Yesterday evening, as people were getting home from work and unfurling into an already restless eve, phone alerts started coming in- the ping ping ping soundtrack of our heightened anxious lives. Rockets (the first alerts said rockets) struck an American base in Iraq. Without many more details, that is what we were going on.
Then came the texts, and the tweets and all the sundry messages? Are we at war?
As the next few hours tensed up, we got more information and disinformation, and the queasy helpless feeling kept setting in. These weren’t rockets, they were missiles- a difference of type, not degree. 30 Americans were killed. The President was now being briefed by Mike Pompeo, the theocratic Islamophobe who interprets his role of Secretary of State as one to bring about war. At one point it was being reported that both Iran and the US were launching fighters- an exercise which, in a vacuum, doesn’t mean anything, but added to the dread uncertainty. It was rumored the President was going to speak, and he wouldn’t speak to say they were laying off.
And the questions kept coming: are we at war?
Then we learned more. It wasn’t 30 Americans killed; it was none. We learned, with point-proving dismissive relief, that the dead were “only” Iraqis. It became clear that Iran was sending a message, with an off-ramp, to return to the status quo.
So, then, I guess we aren’t at war. For now?
But of course, that’s the wrong way to look at it. We have been at war for at least 16 years, and possibly much more depending on how you want to parse it. But if we just take the 2003 invasion of Iraq (and you can go back much further) the United States has been in a state of imperial war for nearly a generation. This is the latest, and possibly most dangerous phase of it, doesn’t mean it is something new.
By “imperial war” I don’t mean a war of straight plunder or theft, regardless of what our idiot President says about “taking the oil”. I mean a war to control the politics of a region to benefit our interests. A means of using violence, extortion, and the basic methodology of a protection racket to bend the region to our will. That it has been wildly unsuccessful doesn’t change its very nature.
This war is related to theft and plunder, of course: we want to make sure the US has the resources it needs to continue its growth, as well as dictate trade across all oceans. That’s part of our soul-soaking all-in alliance with Saudi Arabia. This is becoming more important, from a grim geopolitical standpoint, as we see the establishment of China and the expansion of Russia in a world that is increasingly multipolar.
We didn’t know that in 2003, of course. Russia was floundering between Chechen disasters and China barely had a Navy. The Iraq war was an imperial swagger to show the world we could do anything. The wreckage of America in that war, the catastrophic suffering it inflicted, set off a chain of events that helped the world become the place it is today.
As the US fought in Iraq, China established bases and ports around Asia and Africa, reaching westward across its imperial territories to start to make rough alliances with the oil-producing nations. That was their strategy.
At the same time, Iran, which had been trying to shake off the West, saw an opening. There was a brief period after the fall of Saddam Hussein of potential alliance between the US and Iran, led by (amazingly), the now-dead Soleimani, but the US under George Bush shrugged that off, ready to enact regime change.
Iran, since then, has become more and more aggressive in its own imperial plans. Since the Revolution, it had always supported militias in other countries, most notably Lebanon, and has always tried to influence politics. US policy has been to contain that with the hope of regime change. The US has clearly become less and less effective. Iran has gotten stronger and stronger, able to bolster Asad and bloody Saudi Arabia in Yemen and assert more control over Iraqi politics than the US. They have done this on the corpses of tens of thousands, on the ruin of cities, and the starvation and misery of millions. And that’s the point: Iran is also an imperial power.
Iran has been checking the US in Iraq for over a decade now, through political influence and violence. They have killed US soldiers; the US has killed their militias. The two countries have fought by proxy and nearly face-to-face. They’ve also fought side-by-side when interests match.
And now we’ve come to a new phase of this war-within-a-war. The status quo doesn’t look good for the US in the long-term. It is either being dragged into out-and-out conflict, or be bled out. It is either stay for another generation, or leave with Iran in near-total control of the region.
So what we have is the US fighting a war with a potentially very-hot war with a regional power inside a larger imperial struggle. In the Middle East- which, really, is the heart of Eurasia- Iraq is the last place we have influence to contain and check Iran, who is working in rough concert with Turkey and Russia, who are varying degrees of influential powers. This fragile alliance is far closer to China’s orbit than the United States’s.
To see it like this you have to step back from American exceptionalism, which doesn’t actually exist. The United States is a country, with interests. We’re fighting a war, for our interests. That we are now being led by an unstable authoritarian dipshit who has more in common with adversaries than allies doesn’t change that. He wants a multipolar world, because he believes he can make the best deals, and he doesn’t believe in any sort of order.
But that’s not really different. The US has been waging war for a generation. It is barely clinging on to its last foothold. It will probably be forced to leave soon, and power will recalculate. That will neither end, nor start, the war. As we flail and recalibrate, bluster and blunder, the fighting will change, but the meaning won’t.
To ask if we’re at war is wrong. We’ve been at war forever.
In grasping for a modern historical equivalence, one comes up short. There is no way to say it other than the United States killed one of the most powerful men of a country with whom we are not at war. This was extrajudicial, almost certainly extra-legal, and extraordinarily dangerous.
That’s not to say that his end isn’t essentially fitting. This was a man who brought violence and chaos to the region, and many met far worse ends because of his manipulations and his paths of glory. In Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and around the globe, people have been killed by his forces and his proxies. He was a true fanatic, and it is impossible to mourn him.
What we have to recognize, though, is what he was a fanatic for: Iranian influence throughout the region. The reversion of Iran to its typical historical glory, and its power in western and central Asia. To being the center of Middle East like it was when this was not the Middle East, but the dead goddamn center of the world.
That’s one of the reasons this is so dangerous. Soleimani was inarguably the 2nd-most powerful man in Iran. He was because he represented the reality of the Revolution. It wasn’t about Islam, exactly. It was about overthrowing Western dominance and the corrupt, West-backed Shah. As I’ve argued before:
The Iranian revolution wasn’t about Islam, or not entirely. There was a mix of anti-imperialist leftists, communists, other various secularists, religious types who didn’t want clerical rule (which remember, is what Khomeini first promised) and non-ideological nationalists who were just tired of western interference.
Western Europe and Russia had eclipsed Persian power in the region in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until oil that the West really started controlling what was happening in Iran. Lopsided deals with venal flunkies gave England and then America a dominant role in the expropriation of Iranian resources. Shahs got rich, the west got rich, and most Iranians stayed poor. The same thing happened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.
Western colonialism in the Middle East was a 20th-century phenomenon, which in our lifetime seems like all of eternity, but was really a blip. It was a terrible one, from the perspective of the inhabitants, of course. It was dirty and condescending and venal and greedy and grubbing. It was literally crude. Khomeini wasn’t just deposing a shah for the sake of Islam: he was kicking out the west for the sake of Iran.
And that is really Soleimani’s symbolic role, or more precisely the symbolic weight of his very real actions. He was the outstretched fist or Iranian power, bending the region to Iran’s designs. He was so powerful in the country because the whole point of the Revolution was to bring that back, and he’s doing it.
None of this is to say that he was legitimately popular in Iran, as of course the government itself is deeply unpopular. And I’m certainly not going to insult you by pretending to know how “the Iranian people” will react. But this is pure American dominance and arrogance. It’s an act of slapping back Iran for daring to practice politics in the region. It will be seen as nothing more than the cruelest imperialism. This ignores, of course, that Iran politics are bloody imperialism, but we aren’t pretending that humans are rational.
The Supreme Leader will have no choice but to retaliate. Whomever takes over Quds will have every incentive o activate militias and hit US targets directly. His fiercely loyal fighters will be almost impossible to restrain. And a bungling, incredibly incompetent US government, which has systematically forced out expertise, isn’t prepared for what’s next. How could they be? They don’t know, and don’t care, what came before.
As a sort-of aside, the extra-legal part of this is pretty important domestically. There is no real justification for this under the AUMF, and if that pernicious bit of hasty paranoia is stretched to encompass the killing, it will be sad lunacy. Really, it will be the apotheosis of the AUMF, which has perverted further an already deeply-expeditionary and evangelical approach to violence. It is the culmination the last 20 years, but not an end. This is the beginning of a new and even-more dangerous phase.
OK, I know it’s been a little bit since I’ve written. I would really like to do so more as we round into the new year, and as we try to save our democracy from a death-cult that worships only the raw exercise of power. But for now we’re going to look at the last year in books.
As in other years, this is NOT a “best books of 2019” or anything. I wouldn’t lay claim to having read enough to begin to adjudicate that. These are just my favorites: books that have moved me, that have educated me, that have made me see things differently.
Anything I’ve missed you think people should read? Please leave it in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for my next book, and the one after that, and the one after that…
Of all the lies America officially tells itself, one of the strangest is that “We have never occupied conquered territory.” The story goes that since the US didn’t occupy Germany after either of the wars, nor did we take any Japanese territory, there is a nobleness to our cause.
Needless to say, that’s absolute bunkum. There is not a single region of this country that wasn’t taken from Natives. Yes, the Louisiana Purchase was from France, but of course, it wasn’t filled with Frenchmen who immediately left: it was filled with Natives who were promptly extirpated.
Of course, if any action gives immediate lie to that notion, it is the occupation and annexation of enormous amounts of Mexican territory following the brutal and phony war of 1846-1848. The occupied and stolen territory gave America its western bulk; it made destiny manifest.
One thing that America does very well is rapidly internalizing our myths. It doesn’t matter that the war was pushed by southern slave interests hoping to create an empire of chattel. It doesn’t matter that the secession of Texas was a reaction to Mexico outlawing slavery. While a mere 20 years later slavery was defeated, the idea that this territory was anything but given to the US by God was not even entertained.
The idea of these stories, and how they have shaped the American character, is the focus of Greg Grandin’s sweeping The End of the Myth, an electrifying read which takes you from the Cumberland Gap to Gettysburg to Martin Luther King’s radicalism to the perfidy of NAFTA, all with a unifying theme.
That theme is that of the frontier, specifically, the frontier as famously articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner. The nut of the thesis, developed by the then little-known Wisconsin academic in 1893, is that “(t)he existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.”
It’s complicated, but basically that the waves of expansion (which are neither steady nor consistent) are what drives the American spirit. People come out, fight and die, scratch out an existence, fall back, push forward, etc. The land is tamed, capital moves in, people get itchy, and go to the next frontier. Violence, horror, success, railroads, and so on.
Now, you can (and should!) quibble with the idea that the land was “free”; the need for violence in the form of the US Army disproves that myth instantly. But the land was, I suppose, gettable. It could be got if you knew the right people (i.e. the US Army).
Grandin doesn’t so much deflate this myth as expose it for what it has always been: a pernicious way to both foment and excuse violence and expropriation while running a constant scam against the idea of freedom itself.
To back this, Grandin paraphrases Martin Luther King, who argued that the ideal “fed into multiple reinforcing pathologies: into racism, a violent masculinity, and a moralism that celebrates the rich and punishes the poor.”
This is all true, and it plays itself off as a sort of devil’s bargain. As Grandin explains:
There is a lot to unpack in the argument that over the long course of US history, endless expansion, either over land or through markets and militarism, deflects domestic extremism. How, for example, might historical traumas and resentments, myths and symbols, be passed down the centuries from one generation to another? Did the United States objectively nned to expand in order to secure foreign resources and open markets for domestic production? Or did the country’s leaders just believe they had to expand. Whatever the answers to those questions, the United States, since its dounding, pushed outward and justified that push in moral terms, as beneficial equally for the people within and beyond the frontier.
The frontier was a constant regeneration, taking the traumas of conflict and using them to start another battle, another front. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book talks is the section on the Spanish-American war, a conflict so ginned up it made the Mexican-American war look honest.
In our accepted history, the Spanish American war is a completely different era than the Civil War. That’s just how history is often taught; separate eras split by thick black lines and different quizzes. But of course, it was barely 30 years after that conflict ended. Most of its veterans were still alive. This was also barely 20 years after Reconstruction came to an ignoble and murdered end, unleashing a wave of democratic suppression and racist terror that persisted for 100 years.
And, as Grandin explains, basically no one was more excited about the Spanish-American war, and the colonial occupations that followed, than ex-Confederates. This, for them, was a way to be welcomed fully back into the American population, to prove themselves as fighters, and to kill non-whites. The Confederate flag flew over Cuba, and the Rebel Yell was heard in the Philippines.
Why does this matter? Because it was another expansion of the frontier. It was a way to regenerate the American myth after the Civil War and (maybe just as importantly) after Reconstruction. Grandin skillfully weaves the betrayal of Reconstruction with the dark decades of Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, and more.
This makes sense, when you start to look at American history as a continuous thing, and not something that actually happens in waves. The war for Mexican territory was fought to expand slavery. It was fought to create an American empire across the continent. The stories that we told about it- pablum about freedom, the brave men of the Alamo, standing up to an oppressive Mexican government who hated freedom so much that they outlawed slavery- was part of the same story we told ourselves of the Lost Cause, the noble South, the valiant Lee: stories that still exist.
And that, ultimately, is the lesson here. These stories are still being told, but there is nowhere left to go. The frontier has reverberated. Grandin takes us back again and again to the border, as it becomes militarized, filled with swaggering racists, both in real uniforms and in the jackal armament of vigilante militias. He brings us to a border suddenly filled with factories and economic refugees. He brings us to a border where people fleeing American-led violence in Central America end up. He brings us to a border whose fences, a cynical bargain made to pass NAFTA, trap people on both sides and make crossing a mortal threat.
In short, he brings us to today.
Trump and the End of the Myth
If you were to say one good thing about Donald Trump- and Christ, you really shouldn’t- it is that by being so openly vulgar, with such id-driven racism, and supplemented by such cowardly sycophants, he has forced us to recognize the cruelty that has always driven much of American policy.
Reading Grandin, this makes sense. The frontier has always allowed us to push that cruelty outward, to find newer enemies, and to believe in regeneration. But now there is nowhere to go. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and everywhere else) are dim echoes of empire, grinding distant slogs only remembered with the faintest pantomimes of covered-heart “gratitude.” Global capitalism is seen as a dumb joke played on all of us, with the benefit that it is also destroying the present. The frontier, long-rumored to be dead, is officially gone.
That’s why Trump’s wall is the true end of the myth, as Grandin’s subtitle implies. We’ve been heading that way. It could easily be argued that violence against Mexico is just as much a part of the American character as slavery and genocide. It has been a centuries-long preoccupation (and real occupation). And now it has found its post-Polk apotheosis, at a time when everything seems to be crumbing.
Trump’s wall is the closing of the frontier, a sealing off of even a hypocritical American dream. And we have, just today, entered a new phase.
The firing/resignation/who cares of Kirstjen Neilsen is concentrating power in the hands of Trump and the wiry evil of anti-immigrant fanatic Stephen Miller. Today was a purge, as Mark Joseph Stern explained.
After firing Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Sunday, President Donald Trump purged the agency’s senior management on Monday. According to CBS News, Trump secured the resignation of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Cissna, DHS Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady, and DHS General Counsel John Mitnick. He also fired U.S. Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles. Trump adviser Stephen Miller, an immigration hard-liner, reportedly masterminded the DHS purge as part of an effort to crack down on immigration at the southern border.
So what does that mean? Well:
Trump didn’t want Grady; he wanted Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. It’s easy to see why. Under McAleenan’s leadership, CBP repeatedly broke the law to implement Trump’s first travel ban, earning a rebuke from DHS’ Office of Inspector General. McAleenan is a strong proponent of a border wall as well as new laws to curb asylum-seekers’ entry into the country. He infamously failed to inform Congress that a 7-year-old girl died in CBP custody when he testified before the Senate just three days after her death.
In other words, the real hardliners are taking over. I don’t know if Nielsen was a true believer or just a spineless sycophant, and she deserves a lifetime of scorn and opprobrium either way, but apparently there were lines even she wouldn’t cross. With this purge, the Trump people are looking for people who don’t believe in lines.
We’re living in an era of a hyperactive Border Patrol who are setting up Constitution-free zones in 75% of America’s populated areas. It’s an era where ICE is given full reign to destroy people. These are the spears of the new America, and they are being molded in Trump’s lawless image.
There might be pushback (apparently, some CBP officials didn’t like Trump telling officers they didn’t have to follow the law). Trump wants us to believe that “the country is full”, which is of course laughable, except he doesn’t mean it literally. He means that we have enough brown people, and we don’t want anymore.
And that’s the heart of the wall, and the heart of the frontier, and the heart of the American myth. That this is a land destined for white people, who can do no wrong. It’s why we believe that we don’t occupy territory when the whole country is occupied. It’s why we believe that land taken from Mexico has always been American, and why were are insanely resentful that anyone could question that. It’s why we take natural migration patterns as an affront to our sacred ideals.
The wall isn’t the antithesis of the frontier, it is its howling echo. It is its fulfillment. It is the promise of white nationalism with nowhere else to go, caged and furious. It is standing athwart history and pretending it didn’t happen. It is the stupidity of Trump and the cupidity of his enablers made concrete. It is the railroad and it is Pickett’s Charge; it is Custer and Andrew Jackson; it is James Earl Ray, and it is everyone who built their life around cheap consumer goods made by broken hands in child-filled maquiladoras.
The wall is the American Dream. It’s a reality from which we need to awake.
When Howard Schultz, best known for not being known at all outside of Davos, announced he was going to run for President, a paroxysm of interest staggered the limited number of people who care about such things. While his campaign got off to a, ah, rough start, the pundit class was already analyzing his chances.
Not his chances to win, of course: his “independent bid” was recognized by virtually everyone except Hugh Hewitt and probably Tom Friedman as a load of vanity nonsense. Mostly, people are worried that he might siphon enough votes away from the Democratic candidate to get Trump re-elected.
While this seems possible, it is more likely that this campaign goes nowhere, since I would think most people are too jacked-up and partisan at this point to even pay attention to a third-party gadfly. Beside, to whom does he have appeal? Liberals dying for an inexperienced billionaire who has ruthlessly exploited global supply chains? Or to conservatives for whom “Starbucks” isn’t a byword for effete urbanism?
But I think the Schultz campaign might be good for something, and that is to expose once and for all the myth of the “social liberal, fiscal conservative.” That description, always self-applied, has long been popular in the Acela corridor, and among certain politically-engaged types who like to present themselves in a certain way.
It makes sense: it combines heart with a certain pragmatism. “I care about people, but I also think we can’t go around exploding the deficit and etc.” It appeals to people’s sense of “centrism”. It’s fun to say the parties have been hijacked by extremists, so I’ll take a little from one side and a little from another and present myself as the champion of real people. The forgotten middle. The salt of the dang earth.
The problem is, of course, that it’s all bullshit, not least of all because the Republican Party could never be defined as fiscally conservative. They blow up spending and slash revenue. It’s literally their defining feature, other than cultural warfare (and these are connected, as we’ll get to in a quick second).
It’s bullshit because those two sides are completely contradictory, unless you reduce social liberalism to the merest platitudes. What do you believe in? Social Security? Medicare or Medicaid? How about enforcing the VRA? Having an activist DOJ? A jobs program? Public transportation investment? Fair housing? A robust food stamps program, at least?
These things cost money, which means taxes, especially taxes on the wealthy. It means a progressive tax. And sister, Schultz is not having any of that.
“There are a number of areas here that need to be addressed,” Schultz said, insisting “I’m not trying to dodge any question, but I feel like what we have today is an unfair system.”
But he argued that Warren’s “ultramillionaire” tax — which would create a 2 percent wealth tax on those with a net worth above $50 million and impose an additional 1 percent on net worth above $1 billion — was showboating.
“However, when I see Elizabeth Warren come out with a ridiculous plan of taxing wealthy people a surtax of 2 percent because it makes a good headline or sends out a tweet when she knows for a fact that’s not something that’s ever gonna be passed, this is what’s wrong,” he said. “You can’t just attack these things in a punitive way by punishing people.”
See, he doesn’t believe funding programs, because he doesn’t really believe in the programs.
He said running as a Democrat would be “disingenuous” because he doesn’t believe in some of the issues that many in the party (and certainly many 2020 contenders) support — free college, universal free health care, and guaranteed jobs. He said on those matters, the party “has shifted so far to the left.”
Schultz criticized the 2017 Republican tax cuts for giving a “free ride to business” and said he would have been “more modest” in giving tax relief to those who need it the most. In an interview with CNBC on Monday, he said he didn’t want to get into details on whether he would raise taxes on corporations, which in the 2017 bill got a cut from a 35 percent rate to 21 percent.
“I don’t want to talk in the hypothetical about what I would do if I was president,” he said.
In the Times interview, he expressed concern about the national debt and the affordability of free college and guaranteed government jobs.
“Doesn’t someone have to speak the truth about what we can afford while maintaining a deep level of compassion and empathy for the American people?” he said.
The first quote is, of course, the dumbest thing anyone has ever heard, but the last one is key. “What we can afford” is meaningless when you refuse to take the steps to afford anything. Now, Schultz might just be running to protect his own class, or to lower his taxes, or to send a message to the Dems about how far left the plutocrats are willing to let them move before revolting. Any of those are possible, and the last one is particularly interesting.
But take Schultz out of the equation, and you get to the hollow end of the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” mental scam. It essentially boils down to “I’m all for fairness, but not if we have to pay for any of it. Can’t have that. Simply can’t afford it.”
At the end, it’s basically just clucking your tongue at racism, homophobia, and systemic injustice, without actually taking any of the steps to fix it, and without recognizing that it takes an activist and well-funded government to undo and fix the vast inequalities and legacy of top-down class warfare on which this country was funded.
We know the GOP doesn’t want to do that; cutting taxes on billionaires enhances those conditions, combining their fiscal recklessness with their social psychopathy. But without actually doing any of the funding, the “fiscal conservative” is enacting the same goals. Maybe they think “leadership” or whatever can make things better. It’s pretty to think so, at least.
We’re confronted on a daily basis with the reality that the most powerful man in the world is also one of its stupidest citizens, certainly its least curious, and a man only happy and intellectually stimulated when idiots on Fox say nice things about him through the TV. We all know this.
We see examples of it all the time. During the shutdown, he pulled one of his classic negotiating moves, which is: walking out of a meeting. I say “classic” because he’s been talking for literally decades about how this is his key power move, how it is an unbeatable negotiating tactic.
The problem, of course, comes when 1) everyone knows that is your only tactic and; 2) when you have no leverage. But the President is so convinced of his deal-making genius, and so sure that people will cower, that he is unable to learn anything new or be shaken one degree from the surety of his self-regard. That makes him a moron!
(Caveat: maybe this once worked in the high-stakes world of New York real estate, making other real estate people and bankers cower. While as an occasional tactic it is not without merit, it is just another example that our plutocratic class is, by and large, a bunch of pudding-brains twits.)
And so we come to one of the central paradoxes of the Trump Era. Because he’s such a consistent, record-shattering idiot, to an overwhelming degree about literally everything that matters, it is easy to forget just how much of a world-class powerlifting dope he is on any specific thing.
The tweet above is the perfect example of his arrogance, his ignorance, and his 4th-grade understanding of climate change being brought to public on the strength of his 2nd-grade wit. He not only thinks he is right about this; he is sure he is devastatingly right. End of story. It’s cold in the Midwest.
And it is! Right now, I’m getting ready to head to the train to go to work, and it is really goshdarn cold. And it is 25 degrees warmer than it’ll be this time tomorrow! These are, as everyone knows, record-shattering temperatures.
But of course, and I shouldn’t even have to say this, there are a few obvious things to point out.
Climate isn’t weather. I know this, you know this, everyone knows this.
This tiny part of America isn’t the world.
This few days of cold isn’t, like, all the time.
Intense polar vortexes are an outcome predicted by the climate change model
Really, all anyone has to do is look at a current climate map.
It’s still super warm most everywhere else, and even more to the point, how can someone say “Looks like everything in the weather is goddamn crazy! Clearly the climate is fine!”
Look, I know you’re bored reading this. We all know this. I’m bored writing it, and genuinely depressed about it. We have an idiot as our President. We have an idiot, with one particular specialty of idiocy, at the worst possible time. And here’s why I’m particularly depressed.
That was right before the 2014 polar vortex, and I remember very clearly being enraged. This one stuck in my head. The sheer ignorance, the buffonery, the certainty of his position was heightened by the fact that I had to hear about it. Like, I didn’t follow him or anything. But I saw “Trump talks to Fox about Global Warming” on Slate or whatever, or “Check out Trump ROASTING climate extremists to the chuckleheads at Fox and Friends”.
I actually remember walking around and being livid that this charlatan was paid attention to at all, when any of his “points” could be so easily refuted (by the exact same list above, in fact). It was maddening and infuriating. Why was anyone caring at all what he had to say? I took some comfort in the fact that no one actually was.
And now he’s President. The worst public figure of his generation, the embodiment of everything stupid and cheap and tacky and vulgar and flauntingly ignorant in our society. At a time when we are, at best, already tipping over the tipping point, we have a sentient cheeseburger insisting not just that things are fine, but that he’s the only one who really knows. Trust him.
As a side story, I remember that week in 2014 extremely clearly not just for the bitterness of the vortex, but for it being the week my dad passed away. For days, I wasn’t able to dig my car out, and my wife and I took buses and cabs to see family. But the day of the wake I of course wanted my car, and worked like hell to dig and push it out, but I couldn’t.
I was doing that thing where I was steering and pushing, to no avail, as car after car passed me by. Until a pickup truck slowed down, and three men jumped out. They were three Mexican men, spoke only Spanish, and to my mind, probably hadn’t been in the country that long. They weren’t dressed for a normal Chicago winter, much less that particular one.
So here they were, thousands of miles from home (I assume). And without question, they jumped out, and helped me push my car out. No hesitation. And I don’t know if the biggest guy could see that I was going through some shit, but he put his hand on my shoulder, and nodded with the “it’ll be all right” look. I won’t ever forget that kindness through my sorrow, that human connection in the inhuman weather, that sheer unflinching decency.
So yeah, regarding the President’s racist push to keep people out of this country, I say this sincerely: fuck you. You aren’t worth a single immigrant.
The first time I saw a coyote in Chicago was more than a decade ago, turning one night onto Rockwell off of Addison, snaking past the darkened academic Gothic hulk of Lane Tech. I was taking the shortcut to Jewel to buy beer, I presume, heading into the Riverview shopping complex that was a melancholy reminder of the amusement park that once stood there, tilting madly along the river.
This night was before the city renovated the area, installing a boathouse and river access. The backroad there was weed-lined and vaguely fetid, abutting a field that stank of sewage. It seemed tired and forgotten, a little part of the city lost in the bewildered and inchoate transition away from a striding industrial power.
There in my headlights a ragged dog jump-trotted across the road, lanky and shambolic. It looked at the car with barely a passing glance, and I realized that it was a coyote: low to the ground, more feral, and more determined than some stray.
It was one of those vertiginous moments where you can’t come close to vocalizing the disconnect. It all seemed to fit though: the weedy stink of that stretch of street, the memory of industry, the ache of grubby commerce standing dully in an parking lot filled with torn-down nostalgia, and this creature that just didn’t belong; a creature, I naively thought, of the woods and the moon-howling sands. It was a dizzying reminder that just as there are no true separations in time, the distinction between the animal kingdom and ours is equally illusory. No matter how many times it happens, like with a fox on a full-moon summer night, it is still disorienting and indescribable.
Those sorts of encounters are at the heart of Gavin Van Horn’s The Way of Coyote, (University of Chicago Press), which I called last month one of my favorite books of 2018, and whose impact on me has only grown (and who actually can describe these encounters). Van Horn, who works for the Center for Humans and Nature, crafted a book that doesn’t so much break down barriers as point out that these barriers never existed, no matter how much we try.
(Needless disclosure: the company I work for designed the website for the Center for Humans and Nature, but it was before I worked there. It’s important to practice radical honesty. Radical, pointless, honesty.)
Van Horn, a fellow Evanstonian, shows himself in the book to be an inveterate walker, someone who moves along seeing the world at the ground level. At this level he sees that our buildings and sidewalks and river paths are more than an imposition onto the animal kingdom: they are actually a part of it.
One animal we get to see quite a bit of is the peregrine falcon, who live in urban environments, reaching speeds of over 200 miles per hour as they swoop and dart for food, much to the consternation of local rodent populations. Once on the verge of extinction, they have made a remarkable comback, thanks partly to the conversation efforts of some individuals to whom the book introduces us.
Why are they doing so well? Simply put, it’s because the city works for them. It has food. It has shelter. And it really sort of looks like home. As Van Horn writes:
Other than the wild tenacity of the birds, a key factor for peregrines’ success may be the city itself. Peregrines are historically cliff-dwelling raptors, and as Mary (a bird expert) observes, “If you think of the city, it’s nothing but a psuedo-cliff, with lots of ledges, ample prey, and no competition for the use of space.”
Now you, as a brainy human, might be thinking: idiot birds! A skyscraper is nothing like a cliff. Cliffs are rocks, you dumb bird!
Well, first of all, settle down. Second of all, from the bird’s point-of-view, so what? A falcon doesn’t enjoy a cliff because it prefers its homes to be eroded; rather, it’s because a cliff gives it advantages for food and shelter. If a skyscraper- or a city full of skyscrapers, with uncompromised vantage points- does the same thing, then the bird adapts. It barely even has to. The city just works.
Van Horn uses this to talk about reconciliation ecology, which is, as he explains, “the (often sweat-intensive) process of bringing a historical ecosystem or landscape back to a condition resembling its former functionality and diversity.”
It’s actually a radical concept: can a city, built by and for humans, with contours and structures dictated by the pressures of population and the maw-shoveling dictates of capitalism’s endless grind, work for other animals? Is that even possible?
Throughout the book, Van Horn time and time again says “yes.” He says it with an expression that points out that it isn’t easy, but also with the quiet knowledge that it is already happening. He sees traces of beavers along the North Shore Channel. He finds animal activities in TV graveyards. He spots the ghosts of coyotes in human graveyards.
And in the book, Van Horn introduces us to a large cast of people who are working to restore natural pathways in the city and urban areas, whether through restoring prairies on a large scale of neighbors banding together to help bees find food yard by yard, block by block, until they can fly across a city that has only recently sprung up in their ancient paths.
While the book is decidedly first-person, and Van Horn takes on on his jaunts and kayak trips, he lets other people tell the story. We hear from luminaries like the great Aldo Leopold and the unknown activists dedicated to helping other species.
He’s a wry story-teller and gifted writer, capable of subtle sentences whose power reveals itself unexpectedly. (“Why do I walk? I press my toes against the edges of that question”) The book is also deprecatingly funny, with a particularly good bit when he is sinking in mud in the North Shore channel, as concerned about the embarrassment as he is about actually drowning.
My mind refocuses on the present. Gelatinous good oozes between my toes and I descend a few inches farther. Is there a bottom to this? I wonder. Who’s to say how deep the goop goes- beside the white egrets, who ignore my plight, stepping gingerly atop the sludge with enviable stilt legs and hollow-boned bodies. My bones will be hard to find in a few minutes. I wish for a pith helmet- my cartoon-based version of what remains of a British explorer caught in Amazonian quicksand- so next of kin can locate me once I’m fully submerged. At least I will have saved them a trip to another continent. I am standing with one leg mired in a tiny tributary of the Chicago River, and the river is doing its best to absorb me.
What’s striking is the uncertainty, the inability to really know the depth of the goop. It is just a “tiny tributary”, a man-made slop channel just now sprung back to life, but that doesn’t matter. It can absorb someone, and they can drown surrounded by impassive egrets.
The possibility of death only exists because the river has come back to life. That it has is partly due to the efforts of conservationists and city planners, but partly because, well: it is a river. Mud doesn’t care about intent; it forms when dirt hits water, and can create a sucking terror no matter what. The egrets are clearly happy that the Channel is clean, even if they don’t show that gratitude by throwing a goddamn rope or something. Because for them, this is now a pathway.
Pathways are key to the book. Our sidewalks and streets and buildings and highways and our plows and shovels and sewers have interrupted ancient pathways. Bees and butterflies and birds are confused where to fly on inherited migration paths. Ground-based animals have to deal with the terrors of the roads just to find food. Open space is interrupted, parceled off, relegated to a patch of strange color and odd-shapes on a gridded map.
That’s not the way it should be, and cities are beginning to recognize that. There are more attempts to link up habitats, create ways for animals to move from zone to zone. Whether that is by restoring waterways like the Chicago River or just providing bridges and tunnels and walkways, cities are linking open spaces.
That’s for every animal, including humans, and I think that’s the point of Van Horn’s subtitle, “Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds”. We’re in these cities together, these unnatural aggregations, these dense and pulsing and terrible and wonderful zones. They are often indifferent to their own citizens, much less any other species.
Cities with this size and noise and intensity are incredibly new to the human experience, to say nothing of their eye-blink appearance in the natural world. We all need to learn to adapt.
In a short little book on the extinction of the passenger pigeons called Pilgrims of the Air, John Wilson Foster describes the superabundance of creatures that greeted European colonists in the New World. The world was so filled with fish and fowl that “sky-darkening” swarms of pigeons “didn’t leap off the pages of the discovery and settler narratives.”
But there was another reason. The birds and the fish and the game weren’t seen as natural wonders. “They were crude grocery lists rather than field-logs of the naturalist; they were files of potential merchandise; and the very abundance they roughly noted hindered an observant awareness…”
When settlers came to America, they adapted to the land by attempting to transform it and everything on, under, or over it into capital. Passenger pigeons, whose flocks were the size of counties, went extinct. Cities went up without any care for their impacts. The land was for taking. The animals were for eating or killing so as not to interfere with our plans.
Adaptation is everywhere in the book. How do we adapt to the weight of our disruption? How do we adapt to the weirdness of our cities? How do we adapt to the disconnect we’ve had with nature, of which we’re an indelible part? If we can drown in the mud, of course, we are a part of the natural world.
For Van Horn, it is about ethics, or creating new mindways, new journeys in our own lives, and a new way of seeing the world.
New patterns of thought about the purpose and possibilities of a city can create new corridors of life in the urban landscape. Imaginative leaps across neural bridges may build the bridges between our lives and those of other creatures, and may compel us to demand corridors that repair the frayed weave of life-giving pathways throughout the city. Rewilding the mind can rewild our cities.
While that’s important, to some creatures, that’s almost superflous. The coyote, the ultimate adapter to every landscape across the country, is learning how to exist in the city. It prowls and skulks and feeds. We catch glimpses of it. Even just today, a coworker, with a thrill in her voice revealing that recognizable breathlessness of experience and that instinctual, bright and nameless wonder in pond-green eyes, told me that she spotted a coyote running across Ravenswood before slipping alongside the tracks. It was another glimpse at adaptation.
The coyote reminds us that we can adapt in the same way. The city is always changing: a fetid field along a sluggish, industry-wrecked river can become a spot of leisure and activity. An amusement park gets torn down, its laughter becoming a memory, fading into photographs and stories of streetcar journeys. A massive school can stand still as the world moves around it.
Our minds have to adjust to these changes, even if they do so while clinging to a weeping nostalgia. We long for things that are gone, which might explain why seeing the coyote disturbs and excites. These things aren’t gone. The world we wrecked is figuring out how to live with us. If we can take those lessons, and share that journey, we might be able to live with them. We just might be able to live with ourselves.