Two great non-fiction reads, or An Ode to George Santayana

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Well. Here we are. 2016. Again embarking on our quadrennial national year-long soul-bludgeoning grind…I mean our glorious process of exercising of our democratic right to select the President. Two outstanding books I’ve read recently shed tremendous perspective on some dynamics at play in our national body politic.

 

reaganIf you want a Rosetta Stone for understanding U.S. politics circa-2016, Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is about the best one you’ll find. All of the 2016 political flashpoints were at play in the wake of Watergate through the 1976 primary contests. While history does have a way of repeating itself, Perlstein, through an expansive cultural scope and deep account of the U.S. political landscape, builds a compelling argument that the 1976 election was the harbinger (and partial instigator) of a forthcoming seismic shift in the nation’s character.

Ronald Reagan, Perstein shows, was able to boil difficult issues into simplistic, conceptual aphorisms, communicate them with complete certainty and present them all as a simple case of good versus evil. For a country reeling in self-doubt, existential confusion and bone-deep distrust in its institutions, the self-evident binaries Reagan presented and the calming, affirming way he presented them offered many an immensely appealing alternative to the self-reflection and soul-searching the Vietnam War and Watergate begged for. The self-righteous solipsism Reagan presented–America always does what’s right and if America did it, it was right–and the religious fervor he inspired galvanized and activated a previously inert or fickle political constituency. Reagan’s campaign positions beggared belief among establishment Republicans and pundits: they were devoid of (or contrary to) facts, intellectually inconsistent, grossly impractical and globally naive. Each small Reagan national campaign success was greeted with “yeah, but” doubts from establishment Republicans and the national media. This continued almost all the way to the ’75 Republican National Convention, where Reagan came within 200 or so delegates from beating a sitting (though, admittedly, unelected) President.

Even in defeat, the strength of Reagan’s primary challenge successfully changed the Republican Party platform in two significant ways: married the party with an unqualified anti-choice position on the issue of abortion rights and effectively ended Nixon’s policy of detente with the Soviet Union and, in doing so, reigniting the Cold War. The stage was set for Reagan’s victory four years later.

While Perlstein doesn’t overtly link Reagan’s ’76 campaign positions and rhetoric with the modern-day Republican Party’s, the parallels are impossible to overlook. Ideologically, Reagan didn’t move the proverbial goalposts as much as he relocated the political playing arena. His style and worldview became the Republican Establishment, moving a John Birch Society by-way-of Barry Goldwater circa-1964 radical right-wing Republicanism into “mainstream” Republicanism, thus shifting the entire political landscape. The Invisible Bridge documents the beginning of how this happened nationally.

What makes Perlstein’s book such an engrossing read, however, is that is casts a wide-angled lens on America during this time, looking beyond just the national news media and Beltway gossip and lore. The Invisible Bridge serves as a tremendously entertaining cultural history of the time: The Exorcist, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, Berkeley student protests, Jaws, Woodward and Bernstein and Redford and HoffmanSaturday Night Live, Squeaky Fromme. Perstein’s deep-dive into the contemporary culture provides fascinating and rich context for national events as well as insight into the national mood and the ideas and themes and anxieties floating around and given voice through its cultural products.

I listened to The Invisible Bridge on audiobook: almost 44 hours in total. I never found it anything less than totally engrossing. I would have immediately started listening to another 44 hours of Perstein writing about the next four year cycle. At some point I’m going to check out his Nixonland and can’t wait until his next book in what’s believed to be a 4-part series on modern American conservatism.

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Wars, school shootings, natural disasters, epidemics, terrorist attacks. They all leave one of usdeath tolls that, despite varying orders of magnitude, immediately become impossible to process and translate into human-scale loss. 300 dead. 6,000 dead. 30,000…200,000 dead. They’re understood and publicly lamented and discussed by hand-wringing pundits and politicians as abstractions, not as 77 or 7,700 discrete human beings whose death devastates parents, brothers, sisters, friends and family. When those left behind are counted, the actual toll of a death mushrooms out by factors of 2, 3, 5, 10. We say people aren’t numbers, but when dealing to mass-scale human death, truly thinking about and feeling each individual loss is impossible, unbearable. The loss of “human life” is more palatable than the loss of a human being.

The triumph of the remarkable One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is how Asne Seierstad, through her painstakingly detailed reporting and a storyteller’s gift of empathy, brings the victims to life, making their deaths powerful, meaningful and, most of all, felt. The sense of loss is acute and, as the death toll rises (77 in total), the weight of the loss becomes almost unbearable.

“Heavy” is the word I can’t escape when describing One of Us. As Breivik carries out his terrorist plot, death and loss accumulate. Instead of growing numb as person after person is murdered in cold blood–acts Seierstad recounts in clinical detail–each death is singular and builds on all the previous. Breivik’s attack goes on and on and Seierstad never shies away or allows the reader respite from the horror. The hour-long assault feels eternal on the page. And in the immediate aftermath, as survivors are being reunited with their parents and siblings and those families whose children will never return come to that tragic realization, the weight of the loss is oppressive, unbearable. It’s all so heavy.

Beyond solely accounting for and paying tribute to the lives that were lost, One of Us also explores how mass shooters–or, at least, a mass shooter–is created. Seierstad never seeks to draw sweeping conclusions on the genesis of domestic terrorists like Breivik, i.e., those nationalistic, anti-immigration, race purists driven to unspeakable violence. She merely tells his story and, in doing so, it becomes impossible not to see the through-lines that connect Breivik to so many other mass shooters: isolation, racial privilege, personal/professional failure, lack of personal accountability, a feeling of powerlessness, etc. Breivik’s story is a (hopefully) worst-case scenario of isolation and disaffection curdling into scapegoating and shows of force. In telling the terrorist’s story, as well as those of the victims, Seierstad also brilliantly illustrates how external forces–from the geopolitical to the quotidian details of county and municipal governance–shape individual experiences and, frequently, outcomes.

One of Us is a feat of reporting and an immensely powerful book, one of the finest works of non-fiction I’ve read. It’s an essential work of journalism, a page-turner that rivets you to the page regardless of how badly you want to look away. Its images are searing and its stories are heart-wrenching. It’s heavy. It’s important.

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