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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.)