Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Thomas Frank, Tessa Hadley and Bill Cash.

Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

In the Observer, Nick Cohen writes: "Considering what conservatives allowed financial markets to do, the fact that the right could be furious with anyone but itself is an astonishing story and one that Thomas Frank was born to cover." Cohen calls Frank " one of the best leftwing writers America has produced," and admits that "before I read this book, I assumed that the extremism of the Tea Party would guarantee Obama a second term, however dismal his performance in office had been. Now I am not so sure."

In the New York Times, Michael Kinsley observes that Pity the Billionaire "is not the world's most subtle political critique. But subtlety isn't everything. Frank's best moments come when his contempt boils over and his inner grouch is released." Of Frank's criticism of Obama, Kinsley writes that the President "deserves a bit more credit from the left than Frank is willing to give him." Kinsley concludes: "It would have been nice to know a bit more about where Thomas Frank is coming from. Otherwise, he starts to sound like those Tea Party people whom he rightly mocks for being very, very angry with no idea why or what to do about it."

Mark Greif, in this week's New Statesman, argues that Frank fails to make the case that the US Tea Party movement articulates the genuine grievances of ordinary Americans: "What matters about the Tea Party is not that it represents the grief of ordinary Americans at vanished savings, lost jobs and underwater mortgages. On the contrary, it has articulated the fears of a small propertied class, past the age of educating children or raising families, which worries that it will have to pay a price for the rest of society, and which nurtures a pre-existing rage at immigrants and a liberal black president."

Gillian Tett in the Financial Times writes that the book "deserves to be read by right and left alike. It certainly does not pretend to be neutral or scientific; Frank is an avowed liberal and fierce critic of the Republicans. But the thesis is provocative, and the book is witty and highly readable."

Married Love by Tessa Hadley

In the Independent, Rachel Hore reads the stories in Hadley's new collection as "movie clips of lives in transit, their small shifts of focus yielding up flashes of psychological insight." "Her tales, told in light, deft prose, are engagingly lifted by humour." Hore praises the variation in form and observes that "Hadley's endings are rarely neatly tied; it's as though she prefers to leave her readers to revisit and work everything out themselves. This nearly always delivers rich pleasures."

In the New Statesman, Olivia Laing writes: "Hadley's facility with changes in emotional weather is matched by a knack for aphoristic expression." She draws comparisons with the work of Chekhov, observing that "[a]s in Chekhov, there is a sense, in this deliberate understatement, that one is seeing the world as it is, unadorned and unconcerned".

Edmund Gordon in the Observer calls Hadley's prose style "delicate, restrained, sometimes erring on the side of formality; her narratives chart upheavals of the heart with earnest attention to psychological development. The world she writes about is ethnically homogenous but social distinctions are microscopically observed." Gordon calls Hadley "one of the most clear-sighted chroniclers of contemporary emotional journeys" and concludes that "she excites... in the freshness and variety of her perceptions, the way she uses established techniques to tell us urgent truths about the here and now."

In the Spectator, Philip Womack argues that Hadley is "one of the most interesting writers around... This collection shows a writer quietly growing in style, perception and grace. She conveys to the reader that rare ability to see completely into someone else's head."

John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator by Bill Cash

Tristram Hunt in the Guardian reveals that Cash is actually a distant cousin of Victorian statesman John Bright. "The result is a welcome biography of the remarkable Quaker, orator and agitator behind the repeal of the Corn Laws, the 1867 Reform Act, and the mid-19th century spirit of pacific internationalism." Hunt calls the biography "a meditation on the nature of true, authentic conservatism" and remarks that it "often reads as a cumulative series of intense, male friendships between Bright and such people as Gladstone, Disraeli and Chamberlain."

Writing in the Spectator, Jane Ridley calls the biography "an oddly old-fashioned account. Cash is not interested in exploring Bright's ideas about democracy, for example, in the context of the time. He makes little of Bright's private life. Bright suffered a major breakdown in 1856, brought on by his unpopularity for opposing the Crimean War, and he retired from public speaking for two years; but the author makes no attempt to probe this puzzling episode."

Hunt concludes that the author "spends too little time on situating Bright within his times... The political life - masterfully recounted - can sometimes feel overbearing. This book is as much about Cash as Bright."

George Eaton in this week's New Statesman calls the biography "thoughtful and perceptive" and praises Cash's attempts to "rescue Bright from obscurity". Eaton draws on the similarities between the two men, notably their commitment to civil liberties, parliamentary sovereignty and backbench independence. Eaton concludes that Bright "would surely have appreciated Cash's intellectually subtle and deftly written work. At last, his extraordinary life has the biography it deserves."

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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