We Are the Wilderness: Gavin Van Horn’s “The Way of the Coyote”

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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 the 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?

North Shore Channel, dam existing as either an archaism or a strange future-perfect vision of a post-human world

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.

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As Van Horn points out, the last bullet point is pretty much as “you know what- just stay away, dorks.”

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.

We’re still doing that, of course. We still put capital over things like clean water and human rights, everywhere. But there is a new ethos competing with it. We are adapting.

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.

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Programming Notes and Good Reads

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So, first a programming note. As the handful of you who read this can probably tell, posting has been sporadic at best. The grind of writing 1500 words every morning isn’t always compatible with my schedule, and I admit to being frustrated that the work doesn’t really seem to have an impact. I truly value everyone who reads- you mean more to me than I can express- but I’ve decided to focus more on larger projects, rather than quick reaction pieces.

So this will still be active, but mostly for book reviews and good read roundups. I’m sure I’ll be writing when moved by something, but want to work on a few other things, without the pressure to blog or the weird scratching guilt that comes when this has lain fallow for a few days.

OK- enough solipsism: onto the reads!

Illinois has always been a hub state, where the Great Lakes get connected to the Mississippi River basin. It’s where the continent shifts. Chicago, especially, was built to connect the two great water systems, and it quickly became the railroad center of the nation. Read the magisterial Nature’s Metropolis for a deep background on how the vast American west relied on (and built) Chicago.

So to say that the region was forged around the dictates of capitalism is a bit of an understatement. It is still the case, even if it has shifted. In The New Republic, Alexander Sammon has a really well-written, comprehensive, and stunning piece about how Elwood, IL, 40 miles southwest of Chicago, is at the center of the global shipping economy, and how it has transformed and erased this town of 2200.

As Sammon explains, Elwood is blessed with “serendipitous proximity to the country’s major infrastructure. Six class-1 railroads and four interstate highways pass through the region, which is situated a day’s drive from a full 60 percent of the country. Chicago is some 40 miles northeast as the crow flies.”

It ain’t the crow that flies though. It is 25,000 tractor trailers every day. It is over three million shipping containers a year. It is goods from around the world, transported on vast ships, loaded onto trains, distributed into trucks in Elwood, and then to their final destination.

Sammon shows how it the center of the global economy, with all that entails. This is a story of the promise of industry and jobs not trickling down even as global companies get bigger and the rich get richer. It’s wildcat truck drivers, unaffiliated contractors who are untrained and paid only for getting goods as quickly as possible, hurtling down residential streets at 50 miles an hour. It is creeping automation. It’s choking pollution. And it is always growing. Always consuming. It never stops.

It didn’t just start, of course. Here in Chicago we’ve had 150 years of industrial impact, but as a new report by the NRDC shows, it’s impact hasn’t exactly been even. (Via Citylab and Sophia Yeo, who explains perfectly what it all means.)


This shows what neighborhoods are most at risk for pollution and its dangerous impacts. You can see pretty clearly that the industrial corridor running southwest along the Sanitation and Shipping Canal (or the South Branch) is deeply dangerous, with a long legacy of industrial negligence and environmental apathy.

While this isn’t a 1:1 with race and class, it is pretty telling. Some areas have political power, and some don’t. We put industry and dumps and power plants in near some people, but not others. We redline some people out of areas with more parks than plants, but not others. There is no one decision made: it is a long and intertwined history. You can’t tell the entire history of Chicago from that map, but you certainly can give it a good shot.

Want some more Chicago history? Of course you do, dammit! Here’s a cool story in the Guardian, by Tanner Howard, about Native American trails that are still in Chicago’s grid system. It’s not all the angle streets, but most of them. Actually, the story is less “cool” than “predictable”.

Two neat Chicago maps in one post! Who said this blog was boring?

These native roads are buried and the history effaced. Rogers, up in Rogers Park, was originally called Indian Boundary Road, since it marked where natives had to be beyond after the Blackhawk War. It might be an uncomfortable name, but it is also an honest reckoning one. Howard’s story is unflinching in the way colonizing land and people and history works, how thorough and comprehensive it is- how comprehensive the project of effacement needs to be- even down to the street system.

One thing that stands out in the story is that the native trails were based on nature- on the search for high ground in the marshy wetlands.

Over the course of four distinct periods of glacial melting, stretching as far back as 14,500 years ago, Chicago’s terrain was shaped by the ebbs and flows of melting ice. Through the process of littoral drift, where small bits of sand and organic matter drifted from place to place on the tide, small but distinct ridges were etched into the land. Those natural high grounds, rising no more than 10 or 15 feet above the rest of the terrain, became some of the pathways used by Native peoples as they began to inhabit the area about 11,000 years ago.

And then Europeans came and drained the swamp and imposed a grid system and killed and erased the natives and built this city I fucking love. It’s complicated. But it shows again that we need to understand our history, reckon with it, and take joy that those irritating 6-corner intersections are remnants of glaciers, bits of high ground over the wet prairies, trod on for thousands of years, and remember that we live in geology.

We live in geology and we live in ecology, but we don’t really remember that very often. In fact, as a species, we go out of our way to thwart it. Hence, so long, fish!

The apocalypse has a new date: 2048. That’s when the world’s oceans will be empty of fish, predicts an international team of ecologists and economists. The cause: the disappearance of species due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.

We could reverse this, but it would mean international cooperation, a change in the way we organize our lives and comfort, and the ability to look past the short term and our own lives. So yeah: so long, fish!

There’s a chance that is too hard on the species, but we live in liminal times and we’re run by the worst people. Our ruling class is made up of a bunch of wet-brained idiots who are extremely comfortable with corruption. This Washington Post article about how T-Mobile execs suddenly started staying in Trump’s Washington DC hotel when they needed a merger approved is a perfect tale for our times.

You have a huge company getting huger and knowing that to do so they need the personal approval of our idiot President, and they know that giving him money is how to make it happen. There’s no moral or metaphor here. It’s naked corruption.

That’s what Trump has done: by being so insecure, so vain, so empty, and such a ridiculous moron, he’s brought the worst of the ruling class into the open. Corruption and disdain for decency has always been the way they do business. It’s the the daylight now.

Corruption is the key to the entire Trump Presidency and to our moment (except for one other thing, which we’ll get to below). Our monied elite believe that the government should exist only to ease their path to power, help them get richer, and crush the working class. They’ve worked to make that happen. Over the last 40 years, the GOP has built itself around that idea: that government is the enemy and so we’ll destroy it except to help the rich. Large parts of the Democratic Party agree (though that is changing).

So corruption, here, is a feature of the system, not a bug. It’s made so that the rich can get richer and their water-carriers get sinecures. Why not loot? Why not hand over bags of money to the President? Why not use the highest office in the land to make a few more dollars? If the government exists only to serve the rich, what difference does it make?

That’s why Trump is the perfect GOP president. He’s so nakedly corrupt, and believes so fully and openly that the government should exist just to cater to him, that it is a family business, that he has made it open and acceptable to act in the same way. There are no more illusions. It’s an open shop, so long as you flatter the storekeeper.

But while corruption is key to Trump and the GOP, it isn’t the only key. Racism and hatred are the driving force. By now, you’ve seen this horrible teenager.





You’ve probably seen the video. White, MAGA-hat wearing teens, marching to deny women’s rights, got into a shouting match with some Black Israelities (not Black Lives Matter), and then a Native activist started drumming and chatting to break things up. They surrounded him, mocked him, shouted “build the wall”, and otherwise intimidated him.

Especially this kid.

He walked up, inches away, and started staring, and smiling a smile of cruel mockery, of power, of intimidation. He was hoping to scare the activist, to rattle him, to show him who is boss. He was hoping to get laughs. He was hoping to get the approval of his hooting peers.

In some ways, this is edgelord bullshit. It’s defying “norms” or whatever, and showing that you are pretty cool because you don’t give a fuck about being PC. It’s showing that you can do whatever you want. That’s the heart of trolling, of course.

It’s more though. Build the wall, harassing a Native, denying women’s reproductive rights: it’s power and racism. It’s not just that they are looking to be edgy. They’ve found it. As a friend of mine said, “being an racist bully is an edgy identity.”

That’s why racism works and lingers and is growing. For certain people, it is fun. It’s laughable. It’s brave. And while you can say “they aren’t really racist; they just think it is cool”, I think that’s naive. It all comes from a lack of empathy, and manifests itself the same. It’s privilege to know that your actions won’t hurt you, and so you can do and say whatever you want, because those people, those women, those migrants, that old man clamoring for peace- they aren’t people. They don’t matter. We do what we want.

That, of course, is the heart of Trumpism. It’s why those red hats are the official uniform of smug racists. And they aren’t going away.

Joshua Tree Reminds Us Why We Have Government And Why Republicans Hate It

I was recently reading Against the Grain, by James C. Scott, in which he went deep into the history of state formation, starting with the rise of rooted agriculture, and concluded that neither were the natural way of things, much less the most desired or inevitable. The book was far from political, but even someone as liberal as I am couldn’t help but think ill thoughts about state formation. Is government really needed?

Well, yes.

Illegal roads, cut down Joshua trees, and damaged federal property, along with the need to clean up garbage, prompted Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith to announce Tuesday that the park would close indefinitely on Thursday to address those impacts incurred during the ongoing partial government shutdown.

“There are about a dozen instances of extensive vehicle traffic off roads and in some cases into wilderness,” Smith replied when asked about the damage in the park. “We have two new roads that were created inside the park. We had destruction of government property with the cutting of chains and locks for people to access campgrounds. We’ve never seen this level of out-of-bounds camping. Every day use area was occupied every evening.

“Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads.”

National Parks Traveler

The government shutdown has done terrible things to our national parks, the one shining symbol of our commitment to and belief in the common good, in a shared heritage. Starved of the resources to keep people in line, the parks have become strewn with trash and filth, littered around nature like the casual discarding of an idea.

In a way, of course, these acts are entirely nonpolitical: it is a bunch of entitled yahoos seeing something beautiful and being overwhelmed with the near-religious need to tear ass across it. And while I believe in my heart that they are the same people who think coal-rolling is a declaration of individuality and pure lib-ownership, I don’t know for sure.

But in a way, it is of course political. It gets to the heart of this country’s conflict: that between people who think the land and everything and everyone on, in, and under it should be converted to capital and made profane, and those who think that the idea of the common good is more important.

That’s tied directly to our idea of self-governance. Are we all in this together, fighting for something, with a responsibility to each other? Are we here to do the hard work? Or do we abdicate that to a ruling class?

It’s complicated, of course: the right wing/libertarian could say that having a government at all is an abdication, but that way leads to things like the national park being destroyed and our shared resources being plundered. The myth of individuality, like we saw at Malheur and with the Bundy clan, is really just a money grab by the powerful who think the government should only exist to protect and further their interests.

It’s been that way throughout our history; it wasn’t until FDR in the 30s that the government was neutral on labor fights. Before then, they threw the weight of the state at strikers, grinding up protestors in the teeth of truncheons and tear gas. And now we’re getting back to those terrible days.

That’s what the Republican Party is right now. It is a vehicle to advance the interests of the rich and powerful by destroying the state’s ability to protect the common good. (It is also a vehicle for white nationalism, but those are intertwined). The GOP hates government, and hates shared resources, and hates land that isn’t being exploited. The shutdown isn’t an accident; it is a culmination.

It’s also a reminder of why we need government, and more of a reminder that the work has to be shared. It is a reminder that we are the government, and our duties toward each other have to make us fight and compromise and struggle together toward something better. Something bigger. Something that keeps the Joshua Trees standing, against the hot winds and the slow erosion of an idea.

*(Want to note that hunter/gatherer societies weren’t ungoverned; like tribal areas in Yemen today, they had rules and regulations and an idea of shared responsibility based on reciprocal altruism. It was also based on the role of luck in life, an obvious attribution that has been Horatio Alger-ized out of America.)

A Fatal Case of Both-Sides-Ism

RIP, Associated Press.

On the one hand, the idea for the wall is racist nonsense, ineffective idiocy, and would require a massive land grab that is both massively authoritarian and ecologically ruinous. On the other hand, some people don’t want that.

From one point of view, the administration’s pricetag of $5 billion is both laughably high and entirely too cheap. It won’t pay for the wall and the admin is unable to offer specifics on what the money will be used for. It’s almost as if the President just made it up out of thin air and now refuses to budge, and the money has become an item of totemic faith for the worst people in the country. From another point of view, they aren’t giving it to him for some reason.

There are many perspectives in this world. There is a perspective that a man who a few weeks ago said he’d gladly shut down the government over a vanity project he can’t even comprehend should shoulder the lion’s share of blame. There is another perspective that says no one understands how it is really dogs who are walking people.

Some people say Al Qaeda is now fully in control of Ciudad Juarez, recruiting MS-13 members to sell cocaine-laced fentanyl to West Virginia, and another side that thinks that sounds a little funny. Who is to say!

From which horizon does the sun rise? Can we ever know the truth? Or is the world an ineffable poem written on the wind?

I personally feel like the party who loathes the role of government and wishes it to be destroyed so that the rich and powerful could have full sway over the land and all the people and which is in thrall to a meglomaniac might bear more responsibility for shutting down said government. I might feel that the inability of our press to recognize the idea that one party is dedicated to operating in bad faith so as to ruin the idea of democratic self-governance helps that party do so.

But it takes two to tango, I suppose.

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2018 Subjectivity: My Fave Books From The Past Year

In a tradition stretching all the way back to 2017, we like to end each year here at Shooting Irrelevance with a look at some of my favorite reads from the last 365. Because life is short, we’ll stretch this back to books published in 2017 that I didn’t quite get around to, but meant to.

Does that seem right authoritative? I think it does. To be clear, this in no way is a list of “the best books of 2018”, since even I’m not arrogant enough to arrogate unto myself that declarative right. It’s just a list of good books published in the last 18 months.

(Some older books that I finally got around to included Day of the Locust/Miss Lonelyhearts, Salvage the Bones, Mama Day, True Grit, All for Nothing, and All the Living. But they don’t get included in this list! This is a regime of rules and Fear! Let no old book cross us.)

There was no clear front-runner this year, unlike last year’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. So let’s say everyone is a winner.

On to the books! (Due to some WordPress wonkiness, you have to scroll down just a titch, under “Related Posts”, to click on Page 2, with the actual content. Sorry)

In Leaving Syria, Trump Perfects the War on Terror

OK, so a few things about Donald Trump’s seemingly unilateral announcement that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria.

  1. We have not in any way “defeated ISIS”, even if, as Sarah Sanders put it, the “territorial caliphate” is, for the time, kaput.
  2. We weren’t going to “defeat ISIS” with US troops on the ground, because that’s impossible.
  3. ISIS, even as a “caliphate”, was never an existential threat to the US
    They are, however, a humanitarian catastrophe and a pack of atavistic murdering ghouls.
  4. Keeping US troops there forever would be insane and self-defeating and there would be no logical withdrawal point.
  5. Keeping US troops there forever would add to regional instability by furthering the narrative of US colonialism.
  6. Trump’s withdrawal is going to foment more regional instability, by creating new fronts between Russia, Turkey, the Kurds, and various anti-Asad, AQ, and ISIS groups.
  7. Russia is thrilled– this helps them get what they want, i.e. a chance to have more regional influence. So nice job giving Russia what they want, Trumpo!
  8. Good- let them have it. A fundamentally weak Russia is going to get mired in a dissolving region, because Putin can never help overplaying his hand.
  9. We’ve once again abandoned the Kurds
  10. That’s one thing every American President does well
  11. We’ve strengthened Iran’s position. So nice job giving the mullahs what they want, Trumpo!
  12. See #7.

So here’s where I slightly exonerate Trump. There are no good outcomes for US policy in the Middle East, especially when it comes to Syria. I don’t think this can be blamed entirely on Obama, of course: I don’t see what kind of US intervention could have prevented its disintegration, unless he acted on the “regime change” level of the Iraq invasion in 2003, which, as you might remember, led to the disintegration that spread to Syria.

So there is a certain beautiful logic in withdrawing from Syria just like that, with a stumpy-fingered snap. For years, cynics and wags have said that the only way to win the “War on Terror”, a nonsense concept, would be to just declare victory and go home. After all, you can’t actually fight or defeat “terror”, so saying that you’ve won fits neatly into the woozy and blood-letting futility of the last 17 years. A perfect capstone!

Of course, it isn’t neat at all. Trump’s decision was made without any consultation and seemingly without any concern for its ramifications. There was never a Syria plan for him, just a repeating pattern of ineffective and contradictory airstrikes and a continuation of Obama-era anti-ISIS strategies.(Which he never understood, anyway.)

For proof that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, dig this tweet.

So…ISIS isn’t defeated? The whole thing is nonsense, but that’s to be expected.

All of his Syria strategies were a disaster. And they were a disaster in way that is inherent to Trump, but not drastically out of line with the way the US has conducted its surreal and destructive foreign policy over the last few decades.

In a way, of course, this was classic Trump: decide to take credit for something that didn’t happen just so 1) you can get press for it; 2) your acolytes will immediately say that you did the right thing; and 3) so that you can whine about the TV people not giving you enough credit.

That’s how he operates. It’s the only way he knows how. There’s no real forethought, there’s no insight into the situation. It’s just pure self-aggrandizement with no basis in reality. It is a decision based solely on a manufactured and pre-ordained reaction.

But so what? The entire last few decades have been that way, beginning with the very concept of a War on Terror. The shock and horror of September 11th obscured the fact that these massive strikes required insane luck and were basically non-repeatable. The only way that al-Qaeda could actually destroy America is if we let it.

And we did. We gave into fear and anger, to our natural habits of couch-quivering and xenophobia. We gave into insane security theater at the airports, the militarization of the police, and the inability of any politician to appear “Weak on terror”. When John Kerry said that fighting terrorism is a police, rather than a military action, he was mocked across the board even as every goddamn terrorism expert nodded with such simultaneous vigor that it was registered seismically.

None of that mattered. What mattered was the theatrical idea that America was doing something, even as our plans got bogged down, even as the Middle East imploded, even as bodies came home in thousands of bags and were measured by shattered limbs and broken brains.

We still can’t tell the truth. Even now, jackals like Lindsey Graham are weeping over the withdrawal, calling it a “stain” on US honor, because that is measured by our willingness to use troops to playact conquering fantasies. These last decades have been built on lies and delusion, fueled across party lines and by a compliant and timorous media.

So sure: Trump’s actions are uniquely his in their unreflective stupidity. But Trump didn’t make these wars unreal. He is the end result of a willingness to accept and even celebrate artifice. That Trump’s actions are in logical line with 17 years of illogical policy is a sobering epitaph to US primacy.

Love, Indifference, and the South Side: Eve Ewing’s “Ghosts in the Schoolyard”

Late in Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing’s short and dense and powerful exploration of the closing of African-American schools on Chicago’s South Side, she talks to a young man named Martin who walks past his old shuttered grade school every day. Giving Marvin the space to explore his thoughts, she quotes:

You remember a tree! We played near that tree and my brother would take us to school…Like you’ll walk to school with your brother and I see the tree and I see the school…and then I walk into my school. So it’s like I would take a left and you would walk down and you just start remembering everything. Because like, it’s this house, it’s a house that you always remembered…I remember walking past it and I remember they were building it. Then I walked past this tree and there was a beehive there. And you know we were kids so-

[Ewing (laughs): You’re throwin’…”]

You’re messing with the bees [laughs]. I know it’s not good now, but you’re messing with the bees and we’re running from the bees and every time I walk past that tree I just think about the bees.

Reading this passage, I was moved by the reality of his memory, by the freshness and the rawness of it, by the sweet elegy of the bee memory, the kind of thing that maybe happened a handful of times but stuck in his head as monumental, and enters his brain every day. 

Even as I read it and entered into the strangeness of another person’s associations- strange both for being not your own, and strange for being so recognizable and shaded in a universal amber- I was thinking of a literary comparison. In his eloquent inelegance, Martin sort of reminded me of Holden talking about the Natural History Museum in Catcher in the Rye, except, really, that’s not right at all. 

For Holden, the point was that in the museum “everything always stayed right where it was”, and “the only thing that would be different would be you.” That’s far from the case here. For Martin, and virtually everyone else in Ewing’s powerful and powerfully-researched book, everything had changed. Their neighborhoods and their institutions were ravaged. Their memories were torn down. The names of their heroes were effaced. 

And all this was done because Martin wasn’t Holden. That is, because centuries of racism and neglect and generations of institutional indifference and cruelty had erased African-Americans from their own stories. There was no conception that the people impacted by decisions in City Hall were people, that they had genuine feelings for their communities. They were erased from their stories. There was no moral imagination to allow the people of Bronzeville to be the protagonists in the narrative of their lives. 

Ewing’s book changes that. 

Let us not mince words: Ghosts in the Schoolyard is a wonder. It’s both sweeping and intimate, deeply-researched and deeply-felt, giving air to individuals while exhaustively weighing the impact created by decades of decisions and indifference. 

Ewing’s book telescopes back and forth in examining the closing of schools in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the heart of the historic “Black Belt”, an area that was penned in and crowded by redlining and the Dan Ryan, a place that was synonymous with an explosion of arts and culture and with violence, an area that saw the worst of housing project architecture. An area, in short, that fit many narratives, few of which were ever told by the people who lived there. (Or, more accurately, were told, but were rarely listened to outside the community.)

Ghosts in the Schoolyard sets out to change that. Ewing focuses on one high school, Dyett, which the CPS and Rahm Emmanuel wanted to close to turn into a charter school, and three elementary schools, which were “underutilized and under-resourced”. 

Ewing tackles these issues from the narrow and the broad, and in doing so shows us there is no difference between them. She talks about the community effort to save Dyett, to keep it an open enrollment high school, one that could actually prepare students for the future. After all, if the city was going to spend money to make it a charter school, why couldn’t they spend money to improve it as an open enrollment school? 

Why not, indeed? Because that wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was to fix a “failing” education system by neoliberalizing the hell out of it. That is what Rahm wanted, and that was the direction the CPS was going, in the footsteps of Arne Duncan (whose ideas were supported by, ashamedly, Barack Obama). 

Ewing ties that decision to the history of Chicago, which crowded people into Bronzeville and the Black Belt through institutional racism, refusing the chances to desegregate the city when building public housing. Instead of building across the city, the built straight in the air. 

We know that story. But the story that isn’t told as much is that when those towers came down, when Mayor Daley pushed to create ground-level public housing, communities were destroyed. I know that I, safe and sound and decidely liberal, rejoiced when the projects were torn down to make for more human living conditions. What I forgot, or probably never thought about, was that those were still actual communities. They may have been bad, but people had set up lives there. 

I never explored what it meant to suddenly disrupt the lives of all these people; I took it as axiomatically good, because I still refused to give proper agency or narrative control to the people whose lives were impacted. In this, I wasn’t alone. What Ewing does is place the narrative where it belongs, while still keeping the thread of how these decisions waterfall on each other. 

So: overcrowding became “underutilized” schools, after the communities that once crowded the classrooms were dispersed. But there were still students there. There were still teachers. There were still lives built around the routine of the classroom and the safety of known and accepted routes to school. 

The disruption of that, and the trauma it create, is what the heroes of the book fought and still fight against. They fight because they are people, and they fight not against the overt racism of yesteryear, but the passive wonkish racism of the spreadsheet. 

In one of the book’s most maddening passages, Ewing quotes a CPS official reading the numbers explaining why the grade schools have to close. It was an elegant mathematical formula: “the enrollment efficiency is plus or minus 20% of the facilities ideal enrollment”; “the number of allotted homerooms in approximately 76-77% of total classrooms”, etc. 

It’s bizarre. It’s inhuman. And Ewing takes it to task not just for its absurdity, but for its mulish implacability, its use of cold numbers to mask the human truth of the situation. She talks about how the numbers are seen as unquestionable, even though they are essentially arbitrary. They are positioned as inarguable, presented with the shrugged shoulders of the bloodless apparatchik, instead of something created and massaged in the service of a preordained ideal. 

In this, Ewing captures the perfect and seamless continuity between the old man Daley’s thuggish racism and Rahm’s neoliberal paens to equality, and how, in the end, there is no difference. She is cutting and accurate in pointing out that words don’t matter. Intentions might not even matter. If at the end of the day the result is the same, if you are continuing the dehumanizing assault on black lives, who gives a damn about your words? 

We see who gives a damn in this book. We see the community activists, and we hear from the people whose lives were ruined. And through it all, there is a surprising theme: love. 

We meet people who genuinely love their schools. They love what it means to go to the school their grandmother attended. They love the institutional links between generations. And of course they love their friends and their family. 

Ewing dives deep into black culture, and how ties go beyond nuclear family, and how mourning means something different. In doing so she demonstrates the impact of American culture on the black community, and Chicago in particular, and how traumatic these mathematical closings really are. 

For me, the thrust of the book is erasure. It’s an erasure of a culture. It’s an erasure of lives. It is how we rarely let African-Americans tell their own stories. In literature, sure, but not in life. 

That’s nowhere more clear than in school names. Dyett High was named after Walter Henri Dyett, who spent decades teaching music in Bronzeville, imparting upong generations that mystical combination of discipline and ecstasy. He was a community legend. His name was erased. 

While the school was saved, it was officially changed to “Drake”, named after a racist hotel magnate with zero ties to the Bronzeville community. That’s not all though. 

Mary C. Terrell Elementary- named for a black suffragist who was a charter member of the NAACP- became ACE Technical Charter School in 2001. Two years later, Sojourner Truth Elementary School became the Chicago International Charter School. Ralph J Bunche Elementary School, honoring the first African American to win a Nobel Prize, is now Providence Englewood Charter School.

To say this is all gross is an understatement; replacing Sojourner Truth with some neoliberal perfidy is a literal assault on a culture. The changing of the names is an effacement. The names matter. Lives matter. 

That’s the heart of Ewing’s book. These are lives here. And while she doesn’t argue, of course, that all schools should always remain open, trapped in amber and surrounded by the same beehives, she urges us to actually think about the people. 

There is a luxury in hiding behind spreadsheets. There is a luxury in ignoring the decades and centuries of distant decisions that led to a crisis and then blaming the people who suffer from those decisions, and uprooting them more. There is comfort in having no memories, but personal institutional amnesia isn’t the heart of the program. 

The heart of the program is denying other people’s memories. It’s denying other people’s agency. It’s removing them from the story, taking away their beehives and their recollections of Double Dutching before class and their knowledge that their parents had to fight the same damn battles against the same damn oppressors. That’s how racism wins time and time again. 

Ewing’s book is a correction to that. It is a non-polemic that gives no quarter, and is fiercely urgent. It’s a book that tells the right story. It’s a book that reminds us these stories have to exist.