Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of movies about people racing cars around. Not on a racetrack, but across country. For cash prizes or treasure. For a while in the late ’70s and early ’80s these were a thing, especially if they were directed by Hal Needham and starred Burt Reynolds. I guess the Fast and the Furious franchise today is the only direct inheritor, but it’s morphed into something else now. Leaving these movies alone in their nostalgic goofiness. Watching them again was a very fast trip down memory lane, but I’m pretty sure it will be my last with any of them.
Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the Child’s Play movies, which are headlined by the murderous doll Chucky. A better-than-average horror franchise that covered a lot of ground over thirty years. Alas, the 2019 reset was a total disaster.
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.
Twenty years ago I posted an essay online talking about some of the changes that I saw taking place in the production of culture. One such change was the increasing disposability of art, which went along with something I found even more damaging: the loss of belief in any sort of cultural posterity. Here’s part of what I said:
I think the consciousness of disposability is something new. In my opinion it is the most profound change that has taken place in writing in the past century, and cannot be overestimated.
In Shakespeare’s day, even if you weren’t Shakespeare, you might still think that your sonnets would last forever. For Keats the desire to be counted “among the English poets” may have been a dreamy notion, but it was also a perfectly valid goal. It meant that you were intent upon entering a pantheon of immortals. And even in the first half of the twentieth century there was still a firm belief that art was, in some meaningful way, eternal. Ezra Pound could rail against what “the age demanded,” but only because he had confidence that his work would be among what remained. That was part of what being a classic meant.
That has all been lost. Put simply, and without any qualification, no author writing today has any belief that their work will survive. I’m not saying that no literary work will survive: that is a determination hinging on various factors outside of this survey. I don’t even know if the planet is going to survive. What I am saying is that no writer, however noble their intentions or committed their aims, has any belief that what they are creating is going to last.
That was a grim take, I’ll admit, but I was thinking about that essay again this week when I came across a story in the Huffington Post on Republican responses to how they think their defence of President Trump will be judged by history. The takeaway? They’re not concerned at all.
“I don’t care how I’m remembered,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told HuffPost. “I care that the American people elected this guy president, he’s doing a great job, and [the Democrats] have zero facts on their side to remove this guy from office.”
And if you think Jordan insisting he doesn’t care is just some defense mechanism because he knows it will turn out badly, Jordan will tell you that actually, he hasn’t given any of that “a second’s thought.”
“The first time that even entered my mind was 20 seconds ago when you asked me,” he said.
Jordan’s colleagues expressed much the same indifference (or shamelessness), but at least one went even further:
One of the darkest answers came from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a former history teacher himself. Bishop said the idea that history would remember what Republicans do assumes “that we’re going to survive in this country long enough to have a history.”
So much for posterity in politics. It seems the idea of the future has been laid to rest. But Trump’s flunkies are only taking their lead from higher up the food chain. Here, for example, is his Attorney General and Enabler-in-Chief Bill Barr:
Asked by CBS News’ Jan Crawford about concerns over his reputation for defending the president amid ongoing probes into the administration’s alleged ties to the Russian government and claims that Mr. Trump obstructed justice, Barr appeared indifferent.
“I am at the end of my career,” Barr said. “Everyone dies and I am not, you know, I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?”
“Everyone dies.” One picks up, again, the odour of a decadent narcissism. Barr isn’t worried about the future because, at the end of his career, he knows he doesn’t have much left. And when he’s dead, why should he care about the judgment of history? In fact, he makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t think there’s going to be any judgment of history. I suspect that, like Rob Bishop, he thinks the whole idea of the U. S. having a history yet to be written a bit of a stretch. And this skepticism goes all the way to the top:
Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s aides and advisers have tried to convince him of the importance of tackling the national debt.
Sources close to the president say he has repeatedly shrugged it off, implying that he doesn’t have to worry about the money owed to America’s creditors—currently about $21 trillion—because he won’t be around to shoulder the blame when it becomes even more untenable.
The friction came to a head in early 2017 when senior officials offered Trump charts and graphics laying out the numbers and showing a “hockey stick” spike in the national debt in the not-too-distant future. In response, Trump noted that the data suggested the debt would reach a critical mass only after his possible second term in office.
“Yeah, but I won’t be here,” the president bluntly said, according to a source who was in the room when Trump made this comment during discussions on the debt.
I won’t be here. Everyone dies. I really don’t care, do U?
We should all care. As posterity (the “Homeric idea”) is to culture so progress is to politics. Artists have to believe their work is going to have some kind of afterlife, otherwise they’re just making a cash grab. Politicians have to believe that they are trying to improve things, otherwise they become what Matt Taibbi calls (in reference to the Trump administration) a death cult.
I understand where all this is coming from. Humanity faces a lot of challenges that seem insurmountable. But to give up hope in the future is the short road to doom.
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).
Over at Alex on Film I just finished watching the trilogy of Robert Langdon films based on the novels of Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code (2006), Angels & Demons (2009), and Inferno (2016). Since I can’t tell you what made the books so popular I sure can’t help with the movies. The weird thing is that they don’t even seem like good popcorn entertainment to me. They’re all very dull and talky, and despite throwing in so many highbrow references they’re unbelievably stupid. Is this the sort of nonsense people want to believe in? Yikes.