Canadian dirt

According to BookNet’s annual market overview of Canadian book sales the bestselling work of fiction in Canada in 2020 was Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt: A Novel. American Dirt, and I’m cutting and pasting here because I haven’t read it, is “about the ordeal of a Mexican woman who had to leave behind her life and escape as an undocumented immigrant to the United States with her son.”

American Dirt was Cummins’s fourth book and third novel. Her previous books seem to have been well received, but I don’t think they were that well known. I’d never heard of her. With American Dirt that would change. Or really, and this is worth taking note of, before American Dirt was published that would change. Cummins was paid a seven-figure advance after a bidding war. Blurbs were then acquired from a line-up of all-stars, including Stephen King and John Grisham. There was a massive publicity campaign. Oprah announced its selection for the re-launch of her book club, again before it was published. From Wikipedia: “American Dirt debuted on the New York Times best sellers list as #1 on the list for the week of February 9, 2020. In an unusual decision, the New York Times ran separate reviews of the book both in the daily paper and in the weekly book review section, as well as publishing an excerpt.”

In short, American Dirt was a certified hit before it was even published. And the system wasn’t done yet. One of the earliest negative reviews was spiked . . . for being negative. The whole rollout was typical of the sort of manufactured blockbusterdom that makes one feel more than a little cynical about how the publishing world works. In Revolutions I commented in passing that “the ‘propaganda model’ of the media and intellectual life generally can, and I think should, be extended to cultural matters. Critical consensus and submission to conventional wisdom is manufactured in much the same way: that is, with the carrot and stick of capital.” The manufacture of consent applies just as much to the book review section of the New York Times as it does to their op-ed pages on American foreign policy. For some reason I’ve encountered a lot of passive and not-so-passive resistance to this idea. Because people, even literary types, don’t think that novels matter? Because, as good lefties, they don’t think they’re so easily manipulated?  I’m not sure.

Then came a backlash. Cummins was accused of appropriating an ethnic voice not her own. That’s the kind of year 2020 was. A petition was passed around asking Oprah to reconsider her endorsement. Ms. Winfrey declined.

So what lessons can we learn from the BookNet numbers?

(1) Make no mistake: American Dirt won the lottery before the draw was held. Pre-publication hype (bought and paid for) is still real, as is the Oprah effect.

(2) There is such a thing as bad publicity, I’m sure, but for Cummins it was all good. The controversy that blew up over American Dirt was in February, and seems not to have hurt sales.

(3) The bestselling novel in Canada in 2020 is based very much on a story torn from U.S. headlines. Meanwhile, the bestselling work of non-fiction in 2020, and the overall bestselling book in Canada, was Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. For all the cries we hear about the need for Canadians to tell our own stories, just remember where the audience is for that.

Ranking some social media anti-Semitism

Recently there have been a number of high-profile cases of people getting in trouble for making what have been labeled anti-Semitic social media posts. Are they really, though? Or are they just wingnut crazy? Or totally innocent? Let’s take a look.

Marjorie Taylor Greene

In a rambling 2018 Facebook post Taylor Greene mused aloud/online over whether wildfires in California had been caused by a laser beam directed from space. It’s hard to tell from her post who she thought actually directed this laser, but the utility company Pacific Gas & Electric seems to be the main culprit. Since a later investigation held that PG&E powerlines had led to the wildfires this wasn’t too far off the mark, at least as far as culpability goes. However, Taylor Greene went on to draw attention to what she found to be the suspicious connection between PG&E and the investment firm Rothschild, Inc. (she names a man who was on the board of both corporations).

The media jumped all over this and Taylor Greene’s rant would go on to be universally referred to as the “Jewish space laser” post. This is because the Rothschilds have often been linked to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. That said, Taylor Greene herself never called the laser a Jewish space laser and reading her post I’m not sure what role she thought the Rothschilds were playing in all of this. Is “Rothschild” a dog whistle? I’m sure it is. And was the post crazy? Absolutely. But the anti-Semitism, while legible, seems kind of tangential to her (insane) theories.

Gina Carano

Former MMA fighter and actress Gina Carano was fired from the TV show The Mandalorian after posting the following on her Instagram account:

Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors . . . even by children. Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views.

What Carano is doing here (it might not be obvious) is comparing the plight of conservatives in the U.S. today to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. Crazy? I think we have to again say yes, though what Carano is saying isn’t quite as bonkers as the space laser. Anti-Semitic? That’s a harder one. Lucasfilm stated that Carano’s “social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” I don’t see where she’s doing this. She’s really stretching to claim victim status but is identifying, at least to some extent, with Jews. You could say that her post was insensitive, but I don’t think it’s all that anti-Semitic.

Nathan J. Robinson

Robinson is, or was, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper and found himself in trouble when objections were made to a pair of linked tweets he’d posted about the miserliness of COVID relief in the U.S. budget as compared to the amount of money being given to Israel to buy missiles. In his tweets he said the following:

(1) “Did you know that the US Congress is not actually allowed to authorize any new spending unless a portion of it is directed toward buying weapons for Israel? It’s the law.” (2) “or if not actually the written law then so ingrained in political custom as to functionally be indistinguishable from law.”

Despite the fact that the part of the post where he says “It’s the law” was clearly meant as sarcastic, and immediately flagged as such, his bosses took objection to what they saw as the spreading of “fake news” and fired him for singling out Israel for criticism.

The response to Robinson’s post is typical of the way criticism of Israel is often targeted as being anti-Semitic. Is what he said anti-Semitic though? Or even anti-Israel? It mainly seems to be a criticism of American budgetary priorities. I don’t see where he’s blaming Israel for taking the money. But I guess if you were so inclined you could see it as critical of Israel too, in so far as it implies that the U.S. should be spending its money on other things. On the anti-Semitism charge though I just don’t see it.

So . . . the person who posted the craziest and probably the only legitimately anti-Semitic comments on social media faced no consequences or blowback (at least from her own party), and is still a sitting member of Congress, while the other two individuals were fired from their jobs. Is there a lesson in that? If so, it may be one representative of the Trump era: If you’re going to say something really dumb, you should always go big. Social media doesn’t handle nuance well, and rarely seeks to engage us in close reading. It’s there to trigger instant likes and dislikes, retweets and knee-jerk reactions. The medium might not be the message, but both are getting toxic in mutually reinforcing ways.

American carnage

The farewell party.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden as president the tumultuous Trump years have come to an end.

As a book reviewer I can testify to the truly awesome amount of ink that has been spilled trying to describe, explain, and understand the last four years. And over the course of the next year I’m sure much more will be added to the pile, including post mortems on the 2020 election, the COVID-19 debacle, and the final, fiery attack on the Capitol by an angry mob. I look forward to what will be said.

What kind of a snap judgment can be made now, however? Many are debating whether Trump will be considered the worst president in U.S. history. The prior point, arrived at more easily, is that he was the worst person to ever be president (including the slaveholders, per David Frum). To this I would agree. There has simply never been someone so mendacious and corrupt, or as lazy, ignorant, and vicious to hold the office. Defenders may point to such generic accomplishments as tax “reform” and flooding the judiciary with “conservative” judges — developments bound to happen under any Republican administration, and with which Trump seems to have been uninvolved. Trump’s own interests in being president were restricted to obsessively following his own media coverage, grift, and using the shield of the office to keep himself out of jail.

In a way, America was lucky he was such an incompetent buffoon. Someone with all of Trump’s bad qualities, matched with intelligence and charm, might have signaled the end of the American experiment in government. One hopes, without much confidence, that something will have been learned, just as lessons will be taken from the COVID disaster, which we were lucky was not even more deadly. How many such bullets can be dodged?

One discouraging conclusion to draw from the Trump years is that institutions will not preserve any part of the existing order. The center did not hold for four years in the U.S., with the Republican party caving completely to Trump and his manifold outrages during that time. Peace, order, and good government (those Canadian virtues) are hanging on everywhere by a slender thread.

Will Trump be back? I doubt it, given his age, health, and the miserable note his presidency ended on. But stranger things have happened. Of greater concern is the fact that Trump was just a symptom, or at most a catalyzing agent, of a deeper rot. And the conditions that gave rise to him are not going away. In fact, they are almost certainly going to get worse. The anger and hate that Trump both stoked and embodied is the product of various trends — political polarization, growing inequality, social media — that I can’t see getting better anytime soon. Trump may be on his way, but someone else is bound to come along who will harness that anger. This is not the end, but the beginning.

Lockdown 2: The sequel

Today, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak, my hometown and province is entering its second emergency lockdown.

I don’t see how the response to the pandemic in this country can be seen as anything less than a chaotic disaster (to borrow the language former president Obama used to describe the Trump administration’s response in the U.S.). We are in a much worse situation than we were when all this started. A year’s worth of sacrifice has been wasted.

The medical response hasn’t been bad. Vaccines were developed faster than most experts thought likely. The vaccine rollout hasn’t been very impressive thus far, but I’m hoping we can get up to speed soon. Reports that some snowbirds were flying to their winter homes in Florida just to get vaccinated are damning if true.

The political and economic response, however, has been catastrophic, and will only lead to even worse results before things start getting better. The bill to pay from all of this, as I’ve previously warned, is going to be huge.

We need to look ahead. Experts have been warning of pandemics for decades. We should consider ourselves lucky that COVID-19, for all the people it has killed, is not itself a particularly deadly disease. The survival rate is very high. That can’t be counted on next time. And there will be a next time. We need to learn from the mistakes that have been made.

We might begin with studying why some countries have been so successful in dealing with COVID-19 where others have failed so completely. Why were we unable to implement effective measures to test, track, and trace? Is there something about neoliberal attitudes toward government that has frustrated our taking effective action? Lessons must be learned.

Media gardening

Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website you can read my review of Richard Stursberg’s The Tangled Garden. This is a book about the impact that the new digital giants (or FAANGs, to use the acronym) are having on Canadian news media. In brief, that impact has been catastrophic, leaving nothing but “losses as far as the eye can see.”

I share many of Stursberg’s concerns, as well as his more dismal conclusions. In my review I’m left to wonder how many people even care. It makes me think of the current state of the CBC. I believe in the CBC’s mission, and think they have some good people working there, but whenever I watch their local or national news programs or go to their website I end up feeling that they’re just not doing it right. And given how badly they’re faring in terms of their ratings and market share I’m not alone. I think the CBC does well in Quebec, and CBC Radio still has a lot of listeners, but they just don’t seem to have any clear identity as a broadcaster, sliding from paternalistic to aggrieved and back again.

Still, I want them to succeed. I do think Canada needs them.

Unaccountable, Part three

From  “Americans’ acceptance of Trump’s behavior will be his vilest legacy” by Robert Reich:

Nearly forty years ago, political scientist James Q Wilson and criminologist George Kelling observed that a broken window left unattended in a community signals that no one cares if windows are broken there. The broken window is thereby an invitation to throw more stones and break more windows.

The message: do whatever you want here because others have done it and got away with it.

The broken window theory has led to picayune and arbitrary law enforcement in poor communities. But America’s most privileged and powerful have been breaking big windows with impunity.

In 2008, Wall Street nearly destroyed the economy. The Street got bailed out while millions of Americans lost their jobs, savings, and homes. Yet not no major Wall Street executive ever went to jail.

In more recent years, top executives of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, along with the Sackler family, knew the dangers of OxyContin but did nothing. Executives at Wells Fargo Bank pushed bank employees to defraud customers. Executives at Boeing hid the results of tests showing its 737 Max Jetliner was unsafe. Police chiefs across America looked the other way as police under their command repeatedly killed innocent Black Americans.

Here, too, they’ve got away with it. These windows remain broken.

Trump has brought impunity to the highest office in the land, wielding a wrecking ball to the most precious windowpane of all – American democracy.

The message? A president can obstruct special counsels’ investigations of his wrongdoing, push foreign officials to dig up dirt on political rivals, fire inspectors general who find corruption, order the entire executive branch to refuse congressional subpoenas, flood the Internet with fake information about his opponents, refuse to release his tax returns, accuse the press of being “fake media” and “enemies of the people”, and make money off his presidency.

And he can get away with it. Almost half of the electorate will even vote for his reelection.

A president can also lie about the results of an election without a shred of evidence – and yet, according to polls, be believed by the vast majority of those who voted for him.

Trump’s recent pardons have broken double-pane windows.

Not only has he shattered the norm for presidential pardons – usually granted because of a petitioner’s good conduct after conviction and service of sentence – but he’s pardoned people who themselves shattered windows. By pardoning them, he has rendered them unaccountable for their acts.

They include aides convicted of lying to the FBI and threatening potential witnesses in order to protect him; his son-in-law’s father, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion, witness tampering, illegal campaign contributions, and lying to the Federal Election Commission; Blackwater security guards convicted of murdering Iraqi civilians, including women and children; Border Patrol agents convicted of assaulting or shooting unarmed suspects; and Republican lawmakers and their aides found guilty of fraud, obstruction of justice and campaign finance violations.

It’s not simply the size of the broken window that undermines standards, according to Wilson and Kelling. It’s the willingness of society to look the other way. If no one is held accountable, norms collapse.

See here for Unaccountable, and here for Unaccountable, Part two.

Will they come back?

In an earlier post I wondered about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic might have on various industries. One of these was cinemas. This past week WarnerMedia announced that they were going to be releasing their full slate of 2021 films simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max. Writing in The Atlantic, David Sims was left to only express some hope that “Once a vaccine is widely distributed, a pent-up desire to return to normalcy could be unleashed. I, certainly, crave the collective experience of movie-watching; I’m sure I’m not the only one sick of seeing things from my couch. If other studios go the way of WarnerMedia, theaters will be hanging their hopes on that nostalgia.”

I don’t share any of his wistful optimism, or his nostalgia for movie theatres. And while I think he’s right that some people would love to return to the way we were, I also think that cinemas will find they’ve lost a lot of their market permanently. What’s more, I don’t know how well they’ll be able to do going forward given this new reality.

Another question I’ve been wondering about with regard to returning to normal has to do with higher education. A lot of universities are offering their courses online during the pandemic, turning many campuses into ghost towns. When I asked one academic what he thought about students coming back after the “all clear” is been given (which may not be until September 2021) he thought they would rush to return, not wanting to miss out on the “university experience.”

I’m not so sure. That university experience is something enjoyed most by the most popular students, who are not always the best, or a majority. Meanwhile, university has become very expensive, to the point that living at home (however depressing this may be) can be a real relief to one’s finances. Why relocate to another city, pay rent, and put up with all the other hassles, when you can just do your courses from your bedroom?

One should rarely bet against comfort and convenience. I’ve been indirectly related to an adult learning program for a few years and in 2020 they moved to a system where they presented all of their live lecture series online. Recently there was a straw vote among the various regional boards about what to do when things went back to normal. The vote was overwhelming (over 90%) for staying online. This saves money on renting locations to hold lectures, as well as the inconvenience experienced by people having to drive somewhere and pay for parking, etc. Plus, people were finding the lectures online superior in many ways to those attended in person. For myself, I’ve found I enjoy the ability to nod off and have a nap during the dull ones. Then there is the fact that people can register from all over the country, and lecturers can broadcast from all over the world. So you can even listen to the courses you want while on vacation (listening to an instructor who may be on vacation too).

In other words, I wouldn’t be so quick to think that university is ever going to return to normal and that students will all want to come back. Or that, if many do come back, universities will be able to continue business as (pre-COVID) usual. No doubt some, perhaps many, moviegoers will return to cinemas, and students will return to classrooms. But how will the system accommodate the no-doubt significant number who don’t? Will some sort of hybrid system work? I think it will be impossible to go back to the way things were.

Canceled?

Though votes are still being counted, and will likely be disputed whenever that process is completed, it appears as though the four-year run of the Trump Show in America has come to an end. But the results of the 2020 presidential election, whatever they may be, have made few people happy, aside perhaps from some Republican senators. Polling, again, appears to have been misleading. And while Trump may be removed from the White House, his party (that is to say, what he fashioned out of the Republican rump) is still a large and vital force in America’s politics.

This has led to much soul-searching among liberals, but most of the analyses I’ve read miss an important point. That point relates to what Trump represented, and in turn what Republicans now stand for. I’ve spoken before about the bankruptcy of traditional conservatism, and I think that is now pretty firmly established. The idea that this is a party of fiscal responsibility, family values, law and order, or even deference to the Constitution (a “phony” document in Trump’s phrase) is only a joke now. Even such basic principles that one would have formerly thought of as core to being an American – like a belief in democracy and the rule of law – have been extensively repudiated. But at the same time I don’t think it’s correct to say that it’s only a party now of indurated racists and toxic masculinity. Yes, Trump is a shameless racist and a pig, but not everyone who voted for him shares those qualities. He had surprising support among Latinos, for example, and women clung to him in this election as well. Nor do I think his base can solely be identified with out-of-work white men without a college education, those left behind by the new economy. Anger is more general in society than that, and is far from the special preserve of its so-called losers.

I also find it unhelpful to say, as many do, that the right only cares about power. Everyone wants power, and power is rarely an end in itself. I don’t think there is a widespread longing for authoritarian government (though I’ll hold out for that being a possibility). It seems unlikely to me that rural voters in poor districts care all that much about maintaining, or reverting to, an archaic and mostly legendary status quo just for the sake of holding on to some kind of vestigial cultural (if no longer economic) privilege. Instead, I think there is a clear objective in view.

What the right (I can’t bring myself to call it conservatism anymore) stands for, its sole mission now, is, to use the preferred euphemism, “limited government.” A little more strongly put, but still not strong enough for many, this means the “dismantling of the administrative state.” This is something I’ve gone on about before (most recently here) and it doesn’t seem worth going over again. The bottom line, literally, was that once they had passed the tax reform that would starve the government of over a trillion dollars of revenue, Republicans had done all that their donors had paid them to do (they were candid about this) and could effectively sit on their hands.

Aside from such negative acts as cutting taxes and deregulation, Republicans don’t see government as having any function. Climate change is only a hoax and so nothing need, or should, be done about it. “Infrastructure week” became a running joke right out of the gate and the wall was never built, as everyone knew it wouldn’t be. The big, beautiful health plan Trump promised turned out, four years later, to only be binders full of blank paper. One can’t emphasize this enough: there was never even any intention of the government actually doing anything in any of these cases, because government itself was seen to be the only problem that needed fixing. And the only way it can be fixed is by getting rid of it. When the COVID-19 crisis struck, to say the administration was wrong-footed would be to mistake what happened entirely. Trump, and his task force, didn’t want to do anything. They figured government shouldn’t get involved. Right-wing apologists, even of the Never Trump variety, argued for government getting out of the way so that the saintly private sector and free markets could do their work. The MAGA crowd took their lead from this and railed against anyone in government telling them to wear a mask or cut down on social gatherings.

So aside from the Republican negative agenda of government self-euthanasia (tax cuts, deregulation, downsizing or shuttering government departments) there was nothing else but the rallies, led by the orange-faced Hate-Monger. At the Republican convention in 2020 they didn’t even bother with a platform. Now that the tax cuts had been passed there was nothing left to do but to go on looting the till, stripping the copper wiring from the wall, and, as Sarah Kendzior likes to put it, selling off the country to the oligarchs for scraps. This serves the interests of the 1% very well, and for a large segment of the population, educated by Fox News and suffering the daily frustrations, aggravations, and humiliations of having to deal with all levels of government authorities, hatred of the government and the public sector is an easy sell. Most of us, even on the left, can relate. Indeed for some on the left the government is an even bigger bogeyman.

This anger is a force underlying much of what Democrats have, apparently, failed to understand. In a piece on Latino support for Trump that ran in The Atlantic just before the election it was said that Democrats didn’t get the strong strain of “self-reliance” within these communities, with that quality just being another way of referring to their distrust or dislike of government (self-reliance being something totally other than, or at least not including, personal responsibility, something that Trump rejects categorically). In a post-election essay in the same magazine George Packer wondered about the two Americas but failed to draw a conclusion that I found obvious in his earlier book The Unwinding. As I said in my review of The Unwinding:

Government of either party and at any level is now despised as being not just useless but parasitical and downright destructive. Elected representatives couldn’t get anything done if they tried, and it’s clear they have no intention of trying to do anything but continue to service the very rich. As the chapters on Jeff Connaughton show (he’s an idealistic young man who goes to Washington and is disillusioned), even those in government hate government.

When one party in a two-party system is a wrecking crew committed to dismantling the state I’m not sure the country can still be considered governable. Moving forward, the Republicans have no interest or incentive to be anything but Mitch McConnell’s “party of no.” Meanwhile, the support for this radical anti-governmentalism is unshakeable. This is now a platform Republicans will be held to, while at the same time never being held accountable for any failure to provide good governance. Even in power they can always blame the evils of their own government, which have been so evident over the course of the last four years, on a shadowy Deep State residing somewhere in the bowels of D.C., perhaps a basement where children are kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.

If you believe stories like that – and I’m afraid a great many people do – then we are quite beyond hope of finding common ground. Just as the Republicans have no reason to work with Democrats, Democrats have no reason to compromise or try to appeal to anyone who voted for Trump in 2020 after just witnessing a record of crime, corruption, and incompetence, unparalleled in American history. Joe Biden’s finest moment on the campaign trail came in the early going when an older man (older even than Biden) said he was struggling with the stories about Biden’s son in Ukraine. An exasperated Biden turned away, saying simply that if he was concerned about that, in the face of Trump’s various enormities, then he was never going to vote for Biden anyway. I’m sure he was right.

The name that’s usually given to this tribal bifurcation is polarization, a word that’s been kicked around a lot for a while but that has now truly entered into a terminal phase, abetted not just by different media bubbles but the work of algorithms that control our consumption of news. The left and the right speak different languages, and are pursuing ends that are not just opposed but wholly incompatible.

Trump was the culmination of various trends in American politics that are still operative, and which one should expect to get worse. As Ronald Brownstein writes of the now “impermeability of the nation’s divisions”: “The clearest message of this week’s complicated election results is that the trench is deepening between red and blue America.” The anger that characterizes the political zeitgeist will only deepen, fueled by growing inequality, economic crisis, and self-reinforcing media silos that profit out of manufactured outrage. Who can believe this will end well?

Burning it down to keep warm

A mixed message? (Kerem Yucel)

In an earlier post I talked about the remarkable production of the “Read the transcript!” meme among Trump supporters, to the point where it became a popular slogan to print on baseball caps and t-shirts. This despite the fact that nobody had read the transcript (of Trump’s telephone call to the Ukrainian president) because Trump had locked said transcript down on a secure server and wasn’t letting anyone near it.

One thing Team Trump does well is self-unaware merchandise. This was brought home to me this week on seeing a picture of a Trump supporter, complete with Trump 2020 ballcap, wearing a face mask saying “THIS MASK IS AS USELESS AS OUR GOVERNMENT.” Apparently such a message does not conflict with the fact that Trump is the president. That is, Trump is the government, along with the Republican Senate, and Republican Supreme Court.

I suppose the belief is that none of this matters because somehow the (liberal?) Deep State or shadow government is really calling the shots. In any event, it’s hard to find a better image for how fundamental the hatred of government is among today’s political right. Even when in control of the government they still want to tear it down (or “dismantle it,” as the language goes). This degree of political nihilism is insanity, but it’s the guiding ideology of the right.

Rage on

rageI recently reviewed Bob Woodward’s Rage, his second book on the Trump presidency (the first was Fear). It’s not a flattering portrait, though I thought he did his best to cast his subject in the best possible light, including excerpts from over a dozen lengthy interviews. What it made me think about though was what an official biography of Trump, when we get it, will look like. You’d have to think it will be flattering, but since no amount of flattery can satisfy a narcissist Trump will still object to it. Putting lipstick on the pig of this presidency, however, will be no easy task. Who will say anything good about Trump’s handling of the job? Not people like Rex Tillerson or John Kelly or James Mattis, who all held high positions in his administration but were cashiered or resigned in (quiet) protest, only to be insulted by their boss on the way out. I anticipate a truly Herculean feat of apologetics.