Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism

I don’t mean to say it is not a well written book. It is even, dare I say, seductive. Nor that its points are not well taken. Ms. Applebaum brings a certain intimate knowledge of Eastern European and English politics.

I used to read her columns in The New York Times before the paywall was instituted (which I do not begrudge; I proudly subscribe to my own, local paper and some magazines, but like the multiplying streaming services, I can’t subscribe to them all), but it’s been a while and my understanding of her positions has faded somewhat.

So while reading all of her interesting anecdotes and well-made points, I keep thinking, who did she remind me of? Htichens? No, someone more… irritating. Then it hit me! Thomas Friedman! A well worn gasbag of a neoliberal, technofetishist, with a penchant for name dropping that would make Gore Vidal feel ashamed. Friedman was neoliberal masqeurading as center left and Applebaum was neoliberal who was rather openly center right (Tory, really, though her husband was once with the quite right leaning American Enterprise Institute), with solid smattering of classical liberalism. She doesn’t have Friedman’s veneer of Bernard Henri-Levy-ism (and neither try to pull of inimitable coiffure and sartorial exposures), but, yeah. A less irritating Friedman, but because his conclusions are always so facile and suspect, I immediately began to suspect her, too.

Which is not to say that she deserves to be splattered by drunken Pollock with Friedman’s bloviating brush. I’m just saying that I’m suspicious.

She also notes that some of what the new Trumpist conservatives (like… wait for it… seriously, she name drops… Laura Ingraham) says is ‘real.’ Why am I implicitly impugning it’s real ness through the use of what amounts to air quotes? Because the first thing she mentions on her list is cancel culture, which is – and I can’t emphasize this enough – not real. Unless you’re talking about our God-given, Constitutional right to have a talk show or be highly paid to write poorly research columns for that publication. Now, I am doing her slightly wrong, because she notes that it’s cancel culture on the internet, but… I’m sorry. No. There are lots of terrible things out there, but no. Just… no. But she does say that Laura Ingraham once went on a date with Trump and found him unbearable. So that gave me a small amount of pleasure that almost made up for one millionth of one percent of the hatred, violence, and chaos that demented t—t consciously stirred up.

The most interesting idea in Twilight, which she readily credits to others, is key the personality trait in those susceptible to a longing for an authoritarian society: not closed mindedness, but simple mindedness (her phrase, not mine; I would have looked for a less charged way to put it). A dislike of complexity leads to seeking guidance from figures who explain that the world is simple (and often a more than a little manichean). Diversity and different ideas and experiences cause anguish in those who thrive under simpler concepts.

The other (sort of) interesting idea is the medium sized lie. Unlike the big lie of old fashioned fascists, the still big but less gargantuan lie of modern authoritarian parties dominates. While she didn’t use this example, something like the incendiary references to hordes of immigrants at the southern border (arriving in caravans?) came to my mind.

The book more or less begins and ends with parties, with another party or two in the middle. The first takes place in 1999 and celebrates the way that Eastern Europe had been opening up. We are intended to be impressed with her connections to important figures in Eastern European politics, but also to be feel sad, because it turns out that many of them went on to aid and abet authoritarian parties and other bad things (by the way, was Brexit authoritarian and is Nigel Farage an authoritarian or just a dangerous ass?). Another party shows her deep ties to the Republican establishment and it does rather neatly show how so many effectively switched their allegiances from Reagan Trump. Another shows how broad-minded she is to hang out with Democrats. Finally, the last party returns to the beginning, her house in Poland (where the first party took place), which shows us that even though she has lost lots of friends because they all became awful, she is still loved by many important people. The end.

Am I being too hard on her? Probably. I think the moment when she finally lost me was when she started musing about how the internet changes things. Did you know that the internet does not promote reasoned discourse and consensus across political parties? Because I kind of think everyone did. There is the basis of very interesting book of investigative journalism in here, as she mines her connections, especially to those who went to the dark side, to understand what the elites behind authoritarian movements are thinking (and it is about the elites, which is not a criticism; her acknowledged touchstone is the book, The Treason of the Intellectuals, written in the 1920s and which argues the public intellectuals moved from attachment to founding philosophical principles of morals and reason and instead let political attachments guide them). But then she goes all… Thomas Friedman-y.

We Are Safe

But not well. If you have been complaining that November’s election was illegitimate, you may not care, but you have been an integral part of a massive, collective feedback that has caused my child emotional harm. It has also resulted in deaths, but I am not ashamed to say that my child is my first priority.

I am a Democrat. I do not actually fall easily into categories beyond that, being progressive in many ways, but also centrist on many issues.

I did not vote for Trump. Going further than that, I did not vote for Bush. I did not like how shenanigans meant the latter won the election nor how the Electoral College meant that the choice of most Americans was not the man inaugurated in 2000 and 2016.

But I did not say they were illegitimate. I believed that the proper response was to organize to win during the next election, in other words, to use our small “d” democratic process to make change.

That is the difference.

‘Vostok’ Is Even Worse

I don’t know even know why I really did, but I read the sequel to The Loch. It’s about another lake: Vostok, which is a real place in Russia.

But does the real lake have an alien outpost with telepathic extra-terrestrials who provide a pseudo-scientific argument for the existence of God and who planted information about atomic theory in the Bible and in Kabbalistic texts? Who knows really? I mean, probably right?

And is that real lake being investigated by a cabal of super rich companies who believe in aliens and are part of Majestic 12 (which, should you google, will lead you down a supremely stupid rabbit hole, so I recommend that you do not, but I did enjoy a particularly erratic character explaining that they stopped Obama from revealing the truth by exploding a missile nearby when he was in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peach Prize)?

In addition to his weird religious beliefs, Mr. Steve Alten (I keep on wanting to write ‘Steve Allen’) is a big fan of the idea of weird natural effects creating preserved ecosystems from prehistory. He showed a hitherto unknown to me lack of talent when it comes to writing science fiction about multiple and alternate timelines. Let’s call this Steve Alten (not Allen) ‘really terrible Philip K. Dick.’

Vostok is superior to The Loch in one key way, I will say. It is much shorter. While I haven’t read his most famous novels, the ones about giant sharks, he does gamely tie those novels to this one, creating, let’s call it, the Megverse. Actually, let’s not.

But it wasn’t all bad. I did learn something, like that there are multiple plains of existence. I would have thought that if such a thing existed, it would be multiple ‘planes,’ but apparently on page 308, the author launched a novel theory about alternate… grasslands? All very cutting edge stuff.

As one final note, let me just point out that the cover is a photo an alligator badly photoshopped into some generic snowy mountain lake. And while a giant, prehistoric crocodilian does appear, it is supposed to be closer to a caiman than an alligator. This is a pet peeve of mine. John Grisham wrote a book about a man who travels down the Amazon River and sees many, many alligators. Alligators only live in North American and China. There are no alligators in the Amazon. This felt like some super lazy research and an even lazier copy editor.

The Horse And His Boy

The title does a neat trick. The Horse (usually capitalized because, if you are unaware of how all this works, the Horse in question is a talking, Narnian horse) comes first and he is the dominant figure. The boy (not capitalized) is his, not the other way around. But really, the book is about the boy, not the Horse and especially not about the girl.

This was my favorite Narnia book as a child, barely, but definitely, beating out The Lion, The Witch, and the WardrobeAnd I thought my daughter my like it. It’s a simpler story than that first Narnia book (and it was the first he wrote and, frankly, everything will make much more sense if you read them in the order he wrote them than if you attempt to retroactively place them in a chronology based on the timeline of Narnia, itself) and less allegorical. The stakes feel lower because, even though the hero, Shasta (the boy), saves the nice kingdom of Archenland, Archenland is only Narnia’s neighbor and not the home of Talking Horses and the like.

But, if you read it now, you will find a muted, but still nasty form of orientalist racism running through. Thankfully, the girl, Aravis, is from the more or less Middle Eastern style kingdom of this world (though, really, it’s less Middle Eastern than inspired by, I would guess, childhood readings of The Arabian Nights). She does get some decent characterization and growth and is a strong person with brown skin and black hair (like my daughter, to whom I was reading this). But this doesn’t make up for the moment when the titular boy is singled out for being blonde and fair skinned and obviously of northern stock and though never said, one can’t help but feel that we are supposed to feel that this makes him somehow better than all those vaguely Arabic chaps. Reading those bits to my daughter almost made me put down the book.

I also had not remembered that C.S. Lewis made the correlation between Aslan and Jesus clearer than at any other point before the final book in the series. He even puts in a parallel to the incarnation.

What, in the end, as a grown up living in the days after the death of George Floyd (which came after the death of countless others), did I take from it? Anything at all? It is an old fashioned adventure story, more similar to the serials of the 20s and 30s than anything else in Lewis’ oeuvre and I like those stories, for all their many faults.

Shakespeare In Quarantine

This weekend would normally be the Shakespeare birthday celebration at the Folger. But, you know. Pandemic.

Tomorrow is his actual birthday, but it just makes me sad. I just don’t miss that celebration. And now. Ugh.

The things I miss. Museums, libraries, bookstores.

True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870

This is not actually about the exhibit, True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870, which I saw briefly at the National Gallery of Art. I was with my daughter, so leisurely examination was not really an option.

But I was listening to a Modern Art Notes Podcast, which was mostly about the DC artist, Renee Stout, but also about that exhibit, and I felt overwhelmed by what we have lost. I cannot go see it.

I can’t go to the library or the bookstore, either.

Death tolls are rising and the federal government, which should be leading the response, is, of course, incompetent. There are competent people there, but they are being undermined by the clown car.

But it was that podcast and knowledge of the culture that I can’t participate in, which felt so crushing in that moment.

‘Julian’ By Gore Vidal

JULIANA reminder that, as wonderful a public personality and intellectual as he was, he was also a fantastic writer. Julian, while not as brilliant as Burr, captures so many of the strengths of the public Vidal.

The philosophy within Julian is, of necessity, I think, the sophomore year dorm room variety (not freshman, but not folks who are more than half way through their philosophy B.A.s). Novels are rarely deeply philosophical and we should not expect them to be. Perhaps only Plato could have done both successfully.

The anti-religious Vidal is naturally sympathetic to the anti-Christian Emperor Julian, but he also gently mocks the protagonist’s own adherence to pre-Christian Hellenic paganism. But the depiction of a time when education meant, primarily, an education in philosophy and history, seems so wonderfully idyllic to a person like me (even if sanitation was undoubtedly worse). The various teacher-philosophers of Athens and Antioch are used to portray an achingly attractive milieu. And, in today’s climate, the idea of a leader who surrounds himself with leading philosophers sounds wonderful.

Narratively speaking, the best innovation is the form. It is a correspondence between two former teachers and devoted followers of the (real) Emperor Julian. Libanius wants to publish the memoirs of Julian, which he acquires from Priscus, who managed to grab them in the aftermath of Julian’s death during his military campaign in Persia. As the memoirs are copied and sent to Libanius by Priscus, you also see the annotations and notes of Priscus (defending himself against supposed inaccuracies and raging against some of the rivals for Julian’s ear). Then you see Libanius’ occasionally outraged remarks about Priscus’ parsimony and puffery. It’s a fantastic depiction of gossip and literary politics among intellectuals and semi-celebrities and you can imagine that no one does it better than Vidal.

Books In The Field

That was the title and subject of an exhibition (now closed – I caught it on its penultimate day) at the Society of the Cincinnati, housed in the Anderson House, near Dupont Circle. The Society focuses on Revolutionary War history (Cincinnati comes from the Roman general, Cincinnatus, who you can look up on your own, but which connects to George Washington both resigning his commission and also only serving two terms). The books in question are the books used by Continental Army soldiers and officers during the war against Britain – mostly, as you might expect, books on military strategy and exercises and on medical/surgical techniques.

I am a sucker for exhibitions about books. I love looking at old books.

I will admit, it was a struggle to really linger over the volumes because my little one, unsurprisingly, is less enthralled by such exhibits than her father. I didn’t even try to complete a tour of the house later. But I hope to go back some day and see it all (the next exhibit is on Alexander Hamilton who is, of course, having a bit of a moment).

Choral Works At The National Cathedral

First of all, I was glad to see that nets were gone at the Washington National Cathedral. For a long time, post-earthquake (which was in 2011 or 2012, I think), there nets strung up inside the Cathedral to protect visitors and worshipers from falling bits of cathedral. While appreciated, from a safety perspective, it took away a bit from the sense of awe, grandeur, and general aesthetics.

The last time I saw a concert here, it was period pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, composed or performed for the French court (and played using period pieces). The music was beautiful, but the acoustics just swallowed the orchestra’s sound (maybe it was the nets).

This time, the sound just soared wonderfully. It was the cathedral’s resident chorus, plus New York Polyphony (an all male vocal quartet), a guest soprano soloist, strings (roughly the size of chamber music orchestra, which is to say, larger than a quarter, but smaller than a full orchestra), and the cathedral’s own organ.

The selections were actually dominated (marginally) by either pieces by contemporary composers or else by pieces arranged by contemporary composers. With a few, arguable, exceptions, they were religious works – often liturgical. I say arguably, because one of the works set some stanzas by Whitman to music and, especially in America, Whitman could be considered to be almost religious.

That said, there wasn’t as much variety among the pieces as I might have liked. At a certain point, one Ave Maria starts to sound like another. That being the case, I could make the argument that they might have been better off taking a longer piece by someone like Tallis and playing that as the entirety of either the pre- or post-intermission half.

What We Can Learn From Poets (According To Cicero)