This week, or so, in criticism #807

“Goal-driven systems won’t wake up one day with hostility to humans lurking in their hearts. But they will take actions that they predict will help them achieve their goal — even if we’d find those actions problematic, even horrifying. They’ll work to preserve themselves, accumulate more resources, and become more efficient.” Kelsey Piper explains why we won’t know until too late exactly when it would have been a good idea to turn the computers off (Vox).

“Some of the people have been talking about the movie in terms of how brutal it is, how dark it is, how tough it is. I’m just like: Guys? What world are you living in?” Christine Smallwood profiles Karyn Kusama, director of the new movie Destroyer (NYT Magazine).

What if Trump was right to condemn Fed chair Jerome Powell’s eagerness to raise interest rates last month? Labor’s share of corporate profits has fallen for decades, and it will never rise again if every hint of growth in wages is beaten down by the Fed as a sign of inflation, J. W. Mason points out (The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal).

J. E. H. Smith thinks the whole having-a-soul thing is over: “A writer who works on the old system of production can spend days crafting a sentence, putting what feels like a worthy idea into language, only to find, once finished, that the internet has already produced countless sentences that are more or less just like it, even if these lack the same artisanal origin story that we imagine gives writing its soul. There is, it seems to me, no more place for writers and thinkers in our future than, since the nineteenth century, there has been for weavers.” (The Point)

A new book of photographs by the German photographer August Sander prints his images of ordinary Germans, of Nazis, and of German Jews whom the Nazis persecuted and killed, and “unfolds with the graceful structure of a sonata,” writes Brendan Embser (Aperture).

The scientific consensus is that cannabis use increases the risk of schizophrenia and other kinds of psychosis, and legalization of marijuana has been followed by spikes in mental illness and in violent crime. Malcolm Gladwell wonders if it might be prudent for public health reasons to slow down the liberalization of the drug (New Yorker).

This week, or so, in criticism, #32

“‘If you mean to tell me,” an editor said to me, “that Esquire tries to have articles on serious issues and treats them in such a way that nothing can come of it, who can deny it?’” writes the anti-technology terrorist Ted Kaczynski, quoting from memory the 1960s activist Paul Goodman, in an amusing throwaway line in John H. Richardson’s survey of the mostly peaceable activists who find themselves in the awkward position of concluding that the Unabomber made some good points (New York).

In policy debates about the pros and cons of free trade, writes Nicolas Lamp in a new research paper, there are three predominant narratives: Trumpism, establishment economics, and reformism (SSRN). It’s impossible to show empirically that one narrative is correct and the other two false, because the narratives are premised on different value systems. Trumpists think of jobs as national property, and see trade as taking from America and giving to foreign countries; they advocate tariffs, import quotas, and other obstructions to trade that they hope will reclaim jobs for Americans, especially traditional manufacturing jobs, on which they put a higher, more or less sentimental value. Establishment economists, by contrast, see international free trade as win-win. They acknowledge that it can harm some lower-skilled American workers but since they believe it’s a boon to almost all American consumers, they see this inequity as a domestic issue. They defend the status quo, though they’re willing to nudge domestic governments to take better care of free trade’s “losers.” Reform analysts, meanwhile, see free trade agreements as taking from labor, internationally considered, and giving to capital, internationally considered. They argue that a trade agreement should require signatory countries to improve labor safety, strengthen labor unions, and crack down on corporate tax evasion and tax sheltering. Interesting coincidences: both Trumpists and reformers loathe investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) courts, but the establishment-supported and Trumpist-killed TPP would have strengthened labor’s bargaining power in Asia in just the way reformers advocate.

“Like Stalin, Harry Truman was a product of the criminal underworld,” and got his start as the squeaky-clean-looking front man for a Kansas City gang boss in the cement business. The Marshall Plan, meanwhile, was motivated not by altruism but by a concern to guide Europe away from social democracy (generous welfare systems, tightly regulated financial sectors, government involvement in the economy) and toward American-style free enterprise (austerity for the people, and money wants to be free), and is to be praised for goading the Russians to the edge of their patience but no farther. Thomas Meaney examines the unseemly facts beneath the self-congratulatory myths of America’s post-WW2 leadership of the free world (LRB).

“If Ida set its sights on a past that Poles have long evaded and denied, Cold War is a journey into what, at mid-century, was a radically uncertain future.” Giles Harvey surveys the movies of Pawel Pawlikowski (Harper’s).

In order to tame and channel the anger he stirred up among migrant farmworkers, Cesar Chavez felt he had to start a hunger strike. Who will keep the anger rampant in America today from souring into a mere longing to inflict pain on enemies? Charles Duhigg looks into the sociology and recent history of rage (Atlantic).

This week, or so, in criticism, #5,801

“Born in Russia, Andrei [the hero of Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country] is returning to a country that he left as a small child, a place now changed beyond recognition. Gone are the late-socialist stagnation and the post-Soviet poverty; in their place is something familiar to Western readers: a hip capitalist carnival for trend-chasing urban consumers side by side with economic insecurity and political malaise.” Gregory Afinogenov examines Keith Gessen’s fictionalized nostos, and what it reveals about the constraints that capitalism places upon politics, both in that terrible country and in this one (The Nation).

“One of my professors crossed out that line with the comment, ‘STUDYING LITERATURE IS NOT FUN!!’” Timothy Aubry looks into how and why the disavowal of aesthetic pleasure came to be the paramount sign of professionalism in the academic study of literature (Chronicle of Higher Ed).

“We are reminded of two axiomatic truths: that Aretha Franklin makes secular music sound sacred and vice versa, and that no matter how good the originals, her covers are invariably better.” Melissa Anderson praises a new Aretha Franklin documentary (4 Columns).

In the 1930s, Philip Johnson designed a speaker’s platform for the pro-fascist American politician Father Coughlin and subsidized a pro-Nazi pamphlet. He socialized with Nazi leaders in Germany until as late as 1940, and narrowly avoided being charged with sedition. And then, after the war, he started designing synagogues in New York State and nuclear reactors in Israel. “A nearly sociopathic ability to tune out every voice but one’s own can lead to Nuremberg or Jerusalem, and in Johnson’s case it led to both,” writes Armin Rosen, in a review of Mark Lamster’s new biography (Tablet).

“What [Hugh] Grant brings out is the self-delight, and eventually the perplexity, of a man who is also somehow acting himself, a confected chancer in double-breasted waistcoats, watch chains, and a trilby hat.” Alan Hollinghurst is entertained by Russell T. Davies’s and Stephen Frears’s television adaptation of the real-life story of a British member of Parliament who conspired to silence his gay lover by having him killed (NYRB).

“The struggle to find out what’s really going on in the world isn’t as wearying as the realisation that on the rare occasions you do find out, not everyone is waiting eagerly to hear about it.” Reviewing Alan Rusbridger’s new memoir of running the Guardian, James Meek explains the demoralization that has accompanied the undermining of print journalism’s business model (LRB).

This week, or so, in criticism, #724

“Hamrah’s answer was to find a literary voice so coiled, combative, and ironic that no marketing department could find its way into or out of it.” Max Nelson praises A. S. Hamrah, “the sharp-tongued, rain-lashed drifter of American movie criticism” (The Nation).

“‘Most of my peer group just isn’t thinking about homeownership anywhere,’ said Peter Hess, 31, who wrote the Popular Science article ‘These will be the best places to live in America in 2100 A.D.,’ and lives in New York City, despite knowing the risks. “I guess we will stay here and drown from coastal flooding with our friends.” Alyson Krueger profiles the forward-looking who are pre-disastering their real estate.

“The overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves has decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years.” A similar study in Puerto Rico’s rainforest found insect biomass has decreased sixtyfold over 40 years. Is it because of climate change? Pesticides? No one is sure, according to Brooke Jarvis. But given that the Creator was once hailed by biologists for his inordinate fondness for beetles, it seems ominous that he is now willing to do without them (New York Times Magazine).

“The crisis, [Crashed author Adam] Tooze writes, ‘was a devastating blow to the complacent belief in the great moderation, a shocking overturning of the prevailing laissez-faire ideology.’ And yet the ideology prevailed.” Robert Kuttner argues that Tooze’s Crashed will long be “the authoritative account” of the international financial crisis of 2008 and its compromised resolution (NYRB, subscription required).

“In an illuminating analogy [Moneyland author Oliver] Bullough likens the Bretton Woods system [which managed international currency exchanges and capital flows for the three decades following World War II] to

an oil tanker, a ship full of oil. If a tanker has just one huge tank, then the oil that fills it can slosh backwards and forwards in ever greater waves, until it destabilises the vessel, which overturns and sinks. That was the system after the First World War, when waves of speculative money capsized democracy. At Bretton Woods, the delegates designed a new kind of ship, where the oil was divided up between many smaller tanks, one for each country. The ship held the same volume of oil, but in a different way. The liquid could slosh back and forth within its little compartments, but would not be able to achieve enough momentum to damage the integrity of the entire vessel.

No sooner had the Bretton Woods conference in Hampshire, USA ended in 1944 than bankers applied their wits to a new challenge: how to break down the inner walls of the stable Bretton Woods ‘tanker’ that constituted the new international financial architecture.” Ann Pettifor explains in a review of four new books how financiers, in search of profits, figured out how to puncture the safeguards, known as capital controls, that had been devised at Bretton Woods to keep international banking from collapse (TLS).

This week, or so, in criticism, #723

“Any literary work staking a serious claim to glory is not going to reveal itself entirely on a first reading.” But “your moderately but not seriously good book tends to work well on first reading.” Tim Parks channels Giacomo Leopardi on the many reasons literary glory is probably unattainable by people who merely write well (NYRB).

“His writing is deeply musical—not just in the easy rhythm of his words, but in his sonic descriptions: piles of pistachios crackling in peoples’ hands in Iraq; the metallic rattling of the van on bumpy roads in Afghanistan; the croaking of frogs in the Barakar river on the edge of Bengal.” Geeta Dayal praises the late Deben Bhattacharya’s photo- and audio-enhanced diary of his twelve-thousand-mile quest in 1955 for folk music (4 Columns).

“Feuds draw us in for the joy of the spectacle, but in this case there is enough at stake—how we, as individuals and societies, might address suffering and depression—to make a more thorough assessment of the background vitally important.” Alexander van Tulleken tries to distinguish light from heat in the ongoing argument between Johann Hari and Dean Burnett about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of antidepressants (TLS, subscription required).

“He couldn’t escape the sense that hitting on someone in person had, in a short period of time, gone from normal behavior to borderline creepy. . . . At first, I wondered whether Simon was being overly genteel, or a little paranoid. But the more people I talked with, the more I came to believe that he was simply describing an emerging cultural reality. ‘No one approaches anyone in public anymore,’ said a teacher in Northern Virginia. ‘The dating landscape has changed.’” Kate Julian investigates five possible reasons young people are having less sex, and less romance, than previous generations did (The Atlantic).

“In the 1840s, Joshua Giddings, an abolitionist who represented Ohio in the House, concluded that too many of his colleagues from the free states were ‘afraid of these Southern bullies’. He resolved to express ‘boldly and fearlessly’ his abhorrence of slavery. . . . ‘The most dramatic innovation in congressional violence,’ Freeman writes, was that in the mid-1850s ‘Northerners fought back.’” Eric Foner extols Joanne Freeman’s chronicle of violence in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War (LRB).

“Among journalists, the project generated mild derision of the who-cares-what-Joe-Schmo-ate-for-breakfast variety, but also enormous excitement among researchers, roughly four hundred of whom wrote during the project’s first three years with requests to use the data. So far, not one of them has gotten a hand on it.” Nora Caplan-Bricker looks into the moral and logistical hazards of archiving the internet (Harper’s).