Saturday, January 29, 2005

Dirda for Hitchens?

Michael Dirda is a critic for Washington Post Bookworld.

I am fond of Dirda for a number of reasons. First, he is a middlebrow in an age which largely disdains efforts at public education. Second, he is from a working-class background and is neither afraid to talk about it or using it as a touchstone in everything he writes. Third, he has championed genre writing—the science fiction of Philip Dick, for instance—as serious reading (rather than as fun slumming or mere cultural artifact).

I suppose I can see a lot of myself in Dirda, and I see a lot of what I aspire to in what he has already accomplished. He’s a Northern, working-class kid, a scholarship boy in the Hoggartian sense, and a man who has developed a level of comfort with both the old traditions of “high culture” and a way of communicating that comfort to a relatively broad audience through the newspaper and the Internet. And also through books.

Dirda’s second collection of essays and reviews has recently come out. For fans of his first collection, Readings, this second collection may come as a bit of a disappointment. Readings was a slim volume of pieces cherry-picked from Dirda’s journalism to best reflect that which was most characteristically Dirdian. There was very little of the sort of workaday reviewing that necessarily makes up most of his work for the Post. Bound to Please is a different matter. It is a much bigger book than Readings, and it can print only that which came after or was passed over for the earlier book.

So, the reader oughtn’t come to Bound to Please with the expectation of the intimate experience we got in Readings. But, as a collection of reiews, this isn’t bad. Dirda always writes clearly, and there’s usually some insight or aside that makes each short review more than worthwhile.

This is an excellent book for idle perusing. But one really longs for Dirda to be given a better platform than the Post’s Bookworld pages. Many of these essays seem like they were quite a bit longer in an earlier draft. and most of those can use the extra length.

I’d be interested to see Dirda taking up a post like Christopher Hitchens’s gig at the Atlantic. In fact, as Hitchens has become more and more self-indulgent and positive pontifical in his Atlantic criticism, it owuld seem to me to be trading up at this point to replace Hitchens with Dirda. Dirda’s erudition is rather more pedestrian that Hitchens’s maybe, but Hitchens’s bailiwick is seeming very narrow lately—how much more are we expected to read about the death throws of the British Empire and the literature that coincided with it? At this point in history, not only is the British Empire dead, but the death of the British empire is dead.

And I think we ought not be shy of declaring the death of a certain strain the post-imperialist British writing, either. Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens—the spawn of Nabokov and Naipul—are over. (They all might want to deny the Naipaul legacy, but it's become pretty apparent of late.)

Martin Amis once wrote that “The novelist has a very firm conception of the Ideal Reader. It is himself . . .” I’m not sure he’s right about “the” novelist, but it certainly seems to me that he’s right about himself and his close friends Hitchens and Rushdie. They write for well-heeled, Oxbridge educated males. And those who desperately want to attain to that condition.

Once, perhaps, I may have been someone who wanted to gain access to this metropolitan elite, but anymore I find them to be privileged dinosaurs, living out an anachronistic afterlife courtesy of Anglophone sentimentality. These are all talented men, no doubt, but to me it seems they are attempting to pass elaborate erudition and natural superiority when these things have simply lost their currency. They may soldier on in the same manner in a sort of Sinatra-esque endless farewell tour (Hitchens definitely looks to be the Dean Martin type), or they may well transform themselves into something more meaningful. But time has come that we put these folks aside as our literary ideals.

Appropriately enough, Dirda would not represent an absolute break from the Nabakov line. He, too, is a great admirer of the Swiss master, and he has been generally respectful to the post-imperialists, as well. But his predilections are for the middle brow and his admiration of the really quite different Pynchon-esque American stream modern fiction.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A new consituency?

Fiona Morgan wrote some time ago in North Carolina's Independent Weekly:

Perhaps this is part of what Florida means in his chapter "The Creative Class Grows Up," when he urges its members to see themselves as a group and take the responsibility of mobilizing as such. "Class is a dirty word in America," he writes. "But for the Creative Class and society as a whole, a little class awareness would be a healthy thing." He exhorts the group to get organized around three goals: investment in creativity (i.e., schools over stadiums and research centers over factories); overcoming the class divide and finding a channel for the creative potentials of people in the working class and service class; and "building new forms of social cohesion."

If you're not into traditional politics, fine, he says, but get involved. "Unless we design new forms of civic involvement appropriate to our times, we will be left with a substantial void in our society and politics that will ultimately limit our ability to achieve the economic growth and rising living standards we desire."

Living in Traverse City, a city to which thousands of people have migrated over the past thirty years or so, a city which has become a city of migrants--my experience living here gets me to wondering about the similarities between the situation with Florida's "Creative Class" who have yet to come to self-recognition and TC's incomers.

In spite of the fact that so many new people have moved here over the years, and the fact that so many things have changed culturally because of that in-migration, in spite of these things politics still seems to have a throwback quality to it. What do I mean by that? Well, the legacy of old guard folks, the people who helped put TC on the map in the 1950s still seems to hold a lot of sway. The same family names keep cropping up in local politics, even when the current holders of those surnames seem to have lost a little something in the genetic shuffle. And the opposition to the old guard seems to me to have a lot of the same qualities that the 1950s opposition must have had: they are the resentful "outs."

They have a lot of personal axes to grind. They seem to have little in the way of alternative plans and lots in the way of plans for revenge against the entitled. The "ins" on the other hand seem to act alternatively with thoughtless arrogance and petty paranoia. Where, I wonder, are the people who don't give a damn about these longstanding resentments? Where are the people who care more about rationally planning a community their children will live in than in the local political soap opera? Where are the people for whom Traverse City is a city undergoing a delicate transition and not a mythical fantasyland?

Incomers, especially, should be interested in developing a political power base here that looks at the city's problems and possibilities with an eye to the future and not to the past. Many of us used to live in places that planned wrong or planned not. That's why a lot of incomers picked up and left. Here in Traverse City growth is the reality, and no amount of griping and nostalgia for the TC of the 1950s and 1960s is going to alter it.

If we don't manage the growth process, though, we're going to be in for trouble. Suburbs grew partly because they were bucolic, but mostly because they were close to (and eventually in) the urban area and its jobs. They're always going to have proximity to jobs going for them.

Traverse City grew and grows because it is beautiful and unlike urban areas in many ways. If we let growth take away those things, TC will become a ghost town--it'll just get used up.

We should be working on identifying ways to keep this area as beautiful as possible and on identifying those "non-urban" qualities that are important, positive and preservable.

Low pay may be a non-urban quality, but I don't think it's one worth defending. Lack of cultural opportunity and anti-intellectualism may be non-urban qualities, but they're just as well put behind us. But things like safety, friendliness and the accessibility of civic leaders are very different matters.

But this is a job we've got to work at. We can't just gripe about change and pretend that griping and being rude to tourists is going to make change go away.


Sunday, January 09, 2005

More on Diamond, Montana & Adverse City

Reading the interviews with Diamond's Montana "focus group" was especially interesting for me. Many echoes of our situation in Northern Michigan.

Steve Powell, a former county commissioner in Ravalli County, Bitterroot Valley, MT:

I tell my real estate agent and developer friends, "You have to protect the beauty of the landscape, the wildlife, and the agricultural land" Those are the things that create property value. The longer we wait to do planning, the less landscape beauty there will be. Undeveloped land is valuable to the community as a whole: it's an important part of that "quality of life" that attracts people here.

But this situation creates a dilemma. Many farmers who own that "undeveloped land" have no other pension than the potential sale of that land to developers at handsome prices, often in the neighborhood of one million dollars.

It's hard for many people (including me, I admit) to feel sorry for farmers who are sitting on so much capital. We saw the effects of this resentment this past November here in Northern Michigan when a proposal to set up a program to buy development rights fell through in most of the places it was on the ballot. Regular folks just had a hard time setting up a government program to funnel tax money to farmers whom they considered to be rich opportunists. The farmers who stood to reap the biggest benefits were seen as real estate speculators with a means of making money (farming) while they waited for the right offer to come along.

And perhaps it takes an east-coast perspective to savor the irony that the development value of farmland in Montana and Michigan is predicated on some farmland going undeveloped. So whose farmland should become subdivisions and whose should remain marginally profitable farms? Which farmers should retire to collect interest and dividends on Marco Island and which should scrape along on whatever they could reap from selling a farm that is to remain a farm?

Not easy decisions to make. In fact decisions for which there is no real forum for discussion, no process--just a free-market race to get while the getting's good. One wonders if Northern Michigan and Montana--two hotbeds of the delusional militia movement--can even imagine a way of solving a problem like this.

Steve Powell, summing up:

People are trying to preserve the Bitterroot as a rural community, but they can't figure out how to preserve it in a way that would let them survive economically. . . . The fundamental problem here is how we hang on to these attractions that brought us to Montana, while still dealing with the change that can't be avoided.

Here's hoping that they, and we, can manage it. The big step seems to be getting to the point where you can acknowledge that there will be change, whether or not you may want it. The point is to shape the change in a way that produces a relatively desirable outcome.

Here in Michigan, in spite of all the change that's happened already, in spite of the rise of a substantial (but still relatively small) urban area in and around Traverse City, despite all the ugliness (strip malls and the usual random roadside development) that has already happened because people let change happen to them rather than making it happen in a more acceptable fashion--in spite of all this, people still seem to think that the best response to growth is to cover their ears, close their eyes and shout "no, no, no."

Unfortunately we've already seen what that "strategy" gets us.

More later.


Saturday, January 08, 2005

Adverse City, Montana?

This is a pretty faulty draft, but I may as well get it posted while I work on it:

One of the sections of Diamond’s book I have read through thoroughly is the first chapter on Montana. I was struck by how much Diamond’s descriptions of the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana reads like Northwest Michigan in extremis. Much of this chapter goes right to the point I am getting at in the title of this blog.

Like Diamond’s Montana, the Grand Traverse area in Michigan is a changing place. Where Montana once had agriculture, lumber and mining as its main industries, Northwest Michigan once depended on lumber and agriculture. Lumber is essentially dead as a job-providing industry, while in the most desirable areas agriculture is beginning to give up the ghost as well.
The problem with lumbering is simply that Michigan, like Montana is not a place for fast-growing. profit-making trees. The problem for agriculture are threefold: 1) the climate and relatively short growing season; 2) the relative remoteness of Northern Michigan from large markets where agriculture goods might be sold at best price; and 3) the rising value of land and an antiquated property tax system which demands that farmers pay property taxes on what the developed value of their land would be rather than its value as a farm.

Cherry farming used to be a mainstay of the economy around Traverse City. It is still important, but now more for the identity of the community than for the employment it provides. (We still have the National Cherry Festival each summer; our airport is “Cherry Capital Airport,” tourists still buy anything labeled “cherry,” etc.). But relatively few people work in the cherry industry or are directly dependent upon that industry for their livelihoods.

Like in Diamond’s Montana, tourism and in-migration have become the two main drivers of the economy here. Many of the jobs created by these drivers, though, are seasonal (tourism, construction), and may be low paying (tourism, service industries of various kinds). For most residents, the only prospects for secure, good-paying employment are in the medical and
governmental (teachers, civil servants) fields.

For young people who wish other sorts of employment, the only real option is to leave northern Michigan for various cities—usually close by: Ann Arbor, Detroit, Chicago; but sometimes far away: Portland, Seattle, New York. So the area experiences a great outflux of the young and
talented, first to get a university education (there is no university in the area) and then to get a job concomitant with the degree they attain.

On the other hand there is a significant influx of early retirees, semi-retirees, and full-fledged retirees who are still vigorous enough to weather and even enjoy Michigan’s severe winters. Many of these people were vacationers to the Traverse City area as children and adults. Some
of them are natives who return to the area once they gain a degree of financial independence.

there are also those of child-bearing years who move back to Traverse City in order to raise their children. Many of these people make a conscious choice to live a simpler and less affluent lifestyle when moving to TC . . .

Now some contrasts should also be made with Diamond’s Montana. In Montana, the process of change is really only just getting started, the degree of isolation remoteness is a great deal higher, and the environment seems to be a great deal more fragile than northern Michigan’s. Diamond talks about the children of Hamilton who have to drive 40 minutes to get to the
nearest mall, but Traverse City is already on its second mall, and we have all the big box stores you could possibly want. In Montana, the natives and the newcomers struggle over issues like paying for the schools, property taxes and environmental strategies. In Traverse City, old-timers—people who are natives and descended from natives—are substantially outnumbered by relative newcomers.

The “old-timer” sentiment here is usually a matter of nostalgia, not a matter of old-timers defending their way of life. Here in Traverse City, the old-timer way of life is gone and the economic basis of the old timer way of life is mostly gone.

But thought the arguments here are probably less bitter than they are in Montana, they can probably be just as intractable. While the "whole way of life" of few of our residents is at stake as we develop, the cherished illusions of many of them are. Many people have made considerable sacrifices in their lives to move somewhere that they could tell themselves was somehow "pristine" or "anti-urban." Many people moving to Northern Michigan did so to escape the cultural and economic maw of the metropolis.

In fact, they never did any such thing, but the growth of the Traverse City area in the last few decades has really driven the point home, and people are unhappy.


Friday, January 07, 2005


Just for the sake of balance, my new book is Jared Diamond's Collapse (I can't remember the last time I read two current best-sellers in a row, but . . .).

I have a lot of respect for Diamond. He's a guy who seems to me to have an excellent understanding of things like genetics and "evolutionary psychology" with the rare addition of having the good sense not to make grandiose claims on the basis of these things. Diamond is also a very good writer, who has something of the intellectual scope of someone like Stephen Jay Gould or Peter Medawar, but whose style is far more spare and simple than Gould's peripatetic intertextuality or Medawar's donnishness.

Diamond is fairly good at dealing with Crichton's sort of environmental skepticism in a fair-minded sort of way, but he's foursquare in the court of those who believe in global warming and in the potential for a global environmental meltdown on the horizon.

That specter on the horizon is the point of the book actually. Through historical examples, Diamond seeks to persuade us to see that that specter of environmental collapse exists and by analyzing the present he hopes to show the much greater scale such a collapse would have in our case.

Diamond also hopes to show us that we oughtn't give up hope for ourselves just yet. Effort and wise stewardship can see us through this potential crisis, and he has historical examples of isolated societies succeeding in such efforts.

I've jumped around in the book a great deal, but I haven't far enough in my cover-to-cover reading just yet to give you an evaluation of Diamond's success in persuading a marginally skeptical reader.

One thing I can say having read several other pieces that respond directly or indirectly to Crichton is this: scientists still have a very difficult time expressing themselves regarding scientific issues that are surrounded by uncertainty. The public expects answers from scientists, not uncertainty, unfortunately what science has to offer are often not certainties, but well-educated guesses and insight into likely and unlikely outcomes for any particular course of action. The lay public hates this--they want science to decide issues for them, not to give them a more information-rich dilemma.

Unfortunately, a lot of scientists seem to have responded to this situation by speaking to the public as if the uncertainty weren't there. To themselves they seem to say "I am a scientist. I have looked over the data. There is some degree of uncertainty, but I feel confident in interpreting the data in such-and-such a way."

In public though, what we get is "I am the expert and I say such-and-such is going to happen and we damn well better do something about it!"

This is one of the things Crichton seems most irked by in the public discussions of global warming: everything gets dumbed down. Discussion is structured in such a way that the scientists are figured as initiates and the public as hopelessly incapable of real participation. Diamond, though, is not really of that ilk. He himself is a poacher across the borderlines between faculties and fields of study (he's now a professor of geography--a classic resting place for thinkers who can't seem to stay in one division of the faculty). So I have high hopes for this book as a clear and honest statement about the environmental crisis we in the 21st century may face.