Monthly Digest - Edition 4
Welcome to new subscribers from April. This is a monthly post Sam writes to update on the substack; link to favourite pieces; and review a recommended book.
This month Dad has continued to focus on the Russo-Ukraine war. Last week he looked at the risks of Russia lashing out as it struggles to gain a military advantage. I have looked at the far-right in Europe, both in terms of Marine Le Pen’s election chances (thankfully that prediction turned out to be right) and the wider rise of similar politicians across the continent. I also did a couple of posts on the deep-seated problems with British policy-making, and complained about the endless cries of “dead cat!” in our political debate. As well as a preview of tomorrow’s local elections (I can only apologise to non-UK subscribers for that one, which I imagine, if you tried to read it all, was completely baffling).
Next month the commentary on the war will continue and Dad will look at some of the broader strategic themes emerging. He will also be doing another set of live Q+A for paid subscribers on Tuesday 17th May at 8pm UK time.
I’ll be reviewing the local elections next week and then picking up some topics that go broader than UK politics, including the nature of “authenticity” in politicians and what it tells us; and a guide on how to get the best out of twitter (whether Elon buys it or not). As ever we always welcome suggestions for topics or other ways we can improve our offer either in the comments or by email.
I was delighted to see one of my favourite science writers, Stuart Ritchie, join substack. One of his first pieces was about an extremely interesting book on genetics and meritocracy by Kathryn Paige Harden (which I wrote about in the Guardian). He uses a bad review of Harden’s book to make a whole series of points about why genetics debates are so often tedious and frustrating.
I also enjoy Tom Stafford’s pieces on cognitive science. One of his most recent pieces is on how we measure and assess conspiracy thinking – which is harder to do than you might think. As he points out some of the measures on standard assessments of conspiracism – like “government agencies closely monitor all citizens” – don’t look all that conspiracist. After all conspiracy thinking is closely linked to trust in authority, and if authorities really do give reasons for them to be distrusted, well then it all gets hard to untangle.
A further science themed pieced from Ben Southwood, writing for the always interesting new publication “Works in Progress”. He challenges the growing consensus that scientific slowdown in the discovery of new ideas is the inevitable function of progress; that we’ve found all the low hanging fruit. He argues there could be a whole range of other causes, from the status games of academia, to geniuses not having children, to lead poisoning. I’m not entirely convinced but it will give you plenty to think about.
A very interesting piece by Tomiwa Owolade on the odd paradox that London is both the hub of social liberalism in the UK but also the most social conservative place in the country. For instance 29% of people in London think homosexuality is wrong, while 23% outside London think this. Why? Because London has by far the highest population of Black African immigrants and they are much more likely to be religious Christians than Britain’s white population.
Derek Thompson looks into the bizarre fight in Florida between the Republican Governor and Disney over gay rights. He uses the issue to highlight some major trends driving polarisation in the US. Essentially cultural institutions are increasingly dominated by liberals, and political institutions increasingly by Republicans (with the national Senate and House likely to fall to them this autumn). This supercharges the culture war as both institutional groups shift further away from the centre to counter their opponents’ moves in the other direction. None of it bodes well for the future; especially with the Roe vs Wade decision incoming.
A scary post by Adam Mastroianni on how pop culture has become an oligopoly. Some stats he offers to illustrate the point: until 2000 about 25% of top grossing films were sequels, remakes or spinoffs. Now it’s close to 100%. Nearly all bestselling computer games are part of franchises. 75% of top ten authors have been in the top ten before. The number of different artists in the top 100 songs every year is dropping. So why is this happening? Mastroianni gives several reasons but the most compelling to me is proliferation. In a world of so much choice we “can’t possibly evaluate everything so you start relying on cues…which makes you less and less likely to pick something unfamiliar.” The only way to combat it is for each of us to take more cultural risks. But then I *know* I really like watching movies with The Rock bantering with a comedy sidekick when I’m tired….
Book of the Month Recommendation:
Louis Menand is one of the great American cultural historians and his most recent book “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War” is truly superb. It focuses entirely on the period 1945-70 and ranges widely across the great Western intellectuals of the period from Satre to Sontag and most everyone in between. The artistic focus in primarily on avant-garde culture, the Beats, the abstract expressionists, Pop Art and so on. But there is space too for Elvis and The Beatles and the Hollywood New Wave. The theorists of the Cold War itself are there too, with George Kennan getting his own chapter. Politicians lurk in the background rather than at the centre of the narrative but the key events, from the Marshall Plan to civil rights to Vietnam are deftly woven in.
These books about everything can often be disappointing. Endless lists of names and ideas with little substance. Or a clunky “big idea” that supposedly links absolutely everything. But Menand is exceptional at drawing out connective themes without shoving them in your face. For instance the symbiotic relationship between French and American culture reoccurs as a motif throughout until, as the author notes, de Gaulle stabilised the Franc in 1958 and suddenly Paris wasn’t such a cheap hangout for American artists. One of my favourites sections shows how bad French translations of dialogue from American modernists like Dos Passos and Faulkner completely changed the gallic reception of those authors, making them seem uninterested in technique and more vibrant as a result. This ultimately informed French existentialists like Satre, which allowed a whole load more confusion in the other direction.
The manufacturing of the authenticity sought by the existentialists is, perhaps, the key idea of the book. Like the myth of Jack Kerouac writing “On the Road” in a three week burst of spontaneity (he was revising multiple carefully annotated drafts). Or the invented story of Jackson Pollack, naked, pissing into Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace at a party, designed to make him seem more rugged and “real”. Menand always brings in the middlemen – whether George Martin and Sam Phillips in pop music or the modern art entrepreneurs of New York to show that things that looked like accidents were often carefully planned promotions. These ideas culminate in a brilliant chapter on Warhol that carefully dances through layer after layer of self-created myth.
Along the way there are vast numbers of entertaining details to savour – Menand has a wonderful eye for nuggets that stop the book becoming too heavy going. I didn’t know, for instance, that 1984’s Room 101 took its name from the room where Orwell’s section of the BBC held its compulsory committee meetings. Or that Harvard didn’t tenure a woman from within the English department until 2003. Or that the original script for Bonnie and Clyde included a threesome between the protagonists and Michael Pollard’s character.
For anyone interested in the cultural history of the period you will not find a better or more thoughtful guide, there is almost no one else who can explain things so clearly while holding complexity in place. The sections on race alone, using James Baldwin as his major point of focus through the latter half of the book, are worth the admission price. It’s one to really savour.
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