Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and the Leonard L. Milberg Visiting Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton. His most recent book is Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain (2018). (November 2018)

Follow Fintan O’Toole on Twitter: @fotoole.

IN THE REVIEW

Saboteur in Chief

The Fifth Risk

by Michael Lewis
Americans tend to think they have the best system of government in the world. Yet from the outside, one aspect of it seems insane. Most functioning democracies have a permanent civil service that is legally obliged to be politically neutral. It takes orders from elected politicians but is protected from subversion by protocols of parliamentary accountability and the difficulty of firing its members. In the US, there is of course a vast permanent public service of two million employees. But the top layers of each department and institution are made up of four thousand presidential appointees. Not only is there no continuity of management, but chaos is easy to create. All an incoming president needs to do is appoint people to these agencies who should not be allowed anywhere near them—or indeed appoint no one at all. There is in the US system an opportunity to abuse power by simply declining to use it.

Powder His Face

Mezzotint by Richard Earldom after a drawing by Robert Dighton, 1772

Pretty Gentlemen: Macaroni Men and the Eighteenth-Century Fashion World

by Peter McNeil
When Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni, he was not thinking of pasta. And the author of the ditty, probably a British professional soldier mocking the New England militiamen with whom he fought during the French and Indian War in the late 1750s or …

Where Lost Bodies Roam

Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s Political Imagination

by Emilie Morin
The astonishing works with which Samuel Beckett revolutionized both the theater and the novel—Waiting for Godot and the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—were written immediately after World War II and the Holocaust. Vladimir’s question in Godot, “Where are all these corpses from?,” and its answer, “A charnel-house! A charnel-house!,” hang over much of his writing. Torture, enslavement, hunger, displacement, incarceration, and subjection to arbitrary power are the common fates of Beckett’s characters. Yet there is a long tradition of seeing him as not merely apolitical but antipolitical.

Mad As Hell About What?

Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale in Ivo van Hove’s stage production of Network, 2017

Network

a play directed by Ivo van Hove, adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, at the National Theatre, London, November 13, 2017–March 24, 2018
Network, one of the big movie hits of 1976, now seems prophetic in both senses of the word. The Old Testament prophet is typically less interested in seeing into the future than in denouncing the iniquities already present in the world. Howard Beale, the deranged TV news anchor created by …

NYR DAILY

How Brexit Broke Up Britain

A sticker reading

There is overwhelming evidence that the English people who voted for Brexit do not, on the whole, care about the United Kingdom and in particular that part of it called Northern Ireland. Asked whether “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit, fully 83 percent of Leave voters and 73 percent of Conservative voters in England agree that it is. So, while the people who voted for Brexit are waving goodbye to the United Kingdom, Theresa May—with, in this, the support of Corbyn’s Labour—has vowed to “always fight to strengthen and sustain this precious, precious Union.” Brexit cannot be properly articulated because it has made a sacred cause of fighting for the very thing Brexit voters don’t care about.

How Ulster Unionists Block Brexit

Party leader Arlene Foster addressing the November 2017 conference of the Democratic Unionist Party as delegates waved Union and Ulster flags, Belfast, Northern Ireland

As the recent debate on abortion showed, the Democratic Unionist Party’s values and idea of Britishness are increasingly out of kilter with Britain itself. And Brexit, which the DUP supported, now looms as a disaster for the Northern Irish party. If, as the DUP insists, Northern Ireland can be treated no differently from the rest of the UK, because the Union with England, Wales, and Scotland is sacrosanct, then all of the UK must stay within the EU’s rules to meet European conditions on border arrangements with Ireland. In which case, Brexit itself becomes pointless. The DUP’s backward-looking Britishness thus stands solidly in the way of Brexit’s English revolution.

Theresa May’s Blue Monday

British Prime Minister Theresa May in Downing Street, London, December 5

Britain’s agreement to accept Ireland’s demands over Brexit and the border is an expression of its weakness: it can’t even bully little Ireland anymore. And this would have been bad enough for one day. But there was another humiliation in store. Having backed down, May was then peremptorily informed by her DUP coalition partner that she was not even allowed to back down. It is a scarcely credible position for a once great state to find itself in: its leader does not even have the power to conduct a dignified retreat.

Britain: The End of a Fantasy

British Prime Minister Theresa May on her way to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen's permission to form a minority government, London, June 9, 2017

Brexit is an elite project dressed up in rough attire. Because Theresa May doesn’t actually believe in Brexit, she’s improvising a way forward very roughly sketched out by other people. In Britain’s recent election, May’s phony populism came up against the Labour party’s more genuine brand of anti-establishment radicalism that convinced the young and the marginalized that they had something to come out and vote for.

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