim the large majority of us. What then? Americans, like everyone else, lack the wisdom to answer this question.

Which brings me to my second caveat. Whitman believed American society was so great that even the common man shared in the life of the national mind, by a kind of instinct, or possibly through the overflow of surplus genius. In his poem “Great Are the Myths,” Whitman claims that mere peasants have equal access to the guiding ideas of civilization, the same as the judge, the politician, the philosopher, or the master of industry: “Justice is not settled by legislators and laws, . . . it is in the soul. / . . . the great includes the less.” Reynolds’s analysis of this idea of socio-cognitive equality is illuminating. He writes, “Whitman’s emphasis on the common denominators of experience–the earth, sleep, work, sex, and the appetites–shows him trying to regain fundamental laws that are unarguable and sound.”

In fact, today there is a nearly hermetic barrier between the informed and the ignorant in America, so complete that it threatens to dissolve our bonds of social solidarity. It is Whitman’s idea of intellectual osmosis that has proven to be a myth. We are still a written country, and America produces an embarrassment of riches in all sectors of expertise, in history, economics, technology, and sciences hard and soft. The publication of books that present complex, trenchant and deeply informed analysis of vital issues (along with idle considerations of “mere” curiosities) is truly astounding here. The provision of a stupendously large body of knowledge in the English language is an unremarked glory of civilization (there, I said something nice). But provision does not mean proliferation.

The truth is, the “less,” who were supposedly included in the “great” in Whitman’s poem, have been even further demoted in the information age. They are now less than the less. In 1850 America outshone the whole rest of the world in literacy, and surging improvements in public education brought the dream of informed intelligence within any citizen’s reach. America published, sold and read more books than any other nation by far. Lectures were a popular form of entertainment for goodness sake. Crowds attended them.

Today there is a yawning informational class difference in America, which is abetted and reinforced by the political and financial elite. I am not just talking about Americans getting dumber, a statistical artifact of our having gotten smarter in the recent past. There is something diabolical afoot. The artful defunding of public schools, the provision of fake- and pro-regime news (along with, crucially, the deliberate, reckless razing of epistemological standards for distinguishing information intended to be true from schlock that is meant to be false), and the swamping of the American mind with aggressively stupid low culture–these are the main tools of the power elite for ensuring a large majority of our citizens either actively resist being informed or lack the capacity to understand any public affairs of significance.

When Whitman, a successful newspaper editor who never graduated high school, professed his belief that the “less” could join with the “great,” it was credible that the less literate–those who filled America’s one-room school houses and the city streets’ schools of hard knocks–were oriented on the same horizon of human knowledge that was heroically being advanced by (American) expertise. Today, Americans exercise the “freedom to choose” other horizons, which are not defined by overweening “experts.” And increasingly, they see this choice as a virtuous one, in line with an “American” conception of freedom. If you find this claim extraordinary and therefore in need of extraordinary evidence, behold, right in front of your eyes: a whole class of Americans so ghoulishly committed to the cause of ignorance they are flirting with mass suicide rather than taking simple steps proven to promote public health in the current pandemic. (I might have saved my breath and just said: see COVID-19 parties.)

One more thing needs to be said in the way of a caveat. Whitman got race and slavery entirely wrong, and to that extent, his genius has limited healing power for us today. Although he protested the Fugitive Slave Act loudly in 1855, his basic political cause was–like the early Lincoln’s–unionism, not abolitionism. In his later years, Whitman became more socially conservative and was unapologetically racist. In many parts of Walt Whitman’s America, Reynolds tries to portray Whitman as splitting a political difference that made sense at the time, recording, for instance, Whitman maintaining “a moderate course on the slavery issue.”

So this last caveat ends up being a good one. The America we have today says there is no moderate course on slavery or racism. We are all radicals now, thank goodness. The America we lost, Whitman’s America, was in many ways well and truly worth losing. We have not just kept the republic that Whitman wanted to hold onto, we have transformed it into something better, something closer to what we said it was in the beginning when we wrote our letter to the world proclaiming that all men are created equal.

Still, when I read Whitman’s poems, especially from Leaves of Grass, I can’t help feeling he remains a giant. He is still at the center of our country’s troubled spiritual life, as his friend John Burroughs felt when he wrote, “America–my country–I fear I should utterly despair of it. [Whitman] justifies it, redeems it, gives it dignity and grandeur, bears it all on his shoulders, as Atlas the Earth.” Whitman thought “every atom belonging to me as good as belong to you.” So if he once held up the country, dignified it, redeemed it, composed the vision of what it could and ought to be, that job now belongs to all of us, who are made up of his atoms. I think he would be happy with that.

As usual, I avoided reading any other reviews so I could keep my thoughts fresh. You may like these reviews by professional critics:

The New York Times

Publishers Weekly

The National Review

Review of “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver


There were more than 80 school shootings in America in the 1990s. It was the decade when  school shooting became a fixed term in our vocabulary and the category of violence it betokened became a normal part of public life. Why did it happen then, not earlier, not later? Maybe for the same reason terrorism would soon put its indelible mark on us–because round-the-clock media coverage insured that each new killing produced a celebrity, and celebrity is the coin of our realm. Anyone could become famous instantly, which must have held a special appeal for beaten-down nobodies. Most of their grievances were commonplace–rivalries, bullying, girl trouble.

In the most heinous school shooting of the 1990s, the Columbine Massacre, the perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were simply angry that normal people existed. Life was shit, they thought, and people were dumb for pretending otherwise. Ordinary human attachments–to friends, families, hobbies, sports, other enthusiasms–were mere poses, delusions so hypocritical, the people who held them were mere sheep, worthy of slaughter in Dylan and Klebold’s apocalypse.

There is clearly an obligation to search for “systemic” or “structural” causes of the rise in school shootings. Before this hand-wringing duty, though, Lionel Shriver, in her 2005 novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, gives us a moment to sneer at the paltry nihilism of the likes of Harris and Klebold:

I did feel a concentrated dislike for those boys, who couldn’t submit to the odd faithless girlfriend, needling classmate, or doses of working-single-parent distraction–who couldn’t serve their miserable time in their miserable public schools the way the rest of us did–without carving their dime-a-dozen problems ineluctably into the lives of other families. It was the same petty vanity that drove these boys’ marginally saner contemporaries to scrape their dreary little names into national monuments. And the self-pity! That nearsighted Woodham creature [the Pearl High School shooter, who killed his mother and girlfriend] apparently passed a note to one of his friends before staging a tantrum with his father’s deer rifle: “Throughout my life I was ridiculed. Always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, blame me for what I do?” And I thought, Yes, you little shit! In a heartbeat!

In much the same way that Martin Amis’s Money: A Suicide Note was the English novel of the 1980s, Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin may just be the American novel of the 1990s.

The connection between the two books is more than literary. Novels portray societies. The America that produced Columbine and then stood by helplessly as school shootings multiplied to become one of our defining national characteristics was the same America that had so recently adopted money as its god. Under Reagan and his cipher, George H. W. Bush, the USA had just regained its self confidence and won the Cold War. The country’s cultural predominance, unprecedented wealth, and unchallenged military power made it the world’s hegemon. It was our rightful status, we thought.

The thing about that meteoric rise, in case you weren’t around to experience it, was how easy it felt. We did it all without really trying, or so it seemed at the time.

Greed was good in the 80s, right? The gospel went like this: Float enough money around, and people will become so sated with well-being, they won’t need anything as abstract as ideas or as imperious as institutions to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong. And who cared where the money came from? All that mattered is that it was there. rising tide of cash was lifting all boats, large and small. America had discovered a moral theory that floated on air. All you have to do was look out for number one, and everything else that mattered in life would take care of itself.

This was easier to believe at the time than it sounds. Free markets, as we could see right in front of our noses, led to free people–big, joyous masses of free people. The same force that was making you rich was deposing dictators, right in front of the world’s news cameras. Between 1989 and 1991, the Iron Curtain disappeared from the map, just stopped existing. What was it Vaclav Havel, a man of deep political acumen, said his countrymen wanted out of this epoch-making miracle?–more cafes and a candy shop on every corner. Better shopping, basically. Maybe he was right. Have you seen the lines outside McDonalds when it came to the former Warsaw Pact countries?

mcdonalds russia
First McDonalds opens in Moscow, 1990 (Image: Imgur)

Or look at the picture shown round the world of the Unknown Protester facing down the tank column in Tiananmen Square, China. He just wasn’t going to take the Party telling him one more day which shitty little apartment he had to live in in or what job he had to go to. If they needed tanks to make their case while all he had was a shopping bag, who was in the right here? Anyone who had eyes could see.

tank man
Unknown Protester, Tiananmen Square, June 1989 (Image: Jeff Widener, AP)

Wise men of every stripe were buzzily interpreting the global drama for us. They went on record telling us that American-style free-market democracy was driving these momentous changes. Greed was good. It could save the whole world if we let it. American power, we thought, had escaped the gravitational pull of history, just as American commerce had escaped that piffling thing, the business cycle. We had no real challengers left standing. Everyone wanted to be like us.

From the right, Samuel Huntington announced that, yes, there was a clash of civilizations taking shape, but it was a symptom of our demonstrably superior way of life, not a challenge to it. Show the world’s masses that they needed democracy to get rich, and no authoritarian would ever sleep easy again. From the left, Francis Fukuyama went even further. Humanity, he proclaimed, had reached the End of History, from which it would be impossible to turn back. No self-respecting human being, he rhapsodized, would choose to return to the swamp of ignorance and authoritarianism once they’d breathed the free air of enlightened democracy, as that idea was parsed by the think tanks in Washington. And if you wanted this already over-simplified gospel packaged in primary colors, there was Thomas Friedman’s airport tome about the magic of globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a remarkably stupid book even at the time. It basically said, America is coming to make you rich: rejoice.

All the self-flattery was true. Until it was false.

A caveat of history is that no one knows what happened to the Unknown Protester in Tiananmen Square. The smart money, of course, is that he’s dead, and he’s been dead for a long time, killed by the Chinese Communist Party as soon as he stood up to them in 1989. What we would want to believe is that his disappearance was an exception to history, a small martyrdom made negligible by the great waves of liberation that crashed in on former authoritarians everywhere else. But what if his disappearance was the real story and that, gloomily, Orwell was right, at least in China? The picture that won the day was not of the Protester and the tanks; it was the picture we didn’t see, of a boot stamping on the face of the protester–and, as Orwell would have it–all of humanity, forever.

This review contends that the most important information is often contained in the caveats, the secret histories, and the pictures we don’t see. It is certainly appropriate to debate the big, headline issues of America’s preeminence in the 1990s. Why did it happen? In what did it consist? Martin Amis’s Money: A Suicide Note is, in its way, a direct consideration of the headline issue of greed in the 1980s. (Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities tells the same story–jokier, but still training both eyes on the main argument.) We Need to Talk about Kevin, by contrast, tells a story that goes around the headlines to explicate the caveats of 1990s America. It renders a secret history of what America was becoming at home while, city on the hill that it was, it shined its beacon for the rest of the world.

One way to understand school shootings in America is as the tiny statistical anomaly that they are. Horrible things happen everywhere, but going to school is still a safe, fulfilling experience for millions of American children each day.  It’s easy to turn mountains into molehills if your country’s Human Development Index is high enough: America, with an HDI of .920, is clearly a better place to live than Yemen, which scores .463. (The gap between us and Yemen narrows dramatically on gun ownership. We outrank them only by one place on that score.)

But the statistics can be turned on their head. Something like 100 percent of American students are aware that a shooting could happen at their school; most schools are “resourced” to address this prospect, with corporations reaping the profits of these service provisions (greed still serves its purposes). And of course every parent in America either experiences some level of dread about school shootings or fashions an effective defense against thinking about them. Those stats hold true nowhere else in the world.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is no mere sociology tract, though. It doesn’t just make a “terrible indictment” of something deeply wrong with our nation. Even when novels make a political point, they must tell their stories from the private realm of the individual’s inner life. They must be credible. They must reveal secrets. Shriver succeeds brilliantly in doing all this. And once she has divulged all the facts she has to tell, the reader all too easily draws discomfiting conclusions.

Eva Katchadourian is a successful travel guide writer sharing a Tribeca loft with her Springsteen-loving husband, Franklin. After three years of footloose urban bliss, the Big Question knocks on their door: if life is beautiful, doesn’t it deserve passing on? Franklin wants kids, naively and greedily. Eva, though, hesitates at a paradox–if life is great, isn’t it intrinsically great? Must an individual’s life be made to serve the continuity of the species to be complete? Later, she reflects more prosaically, “What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it on this outrageous gamble of having a child?”

The skill with which Shriver describes the many ways in which parenthood fails to fulfill Eva is surpassed only by her moral courage in doing so with such honesty. After all, what’s true of Eva could be true of lots of the rest of us. Shriver describes full-bore, high-definition horrors that all parents have felt in some suggestive, inchoate way. Eva and her infant son Kevin fail to bond; Eva has postpartum depression. Kevin is listless and shuns intimacy or stimulation. He seems disaffected by life itself, “incensed that no one had ever consulted him about turning up in a crib with time going on and on, when nothing whatsoever interested him in that crib.” Instead of falling asleep, he screams himself to exhaustion, day after day.

Almost as if by choice, though, Kevin allows himself to be calmed by Franklin waltzing in at the end of the day. Franklin’s instinctive performance chides Eva: See how easy that was? Kevin seems to have a diabolical sense that he can use this rift between the mother who understand  him but can never gain his love and the father who believes successful parenting is effortless, not to be overthought.

In addition to not feeling the fairy tale with her new son, Eva is embittered at her loss of agency at the hands of motherhood: “Lo, everything that made me pretty was intrinsic to motherhood, and my very desire that men find me attractive was the contrivance of a body designed to expel its own replacement.”

Kevin knows preternaturally how to push Eva’s buttons; he is on to her sense of loss and knows how to exploit it. But to what end? As he grows, he sneaks his meals in private, denying Eva the pleasure of having provided him nourishment, and he learns childhood facts in secret, denying her the pleasure of having taught him anything. By the time Kevin is five, he knows the meaning of the word “trite,” but is still in diapers. This, Eva feels, can only be a conscious choice. Shriver builds up to the novel’s first really harrowing scene so expertly that, when Eva breaks down at having to change that last deliberately fouled diaper and hurls Kevin across the nursery, fracturing his arm, the reader knows why she did it.

(Image: Amazon)

It is at a later point in the story–after 16-year old Kevin has executed an expert plan of mass killing at his high school–that Shriver reflects on the standard journalistic blather about school shootings: the gruesome details are so often called “unimaginable,” but in fact they are all too imaginable. And this imaginability is the dark, secret heart of We Need to Talk about Kevin. The myriad ways of failing as a parent (or as a child) are all too imaginable. Almost all parents have been tested up to a breaking point, which they can picture with horrifying vividness. The raising of children is an exercise in the responsible use of power, which wobbles in preposterous disbalance. In most cases, the parent’s surrender of power to the helpless child is repaid in intimacy and an enduring bond we call love. Shriver makes us ask, what would it look like if a child as selfish and informed as an adult were to use the leverage of our sacrifice against us?

In America, we have the power to give children almost everything. Kevin, though, is bored by the idea of getting things. He is disaffected by the condition of having parents, people intent on pursuing this fostering, providing relationship. Again, with great skill and courage, Shriver helps us imagine how deeply Kevin hates this whole setup. His only abiding goal is to frustrate Eva’s and Franklin’s power to raise him. When Kevin turns murderous, it is with the same pointless languor that impels Mersault to kill an Arab in Camus’s The Stranger. Neither character knows what life is for, and acts on that bewilderment.

It is possibly a nod to this connection when Eva soliloquizes to a dead-and-gone Franklin (Kevin killed him), “I seem finally to be learning what you were always trying to teach me, that my own country is as exotic and even as perilous as Algeria.” But unlike Camus’s stultified Algeria, the setting of The Stranger, America gives immense scope to murder-as-spectacle. We are replete with the necessary means.

This is the dark, secret rot at the core of our national character, this surplus of the raw materials of school shootings. The guns are there. Most school shooters get them from home. The ease of suicide is there. Two-thirds of gun deaths in America are suicides. The reality-TV pursuit of fame at any cost in dignity is there. With leering greed, we watch people in all states of humiliation, perfectly willing to stage their own pathologies for money and “fame.” And now, after Columbine, we have the most dangerous thing–the highly specific ideation of school shootings. The formula works as if by magic, and therefore it keeps happening. There is no bigger fuck you to society than the planned and staged murder of children by children in institutions set up with care to foster their growth as human beings. And those things we had with us in the 1990s. Add to them the capacity of social media to enable bullying and normalize feelings of envy, rage, contempt, and helplessness.

I was going to close by saying this review is not an attempt to read We Need to Talk about Kevin as a sociological tract, but I guess there’s no use in denying it. I have done Shriver the disservice of diverting attention from the artistry of her novel, which is outstanding. But, as I mentioned before, it is her moral courage, to say the unsayable, that captivates me. At the height of our political power Americans gave in to greed, a desperately cheapened version of life. School shootings are as much a result of that choice as are the various other things presently falling apart because we believed we could ignore them as long as the rich were getting richer–roads, schools, hospitals, libraries, railways, sidewalks, parks, and so forth.

There is no clear path out of this wilderness, where we pretend that individual preference is sovereign and there’s no such thing as public interest. But it is impossible to read a book like We Need to Talk about Kevin and not think we should look for one.

As usual, I avoided reading other reviews before I wrote my own. If you’d like to read some professional reviews of We Need to Talk about Kevin, which are shorter and more to the point, here they are:

The Guardian


Slate (film review)

Interview with Lionel Shriver in The Atlantic Monthly


Reading Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” in 2020


In February 1941, as Great Britain was standing alone against Hitler and staring defeat in the face, George Orwell wrote “The Lion and the Unicorn,” a long, impassioned essay arguing that his class-ridden country would have to become socialist if it wanted even the smallest hope of winning the war.

It was a compelling, and therefore dangerous, argument.

It went like this: The whole world could see that the British Army was a joke. This was evident by its abject failure to provide even a wisp of military aid to France against Nazi Germany in 1940. The infamous Dunkirk evacuation was the consequence of being swiftly and thoroughly routed by the Wehrmacht. There was no doubt that Britain had dispatched too small a force to stand up to Hitler’s juggernaut. But what outraged Orwell was how poorly prepared and equipped was the force it did send. This was the army of the richest empire on earth, an industrial behemoth, kitted out like it was 1918.

The British Army was a joke because the job of provisioning it had been left to Britain’s profit-seeking corporations. Owing allegiance only to their share-holders, Britain’s corporations produced the things that would make them the most money, not the things that the army would need to win the war. The things the army did need they traded away. “Right at the end of August 1939,” Orwell writes, “the British dealers were tumbling over one another in their eagerness to sell Germany tin, rubber, copper and shellac–and this in the clear, certain knowledge that war was going to break out in a week or two.”

So the world’s largest producer of textiles could not even make enough uniforms of sufficient quality to clothe its forces. Tanks and guns? Forget about it. Most of that steel had gone to Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

The very things that made Orwell’s argument in “The Lion and the Unicorn” so compelling were the same things that made it dangerous. The fact that (1) the premises of Orwell’s argument were undeniably true, and (2) the working people were increasingly  coalescing behind a patriotic struggle to save their country despite the corrosive greed and fecklessness of the upper class, meant that political power was on the verge of a massive shift. The elite’s grip on power was going to have to give. They could not go on making money off half-assing the war against fascism while the people volunteered in droves to fight and die. (And Orwell records, this was exactly what was shaping up to happen. As the volunteer ranks of the Home Guard swelled to a million, His Majesty’s Government stepped in to install leisured aristocrats to lead it. Can’t be too careful.)

Britain’s power elite was caught in open betrayal of the sacred cause of national survival.  In the end, Orwell was right about the shift in power produced by the gulf between the rulers and the ruled, even if he got certain details wrong.

The real reason to read “The Lion and the Unicorn” in 2020, though, is not to debate the accuracy with which Orwell prophesied a socialist revolution in Great Britain. The real reason is to consider why Orwell’s essay is compelling, and therefore dangerous, in the context of the unrest roiling America in 2020.

Briefly put: If America is the most advanced liberal democracy on earth, how does it fail so dramatically to produce justice? Isn’t that exactly what liberal democracies are for? If we are the best, why are we so bad at it? The killing of George Floyd provided us with a Dunkirk moment. The whole world witnessed how our institutions, ostensibly set up to protect human rights and freedoms on the basis of the rule of law, failed abjectly to do what they are designed for.

The legal suppression of citizens’ rights is a many-splendored thing in America. It has gone on for centuries and often involved open terror. All its various aspects call out to be exposed and redressed. The legal culture that enables the casually brutal murder of citizens by police and vigilantes on the streets is clearly at the emotional center of the current protests. If that is not the boot stamping on the face of humanity–which Orwell feared could materialize even in the heart of a developed democracy–then what is it?

The killing is horrific. But it is the straight line between its enabling legal culture and the profit-seeking motives of its money men that captivates me (and brings Orwell’s thinking to life, again). Most Americans are not so purely evil as to wish for sadistic acts of murder by the police on live-broadcast TV. But we are caught in a system, which we seem powerless to overthrow, that protects and normalizes such acts. And again, it is not because we are overtly and plainly wicked that we tolerate this system; it is because the system makes money, which the politically-connected class of idle rich will never surrender.

In 1940, British industry was organized to make money rather than produce the necessary military equipment that would defeat Germany. The industrialists knew this and went ahead making the things that would lose the war, flagrantly abdicating loyalty to their nation. In 2020 America it is the prison-industrial complex that betrays our country and mocks our values. We cannot keep it and call ourselves Americans.

I am not claiming that the prison industrial complex is the only force corrupting our principles of equality and justice for all. But it is the most illustrative. When you look at the talons of a hawk, you can read their evolutionary history quite plainly: form follows function. You know exactly what those talons are for.

And so it is with the prison industrial complex. Its purpose is on lurid display in its history, the plain facts of which are too vast, grim and obvious to need detailed review here. The privatization boom of prisons in America caused an explosion in the building and operating of a horror show that we would decry in any other country as a gulag archipelago. It is designed and promoted by lobbyists (interchangeable, as usual, with industry regulators) who write laws that guarantee the steady, generous supply of bodies for warehousing in the gulags. Obedient congresspeople sign these laws, and the prisons are built. The well-connected authors of the scheme reap the profits.

The tendency of the prison industrial complex scheme to target people of color is undeniable. Because of demonstrably biased increases in pre-trial bail and the inequity of sentencing periods, people of color are decisively over-represented in the prison-industrial complex. Our carceral state exists to stuff human bodies of any hue into its maw, yes, but the wheels of justice churn in a way that chews up many more black and brown bodies than basic crime rates would predict. Again, here is not the place to rehearse detailed arguments (but see the Aspen Institute study linked above at “over-represented”), so just consider this: black people and white people use and sell illegal drugs at approximately the same rate, but black users and dealers are much more intensely policed, leading to highly unequal rates of arrest, trial and conviction. So if you are inclined to say of jail-goers “they brought it on themselves,” bear in mind that white folks are working just as hard to bring such ruinous consequences on themselves, it’s just that most get a free pass.

My point is the same as Orwell’s, mutatis mutandis: There is a profit-seeking class of non-productive rich  in America who are openly betraying the national cause of liberty and justice for all. They reject this cause as surely as England’s industrialists rejected military readiness over profit, even if it meant surrender to fascism. It is treason. They do it because it makes them rich.

Floyd mural
(Image: Forbes)

And, also as in Orwell’s time, the masses are becoming dangerous in their growing awareness of this treason. It is right and proper that the current protests center on racial issues defined by Black Lives Matter. This essay is by no means an attempt to whitewash that emotion. But what makes the BLM movement dangerous is that it is building into a mass movement of all colors of citizen. It has an animating core of blackness, yes, but there can be no doubt that it is growing to resemble the force that Orwell felt Great Britain was on the verge of in 1941, when he wrote, “What is wanted is a conscious, open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. . . . [W]e have got to break the grip of the money class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape.”

If the BLM protests turn into a conscious, open revolt, as they seem on the verge of doing, it will be because of the serial failure of normal politics to solve the root problems they are protesting. Time after time, normal politics has failed to turn the quest for racial justice into a quest for national justice. The “process” has had ample opportunity to work. In 1967, after he was commissioned by the Johnson administration to diagnose the root causes of a wave of “race riots,” Otto Kerner first made a note of all the commissions like his that had failed before to redress racial injustice and advance social peace. The riots just kept happening. Kerner wrote this in the draft of his report: “Past efforts have not carried the commitment, will or resources needed to eliminate the attitudes and practices that have maintained racism as a major force in our society. Only the dedication of every citizen can generate a single American identity and a single American community.” LBJ excised this passage and buried the report.

But the truth cannot stay buried, as Orwell sensed in “The Lion and the Unicorn.” This is what he was telling his readers in the essay: You are Great Britain, not the corrupt, “unteachable” elites in the House of Lords and on the boards of directors. You must take your country: it belongs to you.

And this is what the BLM protesters are telling us: our national principles are not for sale. You can either stand back and let the rich own the country and turn it, like Caligula, into a tapestry of live-action horrors played out for their private pleasure–as they obviously feel entitled to do–or you can take what is yours–what our founding documents say is yours. This is a country of principle, not of money. All of the movements that are threatening the established powers are converging on this message. From BLM, to the Poor People’s Campaign, to Bernie Sanders’s criminal justice reform platform, all of them are telling the corrupt old guard that American lives are not for sale–you cannot buy the privilege of killing us on the street.

Orwell called the Nazi conquest of Europe a “physical debunking” of laissez faire capitalism. If you thought the ruling system of fat cats and trickle-down economics would keep you safe, here comes a Panzergrenadiergruppe to burn your village and wreck your naive dreams. Better start planning a war economy now, or be prepared to welcome the Panzers in whatever way you see fit. The lynching of George Floyd as also a physical debunking, of the illusion that our masters are loyal to our nation. If you thought the ruling class was in any way capable of delivering on the national promise of liberty and justice for all, take in the fact that your rulers can have you tortured to death on film and nothing will happen to them.

But there is hope, and it is deceptively simple to act on. Just as the solution for Britain’s war-losing economy was to change government spending and investment priorities, so it is in the present case. We must take the $8 billion a year that go into the non-productive prison industrial complex (well, non-productive except for the fruits of slave labor) and invest it instead in jobs programs that build communities and bring poor people out of the cycle of poverty and incarceration.

And please–don’t start wailing about jobs programs and socialism. Actually, come to think of it–do go ahead and so wail. Although I grow mightily tired of it, I will continue to point out that the prison industrial complex is already a socialist jobs program: it takes your tax money and gives it to the politicians and lobbyists who ensure their scheme continues to have a basis in law. It also trickles down just enough money to create a few entirely non-productive jobs. This is the system for which you tacitly express your support by remaining silent. The cohort that legalizes this deeply immoral fraud is what Orwell called, in his day, a “generation of the unteachable.” Their inability to learn springs from the fact that their (multi-million dollar) paychecks depend on remaining ignorant.

What was dangerous about populist support for a war economy in 1941 Britain is the same thing that is dangerous about BLM in 2020 America, and it is not the threat of incoherent fury in the streets. That is where the reactionaries want you to focus. The movement’s real business will be expressed in bullet points about budgets and policies.

As Orwell wrote in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” “The swing of opinion is visibly happening, . . . but it is very necessary that the discontent which undoubtedly exists should take a purposeful and not merely obstructive form. It is time for the people to define their war aims.” He meant that it was time for the people who made the equivalent of $1000 a month (in 2020 America dollars) to take billions of pounds from the aristocrats, to be spent on fripperies, and spend it instead on winning the war and saving their country from fascism.

The same is called for today. There is a war happening. Its battle cries are “Say His Name!” and “I Can’t Breathe!” It need not be fought with weapons or violence, but it is nonetheless dangerous. If we are to win the war, and become what we aspire to become, a democracy that ensures liberty and justice for all, we must end the prison industrial complex. The aged, the greedy, the corrupt generation that profits from it can give up their jobs program, which sanctions and normalizes injustice, or they can prove themselves teachable for once.

Review of “Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver


The novel as a literary form sometimes seems to be the exclusive property of the liberal mind. Perhaps this is because imagining oneself in another person’s place is not just the essence of literary creativity; it is the starting point of any public system of morals–of recognizing the rights and freedoms of others as equal to one’s own.

In his landmark 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, the legal philosopher John Rawls argued that we must be able to take other people’s interests as seriously as we take our own if we are to fashion just laws. He proposed a now-famous thought experiment to frame this problem–the “veil of ignorance.” Instead of thinking of laws in the here-and-now, from your highly particular perspective as you, you must be able to take a step back to a postulated “original position.” From behind the veil of ignorance, you can envision yourself having fared radically differently in the various lotteries that shaped your identity before you appeared as you–your gender, your health and body type, your talents and abilities, your parents’ wealth, and so forth.

This thought experiment, wittingly or not, has been behind all the liberal-led rights movements in the United States since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Whether it’s the systemic disadvantages of having been born black, female, gay, handicapped, or what have you, the removal of those disadvantages by law has turned on the privileged person’s ability to observe the less lucky and say, with conviction, That could be me.

To borrow from another, more famous legal philosopher, when you think of the the whole range of social types around you–from slave to master–and the legal protections each deserves, you must be able to imagine yourself as “the least of these.” If you were a slave, would you wish for laws that entrench your master’s power or laws to liberate you and give you a full life?

Well, we know from the case of Christianity that the liberal imagination risks falling into a pity trap. While it’s all well and good to promote the interests of those less able to defend themselves, the process taken to an extreme can erode and eventually dissolve the stronger individual’s capacity to act or even engage in coherent moral reasoning. This is one of the most obvious holes in the Christian ideal of self-abasement–if I sell all my possessions and give the money to the poor, meanwhile allowing myself to be clothed as the lilies of the field, neither toiling nor spinning, I have consciously chosen to become an idle, penniless vagrant–noble and pure of heart perhaps, but more of a burden than a blessing to anyone around me. I would stink up any room I walk into, which, like it or not, is a widely accepted argument against choosing vagrancy as a lifestyle.

I am not sure if the novelist Lionel Shriver sets out to write great literature, but a recent New Yorker profile says she is on the lookout for trouble in the human condition, which may amount to the same thing. The challenges involved in determining our moral obligations to others certainly give humans no end of trouble: What role does individual choice play in determining one’s desert of protections or alleviations? Do heroin addicts “deserve” public clinics where they can shoot up safely? Who is entitled to my unreserved moral compassion, or even plain old generosity?–Certainly I would make large sacrifices for my spouse or children, but what about cousins? Friendly associates? Complete strangers? It’s Jesus’s old question again: When it comes to treating neighbors justly, who is my neighbor?

A rarity among novelists, Shriver examines these challenges from the viewpoint of the social conservative. I said at the outset that the novel seems to belong to the liberal mind, and, at a certain level of abstraction, I doubt I ever stop believing this. Try to imagine Germinal as a story that advances the interests of the coal mine’s owners. It wouldn’t even be a story; it would just be real, miserable life, thrown back in our hopeless faces. Literature exists, to paraphrase Don Delillo, to unmask dehumanizing systems.

So any novelist who breaks with liberal orthodoxy risks being perceived as a defender of the ruling class, a prospect that doesn’t seem to frighten Shriver. An American emigre ensconced in London, she openly cheers the rights of northern Europeans to defend the cultures that have made their countries so attractive to refugees and immigrants. And she is not made queasy by the link between Europe’s enlightened political culture and its national–let’s just call them ethnic–identities. A character in her 1998 novel The New Republic speaks for her on this point. He is picturing a Turkish quarter of Berlin circa 2000:

And you walk down the street and everyone’s talking Turkish? And it’s hard to find a Pilsner anymore, like, all you can find is, I don’t know, mead, or whatever Turkish people drink. Know what a place like that is called? Turkey. There wouldn’t even be a Germany anymore.

Shriver speaks unapologetically from conservative ground, which she clearly regards as philosophically solid. The liberal defender of universal human rights?–that person was produced by the established powers. This is the unsettling assumption from which her novels spring: in order to achieve human decency, you must first protect your own capacity to empathize, reason and act, and these capacities are outgrowths of political power. As a member of a strong, prosperous society, you might find yourself to the left of Noam Chomsky, but you got there on the backs of the old guard.


Big Brother is a very good novel, and of course it would not be one if it merely shadow-boxed the caricature of an ideological battle I’ve indicated so far. The antagonist, Pandora Halfdanarson, is a successful but small-time entrepreneur in small-town Iowa. She believes in hard, thankless work and in the comforts of staying behind the scenes. Her politics is a kind of active passivity: “I didn’t hold many opinions. I didn’t see the point of them. If I opposed the production of non-germinating disease-resistant corn, it would still be sold. I considered most convictions entertainment, their cultivation a vanity, . . . . Refusal to forge views for social consumption made me dull, but I loved being dull. Being of no earthly interest to anyone had been a lifelong goal.”

But one day Pandora becomes of great interest to her older brother, Edison, a jazz pianist who had run away from their LA home to New York at 17. After surprising early success, Edison, now 43, is washed up, short on cash, and turned out of his apartment. And he is morbidly obese. Pandora does not recognize him when she picks him up from the airport. Big Brother tells the story of the soul searching that leads Pandora help Edison and of the heroic effort it costs.

Big Brother is many things. At times it is a fascinating meditation on the phenomenology of eating and satiety. Not only is the pleasure of eating good food somehow elusive despite being undeniable–“more concept than substance, food is the idea of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself,”–but when you consider how awful much of our food is, the tendency to overeat becomes downright mysterious. Shriver is also concerned to examine the issue of obesity writ large (yes, I said that). As a social problem, morbid obesity is unique to rich societies but increasingly concentrated among their poorer classes. How did that happen?

Shriver repeatedly proves herself capable of moving off the standard conservative line on obesity, which is more or less: You did this to yourself, now deal with it. Early on in the plot, Pandora evinces the conservative’s standard flintiness. Her touchy-feely teenage daughter, Cody, asks if the newly humongous version of Uncle Edison is sick, to which Pandora replies, “According to the latest thinking on the subject, yes.” But later, Shriver’s inner voice softens as she tries to put America’s ambivalence on weight, body image, and diet in perspective. In this passage, surveying the disorienting array of weight-loss diets and the broader, conflicted trends of supersizing, Shriver is worthy of that liberal avatar Kurt Vonnegut. There was such deep confusion on display in the multitudinous ways to lose weight. But also:

You could see it in the market for airline seat-belt extenders, “Big John” toilet seats, 800-pound-rated shower chairs, and “LuvSeats” for couples of size to have sex. You could see it in the popular websites like, but you could also see it in the prestige designation of size-zero jeans and in the host of Cody’s classmates who’d been hospitalized for starving or throwing up. You couldn’t help but wonder what earthly good was a micro-processor, a space telescope, or a particle accelerator, when we had mislaid the most animal of masteries. Why bother to discover the Higgs boson or solve the economics of hydrogen-powered cars? We no longer knew how to eat.

And so on.

The cruelest impact of the system that brought pandemic obesity to America is the apathy trap it springs on overeaters. When Pandora sits Edison down for the requisite straight talk about slimming down to avoid an early death, he brings her directly to the crux. Yes, he sees the self-destructive arc of his gluttonous trajectory, and, yes, in an abstract way, he wishes he could be rid of the weight. But, he intimates: “There’s the one little problem of my not giving a shit.” For Edison, overeating is a conscious abandonment of all other priorities, which he re-affirms several times a day, with each meal. Pandora diagnoses, correctly, one thinks, “That was, of course, not one problem, but the problem.”

So Edison stays on in Iowa, and his sister sets out to save him, by way of a demonically severe crash diet. They move in together, the better to effect a full-on intervention. It works, but there’s a major catch. Pandora’s disciplined, meticulous husband Fletcher despises Edison. He lays down conditions for Pandora’s rescue project that build to an ultimatum: leave Edison or face divorce.

The one weakness of Big Brother, for me, is the underdevelopment of Fletcher. Shriver tells us repeatedly that Pandora loves him and that it is, therefore, a hard decision to leave him temporarily to help Edison. But then Shriver does such a better job of showing us all of Fletcher’s unattractive zeal and sanctimony that it is somewhat hard to sympathize with his rather reasonable requests that Pandora try to balance her duties to her family of choice and family of origin. Pandora, he argues, is not just volunteering her goodwill by helping her brother, but the whole family’s. Fletcher provides the pivot on which the novel’s main question turns–To whom do we owe moral obligations, and do our obligations come in gradations? When must a person go all out for someone else, and if marriage is an all-in commitment, can one ever make large sacrifices outside that bond?

Late in the novel, after a stunning twist (SPOILER ALERT upcoming), Pandora reflects on the calculus by which she tried to measure out her obligations to her brother: “I could not have said, ‘I will help you lose weight for three months but not four.’ Once I assumed the role of my brother’s keeper, there would have been no limit, don’t you see? And who’s to say whether such an escapade wouldn’t have ruined my marriage . . . ?”

Shriver’s final summation of the problem is bleak, but honest, one feels. “It is impossible,” she writes, “to gauge what you owe people. Anyone, of course, but especially the blood relation, for as soon as you begin to calculate the amount you’re obliged to give, . . . you’re done for.” By risking entanglement with a self-destructive person, one undermines one’s moral agency, the very basis for moral decision-making. Who is my neighbor? I cannot know.

The story of Pandora’s rescue of Edison turns out to be a fiction within a fiction–an act of liberal imagination within a framework of conservative caution. It did not happen. In “fact,” Pandora met the terms of Fletcher’s ultimatum early in the plot and put Edison on a plane back to New York and ruin. The story she spun in her head about saving Edison was a way of thinking through her options. In the end, her choice to leave Edison to his own devices was guided by statistics and leavened with an existential intuition. The great majority of morbidly obese people who lose large amounts of weight gain it back. That in itself made Edison a bad bet, not worth the risk of losing a good marriage. But there was also this: the achievement of any goal is always followed by a feeling of “what’s next?” Once Edison made it to the Promised Land of mesomorphy, who would define his next horizon? Was Pandora going to hold his hand for the rest of his life? Would this not have been a disappearance of Edison from his own life?

Shriver gives a fair, robust hearing to the liberal orthodoxy that we are here to help others and to see our reflection in them. But she also plumbs a deeper, Conradian mystery of human existence. It has directly to do with hunger, desire and struggle. About hunger, she writes, it may be bad, but “satiety is worse. . . . We are meant to be hungry.”

Here are two other reviews of Big Brother that you might enjoy. As usual, to keep my thoughts fresh, I wrote my review before I read these.

Guardian review

NPR review


Review of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon


On page 603 of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon we find the protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, hiding from the military police in the closet of a whorehouse in northern Germany. Hallucinogenic revelry is underway. It is shortly after VE Day, and Slothrop is wearing a pig suit, a disguise that just got him out of one tight scrape but landed him in the present one. He’s been sucking anxiously on the mask.

Slothrop’s sidekick, Bodine, a Navy Seaman and hashish dealer, is trying to coax him out to enjoy two of the house specialties, a steam bath and erotic rubdown. Bodine promises to keep watch for the MPs and a mysterious rocket specialist whom Slothrop has been chasing. About that rubdown, a brief exchange ensues:

“This is some kind of a plot, right?” Slothrop sucking saliva from velvet pile.

Everything is some kind of a plot, man,” Bodine laughing.

I’ve been teaching my second-grade son recently to identify a book’s main idea. This would be it.

Gravity’s Rainbow is known as one of America’s most “difficult” novels. Depending on who you ask, it is 770 pages of unreadable, pseudo-intellectual tripe or a a massively ingenious re-imagination of the genre. It has been called the postmodern novel. It is about a set of intersecting plots to, on one hand, develop and deploy a revolutionary piece of technology for Nazi Germany’s infamous V-2 rockets, and, on the other, to find and interdict said technology. There is much sex, sadism, masochism, pedophilia, (highly detailed!) scatology, rocket telemetry, materials science, and bawdy, corny doggerel–some of it set to kazoo–along the way. Pynchon writes his novels on the nihil humanum mihi alienum est model.

grav rain

But, first things first. Almost everyone has a theory of the novel, even if they don’t know what it is. If there weren’t a fairly widespread, well established concept of the novel, there would have been no occasion for Pynchon’s “postmodern” subversion of it.

I’m not inclined to get too involved in debates about what the novel is supposed to be. I love tight, well-constructed conventional novels, such as those by Jonathan Franzen, and I tend to think of them as descendants of 19th-century classics of the genre such as Middlemarch. But I also tend to think of novels as free expressions of broad human experience which, as Milan Kundera argued, should avoid having too fine a point, political, moral or otherwise. Novels are tapestries, and we simply behold them. So for what it’s worth, my theory of the novel is, “I don’t care!”

Don’t get me wrong (actually, don’t get Kundera wrong–it’s his idea); it’s not that novels should be pointless. It’s more that they should stick to meditating on human experience itself and allow any overarching messages to emerge from direct observation, innocent of any theory. This is the demand H.L. Mencken made of the novel when he wrote that its “primary aim, . . . at all times and everywhere, is the representation of human beings at their follies and villainies.”

Going at a novel the other way around, picking out the follies and villainies you mean to condemn first, is what produces sanctimonious melodrama such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or adolescent moralizing such as Atlas Shrugged. Even past masters can go wrong this way. Because Tolstoy had developed such prescriptive ideas of marriage, family and religion by late in his career, he managed to produce, in The Kreutzer Sonata, a consummately poor novel that owes its failures entirely to its dogmatism. (It is a novel that is, in Martin Amis’s words, “bad in every way a novel can be bad.”)

And anyway, just about every idol of the conventional novel that Pynchon supposedly offends had already been killed off by 1973, the year he published Gravity’s Rainbow. Take stream-of-conscious narration. If you can piece together the plot (or “action”) of Ulysses (1922) or The Sound and the Fury (1929), you can easily make sense of the storyline in Gravity’s Rainbow and appreciate the undermining role played by the elastic reliability of its narration. Personally, I found the dreamscape longeurs of Conrad’s Lord Jim much more trying than Pynchon’s weirdest excursus in Gravity’s Rainbow. Some were un-get-throughable.

Much is also made of postmodern novels’ going “meta,” or being self-referential. Related is the innovation of breaking down the “fourth wall” and addressing the reader directly. (Orhan Pamuk “personally” appears late in his 2009 novel The Museum of Innocence with the wonderful line, “Hello, it’s Orhan Pamuk!”) Well, both these things were done in the very first novel, Don Quixote. The introduction of the novel’s second part is a meta-novella unto itself. It is basically Cervantes unmasking a piece of fan fiction, or fraud if you like, written by an impostor, which was circulating through the salons at the time. Cervantes’ meta-fictional but really factual rebuttal was analogous with a hip-hop artist using a rap to trash-talk a rival.

But all this aside, Gravity’s Rainbow does stand out as an extraordinary accomplishment. Even though most of its subversive devices had already been invented by 1973, Pynchon takes them to such outlandishly imaginative levels while still marshaling them behind a coherent ethos that his novel indeed deserves its palms.

The story, much simplified: Tyrone Slothrop is a lieutenant in the U.S. Military Intelligence Corps. While tracking V-2 rocket impacts in 1944 London, he makes a the first of a bizarre chain of discoveries about his past that increasingly suggest to him that he has, since childhood, been pressed into the service of a secretive power elite that knows no national loyalties. Making up the cabal are his father, a go-getter industrialist/chemist, and a transnational network of industrial forces abetting humankind in the pursuit of its collective death wish. The main vectors for organizing this plot and causing it to be perpetrated through Slothrop’s own life are Pavlovian conditioning (Slothrop’s father sold him for experimentation as a child) and compartmentalized government planning (Slothrop can never be sure what his true mission is or who his real masters are).

So, yes, it is a novel about conspiracies. Early in the book, an associate of Slothrop’s, who is caught in the same spy game, gets his first inklings of what we would today call “recovered memories.” He reflects on the images, impressions, the moods that suggest to him his mind is not completely his own: “He had known for a while that certain episodes he dreamed could not be his own. This wasn’t through any rigorous daytime analysis of content, but just because he knew.” Ask any true believer in conspiracies, and you will eventually strike this bedrock–whatever the objective balance of evidence for or against their belief, they just know. Aliens built the pyramids. The UN is coming for their guns. And so on.

So Gravity’s Rainbow is also a novel about conspiratorial thinking, which asks the question, “When is a conspiracy not a conspiracy?” The short answer, for Pynchon, is: when the forces we perceive by way of determined of paranoia are actually just ordinary life surging stupidly ahead, toward purposes it defines as it goes, without asking us. It is basically Toynbee’s idea of history  as one damn thing after another instantiated in individual human psychology and expressed through group behavior. Pynchon is making a literary argument for the validity of the viewpoint of American philosopher Richard Rorty. Rorty argued that the soul of being human is to accept time, fate and chance rather than gods, myths and History as worthy of determining our fates.

Very good, if you’re a liberal democrat, but why tell such an important tale so obviously from the viewpoint of a psychotic? Orwell asked much the same question of Edgar Allen Poe’s literature. In his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” Orwell was wondering aloud what kind of “truth” literature is supposed to be telling us when it gets weird.

Poe’s outlook is at best a wild romanticism and at worst is not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense. Why is it, then, that stories like “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and so forth, which might very nearly have been written by a lunatic, do not convey a feeling of falsity? Because they are true within a certain framework, they keep the rules of their own peculiar world, . . . .

In the same essay Orwell said that “novels are spoken of as ‘important’ when they are either a ‘terrible indictment’ of something or when they introduce some technical innovation.” Gravity’s Rainbow is important, I believe, because it does both these things, and combines the effects into something entirely new. I’m not saying he meant to do this, but Pynchon is giving us a terrible indictment of something–namely, the vague forces that can make modern life feel like the product of a conspiracy–and he is using a technical innovation–the dissolution of a coherent narrative perspective–to undermine our confidence in our ability to perceive those forces. So, you may find yourself strongly believing conspiracy theories based on what feels like compelling evidence, but you should also bear in mind how wrong you can be about almost anything. If this position seems untenable, then life is untenable.

What was the point of making Gravity’s Rainbow so hard? Why must the reader come to doubt the true identities of certain characters across the storyline? Why would I need to know where and what the Sandzak is, how a Poisson Distribution compares to randomness, 50-odd phrases in German, not all of them kitchen-table, just to string together parts of the plot of varying consequence? It is because the reader can, by coping with these and a hundred other such difficulties, come to sympathize with Slothrop, who never knows if his strings are being pulled or his cards have simply been dealt as they are. He never quite knows what is happening.

Novels are always historically situated, and Gravity’s Rainbow is no exception. It came out just as the American public was discovering, through the release of the Pentagon papers (leaked in 1971), that their government would lie to them systematically and hide things from them on a massive scale. Awoken to this reality, any thinking person could have looked back (and many did) to Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 book The Paranoid Style in American Politics and used its perspective to reinterpret a great many plain, ordinary facts as the outcomes of secretive machinations. Was the country that plotted the Bay of Pigs in 1961(and for that matter, the corporate-sponsored overthrow of Guatemala in 1954: look it up) the same one that stormed the beaches at Normandy? Look at the arrows on the D-Day maps. Bold and black, they point straight at the German positions, and that, by god, is where our soldiers attacked. We were so honest then.

But it was Eisenhower, the commander of Operation Overlord, who would warn the American people of the corrosiveness of the economics behind his victory at Normandy. At its deepest points, Gravity’s Rainbow explores the horrible possibility that Ike’s military industrial complex is really the outcome of more organic forces in the human enterprise, which have lives of their own and cannot be eradicated. Our profit-driven, death dealing national security state created in 1947 (with the National Security Act) was going to happen regardless of the particular course of World War 2. The main thing was the connection established between state killing and private industry. Other killings would have found the same connection, done the same trick. “The mass nature of wartime death,” Pynchon writes,

is useful in many ways. It serves as a spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw materials to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ‘n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.

One reason to soldier through Gravity’s Rainbow even if it is “difficult”: All its prurience, all its psychedelic haze, all its textual complexity and word-play inanity are an antidote to something worse than mystification–the very real prospect that the established powers manipulate our perceptions to give us oversimplified pictures of the world, the very opposite of the kind of bizarre-o world Pynchon brings to life. In 1947 as key Congressional leaders were meeting with President Truman and (what would shortly be known as) his National Security staff, Senator Arthur S. Vandenberg exhorted the president to make a case for fighting the Cold War that would be “clearer than the truth” to the American people. And so spin became an organic part of our national security apparatus and, truth be told, our country. Orwell wrote that weird stories like Poe’s make sense because the “keep the rules of their peculiar world.” The same goes, we learn, for political statements meant to communicate to the American people plain, important facts. The established powers re-wrote these rules beginning in 1947.

So here’s the deal with those dark forces that you think maybe control your thoughts: they exist. They are called corporations, advertisers, preachers, propagandists, politicians, and so forth. They’re all trying, all the time, to get you to live, think and act in ways that serve their interests. You can feel them at work, and in that sense you “know” about them. You might not be able to isolate the algorithm that points your social media account to a particular product or news item, but you know it is there, and real people somewhere are openly “conspiring” to make it work.

But are they conspiring? Pynchon draws out a deeper, more worrying aspect of such forces: they move to the deepest rhythms of human life. They are ultimately based in instinct, greed, chaos, fear, and chance. Your strings are being pulled, yes, but you are also being dealt cards at random. And like Slothrop, you’ll feel the effects of both, but you’ll never know the difference between the two, at least not for a certainty.

Of course Gravity’s Rainbow does not simply serve up this moral, or any other. But it does use a technical innovation to draw the reader toward a braver, more honest appraisal of life.  “If there is something comforting–religious if you want–about paranoia,” Pynchon writes, “there is also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”

Pynchon’s defining innovation in Gravity’s Rainbow is the dissolution of the antagonist as a character. Slothrop does not reach anything like a turning point in the novel; in fact he just fades out. There are a hundred and one reasons why he would have fallen apart as a character. To begin with, there was the trauma of discovering he had been sold as a child to a mad scientist who would go on to base his development of a key V-2 rocket material on Slothrop’s suffering. We see clear signs all throughout the novel that Slothrop is winding down, experiencing a kind of existential entropy, rather than solidifying for some kind of climax. As he changes costume throughout the story (that pig suit is only one of several), we come to see Slothrop is losing more than his last set of clothes–he is abdicating his identity. Furthermore, his frequent drug use and increasingly strange reveries also speak to the erosion of a core self. Enslaved in childhood to thanatos, Slothrop dissipates himself in eros, coupling with too many lovers to count. Each lover takes a part of him that won’t come back. Maybe that’s the point.

So when the novel comes to its end, Slothrop simply isn’t there. This absence is, I think, the other side of Pynchon’s “terrible indictment” of modern life. It is a genuine, if tragic, response to implacable ambiguity. The forces that make modern life feel like the outcome of interlocking conspiracies are really out there. But they’re just doing what people in power always do. The impulse to imagine oneself at the center of their machinations–consciously chosen as an object of contestation–is too neat. It is the definition of childishness. We don’t know how or why the hero fell out of the storyline of Gravity’s Rainbow. Maybe he went crazy. Maybe he settled down somewhere and stopped doing interesting things. All we really know is that he stopped being at the center of a story. This may be a new kind of heroism that anti-paranoia requires of us–the admission that there is far more randomness and complexity in the world than actual conspiracy.



Where We Were From


The title of Joan Didion’s personal history of California, Where I Was From, presents you with a wrinkle in time. Don’t we usually say “where I am from”? Why the extra layer of past-ness? What the 70-year old Didion was implying was that by the time she looked back at her home state in 2003, not only had it changed beyond recognition, but so had she. She left home to write for Vogue in 1961, and then life kept happening, mostly in New York but also in Paris, Hawaii, Central America. She could no longer say she was the Joan Didion who comes from California; now she was someone who once came from there.

The realization that you can’t go home again is a common one; you try to go back only to discover it was an earlier, different version of yourself who lived there. The lack of fit is overdetermined: it runs both ways.

When we try to imagine the the world after COVID-19 (the “new normal”), we can easily assume the same naivete Didion sheds in the title of her memoir. We picture ourselves dazed, enervated, bereaved, and disoriented but essentially still who we were before the pandemic. We will blink our eyes and try to work out how far magnetic north has shifted, try to get our minds around where the world’s coordinates have come unfixed. How will we travel? Eat out? Vote? Change jobs? Send kids to camp?

But we will be mistaken to think it is the same old us navigating these questions. Because, like Didion, we will have changed too. And we will have no time to mourn the loss of our old selves. The grief of this loss will slip silently onto those already accumulated. So soon, we will have to say we were from the world before COVID-19.

Historical change is nothing new, of course, and individuals never emerge from it unscathed. My dad was from the world before Vietnam, for example. Lots of things were different after the war, including him. Three books I’ve read recently, alongside Didion’s Where I Was From, have helped shape my thoughts on what is happening to us. In particular, they’ve helped me meditate on how entrenched our assumptions are about who we will be on the other side of this crisis.

Milan Kundera’s Ignorance is a novel about the urge that central European exiles felt to return home when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Kundera himself had fled his native Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968, so there is a certain amount of factual autobiography that informs Ignorance. I remember that heady time too. The Berlin Wall fell down.

In Ignorance, as communism is swept off Europe’s map with dizzying speed, the novel’s antagonists, living in Paris, are encouraged by their friends to join the “Great Return.” Go home and celebrate the liberation of your homeland, they are urged. There is dancing in the streets. This call is a nearly irresistible force. But Kundera asks why this is the case. The thing is, he has not just been waiting, holding his breath in France. He built a life there. He writes his novels in French, about themes that concern the French, and all of literate humankind. His antagonists in Ignorance follow suit, in their own ways; they have misgivings.

The urge to go home is strong, but unfiltered nostalgia freezes the exile in time, takes no account of the effects of choice and circumstance that have accumulated over the exile’s intervening lifetime. Kundera goes back to the beginning of European literature to locate this paradox. What he finds is revelatory. “In Book Five of the Odyssey,” Kundera writes, “Odysseus tells Calypso [who had captured and held him for seven years in a life of erotic luxury]: ‘As wise as she is, I know that Penelope [Odysseus’s wife] cannot compare to you in stature or beauty. . . . And yet the only wish I wish each day is to go back there.” He had been seeking home for 10 years. Kundera goes on la little later:

Homer glorified nostalgia with a laurel wreath and thereby laid out a moral hierarchy of emotions. Penelope stands at its summit, very high above Calypso.

Calypso, ah, Calypso! I very often think about her. She loved Odysseus. They lived together for seven years. We do not know how long Odysseus shared Penelope’s bed, but certainly not so long as that. And yet we extol Penelope’s pain and sneer at Calypso’s tears.

What happens to the life we lived and the world we constructed during our pandemic exile? Do they simply lose all meaning once the conditions of exile have been lifted? Whose attentions will we abandon when we blindly make the same choice as Odysseus?

It strikes me that I spend several hours a day now in intense contact with my son, whom I am home-schooling. This will almost certainly never happen again, depending on how far back to normal we are able to go after COVID-19. I don’t know how long our present routine will last–almost certainly not seven years!–but when my son and I do go back toward normal, we will be different people than we were just a few months ago. The “moral hierarchy of emotions” established by Homer says we must bend our entire will to just going “home.” We will reassert the old ways of school for him, office for me. But  will we not have cause to wonder why not everything fits the same? I imagine a day in my son’s future adolescence when he and I speak to each other not at all. He’s studying for finals and I’m puttering; our paths don’t cross, even under the same roof. Won’t I think of the present days with nostalgia? Won’t he? We used to talk for hours.

In his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air, George Orwell anticipates how the approaching climax of World War II will change the politics of all the warring countries. Even if they win, the western Allies, liberal democrats all, won’t be able to escape the coming darkness, Orwell believes.  Contending against monsters will put them at risk of turning monstrous themselves.

Coming Up For Air is a very pessimistic novel. It postulates that to win the war, Great Britain and the United States will have to adopt as expedients certain authoritarian powers that could prove corrupting of decency over the longer term. Nations will become militarized, weapons massively lethal; police will rule the streets; citizen surveillance will become pervasive; propaganda will condition the masses to hate outsiders; economies will remain on a permanent war footing, beating plowshares back into swords. All the societal movement in Coming Up For Air is downward. The antagonist, George Bowling, looks ahead, to what will happen after the crisis has passed:

But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him . . . . It’s all going to happen.

Bowling believes he just might survive the descent into darkness if he manages to take one last breath of his former innocence, England’s former innocence. And so he arranges a weekend trip to his boyhood home of Lower Binfield. There’s a fishing spot there that he knows, he just knows, no one else has discovered. The fish he had to abandon there one summer day long ago must be huge and unwary, he believes. His anticipation builds for weeks as he plans his escape. He hasn’t fished since he was a boy.

The reader doesn’t find out whether any anglers discovered Bowling’s secret pond and fished it out, and neither does Bowling. The developer’s bulldozer certainly found the pond–and drained it and flattened it for houses to be built on top of it. Lower Binfield is unrecognizable when Bowling arrives. Its center has been dwarfed by new factories, its old, well-formed town boundaries obliterated by sprawl. There are new sorts of people there, drawn by factory work, who don’t know anything about the town’s past. The pubs have fake wooden beams. Bowling comes face to face with an old lover who fails entirely to recognize him. She’s addled, unpleasant and gone to seed.

So Bowling gives up and goes home. The novel ends, or simply stops, one almost feels, with him contemplating which shabby lies he should tell his wife to put her off the scent of the real nature of his trip. (He’d told her it was a business trip, but she sniffed out that part of the lie.)

Is this the plainly bathotic ending it appears to be? Not really. The reason Bowling had kept his getaway secret was because he, a plain, fat, dull and inconsequential salesman, had political motives for trying to take a last gulp of clean air, and he didn’t think anyone would understand his grandiosity. In a changing world that threatened even the common man with propaganda, secret police, and wage slavery, there was no such thing as staying out of politics anymore, even for someone with such a trivial, deadend life as Bowling’s. This was something Orwell said over and over again in his essays of the time: the dynamics of what he called “after-war” dictated that even strong, successful nations would be perpetually in the preparatory stages of new war and, therefore, subject to emergency rule and contingency planning, habits that shade into authoritarianism. We can dream of the world that existed before we all became national-security states, but we can never go back to it. It has been obliterated by things we have done.

If we try to go back to the world before COVID-19, it won’t be there either. Biology is an even more efficient equalizing force than politics, and none of us can escape the tyrannizing effects of a pandemic. As Bob Dylan once put it, “You may be an ambassador to England or France; you may like to gamble, you might like to dance; you may be the heavyweight champion of the world; you may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.” Dylan was making a point about a different threat to our existence, but his reasoning remains solid: no one will be able to escape thinking about, and, in some sense, planning for, contagion in the future. We’ll just have to breathe that air.


Memory and longing will always reach backward in time. But as a basis for living, we can only look forward. Orwell knew this, and we are about to know it. The unspoken optimistic message of Coming Up For Air is that, despite the grief of abandoning what is lost, it is always for the best to strike a new course and move forward. That is almost literally the definition of progress. The new normal will improve upon the old normal.

Adolescence is, for almost everyone, a period happily left in the past. It may provide useful marks for measuring one’s intervening life journey, but it usually offers little worth dwelling on as such. My adolescence was particularly a wreck. I was in the grip of a religious “theory” of morality that held up sexual purity as an ultimate ideal. When I wasn’t reading Paul saying that sex was bad, I was reading how Lancelot ruined not just his own life by sleeping with Guinevere, but also his friendship with Arthur and the whole basis for British monarchy, which I took to be synonymous with heroic virtue at the time.

The point is, I was morally serious but entirely misdirected. Because I exhausted all my energy in pursuit of Paul’s ridiculous and sociopathic ideal, I gave myself a free pass on all other issues of moral consideration. Which is to say, I was an asshole. I simply had no conception that morality involved other people and that being kind to them or at least avoiding harming them was an important goal in life. Luckily, I met good, patient people who would lead me out of the wilderness. I also read new books that would raise me up like Saul Bellow’s Augie March to where I could try to navigate “by the great stars, the highest considerations.” I got lucky.

It took me years to understand the moral wreck that was my adolescence. I would recall episodes of casually bullying someone or flagrantly harassing someone else, and they revealed how unreflectively cruel I was. No surprise in retrospect, though: my entire capacity to reflect was absorbed into a doomed, Quixotic scheme for overriding the biological drive that perpetuates the species. Oops. (And which, if piloted with care, gives way to the best things in life.)

In his quietly devastating novel The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s antagonist Tony Webster looks back on a youth 40 years gone by. He has long understood his adolescence as merely conventionally awkward, or maybe squalid around the edges, at worst. He had girl trouble, yes, he was slightly pompous and insecure, but wasn’t everyone? Then, tracing the lines of an old love triangle that led to the suicide of a boyhood friend, Webster comes face to face with documentary evidence of his own blatant cruelty. Stung by love betrayed, 20-year old Webster wishes the worst on his friends in clear, vigorous terms, and it comes to pass. Tragedy ensues in a way that ruins the lives of people who appeared nowhere in young Webster’s moral calculations. They couldn’t have: he was so selfish and stupid–blind, really. Like I said, he was twenty.

When we sketch out the new, post-pandemic normal and inevitably look back to the old one for reference points, we will be forced to see how ill prepared we were for the shock. Then we will realize how little moral fiber ran through our national character when our time of trial arrived.

Here is what the post-COVID-19 world will bring sharply into focus: We, the generations that have shaped political culture since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, have built a system that seeks an upper limit on depriving people of the means to care for themselves. And after we’ve watched them on reality TV, we condemn the same people to the impersonal forces of social Darwinism to render hard but just rulings on them. Back when we came up with this arrangement, we thought of it as a capitalist Shangrai La. It was so fraudulent in its inception that we needed a movie–a movie!–to produce its slogan: “Greed is good.”

Where we are from

If the real-life truth of the matter could be put into a novelistic document like the one that jolts Webster out of his moral complacency in Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, it would be a letter from us–the ruling class and its close aspirants–to the other 80 percent of our fellow humans, telling them, why don’t you just fucking die? If you don’t like the $8.00-an-hour no-benefits service jobs that retail provides you, please take the suicide pills that the pharmaceutical industry so generously supplies you.Or maybe a gun in the mouth is more your style. Or eat your way to diabetes and wait to be priced out of insulin. Many of your fellows take a long turn in a prison run for profit. But in any case if you can’t hack it, just get out of the way. The future does not need you.

When we stopped believing that society existed, we stopped investing in it. Many moral outrages like the few I just alluded to took root. I agree, by the way, with Reagan and Thatcher that society does not exist. But unlike them, I believe it is one of the best and deservedly most robust fictions we have come up with. It is what the historian Juval Noah Harari would call a shared fiction worth believing in. The thing about shared fictions, though, is that they abhor a vacuum. Stop believing in one, and another will rush in to take its place. So, we may have weakened our collective belief in society, but oh, boy do we believe in corporations now. That’s who came rushing into fill the vacuum created by Reagan-Thatcherism.

Society is the bedrock of democracy. If individuals fail to identify with a national group with whom they are willing to pull together, they cannot define any national interests. So those interest get defined for them. In our case, the defining of interests is done by organized money in the form of corporations. This is all fine for the few who own the corporations, but for the rest of us it means we are living in a failed state. Don’t believe me? Try this brief summary of our symptoms on for size (from an Atlantic Monthly article by George Packer):

When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.

The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.

Our moral past–like Tony Webster’s, like my own–is a mirage. It never existed as we pictured it. What we thought of as the mere, regrettable side effects of greed–a little functional poverty here, a decline of infrastructure there–came into focus over the years as the essential aims of the system we invited to take over our lives. Greed is good?–That’s the system. The undeniable fact that we are presently subjects to corporate profit-seeking, not citizens in a democracy, should tell us that our past is not what we thought it was either. It was a different country.


Review of “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History” by Kurt Andersen


This seems like as good a time as any to admit that we are batshit crazy.

It’s not the pandemic. The Clorox briefings. The conspiracy theories.

It’s everything. For all the good traits that make America great, there is a dark side to our exceptionalism. It is nearly impossible here to grow up to become a sane adult. Something in our culture wars against it.

In America, a child born today has a one in three chance of growing up to believe UFOs are visiting our planet and the government is covering it up. One in five will believe in alien abductions. Ditto for chemtrails. Eleven percent will believe the government is trying to achieve mass mind control through new kinds of light bulbs. A whopping sixty percent will believe that end-time events foretold in the biblical book of Revelation will actually happen, and forty percent will believe the Jesus-versus-Satan apocalypse will play out while they’re still alive. (They will take no lessons from recently dead generations who believed the same thing.)

Speaking of smackdowns, many millions of new American adults 25 years from now will tune into professional wrestling, suspending belief in the distinction between real spectacle and fake sport. Many millions more will forget or never notice that “authentic” sports such as football are also staged fantasies that mix real violence with simulations of warfare. Hordes of new adults will acquire the belief that monster truck rallies are awesome. And so on.

As forecasts, these claims are, of course, off the cuff. They warrant the usual caveat, “On current trends, . . . .” After all, who’s to say that a quarter century from now Americans will be just as likely to believe in UFOs or that new light bulbs will even be a thing? Before I propose a response, though, consider this observable fact: our tendency to believe in fantasies sets us off sharply from most other people who are otherwise like us. In most countries in the developed world, a child stands almost no chance of growing up to believe even a single instance of the lurid flimflammery our children will believe about end-times, alien abductions, or the UN’s master plan to rule the world, let lone the whole shebang. In the rest of the Global North, the institutions of society seem to coordinate–or conspire, if you like–to shield children from believing exciting untruths and indulging in louche cons and quackery.

You can actually see it. Or rather, not see it. Just as there are simply no WWE matches or faith-healing tent revivals to attend in, say, France, there is a corresponding lack of false, histrionic ideas about life, the universe, and everything designed to indoctrinate children. There are no support networks of creationist home-schoolers, because–guess what–no one keeps their kids home to avoid what they think are the dwellings of Satan but which are really just schools. In these nice places, where one is unmolested by charlatans at every turn, it is possible to actually grow up. (Indeed one does better than merely grow up. Most European and east Asian high school students significantly out-perform American kids on all key educational indices.)

About those current American trends, though, and the question whether they will hold steady–if anything, Americans will likely proliferate newer, nuttier beliefs than the ones we have now. New avatars of what Kurt Andersen calls America’s “fantasy-industrial complex” will emerge with even more outlandish myths, conspiracies, and lies for the up-and-coming generation to believe in. Our children don’t stand a chance. Grown up, they will go sweaty and red in the face defending preposterous nonsense like the Prosperity Gospel while Koreans and Finns coolly do math and science.

How did we get here? According to Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History, we have always been here. We have always had a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue,” as he puts it. Sure, new things like the internet happened along the way that accelerated and expanded it, but for Andersen, excitable credulity is in our DNA.


European settlers came to America in the 17th century for two reasons: to find gold and to establish religious utopias. Both groups, the gold seekers in Virginia and the Puritans in Massachusetts, based their ambitions on wild hopes for the future. They were gullible by definition. The Virginians were a self-selected crew of schemers “wide-eyed and desperately wishful enough” to believe the hyperbolic ad men of the Virginia Charter Company shouting in the streets of London that the New World positively gleamed with gold.

The Puritans, for their part, came to America determined to fulfill the religious revolution begun by Luther in 1517. All over western Europe, “Millions of ordinary people,” reading Gutenberg Bibles hot off the presses, “decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything.” This revolution would continue to be fought over in Europe until at least 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, but the American Puritans escaped this contest and brought their radical new faith to a place where it would suffer no friction. There was no popery or any other kind of adult supervision waiting when they landed on Plymouth Rock.

The most interesting thing about the Protestant revolution in America is how quickly it became the new establishment. Rather than having to fight back against official repression by kings and popes, it was forced to deal with unruly spinoffs of its own, led by new, more extreme rebels. So began a pattern of innovation and fracturing that continues to this day. America blooms with ever-daffier religious sects. Waco’s Branch Davidians spun off the Seventh Day Adventists, who could trace their line of religious entrepreneurship all the way back to the the founding.

Of course reality set in in colonial America and tempered our fantasies. Not all roads would lead to Waco. Reason largely held sway; science thrived, especially in cosmopolitan Philadelphia. Look only to the secular, pragmatic character of founders for evidence that America did not go all-out gonzo crazy when it had the chance. Benjamin Franklin was officially a Puritan, but you couldn’t tell it from the way he attacked Cotton Mather’s religious establishment in his newspaper columns. Ben philandered, opined freely, and did science experiments. For him, all that was left of the old Puritan ways was a keen work ethic and a desire to get ahead.

But it is not Andersen’s contention in Fantasyland that we’ve ever gone all-out crazy. Rather, he argues that a large-enough number of our fantasies have survived the winnowing process of reality to tip us toward an anything-goes epistemology that could swamp what’s left of our objectivity. The kind of society that reserves the right to believe the fabulous is fun at times but ultimately cannot serve the purposes of human dignity, which include being governable by democracy. We’re not in a good way. “The American experiment,” Andersen writes,

the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies–every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will.

For a long time, we kept our will to believe woo-woo in a kind of rolling stasis. Beliefs in snake oil, tongue-speaking, rapture, levitation, and so forth would ebb and flow (for example, though the course of three “Great Awakenings” of fundamentalist religious faith), but for the most part, sober-minded adults steered and sustained the institutions that kept (many of us) tethered to reality. Then, in 2004, one of the adults, the political operative Karl Rove, announced a dramatic shift. He told a reporter that solutions to American political problems no longer “emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We create our own reality.” At that moment, Andersen thinks, we witnessed a disruption in the woo-woo/reality stasis so powerful that it should have warned us things might not go back to normal. “America,” he writes, “was the dreamworld creation of fantasists, some religious, some out to get rich quick, all with a freakish appetite for the amazing.” This appetite, not the judicious study of discernible reality, would define us.

By 2004 the unquestioned default setting of most Americans was a preference for the amazing over the non-amazing. As luck would have it, this was also when the necessary bits of machinery for delivering non-stop information miracles–smart phones and social media–converged, approximating Arthur C. Clarke’s definition of technology so whiz-bang it was indistinguishable from magic. This convergence put America’s time-tested, highly refined capacity for merging reality with fiction–what Andersen calls our fantasy-industrial complex–unassailably in charge of our culture, politics, and everything else that makes us who we are.

As a philosophy student, I would have appreciated a precise definition of the FIC by Andersen, but he doesn’t provide one, instead using his highly absorbing narrative of credulous America to draw out its main attributes. That’s fine, though. He’s a journalist and novelist by trade, so Fantasyland is probably a better book for following the forms he’s good at. Still, the idea of the FIC is the centerpiece of the book and deserves some precision. Basically what Andersen says is that America has an FIC, and that’s what sets us apart from everyone else.

The bedrock of the FIC is the belief that everyone can believe whatever one wants. It’s a basic right. The Puritans brought this belief in belief with them., and Thomas Jefferson was the first prominent America to analyze it. He wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that his compatriots were free to hold any zany articles of religious faith they wished (or none at all) so long as believing them didn’t “pick his pocket or break his leg.” This idea became one of the most durable of American values. In fact we have expanded on it since Jefferson, broadening it out to apply to many things outside religious faith. Today we believe that any private belief is permissible–in Wicca, chakra healing, past lives, Bulletproof Coffee, what have you–so long as it has no negative public externalities. For a short while in the mid-2000s, California’s courts even recognized people’s right not to believe in childhood vaccination safety on “personal” (not necessarily religious) grounds. That was, until kids in California started getting childhood diseases in droves that hadn’t threatened humanity in 100 years. Then the courts reversed the ruling. In a nice touch, Andersen calls the Californians’ (short-lived) opt-out the “just because” exemption. As Americans, we consider ourselves entitled to believe almost anything just because.

And we tell ourselves that this kind of cognitive promiscuity is okay, because the impersonal forces of nature will bring our beliefs in check if they go too far (as in California). Maybe. You can indeed find people voicing this kind of attitude, but much more prevalent is America’s broad embrace of ever-weirder magical thinking, which reinforces and multiplies our set of just-because beliefs. From the Salemites’ belief they were being bewitched at every turn to the New Ager’s nostrum that you can make anything happen by believing it, to Dr, Oz’s belief in homeopathy, we are addicted to the idea that we can will unreality into reality.

Magical beliefs that seem whispy are abetted in America by real, concrete actions taken to turn fiction into fact. We lead the world in the production of fictional breasts and artificially young faces. Only a few decades ago most women over 50 had gray hair; today, virtually none do, thanks to the ubiquity of hair dye. It’s a harmless vanity, of course. In a much more bizarre vein, though, a portion of the ever-growing community of cosplay gamers in America strive for a transformative level of immersion in their fictions. They call it “bleed” when they inhabit their fantasy worlds to such an extent that they experience real, comprehensive emotional lives whose referents exist only in the game.

The threshold to magical thinking has been lowered in great part, according to Andersen, by the compromise of America’s intellectual gatekeepers. Back in the day, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine all said sure, go ahead and believe what you want, but they said it in full confidence that if you let wacky truth claims “be submitted to a candid world,” the sober facts would win out. It’s in the Declaration of Independence. Well, it was a long, strange trip, but by the 1960s our intellectual gatekeepers were saying there was no such thing as facts (of the kind Jefferson & Co. had in mind), and furthermore the proper judges of what was “true” and “false” were not  a “candid world” of clear-eyed observers but a wised-up clan of social theorists who squinted at “reality” and saw that it was a figment of our collective imagination. This was the upshot of several widely influential books by highly respected scholars in the 1960s, including The Structure of Scientific Revolution, published by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 and  The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman  in 1966.

(One of the more adventurous books I’ve ever read from this genre is Against Method, by Paul Feyerabend. All I really knew about Feyerabend before I read Fantasyland was that he was a philosopher of science at Berkeley, and you could tell. Against Method is basically Feyerabend saying that scientists, rather than being paragons of objectivity, play professional games with the truth all the time based in fudging data and outright lying and even bullying. I will be forever grateful to Andersen for revealing just how weird a dude Feyerabend was. I had no idea. He grew up in Austria in the 1930s, and when the Nazis annexed his country, he saw the occupation and war as an “inconvenience, not a moral problem.” He joined the Wehrmacht and commanded troops in combat. After emigrating to the US after the war and landing a job in Berkeley as a philosophy professor, he had what Andersen calls a “full 1960s conversion.” Feyerabend had always been “excited by the world falling apart around him,” according to Andersen, and this side of him came out big time at Berkeley, even though he played things pretty straight early on, giving dull lectures about the scientific pursuit of truth. “It dawned on me,’ Feyerabend wrote in a memoir he called Farewell to Reason, “that the intricate arguments and wonderful stories I had so far told to my more or less sophisticated audience might just be dreams, reflections of the conceit of a small group who had succeeded in enslaving everyone else with their ideas.” Reason was no steady, reliably guide to the truth. It was the man keeping everyone down, man. Feyerabend was trying to pull down the pillars of the temple of science and reason, and, as Andersen writes, he was celebrating the very chaos he was trying to sow.)

Once the weirdness lid came off mainstream academia, it was off to the races for less noted but still notable scholars. Take C. Peter Wagner, a prominent Christian theologian and one-time professor at the (relatively) staid Fuller Seminary. Until he died in 2016, Wagner led a movement of pastors who preach the “dominion” gospel to millions–the idea that Christians should dominate American society and seize control of the government. (Basically the dominionists want to be the bad guys in A Handmaid’s Tale, but in real life.) In a 2011 NPR interview Wagner went on the record to claim with a straight face that Japan was suffering from demon possession because its emperor had arranged to have sex with the sun goddess. (I  normally don’t take a position on this kind of thing, but I say if you can figure out the logistics of the deal, by all means have sex with the sun goddess, because–sun goddess!) Millions of Americans thought of Wagner as a normal, sane adult, and, judging from the strength of the dominionist movement he left behind, millions still do. If this does not have your cognitive disaster light blinking red, you should probably get it checked.

In 19th century you had to be a nobody and a self-conscious fraud to sell snake oil. But the erosion of gatekeeper standards means that today, you can come out of the closet and stay out, cultivating enough credibility to both be a real, celebrated expert in something and also propagate childish nonsense. Deepak Chopra, for example, trained as an endocrinologist in the 1970s and then taught medicine at Tufts and Harvard while rising to become chief of staff at a large Boston hospital. Today, though, he believes that all ill-health is an illusion, which people can disabuse themselves of if they tune into their bodies’ “quantum mechanical” energy fields. He writes books about this which are bought by millions of Americans, and he has been heavily promoted by Oprah. It is safe to say that tens of millions of Americans believe the loony things Chopra says. And, in a new, very American twist, he may just believe what he says too. This is a new place for us. Back in the snake oil days, the impresario knew he had to hotfoot it out of town after making his sales, but today he sticks around and builds an empire of outlandish credulity which he cohabits with his dupes. But since we create our own realities now, it’s all good, right? Also see Doctor Oz.

Another outstanding feature of Andersen’s fantasy-industrial complex is the outsized role the 1960s played in our cognitive decline. While the eggheads at elite universities were busy bashing truth, science and objectivity, other groups were working away at eroding other conventions and cultural power structures across all of society. Andersen argues that the burgeoning use of marijuana was a good proxy measure for just how much the times they were a-changin’. “In 1965,” he writes, “fewer than a million Americans had smoked pot; in 1972 the number was 24 million. In 1967 only 5 percent of American college students had smoked; four years later it was a majority, and a third were getting high every day.” The use of psychedelics increased too. Woodstock happened, plus Transcendental Meditation. The Beatles turned on, and they also wanted to turn you on. No wonder so many young Americans suddenly found it so natural and appealing to commune with one another. The “Gestalt Prayer”–written in 1969 at Esalen, a fake, and highly successful, psychological research “institution” in California–is a wonderful distillation of the times, with its standing invitation to what Andersen calls a “concoct-your-own-truth” society:

I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.

(Here is an excellent profile of Esalen from the August 19, 2019 New Yorker. Yes, Esalen still around, as strong as ever. Many of the tech gurus who bend our attention wherever they wish go there to learn wisdom.)

Surprisingly, increased grooviness was not the only outcome of the 1960s. A vastly underappreciated side of the onslaught against the establishment was how it boomeranged back around to aid and abet precisely those Americans who were rooting for the establishment all along. The buzzcuts over in DoD started doing data-heavy “systems analysis” showing that nukes were a force for good and we were actually winning the Vietnam war. Even hard data could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. Somehow, the hippies and Berkeley professors missed the fact that anything-goes relativism was a game that anyone could play. The establishment never went away, of course, but it sure did learn a thing or two from the left-leaning cultural revolution of the 1960s, as Andersen observes:

In fact, what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flipsides of the same coins minted around 1967. All the ideas we call countercultural barged onto the cultural main stage in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s true, but what we don’t really register is that so did extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed, and more. Anything goes meant anything went.

The conquest of talk radio by conservative voices in the 1980s and 90s was just one consequence of this shift. There was never a need for Rush Limbaugh to slow down for fact-checking because, hey man, facts are like totally made up anyway. (He might not have believed this “argument,” but all of his audience had recourse to it, and likely used it liberally.) Today a popular conservative broadcaster closes his news cast with the line, “Even when I’m wrong I’m right.” Whether he knows it or not, the 1960s helped gift him this bounty of fantasy.

Anything-goes relativism also did heroic work for Biblical literalism, which had been receding steadily for the decades between the Scopes trial, in 1925, and the 1960s. Genesis Flood, a 1961 book laying out the literalist “theory” that the earth is only 6000 years old, “almost single-handedly retrieved creationism from the dustbin of Christian intellectual history–just as the academic mainstream was starting to say that science couldn’t necessarily be trusted as the arbiter of truth.” Today, 76 percent of Americans believe god created humans; half of these believe creation happened literally (clay, Adam’s rib and all that) as described in GenesisAnother poll indicates 40 percent of Americans believe the young earth theory espoused in Genesis Flood. Virtually no one else in the Global North believes these things.

The Intelligent Design movement has its own body of “science,” some of which is impressively complex. This is the point. It is written to inspire the faithful, cajole the skeptical, bamboozle everyone. Intelligent Design “science” is emblematic of a broader characteristic of American fantasyland, according to Andersen–its hybridity. Fact and fiction are made to incorporate one another in an endless feedback loop reminiscent of The Matrix, so that no one can tell what’s real and what’s not. This was perhaps inevitable for a country that literally wrote such fictions as human rights into existence. Human rights were made real by real people’s collective recognition of them, and a damn good thing, too. They are great. I’m all for this kind of boundary-crossing creativity if you have the wisdom of Aristotle or at least the realism of Thomas Hobbes, but we are not Aristotle, or even Hobbes. We are us, so we also pour great, slopping buckets of error, cant, bigotry, schlock, and malice into our hybrid inventions. We created reality TV. “Professional” wrestling. And a reality TV-pro wrestling president, which should not surprise us. We created Disneyland and then suburbs made to look like Disneyland. Or was it the other way around? Who knows.

Open admission: I pretty much hate the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, mostly because he wrote a ridiculous book claiming that a biggish war I happen to have fought in, the Persian Gulf War, did not actually take place. He says it was all done with mirrors and CNN. Whatever. If you dial Baudrillard back from a 14 to an 11, though, here’s one thing he most certainly got right (and which Andersen draws out): America’s mind-bending capacity to create fantasies and blend them with real life has reached disorienting proportions. Beaudrillard calls it hyperreality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines hyperreality as a world

in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, virtual reality games, social networking sites, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior.

Well, ain’t that America?–except I would definitely add megachurches to the list of Disneyficators that dominate our landscape. I usually don’t like avant garde intellectual terms, but I think hyperreality is a good one. If it strikes you as a joke or an exaggeration, consider this: Baudrillard coined it two decades before the tech wonks decided to call the real-time blending of maps (or images) with textual information (and who knows what else) augmented reality.

But prominent Americans have been augmenting reality for a long time now. In a world where you can uncritically combine fact with fiction, message is all that matters, especially if you communicate for a living. It doesn’t matter whether your claims are true or false, or even where your terms come from. Do you know that famous speech by Ronald Reagan where he called the Soviet Union the evil empire? Reagan didn’t just cherry-pick one made-up term from Star Wars for that speech. It was a cornucopia of fantasies wrapped in a smorgasbord of fakery. Andersen recalls it:

Reagan delivered his “evil empire” speech in Orlando to the National Association of Evangelicals, an hour after he had been at Disney World. “I just watched a program–I don’t know just what to call it–a show, a pageant, . . . at one point in the movie Mark Twain, speaking of America, says, ‘We soared into the twentieth century on the wings of inventions and the winds of change.'” He’d seen Disney’s The American Adventure, featuring an animatronic Mark Twain saying things Mark Twain never said.

Americans loved that speech.

The fact that the USSR really was an empire and it really was evil kind of deflates any quibbles about truth and historicity in this case, right? I mean, Reagan was right in every way that counted. Maybe message really is all that matters.

But America’s hybridization of fact and fiction is not all about political speeches. Some of it matters. In the 1960s the LAPD created the country’s first SWAT team. They trained at a Universal studios lot. After the TV show S.W.A.T. came out in the 1970s, police departments started copying what they saw on the show according to investigative reporting by the New York Times. This hybridization led to the proliferation of SWAT units across the country and eventually to America having the most militarized police force on earth. It also connects to other hybridizations that led to real-life increases in life’s nastiness and brutishness here in America. Fictional apocalypses and sadistic crime dramas helped lead to real prepper movements and advocates of “guns everywhere” laws. Rather than having to stop playing army as kids, hundreds of thousands of adults now play it much better, with entirely-realistic-looking Airsoft paintball guns, and loads of cool military accessories. The Second Amendment language about “well-regulated militia[s]” was reinterpreted to mean that U.S. citizens have the right to formed armed bands to fight back against their own constitutional government, which the NRA described in 1995 as “jackbooted thugs.”

With their faith in exciting TV fabrications, deep government conspiracy theories, and nostalgic Daniel-Boone individualism, these movements evince another key feature of our fantasy-industrial complex as Andersen interprets it–the open borders of fantasyland. Belief in weird theory X is often linked to belief in weirder theory Y. If you believe, say, that you actually sup each week on the blood and body of a Bronze Age mystery cult god who is also your lord and savior, equally preposterous fictions will come easier too–maybe Q-anon or power-line epidemiology. Indeed the polls indicate this kind of overlap, and they have for a long time. In a survey of people who listened to Orson Well’s prankish broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, a clear majority of those who freaked out were also devout religious believers.

In a way, this is good news. Our cognitive bottom-feeders will tend to sort themselves and thus the nonsense they believe into one place–the bottom. It’s possible but pretty unlikely that your cardiologist will also be a Reiki master healer or that a federal judge will spend her nights feverishly connecting the dots of the next Pizza Gate conspiracy. This is not rocket science. Even in fantasy-besotted America, plain old education helps keep crazy down. The same Pew poll that showed 40 percent of Americans believe Jesus will come blazing down from the sky during their lifetimes indicated that people with no college were three times more likely to believe this than than college grads.

The bad news is: that murky place where lunkheads, troglodytes and enthusiasts get together to cross-fertilize outrageously stupid ideas?–It is HUGE. It contains multitudes. Our basement may only make up the bottom quarter of our house, but it remains a very big house. We clearly lead the world in producing and propagating mad fantasies and then connecting the dots that link them together into stupendously false worldviews. Think Alex Jones here. It’s embarrassing.

Obviously, I like Andersen’s book. I think, in the tradition of Orwell, he faces up to a lot of unpleasant facts. But I think Andersen misses one key feature of America’s obsession with exciting, irrefutable beliefs in fiction. That is, these kinds of beliefs are massively empowering to the individuals who hold them. Do you know those memes of Sam Elliot where he’s looking at you with that wonderful, omniscient gaze and telling you you’ve got to be a special kind of stupid to believe in immigration statistics, or climate change science, or some other dogma that the elite establishment wants to force on you? Thanks to a convergence of technology and a widespread corruption of intellectual leadership in America, that attitude is now available to everyone. Each American can now be and feel smarter than anyone who dares to tell him the facts just aren’t on his side.

Why have I written a 5,000-word review of Andersen on this gloomy topic? Is it because I think real, concrete harm is being done by Americans’ obsession with connecting random dots into self-flattering fabricated pictures of a non-world? Sure. You can count up a certain number of innocent parties who will suffer or die because of our willful stupidity. That’s bad, of course, but I doubt the danger of our faith in nonsense is all that worrisome compared to real problems that we’re actually tackling in intellectually honest ways (for example, the link between prisons for profit and skyrocketing incarceration rates).

Ultimately, fantasyland is repulsive because it is harmful to human dignity. It perverts the one thing that sets us off from other big mammals, our ability to mentally represent complex things happening outside our heads–the real world. Our intoxicating ability to add our own thoughts to the ones impinging form the outside world is, I believe, turning toxic. And, worse, the toxin is a cheap one. It openly advertises its fraudulent character. But nonetheless, we prefer the delusion to honesty. Andersen quotes the alternative-history fantasy writer Philip K. Dick at length on this dreary condition, the outcome of our peculiar addiction to the habitual blending of fact and fiction:

The problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups–and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener . . . .

I consider that the matter of defining what is real . . . is a serious topic, even a vital topic. And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human. Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans–as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. . . . Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. . . . It is just a very large version of Disneyland.

This, I think is the real horror of our passionate faith in nonsense. It’s nothing that picks my pocket or breaks my leg. Our belief in life-coaching, end-times, young earth, the prosperity gospel, speaking in tongues, commodity bubbles, crop circles, reptilian overlords, porn fantasy and so on probably doesn’t draw a lot of blood. But it is all so degrading–a  pathological attempt to dodge our adult responsibilities. The philosopher Immanuel Kant defined enlightenment as intellectual emancipation, the conscious recognition that we have no thought supervisors, supernatural or otherwise. Kant thought it was a great and beautiful moment for mankind and that enlightenment would help us stand up straight to face the world anew. Our insistence instead on slouching toward a hell of fantasy and delusion is repugnant to this tradition. It is a willful return to what Kant called our “self-caused immaturity.” It is inhuman and inhumane.

Orwell, Steadfast Partisan of the Left


Sometime during the Cold War, right-leaning ideologues got the idea that George Orwell had switched sides shortly before dying in 1949, and his legacy was somehow on their side of the aisle.

An essay by the neo-conservative writer Norman Podhoretz in the January 1983 Harpers is typical. In it, Podhoretz argues that Orwell underwent several “major political transformations,” and if you trace their arc, you see it bending clearly toward Reaganite neo-conservatism.

Well, as Orwell said of Charles Dickens, some writers are well worth stealing, and Orwell himself proved attractive to thieves. The right’s attempt to appropriate his legacy is an act of attempted robbery. Orwell was a steadfast partisan of the left and remained so to the end of his life.

Why does (re)establishing this fact matter? I’ll get to that, because it really does matter, but first let’s consider the evidence for Orwell’s enduring loyalty to the left.

  1. Actions always speak louder than words. Orwell was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper while fighting with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. He temporarily lost his voice and nearly died. As he was recovering in a Spanish hospital, he wrote to one of his best friends that he could “at last really believe in Socialism, which [he] never did before.”
  2.   Orwell made explicit commitments to the left’s political agenda, and he never reversed them. The leftist spirit was alive but only vaguely so in Orwell’s earliest writings, which addressed the injustices of colonialism and the structural nature of poverty in what was then the world’s biggest, richest empire. But in June 1938, he put his cards plainly on the table in his essay, “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party.” The gathering threat of fascism he said, was forcing passive leftists to adopt a concrete, organizing dimension for their sympathies, even though that meant they would have to make unwelcome political compromises with the establishment. “One has got to be actively Socialist,” he wrote, “not merely sympathetic to Socialism.”
  3. A thinker as forthright as Orwell would have publicly and explicitly withdrawn his support for the left had he privately abandoned it. He never did. Indeed, he used his dying breath to express his enduring loyalty to socialism. A representative of the United Automobile Workers had written Orwell sometime in mid-1949 asking if 1984, with its direct indictment of collectivism, had not signaled Orwell’s abandonment of the left. Weak, feverish, and unable even to walk from his hospital bed to the radiology lab for a needed X-ray, Orwell wrote back on the 16th of June, explaining clearly and forcefully, “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labor Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable and have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism.” He would only write eight more letters in what remained of his short life, but that letter contained his last political statement; he remained a man of the left.
  4. Wait, what’s that about supporting the British Labor Party in 1949? Hadn’t Orwell joined the ILP in 1938? In the essay about that decision, Orwell said that despite his membership in the more ideological ILP, he hadn’t lost faith in the more mainstream Labour Party and that his “most earnest hope is that [they] will win a clear majority in the next General Election.” He knew where the winning votes would come from in a battle against the right. From the time he was a declared socialist to the end of his life, Orwell was a pragmatist who believed that the leftist movement would only advance its cause if it was part of a larger, viable coalition against the established monied interests. Politics, Orwell observed over and over, is always a choice between bad options and worse ones. His willingness to cooperate with non-socialist parties should not be interpreted as a rejection of his declared ideological loyalties. Winning is always ugly, and Orwell wanted to win.
  5. Podhoretz, in his 1983 essay laying claim to Orwell on behalf of the right, observes that Orwell was forever criticizing the left, with vigor. Of course he was. Orwell loved the left and did not want to see it commit suicide by bowing to rigid orthodoxies. He was always trying to keep the left honest and to make sense of his own experience as an apologist for a movement that could confound, embarrass and disappoint him in thousands of ways. On the other hand, Orwell’s career-long rejection of the right was as plain as the nose on his face.  From his earliest, unpublished writings about poverty and homelessness, Orwell was always against a state that was set up to steal the workers’ labor value and arrogate it to the one percent. (Orwell may have actually coined that phrase, by the way, in a diary entry in 1941.)

Indeed, despite Orwell’s frequent critiques of leftist foibles, there is nothing you can recover from his writing that teaches you how to be a better rightist. Orwell went to Spain in 1937 with an expressed desire to put a bullet into a real, existing fascist, and he never lost his antipathy toward the more abstract powers ranged behind the right–money worship, predatory corporations, religious authority, bought-off media, politicized courts, and of course, the great populist enabler of it all, Yahoo nationalism. All Orwell’s writings that conservatives might construe as rejections of leftism actually can, and should, be understood as instructions for how to be a better leftist.

An offhand remark by Orwell in a letter to the Partisan Review in 1944 is typical. He was tossing around the idea with his editors that Europe’s constitutional monarchies (in Britain, the Low Countries and Scandinavia) had done a better job resisting Nazism than Europe’s republics, possibly because time-worn royal pageantry stirred and provided a harmless, domestic outlet for popular patriotic sentiments. France, though, an exemplary republic that had killed its kings as any “correct” leftist movement would, had no repository for its patriotic feelings outside the state’s real power structures, and these largely strove for survival by adapting to fascism. If you tell this kind of thing to “the average left-winger,” Orwell noted, “he gets very angry, but only because he has not examined the nature of his own feelings toward Stalin.”

Orwell Tea
(Image: Commonweal)

Today’s right-winger trying to put a neo-conservative construction on Orwell generally has an easy time cherry-picking items like this one. There was a shameful number of European and American socialists who stayed true to Stalin, and Orwell repeatedly called them out for this arch sin, and with many lesser ones. Gather a few of these indictments together and, voila, you have an Orwell struggling to break free of his leftist dogmas and who would have grown in time to love Margaret Thatcher.

Bullshit. Orwell’s self-criticism never rose to the level of embracing of the right, nor did it even point that direction. Indeed, if anything systematic can be recovered from Orwell’s writings as a whole–and he seems to have hated systems–it is a multi-layered critique of the things that threatened to sink socialism.

The body of Orwell’s work weaves together three levels on which he constantly battled against leftist pieties–as an artist, as a political operative, and as a cultural conservative. Orwell believed that declaring a party loyalty was artistic suicide for a writer, whose job was to tell the truth. Writing requires complete freedom of expression, and party membership requires hamfisted modifications of this freedom. He knew he was maiming himself as a writer when he joined the ILP, but he joined anyway, because, he thought, the times demanded political responsibility even of artists. “Group loyalties are necessary,” he wrote in ‘Writers and Leviathan,’ “and yet they are poisonous to literature, so long as literature is the product of individuals.”

(Interestingly, Orwell was remarkably charitable to writers who stayed true to their art and kept out of politics. On his way to Barcelona in 1937, Orwell visited Henry Miller in Paris and praised him frankly and profusely for writing Tropic of Cancer, a book widely censored and generally seen at the time as a scandal of sacrilege and hedonism. Orwell was only slightly perplexed, possibly even charmed, by Miller’s naive indifference to what was happening in Spain. Miller exhorted Orwell to stay in Paris and drink, asking him why he would go down and throw his life away.)

As a political operative–or, by extension, as an ordinary voter–Orwell thought that backing certain desirable leftist causes would inevitably bring to light other, unarticulated commitments to less desirable, even repugnant outcomes. If you want the emancipation of the working class,  for example, you are going to need more, not less, industrialization, which is hateful on aesthetic and environmental grounds. Furthermore, there was no resolving such basic inconsistencies for Orwell: you just had to live with them. Political responsibility, he wrote, demands that we “recognise that a willingness to do certain distasteful but necessary things does not carry with it an obligation to swallow the beliefs that usually go with them.”

This is, of course, a liability of any political orthodoxy, not just the leftist one. But when Orwell indicated the best way out of this thicket, he was clearly speaking from and for the left. The first thing progressives (yes, he used that term too) must do is reject two assumptions forced on them by the established right. One is that the left is in search of a laughably unachievable utopia, and two is that any political choice is a moralistic one “between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right.” Both these assumptions spring from a common myth, popular consensus in which Orwell thought the right had gotten for free for a long time.

This myth is the quasi-religious belief that man is fallen and essentially incorrigible. There’s simply no use trying to improve his lot. For centuries, the right (and its progenitors) have placidly asserted the dogma that humans are either candidates for heaven or hell, with no ground in between. Right in front of our nose, though, Orwell was constantly observing signs that humans were capable of making incremental progress, through politics that were often tortured, dishonest, even corrupt, but oriented nonetheless toward the reduction of human misery. In a 1943 book review, Orwell notes that the London slums of Dickens’s day teemed with poor people so deprived of decent conditions that it was objectively true to say they led subhuman lives. They were so far outside the pale, they could not even orient their existence on any kind of program to help civilize them. Sitting in his cold, dark flat during the Blitz, Orwell measured the progress achieved since the 1870s:

Gone are the days when a single room used to be inhabited by four families, one in each corner, and when incest and infanticide were almost taken for granted. Above all, gone are the days when it seemed natural to write off a whole stratum of the population as irredeemable savages.

The conservative belief that we cannot and must not take even the first step toward heaven as long as we are earth-bound, Orwell said, “belonged to the stone age.” Clearly there was no need to invoke a utopia if your real political aim was merely to reduce the worst, most tractable injustices occurring right here, right now. “Otherworldliness,” Orwell writes, “is the best alibi a rich man can have” for doing and sacrificing nothing to reduce the suffering of the poor.

The metaphysical pessimism behind the rich man’s alibi, Orwell believed, led directly to defeatism. And this defeatism made it an urgent matter for the left to reject the straw-man accusation that they were trying to build a utopia of unachievable dimensions. “The real answer,” he wrote, in a 1943 ‘As I Please’ column, “is to dissociate Socialism from Utopianism.” He would write this over and over again, in other words, in other places, until he died.

A right-winger looking to steal Orwell’s legacy can perhaps find the most aid and comfort in the third level of Orwell’s critique of his leftist fellow-travelers, his scorn for their bad taste and what we would today call the performative aspect of their politics. Despite faithfully bearing the leftist banner of liberté, égalité, fraternité, Orwell retained many of the biases and preferences of a garden-variety cultural conservative. He obviously believed it was important not to hide these things, but to wear them on his sleeve.

Although Orwell was horrified by war and believed that socialism would help pave the way to less of it, he was more horrified by pacifists who not only held to Chamberlain’s line of appeasement in 1939 but touted staying out of all wars on philosophical grounds. Orwell called this one-eyed pacifism. He did’t stop there, though. He openly despised the posturing of the pacifists and other cultural progressives of his day, calling them “juice-drinking sandal-wearers” and “creeping Jesus” types. Emotionally, Orwell was closer to Archie Bunker on some things than he was to a by-the-book leftist.

Orwell was also free with some epithets that he might think twice about today. In letters to friends, he called homosexuals fags, often in connection with boys’ public school life. (He mentions in his 1948 essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” that the younger boys at school mooned over and sometimes had crushes on the older boys.) Although he took pains in one “As I Please” column in 1943 to observe that black American G.I.s in London were more polite than white ones, he used the N word without compunction. (It should also be pointed out, though, that he used the same word with political acumen when unmasking the racist hypocrisies of liberal democracies, as in his 1939 essay “Not Counting Niggers.”)

He also viewed the racial situation in Burma, where he served as a colonial policeman, stereoscopically. With one eye he saw the Burmese as “little beasts,” but with both eyes open, he was “all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.” Again, even while propagandizing for an oppressed people, Orwell believed it important to wear his reactionary racism in full view. He would always believe humans to be a tangle of contradictions, and he did not wish to have his own hidden.

In many ways, Orwell simply deplored the bad material taste of his time. He pined, as any conservative does, for the good old days, when beer was better and fishing streams cleaner. But he clearly reserved a special contempt for the aesthetic depths to which collectivists would plunge out of loyalty to their politics. The low-level, everyday miseries of Londoners in 1984 represent not just a shudder against ugliness and poor taste in general, but a particular warning against accepting material shabbiness as a condition of political progress. The opening chapter of 1984, set in Winston Smith’s apartment building, Victory Mansions, uses the aromas of chronic poverty to animate this idea. “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” Smith’s Victory Gin “gave off a sickly, oily smell . . . ” In a later chapter, Smith visits a proletarian pub, where the ale smells and tastes sour. (See this wonderful 2016 article from the Guardian on “George Orwell and the stench of socialism” for further discussion of this theme.)

If your socialist leader promises material progress–which they all do as a matter of course–they damn well better deliver. From East Germany to North Korea, collectivist dictators have been forced to make whole careers of denying the material poverty of their subjects. Had Orwell lived to see the Kitchen Debate of 1959 between Nixon and Kruschev, he would have called it political schlock and free propaganda for American corporations, but I think he would have also called it an important victory for liberal democracy. It showed what working people ought to expect as a return on their labor value.

Orwell lived a great deal of his life near the functional poverty line, and his tastes were never sumptuous–how could they have been? But he did believe that the ordinary person’s attraction to nice things was a politically useful force. The realistic desire for a “nice cup of tea,” a good glass of beer, or a decent dinner out with one’s partner were handy yardsticks for measuring the success or failure of a government. The whole undertone of Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air is about how unnecessarily hard it was for an ordinary young person to fulfill even the shabbiest of proletarian desires in the world’s richest empire.

Does all this matter? Does it matter that the right cannot justifiably lay claim to Orwell’s legacy? I believe it does. Because I believe it is precisely Orwell’s stereoscopic vision of socialism that makes him true to and valuable for the left. “In a prosperous country,” he wrote in 1939, “left-wing politics are always partly humbug.” Progressivists made their livings, Orwell continued, self-righteously “demanding something they they don’t genuinely want”–a measurable reduction in the elite’s standard of living. That would make waves. Safer to stay in opposition.

Orwell spent his energies, though, in pursuit of taking and holding political power for the left. Real political responsibility would come at a cost, as he knew, and it would court contradictions, compromises, even corruption. But that was also true of the political processes that lifted the lives of 1870s slum dwellers out of subhuman misery. Yes, socialism as Orwell understood it, is partly humbug, but corporate capitalism is wholly and completely humbug. You cannot just cheer on the rich and wait for them to voluntarily return you some dividends on your labor value. It will never happen. This is not to say, though–and Orwell never would–that one system is right and the other wrong. But the system in which the worker makes his claim to a bare minimum of security is clearly a less bad system than one where the rich reserve the power to ignore the poor. Good politics is always choosing the less bad option over the worse one. This is the leftist cause, and Orwell is one of its leading champions.

Good Cheap Books


One of the things I love most about my e-reader is the access it gives me to inexpensive books. Some of the best bargains out there are great books or collections of great authors that you can get for mere pennies.

Now that many of us have more time for reading, you might consider savoring–or in some cases, tackling–some of these:

Germinal by Emile Zola. If you can hack the French, it’s free on Amazon. We anglophones can read it for 99 cents. This is a great book on its own, of course, but it’s particularly relevant right now while the whole nation is basically on a de facto general strike. When you consider what troubles Zola’s miners had to go to merely to organize a strike in one isolated mining district in Germinal, you start to think that our working class, with a general strike more or less materializing out of nowhere, might wake up and demand some nice things too before going back to work. Probably not, though, because, . . .

. . . our ambient levels of passivity and conformism run pretty high. On this theme, read Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 classic Babbit. It gives the American middle class’s first honest look in the mirror. While our economic life in the Roaring Twenties told us we were masters of our fate, sitting on top of the world, our interior lives said we were chumps, self-righteous fools, and slaves to convention. Babbit–the character and the novel–asks what lies beneath the masks we wear.

Speaking of broad human themes, you cannot miss Cervantes’s Don Quixote. It is possibly the first novel ever written and in any case a great literary wellspring of European enlightenment. From cover to cover it speaks unsparingly but with great comic warmth of a world no longer enchanted by religion. Milan Kundera reflects on it, “When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novel teaches us to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.” For 99 cents you can join the communion of the faithful who ask themselves this question over and over.

Don’t let the imposing-sounding title of Epictetus’s Enchiridion scare you off. It’s a highly accessible introduction to Stoicism, which basically says that unplanned, unjust, and chaotic as the world may be, you should still do your best to live an orderly, dignified life. When I read the plain moral brilliance of Epictetus, I have to wonder how we Americans–many of us cheerful, decent people of solid good sense–let ourselves be saddled with the farcical beastliness of Christianity and other Bronze Age Levantine sky god cults. Read Epitectus alongside your chosen “sacred” text and ask yourself which one really and truly commands your conscience.

If you enjoy unpacking surprise gifts, try any of the Stoics Six Packs series on Amazon, especially volume two, which includes Seneca’s essential On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitatis Vitae). They cost 99 cents. Had you been a curious student living in ancient times somewhere on the Mediterranean rim, you would have risked your life traveling through war zones and plague hotspots to go study these masters.

For years I put off reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, because (a) it’s seven books long, and (b) it struck me in my youth as too fancy pants for my tastes, which ran more toward Dostoevsky’s direct line of questioning God Himself. My mind was changed though, when I read that it was a stylistic inspiration for Shelby Foote’s massive, novelistic History of the Civil War (also a wonderful read but not one that meets my price criteria for this post). You will be richly rewarded even if you only make it through Swann’s Way, the first book. In it, Proust reveals how hard it is to be human. We think of our lives as more intelligible in retrospect than they are as they happen in real time, but Proust gives pause, page after page, to ask if that’s really true. The thing we think we know best–our self–is a collection of rounded-off impressions and outright illusions that require exertion to be held together. When critics talk about the modernist movement as one that unmasked the incoherence of the individual self–the notion that not only is there no essential me in the present, but that I cannot even construct one from the past–they invariably have Proust’s masterpiece first in mind. $1.99.


I have several good collections that range in price from free to $1.99. Used to be these beasts were hard to navigate because each book was marked as a “chapter,” so all you could do was move from one book to the start of another. Some were even worse (like a collection of Bertrand Russell I picked up and then abandoned in frustration). They contained thousands of pages, and sometimes all you could do was plow through from the start of the collection toward your desired book. These days, though, many large digital collections are organized better, with internal chapter markings. I am currently reading my way though the complete novels of H.G. Wells, and it is very nicely organized so that you can access individual sections or even chapters in each novel.

In 2015 or so–I can’t quite remember–I decided to read all of Charles Dickens. I was inspired by Orwell’s justly famous essay about Dickens, which convinced me that I would rather be a failed literary critic rather than a successful anything else, even if I came across as pretentious or ridiculous. Plus I didn’t have to quit my day job, which was nice. Anyway, picking up all of Dickens was the easy part. You can get his complete works for a buck.

It’s pretty much the same for Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Balzac, Nietzsche and Goethe. The E.M. Forster collection is good but lacks A Passage to India. I’m sure there are many other great collections out there; these are the ones I’ve spent my time on. Oh, yes, one more I can’t neglect. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is often called the greatest novel in the English language. You can pick it up in Eliot’s collected works and judge for yourself.