Books Society: Giant kills Jack: official

THE SIBLING SOCIETY by Robert Bly, Hamish Hamilton pounds 18

Robert Bly's first book, the polemical Iron John, provoked furious argument in the US and was treated with a kind of amused patrician disdain in Britain. But Iron John is a more complex book than its representation as sentimental nonsense gave it credit for: like Forrest Gump, it is a clever, manipulative work, and its fairytales about growing up smuggled some deeply reactionary ideological baggage.

The argument of The Sibling Society extends and deepens one of the central themes of Iron John: that America, and by extension the industrialised west, has nurtured an extended adolescence in its citizens. The result is a society of siblings, where people relate to each other "horizontally", as equals, rather than "vertically", with due respect for authority and due care for bringing up children and helping them to cross into adulthood. A society, as he puts it, where the Giant kills Jack.

The culprits? Absent fathers. Absent mothers. Structuralist criticism (no respect for the authority of the canon). Television. The internet. Humans, says Bly, need to develop their brains by interacting directly with nature. If we substitute interaction with simulacra, the result is children with stunted brains who have never learned how to learn. Some details are questionable: he bolsters his criticism of internet libertarianism, a real enough phenomenon, by quoting an article in Time so sloppily researched as to have become a byword for third-rate journalism. But the general thrust is plausible, and will have most readers out of their teens nodding in agreement.

Bly is too honest not to take this argument to its logical limits, and then it begins to sound much less attractive. If this is conservatism, it is Pat Buchanan's lowest-common-denominator populist version rather than free-market economics or even Ronald Reagan's hokey nationalism. And it has something in common with the fashionable neo-Luddism of Kirkpatrick Sale and Mark Slouka.

Bly's argument is political at the point where politics break down; as P J O'Rourke and Norman Mailer have separately pointed out, views like these can just as easily be Old Democrat as Old Republican. Although Bly imagines himself a liberal progressive and would hate to be lumped in with the demagogic militia crowd, he sounds dangerously like them as he veers into the culture wars and on into economic populism.

On popular culture Bly is simply dreadful. He runs through the standard complaints about modern teenage culture (young people today are rude to teachers, their music is loud and depressing) without showing the slightest sign of having experienced it first-hand: all his opinions are quoted from others.

Perhaps he simply misreads a culture he is several generations too old to understand - but at times, even he should know he is talking nonsense. He grumbles about band names being depressing and aggressive (Suicidal Tendencies, Porno for Pyros and Crash Test Dummies). By comparison he hymns the "Sixties as a time when `certain clarities, honesties and moral insights' ... marked a high point in the life of popular culture" and remembers "the Beatles' affectionate lyrics", which suggests that he gave up on the Fabs sometime before A Hard Day's Night. He must have missed his generation lapping up the Rolling Stones and the Who, both, at their best, aggression personified, and the Doors, laureates of Sex and Death. Or, for that matter, band names as positive and uplifting as the Grateful Dead. Popular music deals with difficult themes, including but not limited to Sex and Death, for the same reasons that Bly's myths do: as a way for adolescents to think about these subjects in a safe context.

The economic section is even worse. Bly recycles the usual stories about downsizing, and his heavy satire about Adam Smith's invisible hand makes it clear that he has no idea what Smith was talking about. He paints a vision of greedy, amoral corporations ambling round the world, setting up stall wherever they can temporarily pay the lowest wages. A moment's thought would show that this is a fairytale, too. German wages are among the highest in the world; wages in South Africa, for manual workers at least, are among the lowest. But South Africa has mass unemployment and Germany, as yet, does not. This is because German workers have better skills and are more productive than South African ones.

If corporations are fleeing the US (which is in any case doubtful) it is because American workers' skills are no longer worth the price premium they expect. If Bly were really concerned about the future of his country, he would spend more time urging his compatriots to build marketable skills. To complain about global economics is like cursing the weather instead of fixing the roof.

Bly expresses shock that multinational corporations feel no loyalty to the US. But a multinational that displayed its loyalty by protecting jobs in the US that could more efficiently (which is not the same as more cheaply) be done elsewhere would be doing the US no favours. In the short term, it would make the US more complacent; in the long-term, it would be outcompeted by a less sentimental foreign competitor, and all the jobs would go.

This book deplores perpetual adolescence, yet its failure to engage with economics in the real world is as depressing a refusal to grow up as any he cites. The "gale of creative destruction", as Schumpeter called capitalism, takes no prisoners, but that is what adulthood looks like. What Bly by default proposes amounts to enforced economic infantilism.

Bly will say that the book is a call for improvements in education and socialisation, and therefore in competitive skills. But the reforms he proposes are all to do with increasing respect: making people read a kinder, gentler canon; asserting the authority of years, and so on. Training the young uncritically to accept the mistakes of the old is not the same as helping them to grow up, and will do them no favours.

The narrative of the book is beguiling and infuriating in equal measure: no one can spin sermons off myths with quite Bly's common touch, but after a while the lack of logical connection begins to grate. Someone should have warned him: pontificate about world politics on the basis of myths, dreams and archetypes, and you just end up sounding like Sting.

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