Reviews

A Book That Captures the Singular Life of Marie Colvin

14 January 2019

 

From The New Yorker:

In Lindsey Hilsum’s book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” there is a passage describing Colvin’s ordeal behind Chechen-rebel lines over Christmas of 1999. After coming under sustained Russian bombardment outside Grozny, the American-born reporter, then aged forty-four, was forced to trek out of the war zone over the snow-covered Caucasus mountain range to reach safety in neighboring Georgia. There were many bad moments, and, at one point, driven to exhaustion, Colvin considered lying down in the snow and sleeping. It was the opposite impulse of the one that drove her forward throughout her life. Colvin survived her Chechen experience and a dozen or more equally dangerous episodes during her twenty-five years as a war reporter, but, a month after her fifty-sixth birthday, in February, 2012, her luck ran out, in Syria. The Assad regime’s forces fired mortars into the house where she was staying, in the rebel-held quarter of Homs, and she was killed.

Colvin’s life has been memorably chronicled by Hilsum, a friend and colleague who lived and worked alongside Colvin in many of the same war zones, and whose home base was also London. (Full disclosure: I knew Colvin and am a friend of Hilsum’s.) At a time when the role of women is being reëxamined and has rightly galvanized public attention, Colvin’s tumultuous life has inspired a number of recent accounts, including the feature film “A Private War,” starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin. But it is Hilsum’s biography, written by a woman who both knew Colvin and had access to her unpublished reporting notes and private diaries—a trove of some three hundred notebooks—that seems to most closely capture her spirit.

As told by Hilsum, Colvin’s life was an unreconciled whirl of firsthand war experiences—many of them extremely dangerous and highly traumatic—London parties, and ultimately unhappy love affairs, laced through with a penchant for vodka martinis and struggles with P.T.S.D. Colvin was a Yank from Oyster Bay, Long Island, and Yale-educated, and she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn—her Bible was Gellhorn’s “The Face of War”—but she never wrote a book herself, and was little known to her countrymen, making her name, and the bulk of her career, instead, inside the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, a British broadsheet with a tabloid soul. From 1986 onward, when the Sunday Timeshired Colvin, the editors appear to have happily taken advantage of her lifelong hunger for professional affirmation, a chronic willingness to throw herself into danger in order to get scoops, and her considerable personal charm, which, early on, earned her the trust of roguish political players like Yasir Arafat and Muammar Qaddafi.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker




Is It Really Five Stars? How to Spot Fake Amazon Reviews

20 December 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Dogs love water!!!

My dog loves this pet drinking fountain. He doesn’t care that it’s louder than Niagara Falls when the water level is low, and that the setup instructions were impossible to follow. Oops, this is supposed to be a positive review. So, yeah, the LED light is nice, I guess?

I’ll never actually post that, but it could have been worth money if I had. Let me explain. I visited a Facebook group called “Amazon Reviews” and was promised a full refund on a $44 Amazon purchase of a pet fountain if I did the following on the mega-retailer’s site:

1. Write a positive review.

2. Post my photos of the product.

3. Rate it five stars.

Not only is this ethically problematic, it is also against Amazon and Facebook user policies. Plenty of people don’t care, though: They’ll do it for this pet gizmo or one of the other bajillion products in these forums.

Every day, many of us search for a product on Amazon, pick a four- to five-star option and tap Buy Now. Those little yellow stars can make or break a product.

“In early 2012, the Amazon catalog grew too big, and the only way to get to the top of search results was to prove to the algorithm that your product was the best,” said Juozas Kaziukėnas, chief executive of Marketplace Pulse, a business-intelligence firm focused on e-commerce. “Most sellers realized acquiring reviews was a golden ticket.”

. . . .

There are four species of Amazon review:

A legit review. Left by a human who bought a product and felt like sharing, the legit review, often labeled as a “Verified Purchase,” might be peppered with real-life experiences that indicate genuine use.

Legit reviewers tend to be moved to review when they love or hate the product, so the ratings are more extreme, says Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta, a website that analyzes Amazon reviews.

A Vine review. Amazon invites some of the most prolific legit reviewers to be a part of Vine. The program rewards them with free products in exchange for reviews, marked with a green label. Vine members choose from a preselected group of products, but neither Amazon nor the company that provides the product can influence, edit or modify reviews, Amazon says.

Amazon Vine reviewers I interviewed say they don’t let the perk influence their ratings, and showed me many negative reviews they have written. ReviewMeta found Vine reviewers give more two-, three- and four-star reviews than other groups.

. . . .

An incentivized review. Incentivized reviewers are given free products—or in some cases flat-out payments—in exchange for four or five stars. In 2016 Amazon updated its terms of service to prohibit this practice, but sellers found a big back alley: Facebook. An incentivized review. Incentivized reviewers are given free products—or in some cases flat-out payments—in exchange for four or five stars. In 2016 Amazon updated its terms of service to prohibit this practice, but sellers found a big back alley: Facebook.

Here’s how it works: A shopper joins a Facebook group with a name like “Amazon reviews.” These groups tend to be private but I was let into two, even after saying I was a journalist.

Sellers, often out of China, post about free products, say Bluetooth headphones. The buyer gets the Amazon link from the seller via direct message, orders the headphones through Amazon so it can appear as a “Verified Purchase,” then writes the review, posts some photos and rates it five stars. Once proof of purchase is provided, the seller refunds the buyer, generally via PayPal .

The moderator of one of the Facebook product-review groups I joined directed me to his rules, which state that members are meant to write honest, unbiased reviews, and that the group isn’t responsible for “deceitful posts or dishonest reviews left by buyers/sellers.” Facebook says it closes groups that offer incentives for fake reviews. Amazon says it works with Facebook to police these groups.

I spoke with various reviewers in these groups, many of whom didn’t want to be identified. They say they write these types of reviews to save money.

“I definitely gave a 4- or 5-star review to stuff that wasn’t good,” said Jeffrey Chu, from Charlotte, N.C., who reviewed products from Facebook groups until Amazon blocked him from reviewing last year. “I felt a little bit bad about doing it, but even before this, I noticed a lot of BS reviews. I figured the system was broken, I figured I’d get stuff out of it.”

The fake review. Finally, there are the full-on fakes. These reviews don’t show verified purchases and consistently deliver high ratings without much detail. One person I saw on Craigslist offers reviews starting at $5 a pop. So-called click farms in Asia claim to control thousands of Amazon accounts that vendors can hire to leave reviews for between $1 and $5 each.

Sellers also “hijack” legit reviews through some back-end trickery, Mr. Noonan said. A merchant might put a new item on the page of a well-reviewed but now-unavailable older product. The star rating looks good, but the reviews don’t match the item.

. . . .

“We suspend, ban or pursue legal action against these bad actors as well as suppress all known inauthentic reviews,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. “Customers can report suspicious reviews 24 hours a day, seven days a week and we investigate each claim.”

Last week, I spotted a listing for headphones branded Wotmic with 51 five-star ratings—and no poorer ratings. This week, Amazon’s sweep removed all 51 reviews. Wotmic’s parent company, Shenzhen Womaisi Technology Co., Ltd. hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment.

. . . .

ReviewMeta and Fakespot automatically look for those red flags and more. Paste in an Amazon product page address, and either site gives you a review of the reviews. They both calculate the average star rating with questionable reviews removed. I prefer ReviewMeta for its more comprehensive report cards.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Facebook, Amazon struggle in fight against fake reviews

16 December 2018

From Fox News:

A Fox News investigation has found that Facebook is a breeding ground for groups where reviews for products on Amazon, among other online platforms, are bought and sold. And small businesses competing in the online marketplace may already be suffering because of a lack of controls, or a lack of efficiency, on behalf of two of the world’s most valuable brands.

Reviews can be critical for businesses that operate in online marketplaces like Amazon, not only because of the impact a 1-star review can have but because sellers and products with the greatest number of reviews typically appear higher in search results.

. . . .

Beyond the fact that reviews are critical for a company’s existence, the practice of compensating someone in exchange for a customer review is something that violates both Amazon and Facebook policies. It could also put you at odds with the Federal Trade Commission.

That hasn’t stopped the practice from flourishing on Facebook, Fox News has found. Groups like “Amazon review club” can be joined with the click of a button, and with no apparent background check.

. . . .

Fox started tracking that group, and others like it, just before the Black Friday shopping rush in early November. Since then, its membership has grown by thousands, standing at more than 82,000 members as of this writing. That group was created in 2016, and there are plenty of others like it where reviews are solicited for everything from Google Maps to Yelp.

. . . .

Over the course of a few weeks, Fox News witnessed members of these groups offering to sell hundreds of reviews at a time, promising commissions in exchange for praise and soliciting 1-star reviews that seemed destined for some unlucky online competitor.

Link to the rest at Fox News

Where Did the Amazon Reviewers Go?

6 December 2018

From The Book Designer:

Two years ago, it was so easy to find the top Amazon.com reviewers and approach them and ask for reviews. There was software that let authors and publishers find the name and email addresses of the thousands of Amazon reviewers who had already written reviews of books in a similar vein.

I had written a self-help book for women about lowering stress, so it was easy to find the bestselling books on stress reduction and find the contact information on Amazon of those who had reviewed those bestselling books.

Then, I put together a BULK email using MailChimp and emailed THOUSANDS of reviewers all in one afternoon.

It. Was. Awesome.

Then, for some reason, in March of 2018, Amazon made a decision to hide the email addresses of reviewers on their profiles. Speculation was they did this because of the new GDPR rules and regulations but no one really knows why. This completely stopped authors from being able to email potential reviewers–even if the reviewers didn’t mind being contacted with their information public on their profile.

Does this mean it’s the end of finding targeted reviewers for books? Absolutely NOT! But it is a lot harder than it used to be.

Amazon is REALLY working hard to hide the contact information of book reviewers, and GoodReads only lets you message a few readers every day before shutting you down for the day. HOW, then, can you reach the reviewers and readers who write reviews?

. . . .

Debbie [Drum] has a program called Book Review Targeter that pulls data on readers and reviewers of specific books. I LOVE the idea of using software to find readers and reviewers of books written by authors in my community. There are authors out there who have already written books that appeal to MY readers. Finding readers and getting them to consider my book is SO much easier when I start by knowing my fellow authors and reach out to THEIR readers.

With this idea firmly in place, and knowing that it is no longer “cool” to mass email folks. HOW CAN I REACH THEM?

. . . .

Amy: Debbie, is there any way in today’s world, to email readers in a way that does not “spam” them?

Debbie: The good news is YES.

When researching comparable authors to find books that have a lot of reviews online, look for bestselling books to start. When a bestselling author releases a book and they have done “everything right” – meaning

  • they have done the market research,
  • their cover is beyond professional,
  • their description is spot on and convincing,
  • and their content is killer,

then that author will probably have a lot more reviews and you will get better review response results from mass cold emails.

I would say first test out in a small segment to see if mass emailing will work for you. If it doesn’t, don’t give up. There are certainly other ways to get the reviews you need to sell more books.

Amy: So what other options do we have? That’s the next question.

Debbie: Social Media is also a great place to find reviewers. When looking for book reviewers, and influencers that can share and promote a book, I like to start with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest.

All of these amazing platforms have direct messaging and commenting components to them.

What’s so great about this? A lot of these social media platforms are listed on an Amazon reviewer’s bio page.

. . . .

Amy: What is the best way to connect with readers in this new world?

Debbie: There are only four rules to follow when it comes to contacting reviewers.

Here they are:

#1 – Be Brief

This is the most important that’s why it’s FIRST. Don’t write paragraph after paragraph after paragraph. This is a HUGE mistake. In a couple of sentences you can explain what your book is about, why you are contacting them, what they will get out of it (more about this in #3) and what to do next.

People will tune you out if you go on and on.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

How to Have an Opinion: The Criticism of Martin Seymour-Smith

9 October 2018
Comments Off on How to Have an Opinion: The Criticism of Martin Seymour-Smith

From The Millions:

Martin Seymour-Smith was a grumpy fellow. A promising poet who took up writing big reference books of literary criticism, his highly idiosyncratic 1977 survey Who’s Who In Twentieth Century Literature is deliciously highbrow junk food. But like strawberry Pocky or matcha Kit-Kat, Seymour-Smith isn’t for everyone. His effort to catalogue the literary scene is full of curiously gleeful put-downs and undercooked psychoanalysis. He pronounces Hemingway “by no means intelligent … seriously overrated,” sums up Nabokov as “a distinguished lepidopterist” and “a minor writer of distinction,” and tenderly humiliates Updike’s Rabbit, Run as “brilliant … but too much so.” Who’s Who would be an impossible book to write today: Seymour-Smith is skeptical of literary personality at its core. The entries on particularly mythic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner show a dogged commitment to tearing down the aegis of respectability surrounding these figures.

As a critic he is digressive, laughably biased, and mean-spirited. For Seymour-Smith, even the century’s most celebrated writers deserve about as much humiliation as praise. Faulkner, for example, “worked from intuition and passion and never from what an educated man would call thought … if anyone believes that he possessed a mind in the usual sense, let him read the text of the Nobel Prize speech (1950): cliché-ridden, naive.” The entry goes on to praise the Yoknapatawpha novels and Seymour-Smith assures us “there is no doubt … of his high stature; and doubtless the poor work was part of the price—heavy and exhausting drinking-bouts were another—that he had to pay for his achievement.”

On Hemingway he is far less generous: “inept … he knew nothing about bull-fighting, as Death in the Afternoon (1932) which purports to be about it, makes painfully clear.” One has to wonder where Seymour-Smith had gotten his bullfighting intelligence, but no matter. After informing readers that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s attempt to describe how difficult it had become for him to produce anything of value, he dismisses it as “a portentous and pretentious analogy.” Worse still are Hemingway’s personal qualities: “He was a liar, he was treacherous to those to whom he owed most.” Finally, Seymour-Smith concludes that “the decency [Hemingway] found is limited and answers little.”

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG notes that Mr. Semour-Smith’s magnum opus, published in 1976, appears to be out of print, has an Amazon Best Sellers Rank of #2,042,365 and two Amazon reviews.

A quick check of Rabbit Run, published in 1960, shows Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #70,167 and  The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, is ranked at #8,265 and just one of its many editions has 2,121 reviews.

Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books?

10 September 2018

From The Guardian:

As soon as the news of VS Naipaul’s death broke a few weeks ago, a thousand think pieces rose as one, as though to take his place. His legacy was both attacked and defended, his misogyny and racism condemned and forgiven. This frenzied conversation crystallised around a question readers have been grappling with for years, but with increasing urgency: to what extent should we consider an artist’s personality, politics and ethics relevant to our appreciation of their work?

It seems that almost no one can separate the writer from the books when it comes to Naipaul. The same is true of our response to work by authors who have recently been accused of various levels of misconduct following #metoo. In the past week alone, compelling and devastating reports of abuse by lauded authors have appeared in the media: Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s second wife, detailed his sadism and womanising in a memoir that has recently come to light; author Joyce Maynard has written of her experiences with JD Salinger, who summoned her to live with him when she was 18 and he was 53.

Practical criticism – the academic approach to texts that aims to consider words on the page independently of their author or the reader’s preconceived ideas – began almost 100 years ago; now, in 2018, such “death of the author” talk appears to be dead itself. While the takes on Naipaul were diverse, and some argued that Naipaul’s bad character was irrelevant to his work, the fact of his bad character was always front and centre. It could not go unmarked– but what remains to be decided is the extent to which it marks the legacy of a Nobel prize-winning author.

I am in favour of removing monuments erected to celebrate individuals whose life work was to destroy the happiness or lives of others. I think the statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, belongs in a museum with a lengthy note about Rhodes’s horrific legacy and the cultural circumstances under which the statue was first erected. The same is true of the many tributes across the US to Robert E Lee. But a book is not a statue. A story is not necessarily a tribute to, or celebration of, its author. I am left reaching, instead, for the correct metaphor to evoke the relationship between work and creator. Is a book its author’s child, innocent of its parent’s wrongdoing? Or is it a hologram of its creator, representing all that its author was and did? Of course neither of these is correct; I’m still searching for an analogy that lies between these two extremes.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG suggests if you can’t separate the author from the book, your mental, emotional and analytical self-discipline may need some work.

PG is reminded of a quote that he suspects begins (or began) every first-year semantics class, “The word is not the thing.”

Although S.I. Hayakawa popularized it, at least in the US, PG understands the phrase originated with Alfred Korzybski, who also said, “The map is not the territory.”

Here is a longer quote from Hayakawa:

Citizens of a modern society need […] more than that ordinary “common sense” which was defined by Stuart Chase as that which tells you that the world is flat. They need to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, especially words, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment by the complexity of their semantic environment. The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for.

PG also suggests that the book is not the author and vice versa.

If a reader comes to a book having pre-judged it by its author, he/she may well fail to understand the book. If the author had written this particular book anonymously, using a pen name, would the book be different?

The idea that one should pre-judge a book by what one knows (or thinks one knows) about the author seems totally bizarre. One is not supporting Naipaul by reading his books. What we know or think we know about an author does not change the words the author wrote.

A bit of perspective on the history of a society’s popular thought and accepted truths might help today’s critics of people who lived in a much different time and culture that attitudes and understandings change and today’s verities can well be tomorrow’s disdained falsities.

Is Quality, Like Beauty, in the Eye of the Beholder? The Elusive Art of Book Reviewing and Its Influence

24 August 2018

From No Shelf Required:

What is a book review? Many have attempted to answer this question over the last few decades in a multitude of ways—from informed scholars, librarians, and booksellers to publishers, authors and readers. While their views differ widely on how successful book reviews are in bringing us closer to a book’s quality—and whether this is even possible—their definitions of book reviews and their core purpose seem to be in sync. To start, book reviews are a ‘genre’ in their own right, as they have features specific to them, and they can be as entertaining to read as the books they put under the microscope. These features, of course, depend on the context in which the books are reviewed (e.g., reviews found in academic journals are more in-depth and lengthier than those found in mainstream newspapers and magazines), but the general purpose of book reviews is always to serve as kind of an economic model, helping readers—whoever they may be—to decide if they should spend their money on a book, be it for entertainment, enlightenment, or scholarly pursuit. In other words, the main purpose of book reviews is to reduce search costs and uncertainty (Clement & others 78).  In this sense, then, readers hope that book reviews will guide them in the direction of the books they both want and need.

If we examine how information professionals and scholars have perceived book reviews over time and in varied settings, we can conclude that despite their imperfections and sometimes contradictory performance and impact, the presence of book reviews in scholarly and mass communication is understood to be both necessary and helpful, not only to guide readers through the maze of published literature—which today exceeds 2.2 million new titles in any given year, according to UNESCO estimates published in 2017—but also to point to the cultural conditions of our time and to give us alternate views on particular subjects. Indeed, the world needs different opinions. As Peyre put it, “unanimity in any acclaim for a book (whether or not by a Nobel Prize winner), a play, a concert performer, or an artist, even if he has become as venerable as Picasso or Chagall, should arouse suspicion. It can only be a sign of conventionality, of intellectual laziness, or timidity” (Peyre 130).

Yet despite such explanations for the necessity of diverse opinions, there has been no shortage of views pointing, sometimes harshly, to the inherently self-defeating nature of book reviews.

. . . .

Book reviews are studied usually in terms of several criteria: review length, lag-time, orientation, evaluative slant, and reviewer identity (Rehman 127). They are also studied in terms of their influence on author reputation and career advancement, as well as in terms of their power to predict a book’s critical reception and, ultimately, its financial success. Questions that appear frequently in such studies include, for example: How have book reviews and our perception of them changed over time? How often are critics truly objective in their analysis? Should they strive to be more descriptive and less prescriptive in their analysis? Are book reviews only about the book or do they also reveal details about the critic? What is the impact of negative reviews on a book’s sales and on an author’s public image? What is the role of professional editors in the process of preserving ethical standards behind book reviewing? How much influence do editors have in deciding what books are reviewed in professional publications and by whom? How often and in what ways are book reviews used as marketing tools by publishers, authors, and such middlemen as PR agents? And, perhaps most relevant, just how many books can possibly be reviewed in a world that sees 2.2 million titles published annually?

. . . .

Upon closer examination of available literature (and based on my own experience as a professional book review editor at Library Journal), I have come to identify four major types of book reviews: academic reviews; trade reviews; mainstream media reviews; and, since the advent of modern technologies and social media platforms, user reviews. The first three types refer to the book reviews written, edited, and published by professionals, while the fourth refers to the reviews we encounter online and all over the Internet; they are usually written by amateurs who voluntarily share their thoughts about a book (often anonymously).

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG suggests that, as a means of informing a purchase decision for a particular book, user reviews are likely, on a collective basis, to be far more influential for a given individual reader (especially a reader of ebooks) than any of the other categories of reviews written by “professionals”.

While an individual user review may be useless for deciding about a prospective ebook purchase, collectively, a group of user reviews is often quite valuable for PG.

The consequences of an unwise ebook purchase are also smaller than an unwise printed book purchase for several reasons:

  1. Generally speaking, ebook prices are lower than printed book prices, so less of the reader’s money is at risk.
  2. If an ebook proves unsatisfying, it can usually be returned for a refund with a mouse click, a much simpler process than trudging back to a physical bookstore with printed receipt in hand. (PG is likely not the only person whose physical bookshelves include poor purchase decisions for which the return process wasn’t worth his time. They sit there, like awkward distant relatives one prefers not to speak with, but still have some embarrassing connection with the observer.)

The other problem with “professional reviews” is that a great many of the publications in which they were formerly published have gone out of business or are otherwise unable or unwilling to pay a “professional” for a review. How many people actually read online publications that include “professional” reviews. Does a book reviewer who writes “professional” reviews still qualify as a professional if he/she isn’t paid at all or is paid so little that a day job is required for sustenance?

The New York Times book reviews were very influential in days now past because of the large number of the paper’s subscribers and their attractive demographics (nice income, good education). Today, the Times’ overall audience is far smaller (particularly in comparison with other online destinations) and who knows how many people actually read the book reviews as opposed to seeing a link to a book review or opening a page that includes a book review, then heading elsewhere? (PG will note in passing that online web traffic analytics for this sort of thing are notably inaccurate. Here’s a link to a short article that describes a variety of estimation methods and points out their shortcomings.)

As times change, some people change and others do not. Yesterday’s profession, regardless of how valuable it might have been back in the day, may not have the same value today. While not wishing bad fortune on anyone, PG notes that today’s “professional” can be tomorrow’s barista.

 

‘Silence Is Health’: How Totalitarianism Arrives

20 August 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

The white supremacists chanting “blood and soil” as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, last year were probably unaware that the leading Nazi ideologue who used the original slogan of Blut und Boden to promote the creation of a German master race was not himself a native German. Richard Walther Darré, who proclaimed the existence of a mystic bond between the German homeland and “racially pure” Germans, was actually born “Ricardo” on the other side of the Atlantic, in Argentina’s prosperous capital, Buenos Aires.

Sent by his German immigrant family to the Heimat for schooling at the age of nine, Darré later specialized in agriculture, the logical choice for someone with an Argentine background at a time when the succulent beef and abundant wheat of Argentina’s pampas made the country renowned as the “breadbasket of the world.” For a while, during the 1920s, he contemplated returning to Buenos Aires to pursue a career in farming, but that was before his writing caught the attention of Adolf Hitler’s rising Nazi Party. His 1930 book A New Nobility of Blood and Soil, in which he proposed applying selective cattle-breeding methods for the procreation of perfect Aryan humans, dazzled the Führer.

As early as 1932, Darré helped the SS leader Heinrich Himmler to set up the Race and Resettlement Office in order to safeguard the “racial purity” of SS officers. Darré’s work also inspired the Nazi Lebensborn (Fount of Life) program that rewarded “unmarried women and girls of good blood” who had children with racially pure SS officers. Hitler was so impressed with the “Blood and Soil” movement that in 1933 he named Darré Germany’s minister for agriculture.

. . . .

Subsequently, in my work as a writer, I focused on how hundreds of Nazis and their collaborators escaped to Argentina. This made me painfully aware of how their presence during the thirty years between the end of World War II and the 1976 coup had numbed the moral sense of what was then an affluent, well-educated nation, with disastrous consequences for its people. Argentines’ forced cohabitation with Nazi fugitives resulted, I came to believe, in a normalization of the crimes that the German émigrés had committed. “He came to our country seeking forgiveness,” Argentina’s Cardinal Antonio Caggiano told the press when Israeli operatives captured the Nazi arch-criminal Adolf Eichmann and spirited him out of Argentina in 1960 to stand trial in Jerusalem. “Our obligation as Christians is to forgive him for what he’s done.”

Some fifteen years later, Argentina began its own descent into full-blown totalitarianism, and its military embarked on a mass killing program that differed in scale, though not in essence, from the Nazis’: an estimated 30,000 people were made to “disappear” by the dictatorship. The same politicians and religious leaders who had turned a blind eye to the presence of Nazi criminals in Argentina looked away again as blood-soaked generals kneeled to receive their blessings in Buenos Aires Cathedral. Much of my adult life has been haunted by the need to answer the question of how this could have come to pass in Argentina. And how it might come to pass elsewhere.

. . . .

This normalization of totalitarian undertones accelerated after my family moved back to Argentina when I was nineteen. To make myself better acquainted with Buenos Aires, I would take long walks through the capital. One day, in 1974, I found myself frozen in my steps on the broad 9 de Julio Avenue that divides Buenos Aires in half. In the middle of this avenue rises a tall white obelisk that is the city’s most conspicuous landmark, and in those days a revolving billboard had been suspended around it. Round and round turned the display and inscribed upon it in large blue letters on a plain white background was the slogan “Silence Is Health.”

With every turn, the billboard schooled Argentines in the total censorship and suppression of free speech that the dictatorship would soon impose. The billboard message was the brainchild of Oscar Ivanissevich, Argentina’s reactionary minister of education, ostensibly to caution motorists against excessive use of the horn. His other mission was an “ideological purge” of Argentina’s universities, which had become a hotbed of student activism. During an earlier ministerial term in 1949, Ivanissevich had led a bitter campaign against the “morbid… perverse… godless” trend of abstract art, recalling the Nazis’ invective against “degenerate” art. During that period, his sister and his nephew were both involved in smuggling Nazis into Argentina.

Ivanissevich’s Orwellian billboard made its appearance just as right-wing violence erupted in the buildup to the military coup. That same year, 1974, Ivanissevich had appointed as rector of Buenos Aires University a well-known admirer of Hitler’s, Alberto Ottalagano, who titled his later autobiography I’m a Fascist, So What? His job was to get rid of the kind of young left-wing protesters who gathered outside the Sheraton Hotel demanding that it be turned into a children’s hospital, and he warmed to the task of persecuting and expelling them. Being singled out by him was more than merely a matter of academic discipline; some fifteen of these students were murdered by right-wing death squads while Ottalagano was rector.

As a partial stranger in my own land, I noticed what those who had already been normalized could not: this was a population habituated to intolerance and violence. Two years later, Ivanissevich’s slogan made a macabre reappearance. In the basement of the dictatorship’s death camp based at the Navy Mechanics School (known as ESMA), where some 5,000 people were exterminated, officers hung two banners along the corridor that opened onto its torture cells. One read “Avenue of Happiness,” the other “Silence Is Health.”

. . . .

It was in these years in Argentina that I learned how quickly the veneer of legality can be peeled away from a society. In 1977, a year into the dictatorship, I joined the Buenos Aires Herald, a small English-language newspaper that was the only news media outlet reporting on the crimes of the regime. “I had the privilege of speaking out while everyone else kept silent,” says the then-editor of the Herald, Robert Cox, a Briton who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. It was not the fact that he was British or that his newspaper had a limited circulation that allowed Cox to print what the other newspapers would not. It was simply that he could not bring himself to remain silent about the carnage he was witnessing. Unlike so many Argentines, he had not been desensitized by growing up among Nazi fugitives; instead, he had been raised in wartime London among the rubble of buildings destroyed by Hitler’s bombs and rockets.

But there was a price to pay for the privilege Cox speaks of. Returning home from my very first day of work, I saw three plainclothes police officers—unmistakable despite their shoulder-length hair, leather jackets, and bell-bottom trousers—leaving my apartment building carrying a leather satchel from which a spool of recording tape was visible. The secret police had tapped my phone, the building superintendent whispered to me. A green Ford Falcon was parked across my street.

The discreet tipoff from my building’s super was unusual; it was far more common for people to snitch on their neighbors, and this was, of course, encouraged by the military. In December 1979, Cox was forced into exile, along with his Argentine wife and their five Argentine-born children, after he received threats that revealed a detailed knowledge of his family’s daily routines. To this day, the Cox family remains convinced that it was a close acquaintance who provided the dictatorship with the information. The transformation of friends into informers is a defining characteristic of totalitarian regimes.

If you want to know what sustains totalitarian violence in a society, psychology is probably more useful than political analysis. Among the elite, support for the dictatorship was enthusiastic. “It was seen as kind of a social faux pas to talk about ‘desaparecidos’ or what was going on,” says Raymond McKay, a fellow journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald, in Messenger on a White Horse, a 2017 documentary about the newspaper. “It was seen as bad taste because the people didn’t want to know.”

Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

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