The biggest problem in American politics is not the Republicans. It’s not the Democrats, either. It’s not even Donald Trump, the man who broke and domesticated the former in order to run roughshod over the latter.
No, all these things are mere symptoms of the disease. But what is the disease? We have to understand the affliction before we can cure the body politic.
The disease is nothing less than a fundamental breakdown in human communication itself. It takes time to analyze something and appreciate all the nuances of a given issue. And people don’t have time for that. They would rather pass judgment immediately than take the time to think things through.
Indeed, people who even attempt to think about things in-depth are automatically condemned as traitors by their own side. Pointing out nuances or subtleties is never something zealots are interested in, and in today’s climate, you’re either a zealot or you’re intimidated into silence by the zealots. “The best lack all conviction,” etc.
Back in the ’90s, there was an extremely popular business book by Stephen Covey called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like all self-help books for business types, it contained its share of platitudes and buzzwords, but there was also some very sound advice. The part I remember most was habit number 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
This is extremely good advice, and it’s something that seems to be rarely heeded these days. Certainly not in the world of online political debate, where humanity seems to have regressed to its most primitive societal constructs: small villages of like-minded individuals who venture out only to engage in raids against rival tribes.
There is some historical precedent that we can use to guide us in understanding how social media has changed communication. In the late 1500s, the spread of the printing press made it easier for people to create and distribute pamphlets. These were used to attack or defend certain people, ideas, nations, religions etc., much as social media is today. As Wikipedia helpfully summarizes: “In addition, pamphlets were also used for romantic fiction, autobiography, scurrilous personal abuse, and social criticism.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The most famous pamphlet in history is probably Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which advocated for the independence of the American colonies and attacked the British monarchy. This was pretty late in the pamphlet game, though. The real high point of pamphlets-as-propaganda seems to have been in the 1600s, when they played a major role in fomenting and prolonging the English Civil War.
Governments gradually adapted and shut down such publications, mostly by use of copyright and libel laws. It’s possible that down the road, the same thing will happen with social media. However, this is not a great solution, since it could very easily turn into a totalitarian dystopia where all speech is controlled. Paradoxically, history suggests that nothing clears the path for rigid totalitarian control so smoothly as anarchic mob rule. I suspect the internet is no exception to this pattern.
Besides the role of laws and censors in reducing the relevance of pamphlets, there was also a change in social norms. Now they are ignored or seen as the hallmark of political fringe elements. If somebody gives you a printed pamphlet about their cause, it makes them seem slightly kooky. These days, if you want to be seen as legitimate, you have to have a website and a Twitter account, or at least a blog.
It’s possible that with time, social media as we currently know it will fall out of favor, and be replaced with something else. It’s already skewing away from the written word and towards pictures: in 2004, blogs were all the rage. By 2010, it was Twitter. Now it’s moving towards things like Instagram, which by design is meant for pictures, not words.
In a way, I think this is a good thing. People who like fashion (and by fashion, I don’t just mean clothes, but everything, from movies to political views, that is seen as fashionable) can have their site, and people who don’t care about fashion—that is, people who do care about substance—can stay on their stodgy old blogs and have real discussions.
The internet isn’t the only issue, though. The rise of mass-media, which acts as a force-multiplier for charismatic leaders, has been gradually paving the way for this for decades.
I’ve talked about this at length in other posts, but I want to briefly make some points about the role of charisma, because it’s the single most important force there is in modern politics. Televised political events, debates, ads, and so on were the equivalent of atomic energy as far as revolutionizing politics, and charisma is the reason why.
The average person does not have the time to understand all the issues they are voting on. It’s hard enough to hold a job, raise a family, take vacations and live a normal, healthy life without having to also be an expert on the multiple dimensions of policy that they are electing officials to manage.
A person naturally looks for shortcuts to make the decision easier. This has been true certainly throughout U.S. history, and probably the history of all democracies. Once mass communication technology became widespread, politicians were quick to leverage it to their advantage, just as those in an earlier era used bribes and grift.
It will always be easier to vote for the candidate who “seems like a better person” than it is to study and fully understand all the potential policy implications of a candidate’s platform. I would say that no one person can fully understand all the different spheres of policy that the president, for example, can affect. People dedicate their entire careers to understanding just one of them.
People vote for the person they like better. And what determines whether you like someone or not has very little to do with a rational weighing and measuring of objective facts, and a great deal to do with hardwired human instincts combined with subconscious associations based on your past experiences.
Thus, politicians try all kinds of tricks to associate themselves with things that people like–they seek the endorsements of movie stars, championship-winning athletes, other popular politicians, etc. They try to prove that they are “just regular folks” like the voters. But that only helps with the subconscious association part of the equation. The instinct part was decided centuries before, as people developed their instincts to survive in a very different world than the one we live in now.
Here’s an example: the fundamental thought-process underlying sexism is that, in our primitive mind, we think of men as stronger than women because men, on average, have greater upper-body strength, and in ancient times, that was important because you wanted your leader to be able to climb, or carry heavy animal carcasses, or win a physical fight.
Of course, that’s irrelevant to the present day for two reasons: first, the strength gap between men and women is narrowing, and second, because the modern day leader doesn’t need to do any of that–but the hardwired instincts in the average human brain don’t know that.
Charisma is about appealing to our instincts; our so-called “lizard brains“. And we voters are all too happy to let them appeal to us this way; because it’s much easier than the fundamentally impossible task of learning about all the issues.
The way mass media has changed politics has been a gradual shift. It started with small things, like Kennedy beating Nixon by knowing he needed to use makeup in televised debates. A half-century later, a reality TV star won the Presidency.
I’ve tried to avoid talking about Trump too much on this blog, partially because it’s nearly impossible to get away from news about him as it is, and partially because the mere mention of his name tends to bring out strong negative emotions in people–both his detractors, who become enraged, and his supporters, who viciously attack his detractors. It’s unproductive.
But there is no way of writing about this subject without discussing him. Trump’s entire PR strategy depends on appeals to deep, instinctual feelings. Tribalism, nostalgia, fear of the unknown, etc.–Trump taps into all of these things in order to galvanize his supporters. And he largely relies on TV and social media to do it.
Of course, he isn’t the first politician to do this. All of them try, to some extent. Trump is just better at it. His competitors in 2016 felt like they had to keep at least one foot planted in the world of policy. But they were living in the past. In the new system of politics, being a reality TV host is far better training than service in government or the military.
This is where the charisma-infused cult-style politics, with mass media acting as a catalyst, combine to create an extremely potent brew that tells voters to revert to their most basic urges, and do what is easy and comes naturally.
Taking the time to understand others does not fit into that equation. Nor does analyzing policies and examining complicated issues with ambiguities and shades of grey. Ironically, in this regard as well, modern technology has once again just made it easier for people to revert to the ancient practice of following the tribal chieftain.
The human tendency to fall in line behind a charismatic leader and the acceleration of technologies that gratify our desire for easy answers and acceptance by our tribe have combined to make politics poisonous.
Is there a way out?
For a lot of people, I think the answer is no. Many people have no interest in thoughtful debates or analysis; they just want to say their piece and have instant agreement. Trying to debate such people is a waste of time for everyone. It just makes both sides mad.
One of the most common pieces of advice for dealing with a toxic relationship is simply to leave it. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow, because usually people feel some strong urge, be it guilt, money, fear, or something else, that tells them to stay in the relationship.
The same dynamic is at work most political arguments. In the majority of debates, no minds will be changed, and all that will happen is that people will get angry. That’s practically the definition of toxic. And yet, to just quit arguing altogether seems wrong. It feels like giving up on your own beliefs. After all, if you don’t argue for your own beliefs, who will?
You should stand up for your beliefs, absolutely. In that regard, it’s actually OK to follow the crowd and just put your opinion out there. Say what you think and why you think it’s true. Instead of reacting to someone who you think is wrong, just say what you think is right. That’s what’s really important anyway. After all, there are a theoretically infinite number of wrong ideas in the world; right ideas are a far more limited and therefore valuable commodity.
“But won’t that in itself lead to group think and insularity?” you ask. “Isn’t this how the dreaded ‘epistemic closure’ begins?”
I agree that it certainly sounds like it could, but it’s going to take a lot to prevent like-minded people from flocking together. As we’ve seen, technology and human nature are both pushing us strongly towards doing that. We can’t fight that trend; nor would we even necessarily want to, as like-minded people grouping together can produce great things. But we can and do want to mitigate the trend of different groups getting into protracted and pointless fights with each other.
The key part is that when people try to argue with you—and inevitably, they will–you will have to use your judgment as to how best to handle them. I don’t want to offer too much advice on this, as there are lots of possible angles from which they might attack, from the most childish insults to actual threats to strong, well-reasoned arguments. Each one requires a specific response.
That said, here are two key things to keep in mind: first, every argument feels like a personal attack, whether it is or not. And in fact, almost none of them are; even the ones that are designed to seem like it. The natural instinct is to strike back immediately (I’ve been guilty of this) but it’s better to take a little time to ask yourself “Is this worth responding to?” Often, it isn’t. If it is, it probably means that somewhere, it contains a nugget of useful or interesting information. Address that, and disregard the chaff.
The second thing is that the vast majority of arguments online are all formulaic lines that the arguers themselves didn’t originate. They just got them from some source of pre-made arguments for their side. If you read an online political debate as a neutral observer, you’ll realize that it’s not organic—it’s a choreographed dance where each side unwittingly follows the pattern their party has set down for them. It’s an understatement to say both sides do this—all sides do this. Most people don’t know how to argue, so they look to others (often charismatic leaders) to show them how.
Don’t be like most people. Focus on having something new to say, both in your original statement and your counter-arguments. You can quote others as supporting evidence, but your central point should be your own. After all, if somebody else already said it, why should you say it again?
This method has two good results, which act as antibodies to the disease that’s killing communication. One is that if you strive to create something original, whatever ideas you come up with are likely to be well-thought-out and robust, because you’ll have to work hard to think of them. And the second benefit is that to a degree it protects you against the charismatic leaders who are trying to cajole you into echoing them.
Ultimately, political debates will be settled by the test of which ones have the most success in the real world. So don’t worry about trying to correct people who are wrong, unless they signal that they’re open to correction. Wrongness is its own punishment, in the end. Focus on getting your own ideas right, engage with the people who have something useful to contribute, and ignore the others.
This book gives a comprehensive and thorough history of the United States government’s plans for surviving a nuclear war. The book spans the Atomic Age, with detailed information from the Truman through Obama administrations, with occasional references to the comparatively primitive security measures under earlier presidents.
There are a number of interesting stories in the book, from the day that President Truman practically shut down Washington as he stepped out to go to the bank to the total chaos and confusion that reigned on 9/11, when the emergency procedures were implemented rather haphazardly.
For all the programs aimed at “continuity of government”, the ultimate conclusion of Presidents, generals, CEOs, and bureaucrats throughout the decades seems to invariably have been that in the event of a nuclear attack, the United States as we know it would cease to exist, and survivors—if any—would live under martial law at best for a considerable length of time.
And yet, the preparation proceeds anyway, as the government tries to figure out a way to survive the unsurvivable. In one memorable section, Graff discusses a secret bunker at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, complete with underground chambers for the House and Senate to convene, all maintained without the knowledge of even the CEO of the resort himself.
Throughout the book, I repeatedly thought of this exchange from the British political sitcom Yes, Minister:
Sir Humphrey: There has to be somewhere to carry on government, even if everything else stops.
Minister Hacker: Why?
Sir Humphrey: Well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed!
That really summarizes the absurdity of the whole enterprise. The book’s subtitle, “The story of the U.S. government’s secret plan to save itself–while the rest of us die” is a bit unnecessarily hysterical and sinister-sounding, (they can’t really be expected to save everyone, can they?) but it does underscore the inescapable problem of attempting to preserve a way of life that can’t exist in the unimaginably horrible new world that would be created after the bombs went off.
Graff did a lot of research for this book, but too often sacrificed readability in the interest of being thorough. There are plenty of paragraphs that bog down in the alphabet soup of government programs, plans and agency acronyms. (This is perhaps inevitable to some degree—the government loves acronyms.) Even more confusingly, information is sometimes poorly organized, and occasionally repeated in different sections. Once or twice this caused me to think I had accidentally gone back to a section I’d already read.
There’s also at least one flat-out error: on page 278 of the Kindle version, Graff asserts that “Reagan was the first president shot in nearly a century.” This is obviously not true, and probably the result of some kind of copy/paste error. That’s one that anybody would know is wrong, but it made me wonder what other, less-apparent-but-equally-serious errors the editors might have missed.
So, should you read it? A lot of the negative reviews say things like “I could have gotten all this from Wikipedia”. Which is true, but also raises the question, “Then why didn’t you?” A journalist like Graff isn’t required to discover new information—compiling and correlating existing information into one convenient book is also useful.
Unfortunately, Raven Rock isn’t as convenient as it could have been. A bit more editing and condensing would have improved the book a great deal. As it is, though, there’s a wealth of information for those willing to slog through and find out what secret projects the government has been spending our taxes on in the hopes of surviving Armageddon.
The number one issue that humanity faces today is technological growth. If you look under the surface of most political issues, what drives them is the way technology has given us abilities we did not previously have, or information we could not previously have accessed.
What makes this especially powerful is that technology evolves much faster than human beings do. Technology can go through many generations in the course of one human’s lifetime.
This is important, because in evolutionary biology, new traits usually emerge over the course of generations. (This is why biologists usually study traits in organisms with short generations. You can observe multiple generations of flies over the course of a year.)
But since technology moves faster than humans can evolve new traits, it means that we are always playing from behind. When I was born, cell phones were huge, unwieldy things used by rich people, sales reps, and techies. Now they’re everywhere, and are more powerful than the top-of-the-line supercomputers of three decades ago.
For the last 200 years, technological progress has been increasing at an incredible rate. And humans have often suffered by being slow to adapt. This is illustrated most dramatically by wars: in World War I, the officers had all been trained in tactics derived from the Napoleonic era. This resulted in huge massacres, as cavalry and infantry charges–which would have worked against men with inaccurate single-shot rifles–were torn to pieces by machine guns. Technology had made a huge leap in the century between the battle of Waterloo and the battle of Artois. And that was as nothing compared to the leap it would make in the next thirty years, with the advent of the Atomic Bomb.
The thing is, while it may seem to us like a long time since the days of cavalry charges and flintlock rifles, in terms of human history, that’s a drop in the bucket. Homo sapiens first emerged roughly 200,000 years ago. On that scale, Waterloo might as well be yesterday, and the Roman Empire was just last week.
For the vast majority of our existence, life was pretty much the same: people worked the land and hunted and raised families. Periodically, they organized into larger tribes to make war or trade. If you took a citizen of Athens from, say, 450 BCE and transported him to Renaissance Italy—nearly 2000 years later–he’d still have a pretty good handle on how things worked once he got past the language barrier. Whereas if you transported somebody from 1890s London to the present day—a mere 128 years!—he’d have no idea what was happening.
When you read history, it’s easy to be struck by how human nature seems unchanged over the centuries. We can recognize things in the texts of the earliest historians and philosophers that seem analogous to modern phenomena. While it may seem like this means human nature is eternal, what it really signifies is that it hasn’t been that long, in biological terms, since what we think of as “ancient times”.
It’s commonplace to observe the technology changes, but human nature remains the same. But observing it is one thing; grasping the full implications is another.
For instance, there is a major “culture war” debate in the U.S. over the issue of transgender rights. Those who favor transgender rights view their opponents as closed-minded bigots. Those opposed see the others as radicals bent on destroying the social order. What both sides ignore is the fact that until very recently, transgender people had no medical treatment available to them. For hundreds of thousands of years, transgender people had no option but to live in the body they were born with. And the rest of the population scarcely even knew they existed; and so built whole societies premised on two rigid gender roles. It wasn’t until very recent breakthroughs in medical technology that any other option became viable.
Once you view it in these terms, you realize it isn’t a liberal plot to destabilize society, but simply a group of people able to access treatment that previously did not exist. Likewise, you also realize the reason so many people are responding with fear and suspicion is that history and tradition provide no guidelines for how to deal with the issue. It simply wasn’t possible in the past.
A number of social conflicts, I suspect, are in fact the result of people being optimized for a very different world than the one we actually live in. Ancient prohibitions against homosexuality, sodomy, and other non-reproductive sexual behavior made some sense in the context of their time—in the past, when mortality rates were high, people needed everyone who was physically capable of reproducing to do so, personal feelings notwithstanding. It was about survival of the group, not any one individual.
Nowadays humanity is threatened more by overpopulation than by extinction—but we’re still adapted to the world of thousands of years ago. That’s just one example. I think people in the developed world still have a slightly-irrational fear of famine; simply because we evolved over millennia where food was, in fact, extremely scarce. (This is why philosophies like the so-called “abundance mentality” seem so counter-intuitive. In the past, it would’ve been suicide to assume there were enough resources for everybody.)
Instinct is a powerful thing, and incredibly dangerous when it gets outdated. To borrow an example from Paul Graham: because human beings haven’t had the power of flight until recently, it’s easy for our senses to be fooled in bad visibility.
Of course, this is something where we use technology to make up for our own shortcomings. A human being would have no idea how to fly a plane if not for instruments that correctly show the position of the aircraft. And this leads to another obvious point about technological evolution—it is, in many ways, nothing short of miraculous for humans. It allows us to accomplish things our ancestors could never have imagined. Whatever bad side effects it has, no one could ever rationally argue that we’d be better off getting rid of all of it and returning to primitive life.
The saving grace is that technology has been designed by humans and for humans, and so generally is compatible with the needs of humans. The things that conflict with human needs aren’t usually a direct result of this, but rather side-effects the designers never thought of.
But side-effects, almost by definition, are insidious. Any obvious, seriously harmful side-effect gets fixed early on. The ones that don’t usually fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Not obvious
- Don’t seem harmful at first
- Can’t be fixed without destroying the benefit
The designers of automobiles probably never thought the exhaust would cause pollution; even if they had, they probably wouldn’t have realized that cars would be widely used enough for it to matter. Marie and Pierre Curie had no idea the new element they had discovered was dangerous. It seemed like just a useful illuminative substance. And pretty much every communications technology in history, from the printing press on, has the potential to spread pernicious lies and propaganda just as much as news and useful information. But no one can figure out a way to remove the bad information without also getting rid of the good—the only option is censorship, which can pose a danger in its own right.
I’ll say it again for emphasis: technology is evolving faster than humans. As a result, our instincts will often lie to us when it comes to dealing with technology. It’s the same way modern junk food is engineered to please our taste buds while poisoning our bodies—it’s designed to set off all the right sensors that tell us “get more of this”.
The rise of nationalism throughout the world in the last decade has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of social media. It’s not a coincidence. Social media plays to an old instinct that takes human society back to its most basic state: the tribe, and the desire to win approval from that tribe. But in the past, when we were in tribes, we didn’t know what the rival tribes or nation-states were doing—they were in far-off lands and rarely encountered each other. But now, we always know what they are doing—they are just a click away. And because they are a different tribe, our instincts tell us to fear them, as our ancestors feared invaders from distant places.
What can we do about this? We can’t get rid of technology; nor would we want to. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to make it into a political question. Politicians want easy, non-nuanced issues, where they can cast themselves as leaders of a huge, virtuous majority against a tiny, vaguely-defined band of evildoers. That would be a terrible thing to happen on this issue. As we’ve already seen in the social issues I’ve mentioned earlier, politicians tend to cast these things as moral questions rather than technological change ones.
We’re going to have to deal with this one on our own. But how? After all, technology brings huge benefits. How can we keep getting those while minimizing the side effects? We don’t want to completely ignore our instincts—not all of them are outdated, after all—but we can’t always trust them, either.
The best advice I can give is to always be on the lookout for what side-effects technology produces in your own life. Always ask yourself what it’s causing you to do differently, and why. Then you’ll start to look for the same in the wider world. We know human nature doesn’t change that much; so when you see or read about a large number of people behaving in an unusual way, or a new cultural phenomenon, there’s a decent chance that it’s in response to some new technology.
It’s easy to look at the dangers of technology and decide you want to opt out, throw it all away, and return to the simple life. This is probably healthy in small doses but it’s impractical on a large scale or for an entire lifetime. What I’m advising is cultivating an attitude of extreme adaptability, where you are so flexible that you can both use new technology and see the potential problems with it coming before they hit you. Listen to your instincts, but know when you need to disregard them. Remember, your instincts are optimized to give you the best chance at survival in a world of agrarian societies and/or tribes of hunter-gatherers. And they are damn good at it; but their mileage may vary in a world of computers, nanomachines, and space travel.
Before I begin, let me give a special shout-out to my blogger friend and loyal reader, Pat Prescott: yes, Pat; it’s finally happened! I don’t know how many years it’s been since you first told me about this series, but I finally have gotten around to reading it. Many thanks to Pat for the suggestion, and for all his support over the years.
Also, for those of you who don’t want to wade all the way through my long-winded review, I made a short video review for your convenience. (And also just for my own amusement.)
Casca begins with military doctors in war-torn Vietnam finding an American soldier named Casey suffering what should be a mortal wound that miraculously begins to heal. As the doctor examines him, he feels himself drawn into a vivid recollection of the man’s past: a flashback to his time as a Roman soldier, Casca Rufio Longinus, a legionnaire assigned to the province of Judea.
During his time in Judea, Casca torments a prisoner about to be crucified–Jesus of Nazareth, who curses him to an eternity as a soldier of fortune, until the Last Judgment. (Note that in the above video, I mistakenly said Casca stabs him on the way to the crucifixion. I meant to say he guards him on the way, and then stabs him.)
Casca dismisses the curse as the raving of a mad prisoner, but as he fights and receives wounds and does not die, he begins to realize that it truly is his doom to live forever, always moving from one battle to the next.
He is sent into slavery for a time, where he is mentored for by a kindly Chinese man who teaches him martial arts as well as philosophy. Eventually, he makes his way into the gladiatorial arena and battles his way to freedom. Ultimately he rejoins the Legion, centuries after he originally knew it, when Rome has seen many emperors rise and fall, and the once-mighty empire verges on collapse.
The book flashes forward again to the hospital in Vietnam–Casey having gone, and the doctors shaken by the experience. In the final chapter, the action moves to Egypt, where young Israeli soldiers fight alongside a grizzled mercenary–Casey again, who recalls fighting in the same desert many centuries before.
The writing is straightforward with no frills, so the book is a quick read. The description is limited, with most heavily-described parts being those relating to battles and Roman tactics.
There is a lot of violence, naturally, and quite a bit of sex as well. Actually one of the things that bothered me about the book was the sexism–women are described exclusively in sexual terms, and rape is commonplace. The worst part is, this probably is an accurate depiction of attitudes during the time period. There was also one section during Casca’s time as a gladiator about his rivalry with a cruel Numidian (African) gladiator that was dripping with racism (and sexism, in terms of how the man is depicted preying upon women) that rivaled Lovecraft in terms of appalling the modern reader. I could have done without that.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this from a book written in the 1970s by a man who grew up in pre-Civil Rights America. All in all, Sadler had a strange life–maybe one that would have been worthy of a novel in its own right. His military career was cut short when, to quote Wikipedia, “he was severely wounded in the knee by a feces-covered punji stick“. Before writing Casca, he wrote and performed the patriotic song “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. Later on, he shot and killed a romantic rival, for which he served 28 days in jail. Years later, he himself would be shot–whether accidentally by his own hand or by a would-be killer is unclear.
Honestly, people who don’t like to learn the biographical details of authors are missing out on a lot.
Anyway, back to Casca: for me, the most memorable character in the book was the Chinese slave whom Casca meets when sailing back to Rome. He’s also a bit of a cliché–an Asian philosopher-warrior-monk who dispenses wisdom as well as being a master of martial arts–but it kinda works anyway. Unlike most of the characters, he does a bit of introspection, and seems to grasp the horror of Casca’s curse even before Casca does.
What I liked most about the book was the concept: the idea of a man condemned to live forever is an ancient one. Or, as Harlan Ellison wrote for an episode of The Outer Limits:
“Through all the legends of ancient peoples — Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Semitic — runs the saga of the Eternal Man, the one who never dies, called by various names in various times, but historically known as Gilgamesh, the man who has never tasted death … the hero who strides through the centuries …”
This idea of an immortal condemned to live through endless cycles of fruitless quests is a great one. It’s the premise for the legendary video game Planescape: Torment, as well as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. (I’ve also heard some claim that King’s protagonist Roland was influenced by the soldier-of-fortune character “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner“, from the song by Warren Zevon, which features the line “the eternal Thompson gunner”.) It’s a great premise for exploring themes like the futility of war, “man’s inhumanity to man”, etc.
Because the concept is so fruitful, the Casca series currently spans 47 books and counting, following Casca’s adventures across pretty much every war in recorded history. It surprises me the series was never made into a movie. I could see it very easily being adapted into one of those over-the-top, hacking and slashing and/or guns-blazing action films like they made in the 1980s. Or maybe that’s the problem: the teenage boys who would probably have been the perfect audience for these books in past eras are now spending their leisure time watching action movies and playing online first-person shooting games, and don’t even know about them.
Imperial Passions is a sweeping historical novel told from the perspective of Anna Dalassena, who at the beginning of the tale is a 14-year-old orphan girl living with her grandparents. Over the course of the novel, she grows up, marries, becomes a mother, and through it all is witness to many major events during a tumultuous time in the Byzantine Empire–emperors and empresses rise and fall, wars are waged, and all the while daily life goes on in what was then one of the most powerful cities on Earth
A major plot thread is Anna’s hatred for Constantine Ducas, a powerful official in the imperial court who viciously abuses his wife, Anna’s cousin Xene. Ironically, by the end of the book, she finds her family in an uneasy alliance with the man–though he is clearly maneuvering to gain power for himself, just as many of the other palace bureaucrats do.
One of the things I liked most about the book is the way the political machinations cause real effects in the characters’ daily lives. Another plot thread is how the government levies taxes on its citizens to build extravagant churches and palaces, while failing to pay soldiers on the empire’s edge. It’s one thing to read that someone is an officious bureaucrat–it’s another when you read that their corrupt tax collection scheme is robbing the main character. (The Econ major in me also liked seeing an early example of Ricardian equivalence.)
The large cast of characters is composed largely of actual historical figures, though in a few cases Stephenson takes understandable liberties, given the relative lack of historical information. Some of the most memorable characters are Anna’s uncle Costas, who teaches her about strategy through their frequent chess games, and the bureaucrat Psellus, a “Vicar of Bray“-like character who manages to retain his high office by constantly courting the favor of the various rulers.
Imperial Passions is a truly ambitious work, and Stephenson clearly has done extensive research. Almost every aspect of Byzantine life is covered–food, clothing, travel, religion, marriage and almost anything else you can think of is discussed in some fashion. As a result, the story is rather slow to unfold. If you like a rapid-fire plot with lots of sudden twists and turns, it might not be your cup of tea. And there are times when the otherwise commendable commitment to authenticity hurts the flow of the tale–for example, since many of the characters are historical figures, there are a lot of duplicate names. I wish I had a solidus for every “Marie” and “Constantine” who crops up.
Also, because there are few historical novels about Byzantium, (compare with how many there are about, say, Tudor England) some readers may be intimidated by the unfamiliar setting and the forbidding Byzantine terminology, although there is a helpful glossary in the back. But it’s well worth sticking with it, even–maybe especially–for readers unfamiliar with the setting, because you will end up learning quite a lot about a fascinating and unjustly neglected period in history.
Most histories of Napoleon’s downfall begin with his disastrous invasion of Russia, and at first glance, this seems appropriate. Napoleon suffered huge losses, failed to gain much of anything, and never won a campaign again after the invasion. It seems like the obvious point where his fortunes turned for the worse.
But the truth is, Napoleon’s downfall started much earlier. And it wasn’t due to any “nearest-run-thing-you-ever-saw” kind of bad luck that happens in battle, either. It was due to the fact that Napoleon didn’t understand economics nearly as well as warfare.
In 1806, the British Empire began a naval blockade against France. In retaliation, Napoleon–who at this point controlled most of continental Europe–enacted an embargo against trade with Britain, forbidding all French-controlled nations from importing British goods.
By all accounts, it didn’t work. Even the Empress Josephine herself purchased smuggled British products.¹ And Britain simply made up the losses in revenue from Europe in other parts of the world.
Finally, it was in an attempt to impose his ban on British goods that Napoleon invaded Russia to begin with! If he hadn’t been trying to enforce the embargo, he would never have had to make such a risky move at all.
At the time, France had a very strong military tradition. Nowadays we tend to stereotype Germany as the most militaristic European nation, but German militarism is heavily rooted in reforms introduced in Prussia following their losses to Napoleon. So in the early 19th century, it was French militarism vs. British capitalism.
Napoleon was a great military strategist and leader, but he seems to have been pretty ignorant when it came to economics and trade. Napoleon fell into the error of regulators everywhere, in that he assumed he could end demand for goods by making them illegal. In fact, all he did was create a lucrative black market for the British and punish his own people simultaneously.
It would have been different if Napoleon had been able to defeat the British Navy. Then he maybe could have enforced the embargo more effectively. But then, if he could defeat the British Navy, the whole problem of Britain would have been solved anyway.
Napoleon was seeing everything in military terms–that was what he was trained to do, after all. British policy was designed more in economic terms, and the military (mainly the Navy) was just a tool used by Britain to secure their material wealth. The results of the differing philosophies speak for themselves: Napoleon got to be in a lot of famous battles, sure; but eventually lost his Empire and died alone on St. Helena. Britain became the dominant superpower in the world for the next century.
Napoleon should have been patient. Yes, the British were constantly financing uprisings against him, but they weren’t working out very well, and they couldn’t keep it up forever.
There are a couple lessons here. First, you can’t ignore the laws of economics, even if you are the greatest military strategist of your time. And second, though it may be more dramatic to depict Napoleon’s downfall with a retreat from a burning Moscow or a failed charge at Waterloo, he sealed his own fate much earlier with a serious error of his own design.
It’s easy to point to one battle or one bit of bad luck as being “Where It All Went Wrong”, but oftentimes, such events are really just the culmination of a less dramatic, more systematic bad decision made much earlier.
So instead of saying “So-and-so met their Waterloo when…”, look instead for when So-and-so made their Continental System.
UPDATE 5/22/2018: See Patrick Prescott’s post on this subject for more info–he has a lot more expertise on this than I do.
- See Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts. p. 429
[I saw this film a couple years ago, but never posted a review. I will do so now, for no particular reason. 🙂 ]
I don’t feel fully qualified to review this film, because it’s in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. So I can’t comment on the actors’ delivery of their lines, or even on the script, since I’m basing it off of English subtitles that may not reflect the full meaning.
Even more significantly, Hebrew etymology itself is an important concept in the film, and I can’t be sure to what extent I grasped the word play that goes on. At one point, the narrator alludes to the fact that the Hebrew word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness, which is related to the word for forgetting. This leads me to suspect the title has more meaning in the original. (The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz, from which this passage is adapted.)
All that said, I’m going to do my best to review what I can, and let you know when I think my opinions might be colored by my ignorance of the language.
The film is told from the perspective of the young Amos Oz (Amir Tessler) and chronicles his experience growing up in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, which over the course of the film is partitioned by a U.N. Resolution and then falls into civil war.
This political element is mostly shown through glimpses and murmurs in the background, since Amos is a young child, and what he perceives first and foremost are incidents in his own family. His father Arieh (Gilad Kanana) and mother Fania (Natalie Portman, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay) are his main influences. Both are well-educated and, in their own ways, teach him about language and storytelling. His father, a scholarly and bookish man, frequently lectures him about Hebrew words and their interrelated meanings.
Fania is a more romantic type than her husband, and early sequences show her fantasies as a girl growing up in Europe. envisioning Israel as the “land of milk and honey”, to be settled by heroic pioneers. In keeping with her imaginative nature, she tells young Amos stories—some fanciful and fairytale-like, others more depressing and realistic, such as the story from her childhood of a Polish army officer who committed suicide as she watched.
Amos also overhears things he shouldn’t—such as Fania’s mother berating her, causing the younger woman to slap her own face in shame, or Fania telling another grim tale of her youth in Europe: a woman who committed suicide by locking herself in a shed and setting it on fire.
The film shows these scenes, as imagined by young Amos, and you can’t help feeling these aren’t healthy for a child to hear. At the same time, even if you didn’t realize that Oz grows up to be a writer, it becomes very clear in watching the film that this is his calling—everything in his upbringing leads him towards it.
Gradually, as the film wears on and political upheaval takes its toll, Fania begins to succumb to depression. It’s a grim decline, as we see her slowly wasting away, but the film does a good job capturing the pain and frustration seeing a loved one with a mental health disorder brings upon a family. (Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that the doctors prescribe sleeping pills and other depressants—at the time, proper treatment for such disorders was not widely available.)
Fania goes away to her sisters’ home in Tel Aviv, and there overdoses on sleeping pills. In the closing moments of the film, we see Amos as a young man, meeting with his father at a kibbutz. Finally, we see an elderly Amos writing the word “mother” in Hebrew.
The overall film is haunting and evocative, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Nicholas Britell that captures the gloomy mood of Jerusalem, which Oz at one point likens to a black widow.
I did have some issues with the cinematography. It has that washed-out gray/green palette that is way, way overused in films these days—especially those set in the past. I would have preferred to see it in the normal range of colors.
However, while this was a drawback, I did think it very successfully communicated one thing about Jerusalem: its age. Throughout the film, but especially in the shots of the winding, narrow streets that Amos and his family traverse through the city, I could practically feel the weight of all the accumulated history of this ancient place. The film conveyed the mystical power of its setting, and gave a sense of why it is so important to so many.
Again, I don’t want to comment too much on the acting, since I was reading subtitles rather than listening to the speech, but it seemed very good indeed. Tessler is the standout—he had to carry the immense burden of seeming wise beyond his years while still behaving like a normal child, rather than The Boy Who Is Destined To Become A Famous Writer. And he manages it splendidly from what I can tell.
Small moments, like the sequence in which Arieh is celebrating that all five copies of his new book have been purchased, and Amos later sees all five, still in their wrapping paper, at the house of an author Arieh knows (either a friend or relative; I couldn’t tell which), are what stick in my mind. The man simply closes the shelf lid over the books and gives Amos a look that says “we will not speak of this”, without uttering a word.
I went to this film expecting it to be a downer—I knew that it ended with Fania falling into depression and ultimately committing suicide—and for a large part of the second half, it did feel excruciatingly bleak. Watching someone sit silently in the dark, overcome with psychological torment, while her family members suffer in impotent grief, while perhaps true to life, is not a pleasant cinematic experience, and that’s how the film trends for some time. I was ready to write it off as an interesting picture that drowns in mental anguish in the second half.
And then something amazing happened.
I want to write about it, because I haven’t seen many others address it—but I also hate to spoil it. So I’ll make a deal with you: if you haven’t seen the movie, but think you might want to, stop reading now and watch it. Pay particular attention to the scenes of Fania’s stories—the drowning woman, the woman in the shed, the Polish officer. Then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen it, or just don’t care to but read this far and want to know it all, read on.
What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.
The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.
Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.
They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.
Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.
Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.
In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.
Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral. Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.
At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.
The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.
It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.
The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.
But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.
As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”
I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.
I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.
Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.
So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.
Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.
I’ll skip my usual plot-point-by-plot-point synopsis for this one–I think most readers are already familiar with World War II. Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first days as Prime Minister in May 1940. Hitler’s armies are advancing through France and closing in on British forces at Dunkirk.
The film depicts Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) attempting to force Churchill to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill argues with them repeatedly, as the Nazis draw ever closer to Dunkirk, and the news grows more bleak by the day,
Churchill is on the point of giving in to the calls for negotiations when he makes a spontaneous (and apparently completely invented for the sake of the film) visit to the London Underground, where all the passengers he talks to are strongly in favor of fighting to the bitter end–bricklayers, new mothers, and children all are fiercely opposed to the idea of negotiating.
This is a major over-simplification of how public opinion works. I understand the scene was intended to convey that Churchill was in tune with the spirit of the people, but it just seemed ham-handed and unbelievable, which raises the question of why they bothered to invent the scene at all. Why make something up just to have it be the weakest part of the drama?
His faith in the British fighting spirit restored, Churchill makes his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament. The evacuation of Dunkirk he ordered is a success, and the film ends with Churchill receiving overwhelming applause for his resolve.
The plot may be a bit thin, and of course, like all historical dramas, is hampered by the fact that we know what’s going to happen, but the performances of the major roles are all quite solid. Oldman does a terrific job, portraying Churchill as a flawed, temperamental man, capable of brilliant oratory as well as moments of confusion and depression. Kristin Scott Thomas is also very good as Churchill’s wife Clementine, although it seemed at times like the writer and/or director didn’t know what to do with her.
The big problems with the film were immersion-breaking things like the scene in the Underground, or another scene where they are playing a film reel to brief the Prime Minister, and the images displayed are fairly obviously what you get if you ask for “stock footage of Nazis”. (Why would Churchill, at a briefing about Dunkirk, need to see footage of Hitler giving a speech?)
Also, the cinematographer applied that grayish blue washed-out color filter that apparently everything set in England is supposed to have these days. This is far from the only movie to do this, so I don’t mean to single it out, but this desaturation business is getting tiresome. Can’t we just have normal colors?
Still, this is one of those movies that hinges on the performances, and those are certainly good enough to make it enjoyable.