In the Critics this Week

This week's books pages feature everything from Disraeli to walls, futuristic distopias to an autism memoir.

The books section this week begins with David Marquand’s glittering review of Dick Leonard’s “crowning achievement”, The Great Rivalry: Disraeli and Gladstone. Marquand begins by pouring flattery upon Leonard’s literary skill, and approach to this book.

It is written with captivating panache, packed with well-chosen quotations, full of psychological insight and, at one and the same time, readable, entertaining and illuminating.

Marquand himself then goes on to explore Disraeli and Gladstone’s own crowing achievements, from their approach to imperial affairs, to their most significant pieces of legislation. Marquand subsequently questions who Leonard himself preferred in the Great Rivalry, believing it to be Disraeli, due to Gladstone’s somewhat perturbing charisma:

Disraeli [unlike Gladstone] was not charismatic in the Weberian sense. He was more fun to be with than Gladstone, perhaps because he didn’t take himself so seriously. But by definition, charismatic leaders do take themselves seriously. They think of themselves as the vehicles and instruments of a higher cause: Gladstone’s statement after receiving the Queen’s commission to form his first government that his “mission” was to “pacify Ireland” is a good example. There is something wild, un-controlled and untethered about charismatic leadership, and that disconcerts rational moderates such as Leonard and me.

All in all, Marquand manages to produce an inventive and analytical review.

Michael Prodger continues the Disraeli theme with his review of Douglas Hurd and Edward Young’s Disraeli: or the Two Lives. Once again, Disraeli’s character is closely examined, a man with an obscuring “vividness of character”, “a Boris Johnson but with substance”.

In a precise and insightful review, Prodger praises a “concise but balanced assessment, on a man who “was always led interested in other people than he was in himself””.

In contrast, NS deputy editor Helen Lewis’ review of Susan Greenfield’s 2121: A Tale from the Next Century is far from complimentary. After examining the author’s recent fall from grace in scientific circles, Lewis launches into a cutting, and at times humorous attack on Greenfield’s debut novel.

The prose is a mess. There are errant commas, clunking clichés and banal phrases such as “tossed about in a vast sea of heightened emotions devoid of passions. Everyone seems weirdly obsessed with comparing their current situation with that in the early 21st century- “she gestured to the high-speed pod, still recognisable as a distant descendant of its predecessors from a century or two ago” - which, when you think about it, makes as much sense as a writer now describing a car as “still reminiscent of a 19th-century landau."

Lewis combines a questioning of the author’s motive, and an attack on her literary ability to produce a biting and comical review.

Owen Hatherley’s review of Marcel Di Cintio’s Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, adds a global feel to this week’s book section. Hatherley explains that Di Cintio’s travel book offers far more than just his “acute” and “vivid renderings” of landscapes. Hatherley praises Di Cintio’s “unobtrusive and erudite” historical asides, before concluding with what he sees as one of the most enduring aspects.

What is memorable in Walls is its deep pessimism. Whenever a dismantlement appears to be imminent, as in Nicosia, inertia and cynicism invariably win out over the let’s-all-hold-hands anti-politics of the UN and the NGOs. In Belfast, Di Cintio notes the removal of the “peace line” that once divided a park in Ardoyne but considers the underground wall that runs between the Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast City Cemetery to be “a more relevant symbol than the image of little girls frolicking through a gate that opens every once in a while. The constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people are not only enduring but thriving.

Hatherley’s examination of this poignant book proves to be expansive and engaging.

Caroline Crampton completes this week’s books section with her review of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, an inspirational and personal account which looks to enlighten readers on the reality of dealing with autism. Translated by David Mitchell and K A Yoshida, who themselves have an autistic child, Crampton delves into the book’s approach to autism. She discusses both our misconceptions, and the book’s genius in uncovering them.

Every page dismantles another preconception about autism. For a start, Higashida writes mainly in the plural- we need your help, we need your understanding- as if he is not alone but part of a great community of silent children around the world. He explains that it’s physically painful to hold back his “weird voice” (that loud, thick, over-worked diction that autistic people some-times use) because it feels “as if I’m strangling my own throat.

Reading this review in itself forces one to think on their own views regarding autism, invoking empathy and encouraging understanding.

This week's magazine also features Talitha Stevenson reviewing The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing, and Fiona Sampson on Clive James's translation of The Divine Comedy.

Also in the Critics:

  • Jason Cowley on Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest collaboration between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, At World's End.
  • All the latest in TV, radio, opera and theatre from Antonia Quirke, Matt Trueman, Rachel Cooke and Alexandra Coughlan.

This week's New Statesman is out now

An 1880s Vanity Fair image for Gradstone and MPs. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis.
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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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