Sunday, 18 September 2016

A Financial Dystopia: The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because the novel explores to what extent a family will go to preserve their dignity, self respect and their lives when confronted with catastrophic financial ruin.

Novelist Lionel Shriver. (Photo: Andrew Crowley)

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all...” 
– Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles
Lionel Shriver has churned out a number of novels that explore the zeitgeist by offering sharp satires. Inspired by the example of her older brother, she wrote about obesity in Big Brother (HarperCollins, 2013) and of the fear of falling sick in America before the Affordable Care Act came into effect in So Much for That (HarperCollins, 2010). She may be most known for her response to the Columbine high school shootings in We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail, 2003), which explores the psychology of the mother of the perpetrator, an international best seller that was adapted as a film. Her most recent entry, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (HarperCollins, 2016) taps into economic insecurities and to the precariousness of the global markets likely inspired by the 2008 near-financial disaster. In a February piece in the New York Times, Shriver described herself as a libertarian, socially progressive and economically conservative. Her targets are big governments that infringe upon individual liberties through a punitive tax code, the welfare state and government surveillance – and yet she would be on the left end of the Democratic Party on every conceivable social issue. Her conservatism is much more on display in The Mandibles.

In her novel, Shriver imagines a near-dystopian future, some of it not that far removed from current reality. The European Union has dissolved. Putin has been made President for life. Books have become obsolete, newspapers have folded and Internet commerce no longer exists. The American dollar is in free fall, competing with a Russian-backed international currency, the bancor. American citizens are forbidden to take more than $100 out of the U.S. Entitlements have driven the debt to unsustainable levels because the government and the Federal Reserve Bank have been buying prosperity with borrowed and invented money. In a disastrous decision, the United States defaults on its loans, including the T-bills held by American citizens, causing the dollar to crash. The newly-elected Latino President becomes increasingly dictatorial. The government confiscates all the gold in the country, including wedding rings. Foreigners buy up real estate and businesses. There is unsustainable hyperinflation as prices can rise steeply in a single day. Water, fuel and food shortages threaten everyone, and people rob their neighbours to stay alive. Widespread unemployment exists, which is caused, in part, by the ability of robots to do what used to be human work. America is relegated from superpower to pariah state, a condition which Shriver offers a comedic ironical touch: a thriving Mexico builds a border wall to keep out desperate illegal Americans seeking refugee status.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Obsessions of George W. Bush: Jean Edward Smith’s Bush

This review that originally appeared on September 4th in Critics at Large is reproduced on this website because That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) contains several chapters on the Iraq war that Bush initiated.
(l.to r. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld)

“I am the commander. I don’t need to explain. That’s the interesting thing about being president. I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

- George W. Bush

In the first full-fledged biography of the forty-third President, Bush (Simon & Schuster, 2016), the first sentence of the preface, reads: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” The reader may well ask who is the author and is he credible. Jean Edward Smith is not a left-wing critic of Bush but a respected scholar who has written several well-received biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, General Lucius Clay (the military governor of occupied Germany after World War II and hero of the Berlin airlift), and John Marshall, the distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the early nineteenth century, an oeuvre that inspired the conservative pundit, George F. Will, to describe Smith as “America’s greatest living biographer.”

Given these distinguished credentials, I was intrigued to read Smith’s hefty volume at eight hundred pages. Besides, I had spent months years ago reading and writing about Bush’s responses to 9/11, his invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq and I did wonder whether I got it right. Based on Smith’s exhaustively researched and fluidly written biography, I did feel affirmed. If anything Smith’s judgments on “Asleep at the Switch” – the chapter title for Bush’s lack of attention to security before September 11 – his overreaction to that tragic day by his decisions to invade two countries, the erosion of civil liberties and “The Torture Trail” – another snappy chapter heading for which Smith excels – constitute a more devastating critique of Bush’s years, especially with regard to foreign affairs. Yet there are surprises as Smith credits Bush with a number of achievements. By mining the important secondary sources, the memoirs of the historical actors, numerous periodicals, government records, and speeches, and – apart from Bush himself – several interviews with key participants, Smith has skillfully synthesized them into a three-dimensional portrait of Bush.

The Long Shadow: Carol Anderson's White Rage (Part Two)

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large August 21/16

Carol Anderson’s examination of the backlash against the 1960s Civil Rights legislative achievements during the Nixon and Reagan eras constitutes perhaps the most controversial sections of White Rage. It is no exaggeration to assert that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, initiated by Lyndon Johnson – whom Anderson rightly acknowledges as an enlightened figure even before he became President – facilitated seismic changes. The new laws did much to curb overt discrimination, open up job opportunities, close the racial gap by the doubling of college enrollment for blacks, and exponentially increase black suffrage. Consider that before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, only six percent of blacks could vote; within three years that jumped to sixty percent. It is significant that these gains rekindled white resentment, and the courts and the governments at the federal and state level found ways to exploit that sense of grievance. Nixon was able to appoint four new Supreme Court judges who reflected his conservative philosophy. The Court continued to undercut the 1954 Brown vs The Board of Education decision by arguing that vast disparity in public funding between white schools and inner city minority schools did not constitute racial discrimination and that the constitution did not guarantee education. State governments found ways to dilute the power of the black vote through gerrymandering, a process in which city, county, or state officials redraw district lines to ensure that Republican candidates are elected. All levels of government slashed the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. Republican administrations sullied African Americans by linking them with drugs and crime. In a recent article in Salon, Anderson cites a 1994 Harpers’ article in which Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, cynically acknowledged the race baiting deployed by the Nixon administration: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against black[s], but by getting the public to associate. . .blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing” the drug “we could disrupt those communities, We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” This is an example of white rage writ large.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Long Shadow: Carol Anderson’s White Rage (Part One)

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I am reproducing it on this site because of my interest how ideology in this case, white supremacy,  is used to justify crossing a line to diminish or destroy another people's humanity. What makes this book so remarkable is how the author demonstrates how much of that process was done under the cover of the law.


“We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

- Barack Obama speaking in Selma on March, 7th 2015 at the fifth anniversary of the famous march 


During the week of the Republican Convention when Donald Trump proclaimed himself as the candidate of law and order, and reading Carol Anderson’s historical catalogue of white resistance to black progress, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, 2016), two thoughts came to mind. Rightly denouncing the murder of police officers, he said nothing about the murder of black men by the police, even the murder on November 26, 2014 of twelve-year old Tamir Rice who was killed in Cleveland, the city where the convention was held. No charges were ever laid against the officer. Secondly, I wondered whether Trump was aware that he was retrieving Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy that pandered to racists during the 1968 presidential election. Nixon was another practitioner of dog-whistle politics: a coded message that appears innocuous to the general public, but has an additional interpretation meant to appeal to the target audience, for example, to racists. According to Anderson, one of Nixon’s most trusted aides, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Another Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, noted after the candidate saw an ad that showed entire cities burning without ever mentioning blacks, Nixon chortled, “It’s about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” By not acknowledging the African-Americans killed, Trump expressed a similar contempt for African-Americans at the 2016 Republican Convention.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 2): Patricia Bell-Scott’s The Firebrand and the First Lady

Reading The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, I noted that although it covers much of the same material and sources as Ken Burns' The Roosevelts, Patricia Bell-Scott offers a new angle and brings Eleanor Roosevelt into sharper focus with a fuller, more rounded portrait, rendering her a more complex individual than served up in the documentary television series. She continued to encourage her husband to live up to his promises and professed ideals but what is different about The Firebrand is that she in turn was challenged by Pauli Murray (1910-85), an African-American socialist activist, lawyer, poet and first African-American female Episcopal priest.

The unlikely friendship between ER and Murray began in 1938 when the latter sent an impassioned letter to the President that caught the attention of his wife. Murray had been denied admission to the University of North Carolina because of her race and she was rightfully outraged, considering that FDR had just visited the university and praised it for its social progress. Her plaintive plea: “We cannot endure these conditions. Our whole being cries out against inequality and injustice” prompted the first lady to offer a glimmer of support: “The South is changing, but don’t push too fast. There is a great change in youth, for instance, and this is a hopeful sign,” an exchange that captures the dynamic and tone for much of their correspondence that was to continue for decades until ER’s death in 1962.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 1): Ken Burns' The Roosevelts

Originally appearing in Critics at Large, I am reproducing it here because of interest in personalities that have exhibited courage in the last century.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. (Photo: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Since Ken Burns adapted David McCullough's book, The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, to an Academy Award winning Brooklyn Bridge (1981), he has produced and directed numerous masterful feature length documentaries for PBS. His signature trademarks are a combination of still photos, archival film footage, unseen actors reading the words of historical characters, apt American music and an array of historians, journalists and (if possible) surviving contemporaries who offer compelling anecdotes and insights into the era, an issue and the characters. Burns avoids dramatic re-enactments. His oeuvre includes The Statue of Liberty (1985), the iconic The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), The West (1996), Lewis & Clark (1997),Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), Jazz (2001),The War (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Dust Bowl (2012), The Central Park Five (2013). Most recently PBS has aired Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015), a six-hour treatment of Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of cancer, the one film Burns did not direct because he was so personally connected to the subject: his mother died of cancer when he was a young boy. In 2016, he returned to directing and producing the thrilling Jackie Robinson that excelled in weaving together sport, politics and race.

It is, however, Burns’ 2014 mammoth seven-part, fourteen-hour The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on the private and public lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, that is the one I will be discussing today –  focusing mostly on the second generation of Roosevelts. As with many of the films cited above, Burns collaborated with biographer and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the elegant and accessible script and is one of the historians – along with Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham and journalist George Will – who offers trenchant insights. Actor Peter Coyote won an Emmy award for his compelling narration. The stellar cast of actors’ voices include Meryl Streep for Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Giamatti for Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Herrmann for FDR, an astute choice since he persuasively played the role in the television series Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977).

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Nothing Any Longer is Forbidden: Nazi-Occupied France on Stage, Small Screen, and Page

This essay was originally posted on Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because of the demonstration of courage in the face of terrible adversity by characters in the drama, television series and novel that I  review.

A scene from Soulpepper's production of Incident at Vichy. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Part of knowing who we are is knowing we are not someone else. And Jew is only that name we give to that stranger, that agency we cannot feel. Each man has his own Jew, it is the other. And the Jews have their own Jews. 
– Leduc, in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy
  
In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. 
– Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
As the lights go down, we hear the ominous sound of a train, chilling because the setting is 1942 in France.Incident at Vichy then opens with a daily occurrence: the systematic rounding up of suspected Jews by the Vichy government as it submitted to German racial laws. On this particular day, a number of men and a teenage boy have been shuttled into a ramshackle detention centre and lined up on a bench, none of them certain why, initially thinking that perhaps the authorities are interested only in checking their papers. But as they get called in one-by-one for questioning (off stage), they begin suspecting more sinister motives – there is talk about trains locked from the outside and rumours about work camps – while at the same time they protect themselves with self-delusions that freedom will come, particularly after the first man called in, the businessman is given a pass to leave. Of course the audience knows precisely the reason: most of them are Jews and the Nazis' purpose is to identify individuals who belong to their designated “inferior races” so that they can be dispatched by train east to Poland. The discrepancy between the audience’s knowledge and the uncertainty of the characters contributes to the tension (for some audience members at the Toronto Soulpepper performance I attended that tension was clearly unbearable expressed through fidgeting, movement as if to leave but decide to stay, almost a mirror of what was happening on stage) that Arthur Miller’s ninety-minute one act 1964 drama is designed to generate.