The anti-government mind

One of the things I enjoy the most about true crime books is the incidental insights they give into other people’s lives: the kinds of everyday details that never get mentioned in biographies or most other forms of general social reportage. These rarely have anything to do with the crimes that are the book’s main subject, but they’re the parts that stick in my head.

I registered one such moment while reading Monte Francis’s By Their Father’s Hand, an account of Marcus Wesson’s murder of nine of his own children in 2004. These were actually his children and grandchildren, as his incestuous relations require four pages of family trees at the front of the book to map only two or three generations of Wessons. If you want a true horror story, this is it.

But what jumped out at me the most in the book, probably because it’s a preoccupation of mine, was a moment during a conversation between Wesson and his wife that took place just after he had been arrested. The subject of politics comes up and things take an interesting turn. Of course the hatred the American Right has for government is well known, especially in its more contradictory expressions. Like the classic Tea Party slogan “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” (Medicare being a government program). Or, more recently, the opinion offered up by David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour that the best thing the federal government could do to respond to the COVID-19 crisis would be to get out of peoples’ way. Wesson, however, takes this anti-government attitude a step further.

To give just a bit of necessary background, Wesson, who at the time he was arrested was in his mid-fifties, had only worked for a few years over the course of his entire life. And that had been a brief stint in the army (that is to say, he’d been employed by the government). The rest of his life he’d lived off of welfare (he had an earlier conviction for welfare fraud), and been supported by his daughters. Now here are his political thoughts:

Republicans are mean-spirited, they don’t care about welfare and all that,” Marcus said. “But Democrats want to make government bigger. That’s why I’m not a Democrat . . . I don’t want the government in my life.”

The cognitive dissonance here, of someone living off of welfare not wanting the government in his life, is extreme, but not atypical of what we hear so often from anti-government platforms. What Wesson seems to have wanted was a life of absolute freedom, including freedom from responsibility. That this could only be achieved by becoming totally dependent on the government doesn’t seem to have registered with him. Now clearly Wesson was insane, but on this point he doesn’t seem far from a lot of mainstream thinking on the Right. And such attitudes are poison to any democracy.

Life without life

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy discovering new words when I’m reading. Words like pulvinate and catena, oscitant, and equitation and toxophilite. Reading Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File recently I came across a description of a character as looking thin and weak, with a voice sounding “like a whisky ad.” In what amounts to a summation he is later tagged with the adjective “azoic.”

If you check a dictionary you’ll see azoic defined as “lifeless,” which is its literal translation from the Greek. I think its primary meaning is as a way of designating a period of geologic time, the Azoic Age being the period of the Earth’s history before the appearance of life. Since the date of the first appearance of life keeps getting pushed back, it has been a fluid label. It has also been largely replaced by the term Archaean.

A secondary meaning azoic has is of a type of dye. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used to describe a person before, and I think Deighton was having a bit of fun. Well played!

Monster of the week

Don’t know about you, but I know what I’m thinking.

I’ve been spending some time recently watching crime shows and in the last month alone I’ve noticed a recurring theme: that of the pedophile sex ring operated by a bunch of rich, well-connected types.

It first came up in Series 3 of Prime Suspect (1993), which had DCI Tennison investigating the death of a teenage “rent boy.” As the case progresses it turns out that there is a posh sex club that is trafficking in kids but which is protected from investigation because some of the members have powerful connections. Indeed, even high-ranking police seem to be involved.

Next up was “Sidetracked,” the first episode of the first season of the BBC’s Wallander, which aired in 2008 (the novel it was based on came out in 1995). Again there is a sex ring involving the abuse of underage girls, with the police involved in a cover-up.

Finally I watched the first season of True Detective (2014). Once again our heroes are investigating a bunch of murders that seem to point to some kind of ritual sex cult involving wealthy, powerful people (politicians, police, the usual suspects). I’d say more about the exact nature of this cult but very little is explained. It’s an interesting show in some ways, but calling the writing lazy would be to give it too much credit.

Obviously the pedophile sex ring has fully entered the bloodstream of pop culture, becoming a nightmarish part of our collective mythology. As I recall (and my memory here is hazy) such sex rings also pop up in the the Red Riding Quartet (1999-2002) of David Peace and the Lisbeth Salander novels of Stieg Larsson (2005-2007). Both of which were made into series of movies and both of which follow the same script: a club of rich predators who operate above the law, brought down by courageous investigators.

What basis do such stories have in reality? I can only think of the Marc Dutroux case, which was much publicized but only went to trial in 2004. It was also so complex I’m not sure if anyone has figured out what was going on, though the controversy over its handling, which continues to this day, means that it has only grown in the imagination.

It’s hard not to think that the pedophile sex ring involving corrupt police and politicians allied with secretive billionaires is mostly an urban myth and conspiracy theory. One of its more recent manifestations had a child sex-slavery ring being run out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour (it became known as Pizzagate). Hillary Clinton was said to be involved.

Obviously sex trafficking is real. And it’s also true that such trafficking can involve victims who are under the age of consent. Rich people do pay a lot of money to indulge abusive behaviour. Hence sex tourism, or child prostitution more generally. These are, however, solitary crimes. I find it curious then that pop culture is so obsessed with these rings when it’s not clear to what extent anything like what we see on TV has ever existed. There’s the Jeffrey Epstein story, involving lots of big money and politicians and maybe even corrupt law enforcement agencies, but as far as I know the young women in that case weren’t being kidnapped and murdered.

Why then did the pedophile sex ring become such a popular topos? Is it just a way of feeding a generally held belief that rich and powerful men are almost certainly up to no good? That the 0.1%, with their flunkies and enablers in government, are preying on the poor in the most horrible ways imaginable? The monsters we read about in bestselling novels and hit TV series exist to meet a demand.

Galbraith’s Law

From The Age of Uncertainty (1977) by John Kenneth Galbraith:

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged feel also that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a trivial thing compared with that of the rich. So it was in the Ancien Régime. When reform from the top became impossible, revolution from the bottom became inevitable.

From The Spanish Civil War (2006) by Paul Preston:

Accordingly, the Civil War of 1936-9 represented the ultimate expression of the attempts by reactionary elements in Spanish politics to crush any reform which might threaten their privileged position.

From The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse, 1900 – 1917 (2017) by Mikhail Zygar:

The colossal difference in wealth and education made the country extremely unstable, as indeed is any system based on segregation. Sooner or later, the prosperous minority becomes unable to withstand the pressure of the dispossessed majority pushing up from below.

The imperial family, the court, members of the government, the Black Hundreds – thousands of people were unable to renounce their belief in the medieval dogma of the divine origin of tsarist power. Their archaic conviction and stubborn resistance to the bitter end prevented reform and the country’s political development. Time and again they brushed aside all moderate evolutionary scenarios.

Spare time

H. G. Wells is usually credited with having invented the time-travel story in the 1895 classic The Time Machine. In his book Time Travel James Gleick does a good job putting Wells’s invention in context, though I still wonder why such a rich idea lay mostly unexplored until the twentieth century. Clearly we weren’t waiting for science to catch up to our imaginings, because it still hasn’t (and likely never will).

The novel has been freely adapted on film at least twice, by George Pal in 1960 and again, less successfully, in 2002. I would definitely recommend the Pal version, but if you really want a treat you should look for Time After Time, which has Malcolm McDowell playing H. G. Wells zapping forward to 1970s America in a hunt for Jack the Ripper. It’s a movie that’s not very well known these days but it’s very good.

Broken promises

From The Day of the Locust (1939) by Nathanael West:

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

From Notes of a Native Son (1955) by Richard Wright:

In America, though, life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe and each generation is promised more than it will get: which creates, in each generation, a curious bewildered rage, the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet.

Books of the Year 2019

Well, the end of the year is upon us, which means it’s time for another one of those best-of lists that everyone seems to like so much.

Best fiction: Two books stood out for me this year. I liked Lynn Coady’s Watching You Without Me a lot, and was a little surprised it didn’t get more press coverage. It deals with a couple of important contemporary social issues by way of a well-tuned thriller plot. But I’m giving the top prize to Michael Libling’s Hollywood North, another terrific thriller with a lot more going on than meets the eye. I love books that work on different levels and Hollywood North does that and more.

 

 

Best non-fiction: Last year I picked a book on Napoleon here because I was looking for something outside of the avalanche of books on Donald Trump. This year I’ll stick with Trump and pick Tim Alberta’s American Carnage, which presents a pretty thorough accounting of how Trump took over the Republican Party. An important story, and well told.

 

 

 

Best SF: Overall I’d have to rate this a down year in SF. But I have no trouble recommending Tade Thompson’s The Rosewater Redemption, which is the final part of his terrific Wormwood Trilogy. As a columnist, I usually try to stay away from series of novels but I’m glad I gave this one a try.

Public language

From Age of Folly (2016) by Lewis H. Lapham:

The familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told – long ago by Aristotle, more recently in our American context by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz – but it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words “public” and “private.” In the 1950s the word “public” connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); “private” was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs). The connotations traded places in the 1980s. “Private” now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), “public” becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).

Highs and lows

Every year I go to the annual Friends of the Guelph Public Library Giant Used Book Sale. Three years ago I posted some thoughts on the experience where I referred to the sale as “both fun and a bit depressing.” That was my feeling again this year.

The fun part was the same. It really is heartening to see so many people, especially so many young people, lining up to buy books. I know that in the grand scheme of things these crowds don’t add up to much, but they still give one hope.

The depressing bit was something new. For a while now I’d been hearing of cellphone apps that allow you to scan the bar code on a book and pull up prices, either from some online bookseller or price aggregator. This year’s book sale, however, was the first time I’d seen these in action. At the table where I was spending most of my time there were three individuals simply going through everything: pulling a book out, scanning the bar code with their phones, looking quickly at the screen, and then either putting the book in one of their boxes or tossing it back on the table. They worked very quickly, able to do all the scanning and scrolling functions on their phones with one hand while pulling the books with the other.

I get that the used book trade is a business and that this is what apps are for: making things quicker and more convenient. Still, the way these guys worked a table, like the filleters working on the line at a fish processing plant, was depressing. Here was the digital economy moving in, jackal-like, to further cannibalize the remains of our culture. Its foot soldiers were robotic. Quite obviously they didn’t have any interest in the books they were methodically scanning. I’m not sure they could have told you what section of the sale they were working at the time. They were just doing data entry.

But while whatever program they were using to get a quick price check might serve as a rough guide, the fact that they didn’t really know the merchandise meant they were probably missing out on a lot. A couple of years ago I found a book at this same sale that I picked up for a dollar. I later saw it advertised online for over $800. And it wasn’t a copy in as good shape as the one I got! (By the way, it really was just curiosity that led me to check out what it was going for online. I didn’t resell it. I still have it sitting in my “to-read” pile.) The thing is, I found that book on the third day of the sale, after the book scouts and used-book buyers had already been through.

The same thing was happening this year. I thoght the book scanners were missing a lot, whatever their app might have been telling them. This made me think of something David Mason, a veteran used-book seller, had to say in the most recent issue of Canadian Notes & Queries:

Supposedly the great equalizer, the internet is in fact the worst offender against informed judgment . . . An experienced dealer looking at internet entries nowadays often finds five to ten copies of a book offered by dealers they’ve never heard of before they see names they know and credible prices. It takes just one ignorant fool putting a ludicrous price on a book to give other ignorant fools something to copy. They usually price their own copy ten percent or so less, assuming they’re being clever, when what they’re really doing is adding to the general ignorance. The blind lead the blind into the bog of imbecility, all of which makes the internet a dangerous cesspool.

Sadly, I don’t think anyone cares about the internet being a cesspool as long as it’s a profitable cesspool. The question is how well, in a business like this, such an approach really works.

Our new literary overlords

From Who Owns the Future? (2013) by Jaron Lanier:

What will books be like once Silicon Valley has had its way with them?

A lot of people will pretend to be commercially successful authors, and will put money into enhancing the illusion. Most of these will rely on family support or inheritance. Gradually an intellectual plutocracy will emerge.

From World Without Mind (2017) by Franklin Foer:

Our great writers cared about money because they needed it. They needed it to feed their families, and so that they could devote themselves to fulfilling their creative selves. Without pay, they would have been consigned to day jobs, unable to fully apply themselves to their prose. Apologists for Amazon like to sneer at the writerly caste, a hermetic club that dismisses outsiders who aren’t part of the gang. Yet history shows the alternative to professionalized writing. A few geniuses from the lower rungs of the class structure would manage to produce lasting art, despite the distant odds. But writing would largely survive as a luxury for those who could afford it, a hobby for the wealthy – for the trust fund babies, the men of leisure, those with resources to follow their economically irrational passions.