Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Maya Angelou, Charles Glass and Eric Hobsbawm.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

In the latest instalment of her memoirs, Maya Angelou tackles her tumultuous relationship with her mother. Miserable in her marriage and unable to cope with motherhood, Vivien Baxter sent Angelou and her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, where they remained for ten years. The Washington Post’s Valerie Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom both as a storyof how [Angelou] came to love the woman who had sent her away” and “of a dangerous time when she struggled as an unwed mother”. Although she acknowledges a lack of detail in some instances, Sayers says it takes little away from the overall design: “As an account of reconciliation, this little book is just revealing enough, and pretty irresistible.”

Writing about Angelou’s style, the Independent’s Fiona Sturges praises the way in which some of the more harrowing incidents in the book are presented. “Angelou has never been one for florid prose, and here she maintains a precise and economical style which makes these bleak moments more vivid, like a film from which you can't look away.” Both critics praise Angelou’s perpetual optimism. Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom as a book delivered with Angelou’s “trademark good humour and fierce optimism”, while Sturges describes it as a “profoundly moving tale of separation and reunion, and an ultimately optimistic portrait of the maternal bond”.

Deserter by Charles Glass

The latest book by journalist, broadcaster and author Charles Glass provides accounts of three young men who were drafted into the infantry during the Second World War. As its title suggests, Deserter explores what motivated a group of British and American soldiers to make the decision to run away. While the Guardian’s Neal Ascherson notes that not much of the book is actually about deserting – “most of it consists of the three men’s own narratives of ‘their war’” – he nonetheless regards the accounts as important contributions to the historical narrative of war: “Because they are the stories of individual human beings who eventually cracked under the strain of hardly imaginable fear and misery, they are wonderful, unforgettable acts of witness, something salvaged from a time already sinking into the black mud of the past.”

The Telegraph’s Keith Lowe describes Glass’s book as “sensitive and thought-provoking”. Focusing on the story of an American coal miner’s son called Alfred T Whitehead, who wrote a war-time diary riddled with lies, Lowe praises Glass for his nuanced approach: “Most historians would probably have abandoned it as a source. For Glass, however, this is exactly the point: why did this man tell such tall tales?” Simultaneously appalled and moved by the witness accounts in Deserters, both critics conclude with the same the same question: confronted with such horrific conditions, who wouldn’t also have considered running away?

Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm

Writing in the Observer, Nick Cohen has high praise for Eric Hobsbawm’s posthumously published collection of essays. This book, Cohen argues, “shows this revolutionary traditionalist at his best”. Cohen praises the revered Marxist historian and asserts that none of his contemporaries was “better at deploying a killer fact to make an argument stick in your mind”. The Telegraph’s Alex Massie is careful to warn readers that anyone “hoping for the final showdown between Hobsbawm’s unabashed communism and the reality of the Soviet Union’s own failure will be disappointed”, suggesting that although the articles may have been published at different times, the common thread throughout is “a nagging crisis of identity and a parallel fear of redundancy” as the author explores the evaporation of classical music and elitist high culture.

This reading is echoed by the New Statesman’s own Jonathan Derbyshire, who notes that Hobsbawm “evinces melancholy empathy .  . . for the art and culture of the ‘bourgeois society’ that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War”. It was, Derbyshire argues, Hobsbawm's interest in “the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues" in the Communist Party Historians Group in the mid-1950s. Perhaps the highest praise for Hobsbawm comes from Richard J Evans, in the Guardian, who says his “pessimism comes through in many of the essays in this book more clearly than in any other work he published after the fall of communism”. Despite teaching and writing modern European history for 40 years, Evans says that he “learned an enormous amount that I didn't know before”.

The late Eric Hobsbawm in 1976 (photograph: Getty Images)
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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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