STITCH BY STITCH: A BOOK
Claire Berlinski, a historian by training, has been a foreign correspondent for thirty years. In Stitch by Stitch, she places the breaking news that flashes and flickers incessantly over our cellphone screens in a wider historical and global context. This context is often absent from our discussion of the news, but without it, we cannot make sense of it.
From this context we can see that events that seem to us new are not. They recapitulate distinct, recurrent patterns, and from these patterns we can discern, step by step, what is likely to happen to us next.
What many Americans see as a uniquely American crisis is no such thing. Since the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy has come under threat the world around. It is now in particular danger—and in some places dead—in Europe. The rise of antiliberal political movements and regimes in Europe is a more direct threat to Americans than they realize, and it is closely connected to their own recent political experiences. Europe’s past and its recent history suggest lessons to Americans who are struggling to respond intelligently to Trumpism.
Stich by Stich argues that threat to liberal democracy comes in the form of a distinct, rival ideology that is at once historically familiar and genuinely novel: the New Caesarism, or illiberal democracy—a hollow form of democracy that spreads mimetically and consolidates itself through the new technologies of the 21st century. When American pundits and journalists call the Trump presidency “unprecedented,” they do their audience a disservice. There are countless recent precedents abroad, and they are often eerily similar. The idea that our experience has no precedent and no analogue is bound up in a particular notion of American exceptionalism, one that has persuaded us we exist outside of time, history, and the world—an idea that is not only wrong, but harmful. It deprives us of the ability to learn from the experience of other countries and from historical evidence that is not only abundant, but relevant to us.
The author is intimately familiar with the recent precedents she describes. She has lived through every stage of the new Caesarism: She watched it arrive in Turkey, where she spent a decade reporting on the rise and consolidation of the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Millions of others have lived through a similar chain of events in in a long list of countries from Hungary to the Philippines. Most importantly, they have lived through them in Russia. Russia is the pioneer, and the chief global exporter, of this empty form of democracy, as well as the ideology upon which it rests and its techniques of control.
The new Caesars are learning from each other. Above all, they’ve learned the recipe for creating an illiberal democracy from Vladimir Putin, the ur-Caesar. The steps are distinct and predictable. First, rewrite history. Then foster nostalgia for an authoritarian past. Exploit ethnic, racial, religious, and class divisions. Magnify fear of foreigners and outsiders. Enter Caesar—the voice of the “real people” in their struggle against a nebulous class of “elites.” Conflate entertainment and politics. Create chaos, confusion, and a sense of permanent emergency. Destroy confidence in the idea of objective truth. Humiliate or destroy the people who are better fit to be leaders. Gain control of the media to starve adversaries of access to the public. Discredit what media you cannot control. Reward loyalists with government tenders. Punish the disloyal with punitive taxes and lawsuits. Stack the courts. Jigger the constitution so that opponents have no hope of coming to power through democratic means. Erode critical civil rights and freedoms, stitch by stitch—until elections still happen, but denuded of everything that makes elections meaningful.
If we fail to understand how and why liberal democracy around the world is collapsing, we have scant hope of preserving ours. If we fail to understand why the West, in particular, has come under attack, we have no hope of responding intelligently or organizing ourselves to defend it. Stitch by Stitch shows that Europe—the other half of the West, from which we have been deliberately and systematically alienated—is now the central battlefield in the war for liberal democracy. The crisis in Europe has become so acute that its long postwar peace, the basis of the postwar global order, is under threat.
To survive, illiberal democracies—and Putin’s regime in particular—must undermine liberal democracies. Successful liberal democracies are an inherent threat to these regimes. Their existence refutes the story the Caesars tell their citizens about the world. This is why Russia is working assiduously to discredit liberal democracies and replace them with illiberal regimes sympathetic to the Kremlin. To do this, he must alienate the United States from Europe, and alienate European nations from each other. This is precisely what is happening, putting our security and the world’s at risk.
Claire Berlinski is an essayist, literary critic, novelist, travel writer, and biographer. She brings thirty years of personal experience with the new Caesarism to vivid life, showing readers exactly what it is like to live in the kind of society we are now on the path to becoming. The result is a book that falls under no conventional category: It is a work of scholarship that is informed by her background as a historian and the academic literature about this regime type. But it is also riveting journalism, a memoir, a warning, and a step-by-step guide to escaping the trap.
If you would like to read this book, please contribute: It is, so far, wholely crowdfunded.
Q. What's the Claire Berlinski Top Secret Director's Cut Society?
A. The Director's Cut comes from my cutting-room floor. It's an unfinished or experimental piece of writing that for one reason or another I never turned into a final draft or published.
Q. Like what?
A. Well, for example, first drafts of articles I subsequently published (but including all the things my editors wouldn't let me say); short stories; proposals for books I never wrote; chapters of books that I cut from the published final versions, scenes from my novels that I took out because they interfered with the flow. Different endings to those novels--maybe even endings in which someone else 'dunnit. Articles I never published because they got overtaken by events. Letters I drafted to blow off steam, but thought better of sending when I sobered up. E-mail exchanges with my brother, or my father, about writing, our family, literature, or the events of the day. Letters I've sent over the years to friends about politics, art, life, love. A grab-bag of not-ready-for-prime-time Claire Berlinski writings.
I choose a new item every weekend in the hope of surprising and delighting the members of the Claire Berlinski Top Secret Director's Cut Society.
Q. If it's not ready for prime time, why would I want to read it?
A. Good question. Maybe you won't. I never published this stuff because I figured, basically, that no one would want to read it. But I've been surprised by the success and popularity of "The Director's Cut"--people keep writing to me to say it's their favorite part of being my Patron--so maybe I was wrong.
Maybe it's because some of you are writers yourself, or think you might want to be? So seeing my drafts might give you some insight, and maybe some reassurance, about how long it really takes me to write essays that look as if I dashed them off? (The more they look that way, the less true that's apt to be is.)
They'll also give you a better idea of what (one) professional writer's life is really like--and since it's the writer you're sponsoring with your contributions, that can help you decide if your money's well-spent.
Or perhaps you're curious to know how an idea becomes a book? Maybe you'd like to know how much time it takes me to turn an idea into a proposal, a proposal into a first draft, and a draft--finally--into a book? Or maybe you'd be amused to see what I first thought was a *great* idea--so great that I even wrote a book proposal and several chapters--but then tossed it all in the trash because I realized it wasn't such a great idea after all.
Or maybe you'd like to see the proposals that really *were* great ideas for books, even if those books, alas, never saw the light of day, because I just couldn't sell the proposals. Seeing that is a good way to better understand the realities of the publishing market and why you wind up seeing the books in the bookstore that you do, rather than ones you might like to read even more.
Q. What else do members of the society get?
A. Lots! Poetry, for example--even children's poetry!* Or, maybe, notes written to my insomniac self at 3:00 in the morning. College termpapers. Short stories. Love stories. Translations! Sci-Fi. Rules for a new city-wide game that's going to change everything about urban life. Outraged letters to the editor that I then thought better of sending when I sobered up. Paragraphs that my editor struck out with the words, "No, Claire, you can't say this. It violates our policy against sounding nuts."
Basically, you'll get weekly exclusive access to something I thought about publishing, but didn't. Maybe I thought better of it. Maybe I realized saying it wasn't worth all the irate letters I'd receive in response. Most likely, though I just decided it wasn't good enough to bear my name on it. (In fact, some of this material is work I *did* publish, but under a pseudonym. So you may even recognize some of it.)
If you subscribe to the Director's Cut, here or on Patreon ( https://www.patreon.com/ClaireBerlinski),
you'll receive, every weekend, something--maybe a gem, maybe a lump of coal--that fell on my cutting room floor.
But there's one thing.
To join this society, you must take the Oath of Omertà.
You must pledge never, even under pain of torture, to betray or divulge the secrets of this society. You must swear that what I send you never, ever, goes beyond us. In opening any attachment labeled "Director's Cut," you hereby agree that the contents may not be copied, distributed, quoted, discussed, or even mentioned, in public or in private, to any other person, for any reason. The Director's Cut is a SECRET. It is exclusively for the amusement and edification of the members of Claire Berlinski's Director's Cut Society. And because I need to keep the distribution list limited--so that I can figure out who did if it leaks--I can only accept 25 members.
Q. Why the secrecy, Claire? What have you got in there, the Pentagon Papers?
A. No, no, suggesting that would be untruth in advertising. Most of it is perfectly innocuous, if perhaps badly written, which is why I wouldn't want it to be widely known. Other things? Come on, you know what it's like out there. If it ever gets out that I wrote some of this, I'm toast.
Generally, if I don't publish something, there's a damned good reason I didn't. It may be because what I wrote was wrong. Or stupid. Or libellous. It may be because I decided it just wasn't particularly good. It may be because I'm planning to publish it one of these days, and don't want to scoop myself. Whatever the reason, it just *has* to stay among us. I *have* to trust you.
So, *do not subscribe* unless you are prepared to keep what you read entirely confidential. In subscribing, you will be presumed to have sworn the Oath of Omertà. You agree that anything you receive under the heading "Director's Cut" is STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL and may not be forwarded, quoted, cited, in part or in whole, nor paraphrased, nor even mentioned in passing. Nope, you can't share it with anyone, not even your wife, unless she explicitly takes the vow, in writing, and sends it to me before she reads it.
*The only exception: If I wind up sending the children's' poems, one of these days, you can read them to your kids.
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At the heart of the unrest in France is a blackout of rational thinking—and it’s driving the country to destruction.
Something about life in modern democracies really bothers people. Let’s call it the Problem that Has No Name. There are many theories about what the problem really is. The most popular involve wage stagnation, inequality, globalization, capitalism, the digitalization of the economy, social media, immigration, the disappearance of traditional venues for social life, the transformation of gender roles, the decline of religion. Some combination of these things infuriates people.
Whatever the problem really is, obviously it is complex. But the world around, voters have recoiled from the idea that their problems are complex. In one democracy after another, voters have decided the best person to solve these problems would be a brutish authoritarian.
Whatever the problem really is, it is either caused by, or the cause of, a blackout of rational thinking. The Gilets Jaunes embody this. ...
Your vision is acute, but oddly distorted. The Trump phenomenon, like the Tea Party before it, is a reaction to the growing Caesarism of American politics, not a cause. Were I, as a long-time libertarian-leaning conservative, to set out to describe the Progressive playbook, I could not better your description: “Conflate entertainment and politics. Create chaos, confusion, and a sense of permanent emergency. Destroy confidence in the idea of objective truth. Humiliate or destroy the people who are better fit to be leaders. Gain control of the media to starve adversaries of access to the public. Discredit what media you cannot control. Reward loyalists with government tenders. Punish the disloyal with punitive taxes and lawsuits. Stack the courts. Jigger the constitution so that opponents have no hope of coming to power through democratic means. Erode critical civil rights and freedoms, stitch by stitch—until elections still happen, but denuded of everything that makes elections meaningful.” Only in the New York Times can these trends be attributed to Trump, or to conservatives. The real threat to the liberal political order is the combination of crony capitalism, public employee political activity, massive government subsidies for leftist causes, relentless lawfare, and celebration of victimhood as the highest form of human achievement. I confess to being puzzled by the gap between the brilliance of your Warlock essay and what I regard as a strange and skewed view of current U.S. political forces. I think you need some better reference points for anti-Progressive thinking. I will suggest just one, Manhattan Contrarian, which is my personal favorite for consistently shrewd analysis of the Progressive state. [See http://manhattancontrarian.com]
All Europe needs to do is defund their Global Progressive Agenda worldview from education in K-12, university, law and journalism schools and replace it with Western Enlightenment. This is the sword that cuts the Gordian knot. However Europe won't do this thing. See Jer. 6:16. By the way, the other countries should. That would be Kenya, the USA, the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Japan, Russia... all of them. Will they? (It a fight: Tribal Control vs. Prog Control vs. Tragic Liberty.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrkN5Pqh5ok
I am ALSO "puzzled by the gap between the brilliance of your Warlock essay and what I regard as a strange and skewed view of current U.S. political forces." For a start read Peggy Noonan's 2016 piece on 'the unprotected' voting for Trump. Whether it is NATO, global warming, or immigration just follow the money. Who benefits? Who is harmed? Seven of the nine richest counties in the US border DC. What happens to anyone even threatening to disturb this? Why is Trump's threat to NOT invade or meddle in every country's affairs such a bad thing? I do not understand.
Hi Claire, Coming up on one year since you started this journey. I was getting updates regularly on Ricochet and through Facebook. I enjoyed the podcasts and initial involvement, but have lost touch with the whole project. Wondering how its going and if you plan to share your project going forward through the same avenues? If not, where can we follow the book's progress? Best wishes.
I prefer "Europe in the Age of ISIS" for two reasons: 1) It's more accurate, in that Trump is new to the scene, and nothing he has done (yet) has had any effect on the European recovery of backbone; and 2) by putting Trump's name in the subtitle you're somewhat tying the book's fortunes to his. Yes, he won the election, but now he must govern. If his presidency doesn't go well . . . And are you a Trumpista?
It is a hard argument to prove the US decrepit. It is uncertain of what to do next. Post WWII liberalism is mostly done and the impact has not always been kind to Americans - at least they feel this way. Russia and China are better, but adversaries. Russia is still feared after almost 2 centuries since the Congress of Vienna attempted to construct alliances to restrain them. But Russia fears as much as it is feared. A threat at the margin, not at the inflection. Likewise, once the richest nation in the world, China remains large and lacking enough resources, unable to project real power to secure them. The Chinese still are mistrusted - and for obvious reasons. The world is not coming to an end, though the US has lacked a grand strategy for almost 30 years. We have fought many times since then and become distracted or conflicted, but we have no clear strategy. Until a real enemy emerges, we will continue to lurch. And remember, as divided as Americans appear, this is not the first time a nation without clear adversaries has taken advantage of peace to embroil itself in rabid democracy. All is not over.
JV DeLong has his finger on some important items in his quote below. To which could be added, the European paucity of NATO defense spending is the flip side of its decades of reliance on US military spending on their behalf while their own went to sumptuous social welfare programs. Small wonder Trump berated them - he doesn't feel the US should face Russia unsupported, and bluntly says so.
I will reserve judgment until the book appears, by which time the West will presumably have unraveled. I have a feeling that we shall agree on the effect and disagree on the cause. I shall gallantly give you the advantage by declaring my hand straight away. The West IS unraveling, but US policy is not to blame. There are two destructive tendencies working in parallel. The first is a rise in populism coupled with the decline of the nation-state. The second is the substitution of Islamic values for Christian values, particularly in Europe. The other piece of knitting which is unraveling stitch by stitch is the Democratic Party of the US.
You know there is a book in there somewhere in the pile of ideas. The problem is the premise. Trump is a bit of an oddity - like Teddy Roosevelt, a celebrity. But he is not Putin. The real book premise worth pursuing is the slide into authoritarian/oligarchic capitalism similar to what China promotes or what Russia, Iran, Venezuela, etc. promote. In fact, to the extent the US is oligarchy (and it may be becoming that) that is the issue that spawns Trump, or in the UK Brexit, and challenges conventional climate, social justice, immigration, income equality, etc. policies when promoted by Davos Man to the masses.
what a complete load of crap. MAGA
Your essay "The Warlock Hunt" is one of the most honest, intelligent and insightful essays I have read in a long time. On the strength of that alone, I gratefully make a contribution to your book. In fact, I encourage you to consider a book-length version of "The Warlock Hunt." PS -- Friendly suggestion: evolutionary psychology has much to offer -- certainly moreso that Freudianism.
claire, best wishes in your efforts. we really live in interesting times, and i don't know how you concentrate on this with all that is happening in the world. Just the turkish part is unsettling. Remember however, things have been a lot worse in times past, and there is a lot of ruin in a country.