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It’s always tempting to think that things have never been this crazy. People have never (take your pick) distrusted government so deeply, believed such bizarre conspiracy theories, despaired of the democratic system in such numbers. It’s all falling apart!
The usual prescription for relief from this state of mind is to take a break from social media and read some books, especially history books. For an antidote specifically targeted to today’s news, you can’t do better than Robert Siegel’s “The Politics of Paranoia, Then and Now,” his review of A Conspiratorial Life, a new biography of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. Not that Welch’s story is reassuring, exactly; indeed, as Siegel traces it, the paranoid style of thought Welch pioneered is a clear ancestor of today’s “alt-right” and worse. But the Welch saga makes clear that people in the 1950s were perfectly capable of concocting, and believing, fantasies every bit as rabid as today’s.
Do the anti-Obama birther calumnies and 2020 “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories seem shocking? Welch in his day sincerely believed that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was “a knowing agent” of the Soviet Union and international Communism. Not only that, but he launched a movement that persuaded tens of thousands of people to share his views for decades. Even in an era without social media and the hollowing out of local news outlets, he was able to disseminate his beliefs that Sputnik had been a hoax and that the civil rights movement was a Communist plot to foment a race war.
Did those views ever really go away? One lesson of the biography, Siegel writes, is that “such politics have a natural constituency among those who feel baffled and betrayed by history, who have mastered the challenges of their times only to be told that times have changed and their mastery is obsolete.”
Want an even longer view of the cycles of history and politics? Ori Z. Soltes’s review of Andrew Lawler’s Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Controversial City goes not just centuries back in time but deep down under the city to “the Jerusalem below the ground, honeycombed with tunnels and chambers that attract spiritual and material archaeologists.” The book uses the machinations and struggles of archaeologists in and around Jerusalem since the mid-19th century to open up a whole new layer of controversies running parallel to those raging on the surface—European scientists and explorers seeking proof of the Bible, geopolitical maneuverings and intrigues, Messianic cravings and much more. In Jerusalem, everything that happens resonates with some past iteration of the story, whether it’s the archaeologists excavating “Solomon’s Stables” or the tourists succumbing to “Jerusalem syndrome” and declaring themselves biblical prophets.
Of course, not everything new is old. Gary Shteyngart’s plague novel Our Country Friends, reviewed by Carlin Romano, declares explicitly (if mischievously) its connection to Boccaccio’s Decameron, the 14th-century Italian masterpiece in which a group of privileged young people tell stories while quarantining from the plague outside Florence. Shteyngart’s COVID novel has something of the same setup (and in case you missed it, one character is named Dee Cameron) but, as Romano shows in his review, the novel goes far afield from the supposed model, echoing Chekhov in tone and theme, and signaling a real departure from the author’s best-known previous works. In place of satirical romps flavored with Shteyngart’s background as a Soviet Jewish immigrant, Romano writes, the author’s take here is universal, serious, even elegiac. It may be that the novel that’s seemingly most saturated with all that we’re trying to avoid—politics, illness, quarantine, Omicron, mortality—provides the best escape from all of them. Happy holidays!