Time magazine has published its annual Top 10 lists of “everything” in 2011, but the fiction list is the most conspicuous. Rather than make you click through ten different screens, here is the list in a shorter form:
( 1.) George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. To quote Kingsley Amis from New Maps of Hell: “I think it better to say straight out that I do not like fantasy.” Speaking for myself: I stand by my earlier assertion that, if a fantasy novel is the best work of fiction this year, then an epochal change occurred in the literary culture while no one was watching.
( 2.) David Foster Wallace, The Pale King. The half-finished manuscript that Wallace left behind when he committed suicide.
( 3.) Ann Patchett, State of Wonder. Patchett is our greatest author of overlong Tendenzromane — romances of political tendentiousness. The politics can’t conceal the sentimentality at the heart of Patchett’s vision.
( 4.) Teju Cole, Open City. About a Nigerian immigrant to New York. Fascinating voice. Nothing happens.
( 5.) Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog. Fifth volume in a series of mysteries.
( 6.) Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang. A first novel about performance artists who use their kids as props. Ha, ha.
( 7.) Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant. A collection of cartoons. Don’t ask me what it’s doing on a fiction list. “[I]t ought to be somewhere,” Lev Grossman says, “so let’s put it here.” Um, okay.
( 8.) Lars Kepler, The Hypnotist (trans. Ann Long). You’ve read all of Stieg Larsson? Not to worry. Here’s another grisly Swedish thriller. Better title: Cruelty in a Cold Climate.
( 9.) J. Courtney Sullivan, Maine. An increasingly common genre: the multi-generational saga of women. In Maine this time, for the sake of difference if not originality.
(10.) Daniel Clowes, The Death Ray. A graphic novel about a Chicago boy who acquires a working death ray.
Time magazine, the press secretary for middlebrow thought in America, has now officially abandoned its readers. A fantasy, an unfinished philosophical jawbreaker, two mysteries, a collection of cartoons, a far-fetched debut, and a graphic novel — these are the “best books” it can recommend to readers with limited time for reading and a non-specialist interest in new fiction? Where are the big fat reads? The thick novels, thick with characters and incident, in which readers can lose themselves? Jonathan Franzen tried to write such a novel last year in Freedom, although he insisted that his nearly 600-page book — in the 19th century it would have been called a triple-decker — belonged “solidly in the high-art literary tradition.” (It didn’t.)
My wife’s favorite novel this year was Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (2009), a book that was recommended to her by another professional who is more interested in people than in literary form. This is a perfectly respectable kind of novel, serious fiction without pretensions to difficulty. That’s pretty much the 19th-century conception of the novel, in fact; and good writers can still do wonderful things with the kind. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is the ideal cross-over novel, for example, appealing both to serious part-time readers and those who want to “keep up” with the latest in literary thinking. Its absence from Time’s list says far more about the magazine’s desperate efforts to seem edgy and clever than it does about the best fiction of 2011.
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The Death of the Middlebrow Novel
Must-Reads from Magazine
Meritocracy is in the eye of the beholder.
A running theme in Jonah Goldberg’s fantastic new book, Suicide of the West, is the extent to which those who were bequeathed the blessings associated with classically liberal capitalist models of governance are cursed with crippling insecurity. Western economic and political advancement has followed a consistently upward trajectory, albeit in fits and starts. Yet, the chief beneficiaries of this unprecedented prosperity seem unaware of that fact. In boom or bust, the verdict of many in the prosperous West remains the same: the capitalist model is flawed and failing.
Capitalism’s detractors are as likely to denounce the exploitative nature of free markets during a downturn as they are to lament the displacement and disorientation that follows when the economy roars. The bottom line is static; only the emphasis changes. Though this tendency is a bipartisan one, capitalism’s skeptics are still more at home on the left. With the lingering effects of the Great Recession all but behind us, the liberal argument against capitalism’s excesses has shifted from mitigating the effects on low-skilled workers to warnings about the pernicious effects of prosperity.
Matthew Stewart’s expansive piece in The Atlantic this month is a valuable addition to the genre. In it, Stewart attacks the rise of a permanent aristocracy resulting from the plague of “income inequality,” but his argument is not a recitation of the Democratic Party’s 2012 election themes. It isn’t just the mythic “1 percent,” (or, in the author’s estimation, the “top 0.1 percent”) but the top 9.9 percent that has not only accrued unearned benefits from capitalist society but has fixed the system to ensure that those benefits are hereditary.
Stewart laments the rise of a new Gilded Age in America, which is anecdotally exemplified by his own comfort and prosperity—a spoil he appears to view as plunder stolen from the blue-collar service providers he regularly patronizes. You see, he is a member of a new aristocracy, which leverages its economic and social capital to wall itself off from the rest of the world and preserves its influence. He and those like him have “mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” This corruption and Stewart’s insecurity is, he contends, a product of consumerism. “The traditional story of economic growth in America has been one of arriving, building, inviting friends, and building some more,” Stewart wrote. “The story we’re writing looks more like one of slamming doors shut behind us and slowly suffocating under a mass of commercial-grade kitchen appliances.”
Though he diverges from the kind of scientistic Marxism reanimated by Thomas Piketty, Stewart nevertheless appeals to some familiar Soviet-style dialectical materialism. “Inequality necessarily entrenches itself through other, nonfinancial, intrinsically invidious forms of wealth and power,” he wrote. “We use these other forms of capital to project our advantages into life itself.” In this way, Stewart can have it all. The privilege enjoyed by the aristocracy is a symptom of Western capitalism’s sickness, but so, too, are the advantages bestowed on the underprivileged. Affirmative action programs in schools, for example, function in part to “indulge rich people in the belief that their college is open to all on the basis of merit.”
It goes on like this for another 13,000 words and, thus, has the strategic advantage of being impervious to a comprehensive rebuttal outside of a book. Stewart does make some valuable observations about entrenched interests, noxious rent-seekers, and the perils of empowering the state to pick economic winners and losers. Where his argument runs aground is his claim that meritocracy in America is an illusion. Capitalism is, he says, a brutal zero-sum game in which true advancement is rendered unattainable by unseen forces is a foundational plank of the liberal American ethos. This is not new. Not new at all.
Much of Stewart’s thesis can be found in a 2004 report in The Economist, which alleges that the American upper-middle-class has created a set of “sticky” conditions that preserve their status and result in what Teddy Roosevelt warned could become an American version of a “hereditary aristocracy.” In 2013, the American economist Joseph Stiglitz warned that the American dream is dead, and the notion that the United States is a place of opportunity is a myth. “Since capitalism required losers, the myth of the melting pot was necessary to promote the belief in individual mobility through hard work and competition,” read a line from a 1973 edition of a National Council for the Social Studies-issued handbook for teachers. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which for some reason produces a curriculum for teachers, has long recommended that educators advise students poverty is a result of systemic factors and not individual choices. Even today, a cottage industry has arisen around the notion that Western largess is decadence, that meritocracy is a myth, and that arguments to the contrary are acts of subversion.
The belief that American meritocracy is a myth persists despite wildly dynamic conditions on the ground. As the Brookings Institution noted, 60 percent of employed black women in 1940 worked as household servants, compared with just 2.2 percent today. In between 1940 and 1970, “black men cut the income gap by about a third,” wrote Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in 1998. The black professional class, ranging from doctors to university lecturers, exploded in the latter half of the 20th Century, as did African-American home ownership and life expectancy rates. The African-American story is not unique. The average American income in 1990 was just $23,730 annually. Today, it’s $58,700—a figure that well outpaces inflation and that outstrips most of the developed world. The American middle-class is doing just fine, but that experience has not come at the expense of Americans at or near the poverty line. As the economic recovery began to take hold in 2014, poverty rates declined precipitously across the board, though that effect was more keenly felt by minority groups which recovered at faster rates than their white counterparts.
As National Review’s Max Bloom pointed out last year, 13 of the world’s top 25 universities and 21 of the world’s 50 largest universities are located in America. The United States attracts substantial foreign investment, inflating America’s much-misunderstood trade deficit. The influx of foreign immigrants and legal permanent residents streaming into America looking to take advantage of its meritocratic system rivals or exceeds immigration rates at the turn of the 20th Century. You could be forgiven for concluding that American meritocracy is self-evident to all who have not been informed of the general liberal consensus. Indeed, according to an October 2016 essay in The Atlantic by Victor Tan Chen, the United States so “fetishizes” meritocracy that it has become “exhausting” and ultimately “harmful” to its “egalitarian ideals.”
Stewart is not wrong that there has been a notable decline in economic mobility in this decade. That condition is attributable to many factors, ranging from the collapse of the mortgage market to the erosion of the nuclear family among lower-to middle-class Americans (a charge supported by none-too-conservative venues like the New York Times and the Brookings Institution). But Mr. Stewart will surely rejoice in the discovery that downward economic mobility is alive and well among the upper class. National Review’s Kevin Williamson observed in March of this year that the Forbes billionaires list includes remarkably few heirs to old money. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inherited wealth accounts for about 15 percent of the assets of the wealthiest Americans,” he wrote. Moreover, that list is not static; it churns, and that churn is reflective of America’s economic dynamism. In 2017, for example, “hedge fund managers have been displaced over the last two years not only by technology billionaires but by a fish stick king, meat processor, vodka distiller, ice tea brewer and hair care products peddler.”
There is plenty to be said in favor of America’s efforts to achieve meritocracy, imperfect as those efforts may be. But so few seem to be touting them, preferring instead to peddle the idea that the ideal of success in America is a hollow simulacrum designed to fool its citizens into toiling toward no discernable end. Stewart’s piece is a fine addition to a saturated marketplace in which consumers are desperate to reward purveyors of bad news. Here’s to his success.
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Podcast: Donald Trump Jr. moves the ball forward.
We try, we really do try, to sort through the increasingly problematic “Russian collusion” narrative and establish a timeline of sorts—and figure out what’s real and what’s nonsense. Do we succeed? Give a listen.
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A conspicuous lack of curiosity.
COMMENTARY’s Sohrab Ahmari has done invaluable work shaming the Western press for patronizing the Palestinian people and robbing them of their agency. We are told that the Palestinian population in Gaza is acting out in response to a blockade around that tiny piece of land, which has transformed the Strip into “an open-air prison.” Less is said about the actions that led to those blockades: Israel’s unprecedented removal of Jews from Gaza, the 2006 election (Gaza’s last election) that led to Hamas’s ascension, and the conflicts the Hamas-led government waged against Israel and Egypt. All of these things yielded the conditions with which Gazans struggle today.
But that was yesterday. Today, the political press has adopted a new narrative into which the old one has been subsumed. That narrative goes something like this: Israel’s violent response to the efforts of thousands of Palestinians to breach the Israeli border (with explicitly murderous intent) has marred not only the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem but the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding. On front pages from Sacramento to Seoul, images of the bloodshed at the border were juxtaposed with pictures of American delegates happily dedicating the new embassy—implying without explicitly stating causality. For many in the commentary class, the temptation to surrender to emotion and condemn Israel for its actions has been too great to resist. Yet these positioning statements overlook many of the harder questions with which the political press should concern itself.
Among those questions are, for example, why Gaza? Yesterday’s events were not the first of their kind. Urged on by Hamas, Gazans began crowding the border with the intent to harass Israeli security forces as early as February. Those protests quickly became violent, when an improvised explosive device hidden under a Palestinian flag near the border wounded four IDF soldiers and ignited a night of Israeli retaliatory strikes on Gazan targets. Similar mass demonstrations followed in March and April, during which civilians crowded the Gazan border with the express intent to provide Hamas militants the opportunity to breach the fence.
Each time, those confrontations resulted in numerous casualties and several fatalities among Palestinians. No doubt, many of those fatalities were civilians; that is to be expected when civilians are explicitly placed in the line of fire. But just how indiscriminate were those deaths? Both Hamas and Israeli officials agree that 80 percent of the fatalities in April —26 of 32 dead—were identified as Hamas militants. As for yesterday’s confrontation, Hamas’s Internal Security Apparatus claimed that 16 of the dead were members either of their organization or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A Hamas official has since claimed that as many as 50 of the 60 who were reportedly killed at the border on Monday were “martyrs of Hamas.” As Gen. Martin Dempsey said during Israel’s 2014 incursion into Gaza, though they may at times be unavoidable, “The IDF is not interested in creating civilian casualties.” Some have suggested that Israel should have resorted primarily to non-lethal munitions—as they generally did, indicated by images featuring copious amounts of tear gas. The apparent targeting by snipers of suspected militants suggests that these fatalities were not the result of recklessness by individual IDF soldiers or a crowd control operation gone wrong.
So why haven’t we seen the mainstream Western press repeat Hamas’s Internal Security Apparatus’s claims when they take Hamas’s Ministry of Health’s assertions as though they were gospel? The notion that 1,400, 1,100, or 1,360 people were injured by “live fire” with less than 1 percent succumbing to their wounds defies logic and should be met with skepticism, but those figures are bandied about in the press without concern for their propagandistic effects. And why hasn’t the mainstream press noted the extent to which Hamas officials provided demonstrators along the “Great Return March,” the quickest routes by which they could infiltrate Israeli communities upon breaching the border fence? And why hasn’t more been made of the fact that Hamas actively lobbied Gazan civilians to converge on the border while simultaneously using those civilians as cover to launch attacks on the IDF using grenades and Molotov cocktails? Perhaps because to note these things would be to expose the extent to which the press has played precisely the role Hamas and their benefactors wanted them to play.
But it’s the dogs that aren’t barking that is the most interesting story to develop in the last 24 hours. It is also the Western media’s biggest blind spot. Extensive coverage was devoted to Turkey’s decision to respond to Monday’s border skirmish by withdrawing its U.S. and Israeli ambassador. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long sought to unite the Islamic world behind Ankara, and Turkey’s outrage over Israel’s actions fits a pattern among majority Muslim nations. Or, at least, it used to. Precious little coverage in the West has been devoted to the non-response to yesterday’s events from Palestinian sponsors in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. Indeed, Egypt has been conveying Israeli messages to Gazan officials in an effort to prevent the escalation of hostilities and to facilitate reconciliation between Hamas-led Gaza and its supposed brothers in the West Bank. Why? Because the West Bank’s sponsors in Riyadh are more closely aligned with Cairo’s priorities than Hamas’s benefactors in Tehran.
Indeed, as of last year, with America’s withdrawal from the nuclear accords and amid the rise of a competing Shiite power center in Iraq following the electoral success of Moqtada al-Sadr’s faction, Iran is feeling the heat. Tehran traditionally responds to domestic pressures by raising the temperature in the region. All of this is complicated and requires some modest familiarity with the Middle East, but it doesn’t take a regional expert to wonder why one Palestinian territory erupted and the other did not. If this was all really about Israeli behavior and the abuses of its government, why has the West Bank remained comparatively calm while Gaza has been on the brink for months? The answer is regional political dynamics, much of which has increasingly little to do with Israel.
Yet, from the press, we’ve seen fewer questions being asked than conclusions being drawn. “How DARE Palestinians be slaughtered,” National security reporter for the Daily Beast Spencer Ackerman sneered when American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley walked out of a rote series of attacks on Israel at the United Nations. The Atlantic Council’s Dr. H.A. Hellyer decried Jared Kushner’s “disgusting,” “disgraceful,” “victim blaming” and his failure to devote a portion of his speech commemorating the new U.S. embassy to condemning Israel. Rachel Maddow producer Steve Benen all but explicitly blamed President Donald Trump for the violence. And so on.
These reactions are the result of what must be a deliberate effort to internalize only half the story in Gaza—Hamas’s half.
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Podcast: Tom Wolfe and Gaza violence.
The reaction to the violence at the Israel-Gaza border was not a surprise, we say on this week’s first podcast, but the perpetual effort to deny Palestinians human agency and to absolve them of responsibility for the actions leading to the deaths and injuries on the Gazan side never ceases to amaze. And we take the measure of the life and work of Tom Wolfe, dead at 87. Give a listen.
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A false compassion.
Palestinian Arabs are human beings, which means they are possessed of free will, agency, and the natural capacity to reason like any other people. This basic, incontestable anthropological reality needs to be frequently restated today since our media and foreign-policy establishment has apparently concluded the opposite.
The latest media assault on Palestinian agency came Monday, as Israelis celebrated the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, while Palestinians attempted to infiltrate en masse the barrier fence that separates the Jewish state from the terrorist-run Gaza Strip to the south.
By the Western media’s dim lights, the blame for Hamas’s criminal stunt and the casualties it caused lay with . . . anybody and everybody but Hamas and the Palestinians.
The narrative emerged early on Twitter, and the social-media platform’s deplorable tendency to flatten reality into cheap, emotive images no doubt accelerated its dissemination. The juxtaposition–of “Jivanka” and Benjamin Netanyahu celebrating in Jerusalem while Israeli forces opened fire on Palestinians at the Gaza border–proved irresistible to reporters. The BBC’s Katty Kay, for example, was quick to point out that President Trump’s warm words for the Jewish state came while there were “41 dead on the Israel Gaza border today.” An AFP White House correspondent posted the two sets of images side-by-side–a smiling and clapping Bibi next to a photo of fire and smoke from Gaza–with the words: “Quite the disconnect.” He had garnered more than 2,600 retweets as of this writing.
Then there was Peter Beinart (Marshall, declined): “While Jewish + Christian bigots celebrate an occupied city, Jewish soldiers kill people fleeing an open-air prison. As a great lover of Zion said long ago, ‘This is not the way.'” Yes, “fleeing.” That is an interesting way to describe a concerted, Iranian-regime-funded operation to violate Israeli sovereignty and do “whatever is possible, to kill, throw stones,” as the Washington Post quoted one of the “protesters” describing the movement’s goals.
The Palestinians’ more sophisticated friends know what Hamas is all about. They understand that young men whipped into a frenzy by an organization that exists to destroy world Jewry, per its charter, aren’t exactly latter-day Freedom Riders. But they think that the Palestinians can’t help themselves. While they expect Israel–a state encircled by hostile populations and threatened with nuclear extinction by the Iranian mullahs–to behave like Norway, of the Palestinians they have the most dismal, if any, expectations.
Thus Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer tweeted: “The Palestinians killed today knew Israeli Defense Forces would use lethal force in response to their demonstrations. It didn’t stop them. They felt hopeless.” The Mideast reporter Sulome Anderson echoed his sentiments: “Imagine the desperation it takes to walk into live gunfire from the Middle East’s most powerful fighting force, armed with nothing more than rocks & the occasional Molotov or grenade. Try to conceive of the circumstances that could drive so many human beings to such an act.”
Or maybe try to conceive of the poisonous power of Hamas’s anti-Semitic ideology and the Palestinians’ permanently aggrieved mentality, which has allowed the conflict to fester despite numerous peace offers from the Israeli side. There are desperate people all over the world who never translate their frustration into suicide bombing, stone throwing, border-rushing, and violent “Days of Rage.” It does the Palestinians no good to treat them as children entitled to tantrums, as permanent wards of the international community or, worst, as wild men bereft of reason. Then again, such highhanded pity isn’t really about helping the Palestinians so much as it is about flattering their Western friends.
Meanwhile, Israel has good reason to celebrate: 70 years of independence, a dynamic economy, an innovative tech industry, a vibrant public square, a globally influential culture, demographics that are the envy of the West, burgeoning alliances with former enemies, and now American recognition of its capital. Leave it to the New York Times to frame the anniversary as a moment of “peril” and a “nightmare taking shape.” The Times dispatch, by David Halbfinger, acknowledges these successes. But it claims that “Israelis seem not to know what to feel” and quotes historian Tom Segev, who says that the “future is very bleak.”
This is a distorted picture of Israeli sentiment. Massive celebrations have been going on for weeks, involving hundreds of thousands of people. It does, however, reveal the psychological anguish in the Times newsroom over the Jewish state’s triumph.