Review – Winterson, “Sexing the Cherry”

Jeanette Winterson, “Sexing the Cherry” (1989) – This was a pretty fun, short read. A gargantua-style “Dog Woman” and her beautiful small non-son Jordan get unstuck in time. They start out mostly in seventeenth century Britain, but seeking out fruit, shelter from civil wars, and love send both characters, but especially Jordan, wandering around getting in various magical realism adventures with a feminist spin. It’s pretty fun and not weirdly self-aware like a lot of big time “literary” writers are when they dip a toe into the speculative side of things. Think Italo Calvino with a sense of humor.

Because I’m weird, I found myself thinking less about its take on time, gender, myth, or any of the other big themes Winterson plays adroitly with, but about one time in particular- the time surrounding the English Civil War. The Dog Woman, the main narrator, falls firmly on the royalist side. The Roundheads are presented as prissy, hypocritical, not allowing of fun, and also totally gay for each other. The executed King Charles is depicted as a tragic figure beloved by all. In short, the Royalist side was the side of the kind of funky, weird, subversive types that Winterson asks the reader to identify with, and the Parliament side represents the martinets who try to keep them down.

It’s less that I object to this — my ideas about the English Civil War are complicated, to say the least — and more that I feel like this isn’t the only artistic work from its era by notional lefties (or at least counterculture habitues) who identify with one or another conservative ancien regime. This is usually held in opposition to some new order, like the Roundheads, supposedly progressive but actually just the force of cold rationality. The ancien regime is seen as more organic, funkier, warmer, authentic. I feel like, but can’t quite remember, others did this with the Royalist side in the English Civil War, or with the Restoration. Definitely you saw it with figures like Richard Brautigan and his “Confederate General from Big Sur,” who lives a life of liberated fecklessness that the narrator seeks to join, fleeing from the buttoned-down life in the rest of the union. Ishmael Reed was a complicated writer but hated many kinds of radicals and tended to prefer figures who carve out spaces of freedom inside of a system whether than trying to overthrow it. You see something like that in parts of Robert Anton Wilson’s “Illuminatus!,” which is basically Ishmael Reed for literal-minded white nerds… anyway, not sure what to make of it but I think it could be a thread worth tugging on. I don’t think it takes away from the book at all, which was pretty good, but I get fixated on weird stuff some times, lay off me! ****’

Review – Winterson, “Sexing the Cherry”

Review- Kruse, “White Flight”

Kevin Kruse, “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism” (2005) – This book is part of a wave of pretty solid social/cultural histories that used local studies to examine national historical trends, many of them published by Princeton University Press in the 2000s. Kevin Kruse looks at Atlanta in the mid-twentieth century and the ways it dealt with race, specifically as it pertained to desegregation and class. For decades, Atlanta had prided itself on being forward-thinking and racially moderate- the “town too busy to hate.” That all went out the window once it became clear that black people weren’t going to be content to be second-class citizens, disallowed from public services and spaces. “White Flight” traces the patterns and broad historical effects of the temper tantrum the white population of Atlanta threw in response.

Kruse goes through a number of the efforts white Atlantans tried to bolster and reinscribe formal racial separation in the period from the 1940s and the 1960s. Open racial terrorism, including bombings, came into play most often as black families attempted to buy homes in white neighborhoods. Neighborhood-based public resources such as schools, parks, pools, and busses were generally abandoned by whites — and therefore underfunded — rather than allowed use by integrated publics. Most of this affected working-class white Atlantans; even middle-class black families couldn’t afford (and certainly couldn’t secure loans) to buy in middle-class neighborhoods. Things finally reached the upper classes of white Atlanta when the sit-ins at restaurants and stores began to challenge the merchant elite of the city for control of their space, and when demands came to desegregate spaces where they congregated, like golf courses. Then they lost their sense of noblesse and began flipping out, too. And in Kruse’s telling, they all acted en bloc, only disagreeing on whether intransigence or flight was the proper response to desegregation- nobody thought about trying to make it work, nobody white anyway. Flight won out.

In the end, none of the formally, legally racialized bulwarks of the segregation order remained standing in the late 20th century. What we have instead is a racial order kept in place by control of capital, which in turn commands space (in the form of real estate) and force (governments, taxes, borders, cops). The new suburbs that whites fled into, not just in Atlanta but all over the US, grew into cut-off enclaves- at one point, Metropolitan Atlanta had 56 separate municipalities in it, each with its own taxes, zoning code, schools, etc. Using notionally color-blind language about “small government” and “local control,” these suburbs can replicate something like the experience of segregation for the white people who live in them.

There is a caveat there, though, two things that changed in substituting informal suburban segregation for the older formal, urban version. First, people were enjoined to avoid open expressions of vulgar race hate in public and in the legally binding rules. Second, and more consequentially, white Atlantans in the segregation era enjoyed well-funded public spaces and goods. Post-white flight, suburbanites came to abjure the idea of the public altogether. In some instances, the public schools, behind the walls of exclusive zip codes, continued to have some esteem (see also, suburban Massachusetts). But for the most part, public transit, public housing, public leisure- all of these were replaced by private equivalents. Many of the principles we associate with suburban design and governance were there before white flight, but white flight codified it, standardized it, and put a ton of money and political will behind it. This privatization eventually came to be a matter of principle, as expressed by politicians from these rapidly expanding suburbs, and none more openly than Newt Gingrich, who represented the Atlanta suburbs.

In Kruse’s telling, the real secession wasn’t the southern states from the northern- it was the white suburbs created out of the flight from desegregation seceding from the rest of society, despite being entirely dependent on urban cores and the federal government for their very existence. Consciously or not, their leaders succeeded where earlier reactionaries failed, and actually found a way to give a substantial portion of the population just enough property to feel like they’re in the master class- and just enough anxiety to be willing to fight to protect it, and to consider any other system not just wrong, but dangerous. Moreover, by helping destroy the cities in the mid-20th century, they also spiked the most viable alternative to that way of life. They even went so far as to rebuild some cities on a sort of privatopia-lite model and let their bored spawn go live in them!

In the end, soft segregationists called liberalism’s bluff. Liberals weren’t going to allow formal segregation anymore by the mid-20th century. This was in part due to values, but liberals had the political capital and the will to go along with it in large part due to the Cold War- segregation being a bad look when wooing developing world allies. But liberals also weren’t willing to challenge capitalism, and the smarter, later generations of segregationists knew it. Crying about the big mean gummint making you serve milkshakes to black customers was for small-timers. The real action, and the real money, was in remaking segregation with the tools — capital, and the way it can command institutions and populations — at hand. *****

Review- Kruse, “White Flight”

Review – Flint, “Cecil Rhodes”

John Flint, “Cecil Rhodes” (1974) – One of the big problems of pretty much any hierarchical structure is how often they entail press-ganging the less powerful into the stupid dreams of powerful people. Exploiting others for profit is wrong but it makes a certain intuitive straightforward sense. It’s when powerful people exploit others for non-material things — where they want others to play along with some stupid vision, and are willing to use coercion to do so — that I get really creeped out. This extends from the mundane (“service with a smile,” beyond basic politeness, makes my skin crawl) to most of the practices that have gone into making “new” kinds of people, whether nationalist, revolutionary, religious, whatever. If your program was good to begin with you wouldn’t need to coerce people into performing its attributes. But people with dreams that involve other people’s obedience typically don’t listen to that logic.

Few had bigger, dumber, creepier, more coercive dreams than Cecil Rhodes, and very few ever gained as much power to carry them out, however imperfectly. This relatively short (just under 300 pages) biography of Rhodes gets across a reasonable sketch of those dreams and the things Rhodes did to bring them to fruition. The massive expansion of European power over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave unprecedented opportunities for people like Rhodes to draw their designs on the world- generally at its cost.

Rhodes was a classic imperial “type”- younger son in a middle-class provincial family. Not notably smart or talented, he did have a certain doggedness that helped him when he joined a brother in prospecting the diamond fields in South Africa. His company, DeBeers, came to have a near-monopoly on diamonds, and Rhodes became a major player in gold as well.

But wealth was always secondary for Rhodes. It was secondary to what he called “the Idea.” Not being notably intelligent or articulate, the specifics of it are hazy, but the main thrust is clear enough. He wanted the British Empire to rule the entire world, and for white settlement to cover the whole planet (eventually displacing all over people, who, it’s implied but not stated, will die off). To see to it this happened, Rhodes wanted to create a secret order, based on the Masons or the Jesuits, or rather, versions of those organizations found in lurid fiction of the time. This secret order of the best young people from the best Anglo/Germanic stock — Germany, Britain, the white settler dominions, and the US, which Rhodes dreamed of reuniting with Britain — would be molded at Oxford University and then sent out to work together to shape the world according to Rhodes’s imperial dream. And that’s why the Rhodes Scholarship exists- though it’s worth noting that its executors stopped caring about the goofier bits of the founders vision pretty much as soon as he died in 1902.

The scholarship was a long term plan. In the shorter term, Rhodes sought to carve out an empire in Southern Africa, preferably one he could run himself in Britain’s name. Flint does a pretty good job keeping track of the players in the deeply complicated world of southern African politics in the 1880s and 1890s. If Rhodes showed real talent anywhere, it was in playing politics- working merchant interests, the Afrikaner republics, and the British administrators off of each other. At his height, this allowed his company to basically annex what became Zimbabwe and Zambia outright- this became “Rhodesia.” Rhodes was always seeking more, and doing so led him to start the Second Boer War (after years of getting along relatively well with the Afrikaner leaders, largely on the strength of impressing them as being equally racist as they) before he died.

Most of the time, Rhodes went faster than the government in London wanted to go. It’s not that the people in the Colonial Office were nice- they were just cautious and didn’t want to bite off more than they could chew. Rhodes got around them through combinations of canny politicking and appealing to the mob. Rhodes was a genuine celebrity, a symbol of upward mobility and white supremacy. His formula — imperialist expansion abroad as the way to allay class conflict at home — would prove important for the future, even when things didn’t go exactly as planned for him or other imperialists. Dreams of superiority (which involve you being you, but more so) are a useful antidote to dreams of solidarity (which might involve actual change).

The biography itself is pretty good, though one imagines one could do a much longer and more thorough job. Rhodes had numerous phases in his short life that shed light on a number of interesting pieces of history: his attempt to buy the Oxford experience in his late twenties with his diamond money, his various attempts to work out systems of power that would both balance various actors — English settlers, Afrikaners, British administration — and the explosive politics of racial exploitation, involvement with the ins and outs of extractive industry and political power. Moreover, it’d be interesting to have a close reading of his particular kind of racial jingoism, of the kind Elaine Frantz Parsons did with the early Klan. Still and all, if you want to spend some time with someone with a lot of money and big evil world-changing dreams, this book does it. ****

Review – Flint, “Cecil Rhodes”

Review – Mishima, “The Decay of the Angel”

Yukio Mishima, “The Decay of the Angel” (translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker) (1971) – Mishima — forty five years old and a highly respected and popular, if somewhat controversial, writer at the time — finished the manuscript of “The Decay of the Angel,” the final book in the “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, and then went off to die. With a small handful of followers, he walked on to a Japanese Self-Defense Force base and took the commanding officer — with whom he had a friendly relationship, previously — hostage with samurai swords. They forced him to call the troops to assemble, and there, Mishima harangued them, demanding that they follow him in restoring Japan’s imperial glory. They all laughed at him. Mishima then disembowled himself.

There’s a big “spoiler” at the end of “The Decay of the Angel” that I won’t reveal. What I will say is, it provides a certain degree of credence to the argument that Mishima’s final gesture was more an act of depression and self-loathing than of hateful nationalistic fervor. I say “a certain amount,” and moreover, don’t see the two as necessarily mutually exclusive. People want to see Mishima as a tragic figure as opposed to a fascist, much like they wanted to see Heidegger as a sage rather than a Nazi, and have been revising their apologies downwards ever since. There’s any number of ways to express loathing for self and world that don’t involve embracing fascism.

If anything, Mishima was something of an expert on loathing by the time his life was over, Many registers of disgust with the world characterize the “Sea of Fertility” series and its last volume especially. Viewpoint character Honda is now an old man. He lives with an old lesbian who trolls him all the time. They stumble upon one last reincarnation of Honda’s friend from adolescence, who has been reincarnation roughly every twenty years (because they keep dying young)- a teenage lighthouse keeper named Tōru. Honda adopts him, which apparently you can just do with random youths in 1960s Japan, and sets about trying to help the boy live past twenty, which none of the previous incarnations have yet managed.

I know I should say more about, like, Mishima’s aesthetic and philosophical meditations in this, his final work, but I can’t help but focus on how often Honda just gets owned in this book. Tōru is an asshole, basically a feral human, and makes Honda’s life hell. He steals Honda’s money. He makes fun of Honda all the time. He sabotages Honda’s efforts to teach him how to get along in society. He cruelly persecutes various women who like him. He outs Honda as a voyeur, ruining his reputation at the end of the life. He is, in general, a dick. And moreover, various clues start to lead Honda to believe that maybe he got mixed up about the whole reincarnation business.

More than the particulars of reincarnation, I think the story is about beauty, decay, and the point of existence. What both drove Mishima to fascism and also limited his effective expression of the ideology was the same thing that drove his creative efforts and his life generally- an amoral aesthetic vision where beauty is the only thing that matters, and it’s defined by youth, purity, and violence. In this volume, Mishima rubs our nose in both ends of what sucks about that. It sucks to get old, because old = decay and ugliness in his world, and there’s no values that can redeem your old stinky ugly hide. It also sucks to be, or be around, beautiful youth, because they’re amoral, stupid pricks who will suck you dry.

So what are you left with? Along with whatever else both the book and its aftermath were, they were also manifestations of Mishima’s panic of growing old. He was never particularly emotionally stable to begin with — artists, you know? — and, like the Japanese imperialists he idolized, he was willing to go that extra mile to make a point… the extra mile usually meaning spilling blood, though at least in this case it was only his own. One wonders if he would have been pleased with his posthumous reputation. He seems like a hard guy to keep happy but objectively speaking he seems to have done pretty well dead.

Still and all… one wonders if this would have come off as this sad tragedy to so many people if it had been undertaken by someone from the part of humanity who actually has good reasons to obsess over aesthetic judgment of their bodies, i.e., a woman. If a literary woman in her forties had an extended freakout about the decay of her body, ending in tetralogies, hostage taking, and suicide, well- probably some people would see that as tragic and symbolic but I tend to think more people would find it pathetic and funny.

But expecting fairness from literature is a bit like expecting justice from the weather. Mishima might have been the last one who could really put over the modernist literary enfant terrible thing in a way that didn’t come off as cheap trolling to cover up a lack of talent (cf Bret Easton Ellis). We tend to equate “saying something” in literature with some didactic “message” — Mishima had something to say but more faith in the aesthetic whole than its educational payload. ****

Review – Mishima, “The Decay of the Angel”

Review- Vance, “Star King” and “The Killing Machine”

Jack Vance, “Star King” and “The Killing Machine” (1964) – I read these two on two flights back and forth cross-country. At about 160 fast-paced pages, they worked out pretty well for that time slot. They’re the first two volumes in the Demon Princes series, named after the gang of five space pirates who destroyed the village and killed the family of Kirth Gessen (related to that n+1 guy, one wonders?) who, naturally, vows revenge, one novel per Demon Prince.

The setting is classic Vance- far future, interplanetary, but comparatively low tech (there’s hand-wavey faster than light travel, but everyone still deals in cash), and a crazy quilt of planets with radically different cultures and environments. One of the conceits is that anyone with a spaceship can lift off and find an inhabitable planet, so every oddball sect or separatist group settles its own world, and stuff gets weird out there after a few thousand years.

Into this welter goes Kirth, his life given relatively straightforward meaning and rationality by his quest for revenge. The Demon Princes themselves belong to a kind of competitor species to humanity, asexual amphibians characterized by an innate drive to imitate and eventually excel the most sophisticated species they can find- which, this being midcentury sci-fi, soon comes to mean humans. They even adapted themselves to look like us. Apparently, most people aren’t that worried about it, but these Demon Princes guys decided to pursue sneaky lives of spectacular crime.

This means along with sci-fi with a certain western element (the revenge quest, frequent visits to the untamed frontiers where all the weirdest planets are), there’s a certain detective story element to each of the books, as Kirth needs to poke through clues to figure out who each of the Demon Princes are. In the first one, he finds that his quarry is hiding among academic administrators(!), and uses the promise of rights to a lucrative planet, along with some good old-fashioned goon suborning, to winkle him out. In the other, the bad guy is hiding on a planet stuck in the Middle Ages, so Kirth needs to do some knight and princess biz.

The set ups are fun and the books are quick. They give plenty of range for Vance’s worldbuilding and his baroquely courteous but sinister dialogue- like Wodehouse’s evil twin. A particular favorite, after he gets a story out of an old flunky of one of his quarries who belongs to a cult that eats rotten food and is on his way out the door: “Gersen said thoughtfully, ‘I shall now take all your money, and throw your vile food into the sea.’” The Demon Princes, naturally, rant like Bond villains on acid when caught, and their henchmen are pretty good, too.

Hard boiled heroes of the Chandler or Hammett mold are often somewhere between standing aloof from the sordid worlds they deal with and being their apex predators. Something similar can be said for many of Vance’s heroes, including Mirth. One interesting difference- Vance’s sci-fi/fantasy worlds are rendered sordid by the forces of time, decay, and petty narcissism, especially the narcissism of difference, than by exploitation as in the noir. Vance wasn’t a comrade and tended to see people as amusing, amoral beings who do a variety of fun tricks.

As the story develops it becomes clear that the Demon Princes were undone by the constant striving after greatness that their species is prone to- they can’t just enjoy life, they need to be constantly chasing more, and in their case, it’s more refined wickedness. The bad guy in the second book, the titular Killing Machine, seeks out a medieval world because he has some long-winded theory about producing the perfect kind of fear. Kirth is a relatively straightforward type, but of course, he’s aware his whole life, too, is dedicated to killing, and what happens if it’s ever over? Presumably, we’ll learn more about that in subsequent volumes. ****’

Review- Vance, “Star King” and “The Killing Machine”

Review – Mishima, “The Temple of Dawn”

Yukio Mishima, “The Temple of Dawn” (translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle) (1970) – Ok! Book three of Mishima’s final tetralogy. Gotta say… this one is kind of slow. There’s a lot of travelogue stuff — Mishima was a big traveler — about Thailand and India which is decently written but doesn’t interest me that much. There’s several essay-length disquisitions about different ideas of reincarnation. Moreover, the book in general is about decay. In keeping with the larger thesis of the “Sea of Fertility” books, very few things can transcend the earthly tendency to decay- mostly, beautiful dead youths. This one emphasizes the decay state that beautiful death needs to transcend, so… a little slow.

It’s 1940, Japan is on the verge of war, and viewpoint character Honda Shigekuni is in Thailand. In full middle age by this point, and a successful corporate lawyer, Honda’s doing deals when he realizes that an eight year old Thai princess, Ying Chan, is the reincarnation of his high school friend Kiyoaki, who had been reincarnated in the previous book in the form of Isao, an ultranationalist high school student. This little girl who had never left Thailand keeps babbling about how she should be back in Japan, knows stuff only Kiyoaki or Isao would know, etc. Of course, being surrounded by minders and eight, there’s not much that can come of it, plus the war happens.

Fast forward to the postwar years. Honda does well from the occupation, but feels serious weltschmerz hanging out with the other Japanese elites who have done the same. He gets into voyeurism. He befriends some writers who are probably analogues to Japanese writers Mishima wants to say something unpleasant about. Ying Chan, now in her late teens, shows up in the circles Honda spends time in, and he gets all weird about her. He wants Ying Chan to sleep with his neighbor, for reasons I honestly can’t remember. It’s like that Gombrowicz novel “Pornografia,” where two old litterateurs try to get an attractive young couple to get together in the ruins of wartime Poland. What’s with that time period that weird old literary leches were trying to get attractive young people to bang, as though they wouldn’t anyway? Maybe it’s easy to believe in the end of all that when it seemed like the world was ending. Well, it works out for Honda, but spoiler alert: the princess dies, or else there wouldn’t be a third reincarnation of Kiyoaki for the last book.

I’m basically glad I’ve read these, even if this one is less rewarding. I’m starting to think maybe I should’ve started my Mishima reading with more popular fare like “The Sailor Who Fell Out of Grace With the Sea” but there’s always time for that. I suppose I’m interested in his big statement, and this book’s sequel is the literal last thing he ever wrote before meeting his self-imposed violent end, so… we’ll see. ***’

Review – Mishima, “The Temple of Dawn”

Review – Dick, “The World Jones Made”

Philip K. Dick, “The World Jones Made” (1956) – Philip K. Dick! This is the 23rd PKD novel I’ve read and there’s still plenty to go. On the one hand, that sort of productivity is an accomplishment in its own right. On the other hand, the production schedule he was on — 44 novels and 141 short stories in 30 years — almost certainly helped shorten his life. The whole noble-downtrodden-genre fiction vs bad-snooty-literary fiction thing has gotten pretty tired in recent years as geek culture — much of it as pretentious, formulaic, and just generally lame as any product of the high culture bad ol’ days — has swallowed the planet. Still… you can’t help but think about how literary writers with barely a fraction of Dick’s talent or work ethic lived much cushier and longer lives. I guess there’s some compensation in that PKD lives on not just as a writer but as a legend, where his literary contemporaries are, at best, whited sepulchers foisted on poor unsuspecting English students…

Anyway! “The World Jones Made” is classic Dick, a little before he hit his best period in the early-to-mid 1960s. In the beginnings of his sci-fi career, Dick cranked out novels and stories of post-nuclear wastelands. These weren’t the kind of fun lawless zones of Mad Max. These were the sort of dour postwar scenarios imagined by the likes of Herman Kahn and other nuclear strategists- buckled down, regimented, productivity-driven, stolidly trying to ignore the horrors of environmental destruction and mutation. Dick could turn the crank and produce one of these horrifying worlds as a setting, and then drop in something odd, something philosophical and uncanny.

In “The World Jones Made,” there’s two such somethings. In something of an aside that joins the main plot in the end, we read of the tiny lives of humanoid creatures genetically engineered to live on Venus, with the usual angst about being created beings. But the major premise of the story is the titular Jones, a small time carnival sideshow who turns out to be able to predict the future perfectly- but only one year at a time. The post-war world had been ruled over by a global regime espousing “relativism” — the war having been caused by political and religious fanatics, the world government locks up anyone who declares their opinions to be fact, unless the holder of the opinion can prove it. Well, Jones can, and a movement rapidly springs up around him which overturns the regime. Dick thought hard, if not necessarily in a professional academic vein, about Nazism, and there are shades of that here… and shades of them overthrowing a global-oriented “relativist” elite that can’t see it coming. Maybe Jones wasn’t the only one who could see the future…

But, there’s some disadvantages to seeing one year and one year only into the future. For one thing, Jones can’t change anything. He, and everyone else, is locked in. This makes him a miserable, sour fatalist, along with whatever else. Within a year of his death, Jones starts seeing — experiencing — his own decay, and no one does the horror of decay like PKD. Moreover, Jones can’t deliver on any of his promises to his adoring crowds… and he knows it. The best he can do is wreck the previous system, seemingly more out of spite than any other reason.

Most of the viewpoint characters other than Jones are standard early-Dick protagonists, nondescript cops or investigators with considerably more interesting women in their lives providing a certain degree of uncertainty (PKD was married five times). How Jones’s precognition fails — how he gets killed — isn’t made that clear. Writing his way out of his own premises was never PKD’s strong suit.

What PKD was nearly uniquely gifted at, and what assures his place in the pantheon of great sci-fi, was constructing worlds of dread and fascination. Some people ding his prose style and character work, not without reason. But the things he wanted to get across — on the positive side possibility, on the other hand the lived experience of fear, decay, being trapped, living paradoxes — he gets across as well as any writer, and he does so in fine form here. His stories make us ask questions about our own experiences, and without the pretense or hippy-dippy rigamarole that “questioning reality” literature usually implies. *****

Review – Dick, “The World Jones Made”

Review- Parsons, “Ku-Klux”

Elaine Frantz Parsons, “Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction” (2015) – This is a very strong, subtle, and frightening work of cultural history. “Ku-Klux” is a history of an organization that has been defined in no small part by the specters and myths it generates. Parsons manages a very intricate task in reading the very real, material violence the Klan afflicted (and it’s material consequences) in relation to the Klan as an idea, a set of narratives and images deployed by a number of different actors to various ends (note- Parsons uses “Ku-Klux” instead of “Klan,” in keeping with practice during the nineteenth century- I’m using “Klan” out of convenience).

It’s important to note that Parsons is writing specifically about the Reconstruction-era Klan, or the “First Klan” as it’s sometimes called. Much of our imagery of the Klan comes from the “Second” (1920s) or “Third” (civil rights era) Klans. The early klan was much more loosely organized, and did not have a standardized appearance- the uniform white sheets and hoods. Instead, local klan groups self-organized, and dressed in a bewildering variety of costumes, from pretty basic hoods to what were basically clown costumes to full-on drag. Basically, Halloween- like those creepy old Halloween pictures.

And that might be the central point Parsons gets across- the early Klan very cleverly manipulated the line between serious and playful and between truth and myth. The bizarre costuming and other ritual aspects of the early Klan served a number of purposes, and weren’t as good at anonymizing their members as you may think. What they did do was create a space where the normal rules, not just of law and morality but of reality in general, didn’t apply. The message was clear- any attempt to challenge white dominance would not only lead to violence, but to a nightmarish overturning of order in general. It wasn’t enough to beat, maim, rape, and kill- the Klan also forced its victims into sadistic fantasy tableaux of white dominance.

Parsons also makes clear the ways in which politicians and publics in the north helped constitute the Klan as a concept- and in a way that helped make the Klan’s efforts successful. From the start, the Klan borrowed from northern commercial culture, most notably taking elements of gothic fiction and minstrel shows to structure their statements and rituals. Northern politicians and newspapers eagerly followed stories of Klan atrocities, especially when they could use them to argue for increased Republican power over the South. But as time wore on, several elements of the Klan’s cultural operations began to warp the story in directions favorable to them. Democrats and rival Republican factions began casting doubt on Klan stories- and one of the ways in which their outlandish ritual character helped the Klan was in sowing that seed of doubt.

Worst of all, Republican politicians waving the bloody shirt insisted on the image of pitiful black victims, and often literally shushed black survivors who attempted to tell their stories of resistance, even just to the point of refusing to play along with the Klan’s ritual grotesquerie. Along with amplifying the Klan’s cultural power by making resistance seem impossible, it eventually created a picture of the South where blacks were, always and inevitably, simple victims of the violence that’s just generated, like maggots from old meat, by white revanchism- and that there’s nothing anyone, certainly not northern politicians, could do to help. This dovetailed nicely with the declining Republican interest in the Reconstruction project, and helped make itself a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Historical analogy is a tricky game in any event. It’s made worse by the blindness to the many-fold axes of comparison that our language (and, one suspects, popular culture) encourages. So, the very first thing anyone goes to to dismiss an analogy that makes them uncomfortable are differences in size and scale- thing A can’t be like thing B because B effected more people, lasted longer, etc. And there’s often good reason to do this- think about the reductio ad hitlerum arguments that fly all over the place… though now that it’s the right that cries genocide much of the time, I guess we might rename it reductio ad stalinum (or maoum).

But… especially for a book published and 2015, and presumably conceived and written years before, there’s a lot here that illuminates dynamics in the contemporary far right. I know that will be enough of a stretch for some people, but if I really wanted to stretch, I’d say something like: the Klan is a notch in the belt of a specifically Anglo-Protestant modality of irregular war, attuned to the lifeways of the people pursuing it in the same way the Mongols’ way of war was essentially their way of surviving on the steppe, militarized.

But we’ll stick with the shorter stretch for now. The most obvious is the Klan’s use of performance, irony, and the prevailing pop culture narratives of the day, and the way that finds echoes in the contemporary altright. This practice creates multiple faces for different audiences, making it hard to get a grip on the phenomenon as a whole, and more than that works to confuse people and lead them to believe the rules aren’t working anymore- witness the altright belief in “meme magic.” And in a sense, it does work- not for their maximalist goals, which are absurd, but for making the society that much more violent and paranoid and making it harder to make any real social progress.

A related unfortunate parallel is the way portions of the commentariat who really should know better can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that people can be silly and ironic and also deadly earnest and violent. I wonder where that comes from. Did they not go to high school? Hell, I didn’t go to real high school and even I know that!

On a somewhat more positive note, there were people with power at the time who took the Klan seriously. Parsons tells the story of a Major Lewis Merrill, a Union army intelligence man who did the obvious things in his area of operations in South Carolina. He formed relationships with and gained the trust of the part of the community that he could work with (i.e., the black people), created a network of informants, arrested the Klan leaders they accurately fingered (it’s a myth that people didn’t know who was leading these things- these are small communities), and supported efforts to build a political base for a non-white-supremacist system. Remarkable how these things work with a clear head, some solid working partnerships, and a little elbow grease. *****

Review- Parsons, “Ku-Klux”

Review- Bolaño, “The Return”

Roberto Bolaño, “The Return” (2001) (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) – I haven’t got a ton to say about Bolaño that doesn’t reproduce the usual cliches. Symbolic figure of Latin American literature in the wrecked shambles of both the Boom and the dreams of twentieth century Latin America, check. Career tragically foreshortened and not even by something glamorous, check. Nihilism and with it enough dead women and sex workers to be suspect by today’s prevailing moral codes in literary circles, check. Most of all, the paradox of literature- utterly incapable of making the world a better place, in Bolaño’s telling, but also as essential as air to life as he knows it. Check.

The stories in “The Return” are Bolaño in fine form. If the magical realism promulgated by the Boom writers sought to weave dream logic into everyday life, Bolaño’s major theme is the nightmare logic that is already there. Bolaño’s Latin America was the Latin America of the narco wars, of structural adjustment, and most of all, of Pinochet and the other dictators who killed, at least for a generation, whatever fleeting hopes the continent had previously had for forging their own path forward. Violence permeates his surreal moments the way wonder permeated magical realism.

Bolaño doesn’t see incipient fascism as lurking under a mask of normality. In his stories, normality and fascism constitute each other; at its most remote, fascism is the norms — masculine norms above all, but norms of family, religion, nation, culture in general — militarized and let loose to rule by terror. The violence of a fascist cop shades into the violence of the soccer hooligans which shades into the violence of cartel enforcers which shades into the violence of exile and malaise, of cramped lives dependent on precarious employment and even more precarious literary patronage. All of which is expressed in large part through violence against women. Moreover, fascism (in a phenomenological sense if not a strict political one) lives in the decision to see all this as normal, fine, even as it produces spectacular, surreal, and horrifying results.

The collection’s best stories, in my opinion, are: “Detectives,” a dialogue between two cops who, we find out, went to high school with a “Belano” and jailed him after the coup- this based on a strongly-disputed part of Bolaño’s origin story, where he went to Chile as a young man to assist the revolution, only to be jailed and released to leave Chile for good; and “The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura,” the closest you’re going to get to an epic in short story form. There was a podcast called “Tales of Serious Literature,” which doesn’t seem to be running anymore, which had a good episode on the story. I don’t think I can say much that the host (who had a perfect, deeply amusing pedant voice, and a real love of literature) couldn’t.

Some of the stories about layabouts and their paranoid women troubles were kind of drags. Bolaño’s not the worst depressive writer when it comes to women but that’s not saying much. Misanthropy all too often shades into misogyny, though I get that he was trying to depict a milieu more than his own life. Some people see Bolaño as wallowing in paranoia and filth. I wouldn’t say he’s a sunny writer, but in continuing to create remarkable artifacts with literature — a tool he constantly harps is, at the very least, deeply compromised in the face of the world’s brutality — I think he actually affirms life more than a lot of cheery material does. ****’

Review- Bolaño, “The Return”

Review- Mounk, “The People Versus Democracy”

Yascha Mounk, “The People Versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It” (2018) –


(Note: I initially wrote this for a little magazine, but since then pretty definitive pieces on the book and it’s genre appeared in n+1 and in Dissent. Both are well worth reading and say much of what ought to be said. But I do try to post a review of every book I read, and I did read this book, so I thought I’d post this here.)


Harvard-based German political scientist Yascha Mounk is one of the latest to step up to the plate to explain the decline of the liberal political order, the necessity of reviving it to more or less pre-2016 status, and how we can get there. Younger than many in the same ideological cohort and less tied to wildly unpopular neoliberal institutions and policies, he’s got the marketing game down pretty good too- The People Versus Democracy is the sort of thing bound to get a Vice interviewer excited. The book is schematic and breakable down by bullet points, well-suited to an audience used to getting their public intellectuals via TED talks.

The title is something of a stumper. We’re more used to hearing arguments about freedom versus democracy, or merit versus democracy– fear of the masses taking down the big important people, from people representing (or fancying themselves to represent) the latter. What does the people versus democracy mean?

What Mounk means when he talks about the “people versus democracy” is “the people versus liberalism.” Mounk allows that there is such a thing as illiberal democracy, where elected strongmen abuse the rights of minorities and trample due process. This is one of the primary things he fears from Trump, Modi, Orban (who boasts of the “illiberal democracy” he has made of Hungary), etc. But as far as he is concerned, the only true democracy is liberal democracy, and that is what he is worried about “the people” undoing.

Political thinkers of his generation and that preceding him (barring a few unserious radicals), Mounk tells us, assumed liberalism and democracy naturally go together. This is what the “End of History” moment in the late 1980s meant. But we are now witnessing the “deconsolidation” of liberalism from democracy. Democratic publics are turning against liberalism, with its provisions of equal justice under the law and checks on executive power, both in the new democracies that liberals had such high hopes for post-1989 (mostly in Central Europe) and in liberal democratic states of older vintage: Brexit Britain, AfD Germany, LePen’s France, Trump’s America.

Unlike libertarian figures like Jason Brenner and their proposals for bringing back property (or better yet, IQ-based) restrictions on voting, Mounk sees democracy as something like an equal partner to liberalism in the “liberal democracy” formation. This gives him some additional context that many of the liberal doomsayers lack. He grants that if liberal democracy has become unpopular among worryingly large swaths of contemporary electorates, it is due in no small part to the elites in liberal societies hollowing out the substantive meaning of their democracies. Judges and unelected bureaucrats unilaterally makes rules that affect millions and the wealthy buy access to power, Mounk explains. This results in a situation of “rights without democracy,” the equal and opposite of the illiberal democracy scenario. It’s hardly surprising that people prefer the latter, if those are their choices.

What has brought us to this state of affairs? Mounk identifies three factors behind the disaggregation of democracy and liberalism: social media; economic stagnation; and the rise to importance of “identity.” Stagnation makes people mad; social media lets their anger circulate widely, quickly; “identity” gives them someone to be mad about.

Mounk’s history of the late twentieth century puts the dysfunction of liberal social science bereft of political economy or class analysis in stark relief. In his telling, social media and the economic restructurings that led to secular stagnation in the developed world are the results of the genies of technological and economic progress, respectively. The identity politics thing is the result of immigration, with an assist from liberal college professors who say mean stuff about the Enlightenment. Why these things have taken on the importance that they have – and they all are important, even if they are framed unhelpfully – and why the political system of liberal democracy is unable to cope with them, are not answers Mounk answers or really addresses.

Mounk can talk about an economy. He cannot talk about capitalism, a system of organizing production; which is to say, a system of power. We hear a lot about the impositions on freedom made by illiberal democrats such as Orban and Duterte. We hear a little about the inroads liberalism has made on democracy through wealth concentration. We hear nothing about how freedom and democracy are made into abstractions by the reality of class power in a capitalist society. Liberalism, at its most ambitious, builds out the degrees of freedom and democracy possible without defeating capitalism: the government can’t imprison you for dissident speech but your boss can make you ask to go to the bathroom; you can vote for someone to vote on laws but not for who runs your workplace. This is a massive, almost juvenile reduction of a complex set of dynamics, that doesn’t even get into how race and gender interact with capitalism to produce even grosser unfreedoms and inequalities. But it is pitched at the writing and analysis level of The People Versus Democracy, and Mounk does not engage any critique like that, even to dismiss it. The closest he comes is comparing Jill Stein and Naomi Klein to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon as purveyors of “easy answers.”

Mounk comes perilously close to something like class consciousness when discussing the influence of wealth on policymakers in formally democratic countries. Less than a matter of open bribery (though that happens plenty), he argues, it’s a matter of “milieu.” Rich and powerful people spend their time with and get to know other rich and powerful people, and come to identify with them and their interests, and this identification shapes policy.

Alas, Mounk does not follow up on this insight. Like others on the left-er side of liberal, he acknowledges that income inequality is an issue, in terms of people’s quality of life and their willingness to engage in the sort of politics he understands as acceptable. But also typical of liberals, he does not, cannot, understand inequality as part and parcel of a structural relationship between a class that owns and rules and another class that works and obeys. A liberal democracy is already a hollowed-out democracy. It isn’t simply hollow for the poor, because they cannot participate as much as the rich (though that’s certainly part of it); it is hollow because the most pressing questions of social power are bracketed away. It’s little wonder that people would disengage, even if many of the replacement outlets for their political energy are ghastly and will only make matters worse.

Nowhere in The People Versus Democracy is the dysfunction of liberalism’s inability to confront capitalism as a system more on display than in Mounk’s proposed remedies. His economic prescriptions are about what one would expect from, say, a centrist Democrat running in a district where Bernie polled well: make the rich pay their fair share, retool welfare for the twenty-first century, etc… mostly unobjectionable, if tepid. We also hear about the need to “domestic nationalism” and “renew civic faith.” For the most part, these are as platitudinous as they sound- people should try to reach across divides, promote civics education, maybe get Zuckerberg to tone down the fake news algorithms, etc.

It’s where those phrases aren’t platitudes where the piece runs into real trouble, and reveals just how much the strain of avoiding a critique of capitalism can warp a thought process. Liberalism needs nationalism because liberal leaders, hands tied by devotion to capitalism, cannot offer their people anything more substantive with which to secure their loyalty. And “domesticate” it all you like, but nationalism has something of a habit of going feral, as we are currently seeing the world over. The “civic faith” chapter takes a bizarre stroll into political correctness-baiting. Here, Mounk pulls from some anecdotes of his time around universities to argue that we aren’t civically engaged in large part because of professors traducing the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers. This is the sort of inflation of the power of obscure academics (and ignoring other, larger factors) that characterizes Fox News, not serious scholarship. It’s unlikely anyone is going to wave Mounk’s chapter on their way to harassing an adjunct out of a job, especially when there’s so much stronger stuff available in that vein. But it goes to show that even intelligent, up-and-coming liberal commentators will veer erratically into profoundly unlikely territory to avoid confronting the power of capitalism.

The people aren’t opposed to democracy. Capitalism is. *’

Review- Mounk, “The People Versus Democracy”