Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

The Not-So-Quiet American

9 Jun

Holbrooke wanted more. He wasn’t a grand strategist, but his frenetic public presence made him the embodiment of certain ideas in action. He believed that power brought responsibilities, and if we failed to face them the world’s suffering would worsen, and eventually other people’s problems would be ours, and if we didn’t act no one else would. Not necessarily with force, but with the full weight of American influence. This was the Holbrooke doctrine, vindicated at Dayton. But it didn’t come out of government experience, much less analytical rigor. His views, like everyone’s, emerged from his nervous system, his amygdala, the core of his character, where America stood for something more than just its own power. He was that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth.

At no time in recent memory has a book consumed me as much as the one I read over the past week. On its surface, George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century doesn’t seem like the sort of book that will pack an overwhelming punch. It’s a biography of a diplomat who garnered respect in certain circles, but never became a household name or rose to the highest positions he craved. I expect Holbrooke will be lost to history in a generation or two, and his flaws were glaring enough that he doesn’t deserve any posthumous sainthood. But as an analogy for the apogee and decline of American power, his story is too perfect, and Packer, a master craftsman, the grand elegist of the broken American Dream, is our man to tell the tale.

Holbrooke served every Democratic president from Kennedy to Obama. He joined the Foreign Service in 1962 as an acolyte of the builders of the post-World War II order, and went straight to Vietnam, where he vainly struggled to expand the vision of what it would take to win. Holbrooke and his fellow rising stars in the Foreign Service all read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and, instead of seeing themselves in Greene’s blindly optimistic American agent Alden Pyle, earnestly believed they could do better. But that was only the start of a long and industrious career that barreled along at breakneck pace right up until his aorta burst in a meeting with Hillary Clinton in 2010. He was, Packer argues, the ultimate symbol of American global ambitions in the twilight of the nation’s hegemony.

Foreign policy is a particularly Hobbesian realm of endless war between large egos measured against blurry standards. It’s rarely an issue that drives the polls, and one observer’s great act of diplomacy is another’s unconscionable sellout. The realists and idealists collide, and in his early years, Holbrooke’s ideals often left him on the losing side of arguments. The military shunted aside the nation-builders in Vietnam, and in the Carter years, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cold War realism had little time for humanitarian concerns in southeast Asia. Defenders of diplomacy were at their peak after World War II but found increasingly less room to operate, especially when the military, whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan, gave presidents—particularly Democrats scared of coming across as weak on national security—instant credibility and concrete body counts that can generate good headlines.

Diplomacy is the trickiest form of politics, more art than science and yet insistent upon clear results. Statements almost always come with subtext and hidden agendas, and even the greatest can fail to find the real meaning, the real goals, the real sources of power. A sympathetic Pakistani ambassador likened the drama in central Asia to “a theater in which everyone understood their part, except for the Americans,” and Holbrooke saw it as his job to understand that part. At his best, he was a master of complexity, never more so than in Bosnia. He traveled there on his own before Bill Clinton’s inauguration and spent a chaotic New Year in besieged Sarajevo, took that passion into an administration with no foreign policy direction to speak of, and somehow got a bunch of squabbling warlords to accept the Dayton Accords. Another high point was his tenure as ambassador to the United Nations, as he was able to show even isolationist conservatives the value in propping up an international system favorable to U.S. interests and ideals. He could disarm large egos that others thought lost causes.

Perhaps his comfort with this complexity is why Holbrooke clashed horribly with the Obama administration in the final phase of his career. The law professor of a president wanted crisp arguments and decisive rhetoric, not murky maneuvers and dealings with questionable characters. For a president whose story was to be a revival of the American Dream, there was no room for Holbrooke’s lessons from Vietnam, an analogy Obama rejected out of hand. “By the end he was living each chapter of his life simultaneously—Kennedy and Obama, Vietnam and Bosnia and Afghanistan…All that accumulated experience—we Americans don’t want it,” writes Packer. “We’re almost embarrassed by it, except when we’re burying it. So we forget our mistakes or recoil from them, we swing wildly between superhuman exertion and sullen withdrawal, always looking for answers in our own goodness and wisdom instead of where they lie, out in the world, and in history.”

Holbrooke knew he faced long odds in Afghanistan, but it didn’t stop him. Despite his ego and bluster, he built an idiosyncratic team of the best people he could find, from prolific academics to a woman who tried to lecture him on an airport shuttle. Their role, he told his team, was to break through the turf battles, process over substance. He loved them like his own children (whom he neglected until later in their lives, though there is a superb sequence in which his prep school reject teenage son moves into his New York bachelor pad and leaves him notes like “I suppose leaving half the Grape-fruit Juice out to Spoil is your way of Leading by Example”), and tracked his way all over south and central Asia in search of some way to stop the region’s entropy. But none of it mattered, because Hillary Clinton was the only person in the administration who didn’t think he was a pompous windbag from another era, and even she could only expend so much political capital on one lonely diplomat working a long-shot battle to open dialogue with the Taliban and end a war the military could not win. It still hasn’t.

Our Man is a lament for the decline of American international influence, and Packer’s turning point is the late 90s. He demolishes the American hubris of that era in a few pages that I could quote in full. At the unquestioned peak of American power, there was no serious strategy, just Holbrooke and a few colleagues using the lessons of a lifetime of experience to bring peace. The U.S., terrible imperialists, looked for quick solutions instead of managing chaos. Al-Qaeda’s bombings of two American embassies in Africa elicited only a perfunctory volley of cruise missiles in response, and Washington spent a full year, in Packer’s elegant phrasing, on “Oval Office cocksucking.” (That year, 1998, was also the year the Yankees won 114 games and the World Series and Duluth East last won a state hockey title. It really has been all downhill since.) “Our leaders believed they had the luxury to start tearing one another apart, and they’ve never stopped,” Packer pontificates. “Did any country ever combine so much power with so little responsibility? And slowly, imperceptibly at first, we lost that essential faith in ourselves.”

Holbrooke, somehow, never lost that faith. His ambition pushed him along in dogged pursuit of glory. It also killed two marriages and left a third on life support, cost him many of his friends, and shameless lobbying ruined his chances at being Secretary of State or winning a Nobel prize. He was a vainglorious to the end, though it was a complex egotism. In the words of Tony Lake, his Vietnam era best friend and later-stage mortal enemy, “‘What Holbrooke wants attention for is what he’s doing, not what he is…That’s a very serious quality and his saving grace.’” As I’ve long believed, ambition is both the source of human greatness and the root of human demise. “And if, while following him, you ever feel a disapproving cluck rising inside your palate, as I sometimes do, don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books in a child who fiercely resisted toilet training,” Packer writes. “Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp?”

* * *

Why did Our Man hit me so personally? Probably because, for a healthy chunk of my life, I wanted to become Richard Holbrooke. I wanted to be the globetrotting diplomat who could dive in and end age-old wars through sheer power of will. I wanted to believe in an open and democratic world order, and I wanted to believe my country could learn from its past sins and use its power as a force for decency. I went to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where I brushed shoulders with Holbrooke’s two great rivals (Lake and Madeleine Albright, both on the faculty at the time) with the express purpose of following this path.

And yet I didn’t, and found myself tunneling into old journals to remind myself why. Did I lack the killer instinct that drove Holbrooke both to glory and the grave? Was I doomed from the start by a lack of WASPy cred, a wishful believer in a dream I never could achieve? Was my reaction to life in DC too visceral, too uncompromising and unwilling to make sacrifices? Was I too consumed with other events in my life that turned me inward and homeward? All of the above, I think, to varying degrees.

And so, around the exact time Holbrooke died, my belief in his project also died. I’d prepared myself for a world that was already halfway gone by the time I graduated from college. I’m at peace, or so I tell myself: most people learn to leave behind childhood dreams, and I have a new vision of a good life that I’m pursuing. Our Man is not a flattering window into American government, and a career in that world seems to break down so many who do undertake it: petty infighting, endless politicking, 20-hour days that ruin families. Even Lake, ever Holbrooke’s foil, ever the more noble and cautious and thoughtful counterpart, succumbed to the same miseries.

As a child of a different era, I’m more skeptical of the liberal internationalist order than Packer is and Holbrooke was. But after a decade of Obama-led “managed decline” (Packer’s words) and the incoherent bluster of its America First successor, the virtues of that belief in American goodness, for all its flaws, also undergirds so many of the steps the world has taken in a saner direction since the end of World War II. And while it makes for brilliant writing, Packer’s requiem for a superpower may be premature as well. If future diplomats can harness both that spirit and apply some hard-earned lessons from the past, the U.S. could yet arrive at a foreign policy befitting of this moment in history. The ambition lurks within, repressed but still very much alive.

Advertisements

Wired for Goodness

29 May

The notion that genes play a strong role in our fates is not a popular one. Such a worldview risks seeming fatalistic, and has been an inspiration for any number of racist or otherwise unsavory views. Perhaps, however, it is none of those things, and Nicholas Christakis’s Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society makes just this case. Over the course of 400 pages, Christakis takes his readers on a thoroughly entertaining tour through a wide range of data sets, from the natural experiments that emerge from utopian communes and survivors of shipwrecks on deserted islands to the interactions of elephants and monkeys and any number of other species that exhibit social behavior. His book is an accessible yet scholarly tour de force, clearly a labor of love built over many years. It is also a deliberate effort to rescue an understanding of who humans are from a view that everything about us is a socially construct.

Christakis works hard to show that not only are we a complicated mix of nature and nurture, but that this is no cause for concern. Humans have a defined social suite, a blueprint, that establishes our parameters of social interaction, and the handful of cultures around the world that escape it are shaped by extreme conditions, the exceptions that prove the rule. Moreover, the most defining trait of this human social suite is its flexibility. While there is some human adaptation to different environments, humans instead are genetically equipped to work collectively and innovate to find the resources they need to thrive everywhere from dense rainforests to the Arctic, from a nomadic lifestyle to apartment living in a metropolis. We have evolved to be social, evolved to be flexible, and evolved in ways that allow us to build cultures that reward cooperation in spite of the self-interested impulses that could tear it all apart. Something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory that humans first need to find basic necessities like food and shelter before they worry about something like self-actualization, gets it all backwards. The need for self-actualization is wired into human DNA, more a reason for our ability to meet those basic needs than it is an outgrowth of them.

Christakis’s work leads to an endorsement of the dual-inheritance theory: culture can affect genes, and only species with the genes for culture (those whose generations overlap and who live in groups) can develop this feedback loop. Cultures evolve, drift, and go through processes not unlike natural selection as they rise and fall. This is why human societies have drifted toward monogamy (which draws down male testosterone and makes us dudes more content to settle instead of endlessly rutting about) as they become more sedentary and grow. It explains why people develop friendships and cultivate them over time. It may even be why the gods of large urban societies tend to hand down rules for a social order while the gods of hunter-gatherers are much more capricious and participate directly in the natural world. Blueprint doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but it offers tools to move toward them.

Christakis knows his optimism about evolutionary sociology is a controversial take. He leaves no doubt that people can and have abused certain notions of scientific understanding of human nature for racist or eugenicist ends. He argues, however, that their crimes are no less heinous, and on the balance perhaps less damaging, than the ravages of the Stalins and Maos and any number of other less catastrophic but still toxic individuals who believed humans were strictly the product of cultural circumstances and thought they could wipe away the cultures they didn’t like. Perhaps more ambitiously, he has some faith that the social suite is so tightly interconnected with our understanding of what life should be that we’ll be able to check the worst excesses and impulses to use AI or genetic modification in what most humans would consider natural ways. He makes a case for clear-eyed understanding of what genes can and cannot do as a saner path forward than blanket fears of acknowledging advances in understanding may bring about. On this, we can probably agree; the open question is whether the natural human instinct to resist more extreme forms of genetic engineering can act quickly enough to stop a few people with the power to do great damage.

We have evolved to be good, and slowly, surely, continue to do so. Christakis’s work has parallels to the question of theodicy, of how an all-powerful God can let bad things happen in the world; he introduces the parallel concept of sociodicy, which turns this conundrum on its head asks how we manage to more or less live together well despite having such supposedly self-interested, base desires. A whirlwind tour of political philosophy in the final chapter jives well with my own Answer to Everything, as it points to the shortcomings of beliefs that humans are irredeemably broken and also rejects easy cultural fixes to all our problems. It gives new ammunition to those of us who’d like to believe we can build a society we like; our sense that, for all the claim of ruin, we still have right around us the foundational tools for something resembling goodness.

This worldview fits well with an Aristotelian notion that we can slowly, haltingly, observe the world around us and understand it better, and come to a sense of who we are and what we can become if we align lives toward a broader goal, some sense of what it means to live a life of human flourishing. It fits the John Wesley Powell mindset of a science that discovers hope in its ability to offer ways forward through its slow experimentation and refinement of past theories. It also makes me think of Hannah Arendt, who rejected the title of “philosopher” in favor of “social theorist” because she recognized that an understanding of what humans are is useless without considering how they interact with one another. Science, Arendt argues in The Human Condition, has alienated humans from the world, but perhaps, in the end, it can help to show the way back.

A Climb Up from Mud

27 May

On a weekend in late May, my pent-up wanderlust finally gets an outlet. My plan: a twenty-plus mile jaunt over two days on the Superior Hiking Trail on Lake Superior’s North Shore, a bit tame by my standards, but a trek that will give the muscles some healthy soreness nonetheless. I’ll begin at Bally Creek Road and work my way southwest to the Caribou Trail, with four miles along the Cascade River as the central attraction. This stretch will take me 1,000 feet down from a ridge to near the mouth of the river into Lake Superior and then 1,000 feet back up again to White Sky Rock’s perch over Caribou Lake. After a long and tedious spring, northern Minnesota is my playground once again.

The opening miles of the hike follow a ridgetop that gazes down on a valley containing Sundling Creek. Large stands of red pines dot the route, and in the distance, I enjoy occasional vistas of Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point, and its shorter but more imposing neighbor, the creatively named Unnamed Hill. Spring is still in its infancy here in Cook County, the tentative green sprouts probing upward several weeks behind their appearance in Duluth. Trees are budding here and there, but only in warm hollows and on southern exposures can we say they have anything resembling leaves. I can hear the Cascade River long before I can see it, and a convenient cut in the trees lets me see across its full valley. The trail descends but remains on a ridgetop high above the river for the first mile of its shared journey down toward Lake Superior.

The trail crosses the river on a bridge shared with Cook County 45, a reminder that some seek out the wilderness for darker reasons. Keep going west a short distance and I’ll find the plot of land now owned by Seth Jeffs, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway polygamist sect long excommunicated by the official LDS church. Sparsely populated Cook County, normally known for strict building standards (at least in Grand Marais), recently granted Mr. Jeffs a permit to build a 6,000 square foot “pole building/apartment” on his property. Still, he probably could have chosen a quieter patch of northern Minnesota for his new compound: as a resort haven and home to many well-off retirees, Cook County is about as educated and unfriendly to a religious sect as a rural American county can be, and its denizens are already rabble-rousing in response. Whether a polygamist on the run from the law or just a kid looking to push his body and find some peace, these wilds accommodate our lonely pursuits.

I stop for lunch a few paces down on to the trail on a needle-covered cliff with a view of a powerful waterfall down on the river below. On the east side of the river, a few hikers down at the bottom of the falls seem to be gazing up at me, and it takes a moment to register that their focus is not on a hiker snarfing dried apple slices but instead the large chunk of ice wedged in a gully to my right. It looms like some natural rock arch out west, a gateway for a small stream that plunges a few hundred feet down to the Cascade. The next stretch of trail keeps the river gorge at some distance, its muddy stretches made more pleasant by the starflower meadows carpeting the hillsides. I scurry around a number of small tributaries on their way down to the Cascade, some mere trickles, some powerful streams that leave deep, steep gashes to burn up hikers’ glutes as they traverse them. In time the trail turns down into a tunnel of pines and dives down to the side of the river, which rips along at its spring peak. The Cascade may carry the most water of any river on Minnesota’s North Shore, and the rapids that furnish the river with its name keep the scenery lively. This is vintage SHT.

Foot traffic picks up as I approach the 96 Steps, a wooden staircase that takes me back up away from the river and releases me on to a few state park trails. After a stop for water at Cascade Creek, I begin my push up Lookout Mountain, which provides Cascade River State Park’s finest vista. Recent blowdowns render the hillside relatively sparse, but this cloudy day makes for easy climbing, unless I’m stuck behind a plodding family of four that shows no interest in letting a fast-moving hiker past. There’s a crowd at the top, so I snap my obligatory picture and carry on, and don’t see another soul until another party arrives in my campsite at Indian Camp Creek.

This first company won’t be the last. No fewer than 12 of my new best friends will populate the Indian Camp Creek site tonight, a crowd made mercifully more bearable by the site’s many tent pads and two separate fire rings. The SHT is nothing like the little-known ribbon of trail that my dad and I explored in my childhood, when we’d always have sites to ourselves. Tonight, I couldn’t have solitude even if I wanted it. I label the creekside fire ring Bachelor Flats, as I share it with two other solo male travelers: Matt from Plymouth, and a younger guy in camo who disappears into his tent after setting it up around 4:00 without so much as a bite to eat. He’s still in there when I leave the next morning.

Matt, thankfully, proves amiable company, and the two of us chat through our freeze-dried dinners. He’s roughly my age and a frequent adventurer, albeit a bit spacey, as he tells of how he hiked a mile in the wrong direction from his starting point at Lutsen this morning before realizing his error. We share our stories, and out here, mine suddenly seems fresh again, reassuring words for someone prone to doubt. Later, once the sun sinks beneath the ridge opposite the creek, we wander up and meet our other neighbors, whose number includes a father-son combo of volunteers here to clear downed trees from the trail, three mid-twenties couples from Rochester, and two baby-faced college-aged guys who sleep in hammocks. The father volunteer, a trail veteran who is probably double the age of anyone else in camp, says he’s never seen a site this full before.

Life on a hiking trail is a reminder of the community-minded introvert’s dilemma, as my instinct for solitude jostles with pleasure at serendipitous company. The latter now comes a little less naturally than it used to, perhaps because late 20s seems beyond the phase where people expect to find solitary male wanderers on trails. (I was probably the third- or fourth-oldest person out of the 13 at Indian Camp Creek that Saturday night.) We should be out of that self-discovery phase now and settling into lives, it seems. In many ways I am on a less muddy path now—though I’m a good enough navigator that I could still bushwhack a creative new route if I wanted—but some mud remains.

Leeriness of committing to a path is fairly common in my circles, which are hardly a representative cross-section of society. Having a path complicates things, a turn-off for those who came to believe, rightly or wrongly, they can do anything they put their mind to. With commitment comes the realization that not everyone is drawn to a high-speed push down the same wilderness trails. I have fairly firm ideas on what a good life entails, and these commitments can seem rigid, so overwrought that they can undermine themselves. Us somewhat neurotic chasers have conditioned ourselves to keep on hustling, don’t always know when to stop to admire the view, to acquiesce or submit, to say this is who I am and what I shall be, and this is what I need to concede to make that reality. This is the trail’s gift to me.

I’ve been reading about evolutionary biology lately. It gives me a new dose of respect for these woods around me as it grows and dies and flows through all stages of life around me. But even more than that, it’s given me a new appreciation of human history, our ability to adapt and live in these little communities of other people, work out where we set up all our separate tents and sit around the same fire, not in a re-creation of some early hunter-gatherer simplicity that we’ve lost but instead an instinct that our species has preserved and still draws on to cultivate some sense within us, even as the world around us changes at breakneck pace. It manifests itself differently now, and comes along with the wonders of bear vaults and freeze-dried food. But no matter how much we rebel against biology, it pushes back in powerful ways, and sometimes, when we let it do that, we’re so much the happier.

The night is chilly and sleep comes slowly, and at dawn I look up and am greeted by the sight of a tick on the outside of my tent. Yes, spring is here. The volunteers are the only other ones up as I set about making tea and eating a bagel, though everyone save the mystery man in the tent next to mine has roused to life by the time I’m ready to move again. I go to bid Matt a farewell, and he laments that his phone is dead, that he won’t be able to listen to music as he hikes today. No loss, I think: we do this to hear a different soundtrack, to let the thoughts come freely, as they do when I put pen to paper several times on this trip. After a little warm-up commentary on the quotidian, my thoughts pour out, pen barely able to keep up as everything else fades away save the immediacy of the world around me.

I cross Indian Camp Creek and start my second day with a vigorous push up a ridge. I catch the volunteers at an overlook and revel in a view back across the Cascade Valley and as far as Artists’ Point in Grand Marais, the visibility excellent on this sun-splashed, beautiful spring morning. I push on, and see the trail-clearers will have their work cut out for them. Last fall’s blowdown has left a trail littered with fallen trees, leading to a number of brief detours, backpack-hampered limbos, and climbs over logs, often assisted by natural stiles formed by branches or other fallen trees. This next stretch follows another ridge, though to my mild surprise most of the views are inland instead of down toward Lake Superior. The SHT joins a snowmobile trail for a few steep hills, and eventually takes another plunge down to Spruce Creek, a delightful stream surging through a ravine. There are no signs that anyone camped at this site last night. The creek’s bridge has been dislodged by spring storms and carried a few feet downstream on one side, though it remains useable, and I find a small patch of snow tucked beneath the pilings on the far end.

I push back up the ridge again, slope gently downward through another starflower meadow, and encounter the first party of the day going in the other direction around the halfway point of the day’s hike. Soon, puddles of mud replace downed trees as my primary obstacle, a hazard at its worst in the lowlands around Jonvick Creek, which forces the trail on to a long series of raised planks as it circumnavigates a beaver pond. One of the dam’s intrepid architects swims about, and a turtle plunks off a log into the water as I approach; the pond’s resident frogs kick off a concerto as I pass. Despite the wildlife I’d have no desire to use the swampy campsite beyond the pond, though it is occupied, and beyond it I encounter a steady stream of day-trippers both as I summit a steep ridge overlooking Caribou Lake and as I labor on toward Lake Agnes. One of my first ever backpacking excursions included a night on Agnes, which, predictably, looks smaller now, though still serene in its repose, a scene more out of the Boundary Waters than the SHT.

I enter the home stretch with a turn up a choppy spur trail, and at one point, in a cool forest of cedars, spend half a minute deciding which adventurous route I’ll take down a rocky slope before I realize the log next to me has a staircase carved into it. I power up one last steep slope to White Sky Rock, an overlook with an excellent view of Caribou Lake, arriving for lunch just as one party leaves and wrapping up some notes just as another arrives. I descend to the parking lot, drive south to my customary reward beer at Castle Danger, and head home, tired and refreshed at once. Mission accomplished, the clear road becoming somewhat clearer by the day.

An Illusory Dream of Spring

20 May

SPOILER ALERT This isn’t a post about spring in Duluth, though the title of George R.R. Martin’s unfinished final novel to his saga seems a fitting metaphor on any number of levels. Last night I wrapped up the one TV series I have watched with any interest over the past five years, though by the end, only inertia kept me going. I sort of wish my review after season five of Game of Thrones was the last testament on it instead of slogging through to the grand finale. I nearly didn’t renew my HBO for the start of the new season, I nearly turned it off midway through one of this season’s garbled episodes, and yet I was invested enough that I held the door and made it through.

Game of Thrones’ conclusion was an unfortunate waste of some great acting talent, beautiful cinematography, and some quality work in the early seasons. I won’t rehash those frustrations about pacing and character development here much: thousands of angry fans and intelligent writers have already made their opinions abundantly clear, and for the most part, I share them. I’m not really bothered by the idea of Danaerys’s Mad Queen turn or Jon Snow’s fate or even the coronation of King Bran. What I did hate was how Game of Thrones set all of this up, and that the patient air of mystery around the series succumbed to a rush through plot twists that were either predictable or implausible given everything else we’d been taught about this universe over the previous seasons. Instead of a Shakespearean rise and fall, Danaerys’s turn was an unsatisfying jolt into a Nuremburg rally. Bran’s near-total disappearance from the plot over the last few seasons rendered his ascension bewildering, and the scene of his anointment was a forced, wretched wreck that captured everything that went wrong. Even in a series of zombies and dragons, the plot holes, too numerous to list here, were bigger than the one the zombie dragon blasted through The Wall in season 7.

The whole final season was in the throes of an identity crisis: Game of Thrones tried to be all of the things, and got far too complicated because of it. Was this a story of good against evil, or a morally murky exploration of what it means to hold power? The struggle with the White Walkers, in my take, damaged the complexity that had been at the story’s core. Evil zombie stories aren’t my cup of tea, but it’s certainly possible to execute one well, and tell compelling stories about good and evil and use them as allegories and so on. In Game of Thrones, though, the battle with the Walkers was an odd twist for a story otherwise so full of nuance. We never really learned who they were or why they enjoyed creating conceptual art out of human body parts. (Perhaps they were just misunderstood artists?) They forced everyone to line up into good and evil camps and established battle lines that were far too clean for Westeros.

And then, midway through the final season, the White Walkers were just…gone, and with nowhere near enough time left in the series to re-align things in a satisfying way. After a battle to the death against pure evil, the stakes of a fight with wine-guzzling Cersei Lannister struggled to stack up, and needed implausible plot-vehicle villains (Euron Greyjoy), falsely hyped mercenaries (the Golden Company), and marvelously inconsistent technological innovations (Qyburn’s ballistas) to create the illusion of a level playing field, which was swiftly un-leveled by Drogon in the span of half an hour. Cersei, the great antagonist of the series, merely watched and brooded from her tower, and Danaerys more or less played out her exact same story arc at 10,000 times the speed.

Some critics such as Brian Phillips with The Ringer have used David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s directorial struggles to give George R.R. Martin his due, and I think that’s deserved: as I said a few years ago, Martin is a marvelous world-builder, and it’s certainly not coincidental that the series lost its pacing when it ran out of source material. I also agree with Phillips’ conclusion that creative genius is a necessary spark that all the technical mastery and organizational precision will never be able to capture. But Martin’s own inability to publish another book makes me wonder if the whole sprawling universe has just become so unwieldy that no one can land the dragon in a satisfying way. Is it better to have a deeply frustrating ending, or no ending at all?

Game of Thrones’ botched endgame fuels my own beefs with fantasy and science fiction as genres that I expressed in a reflection on literature last year. Their ability to build complex worlds can become all-consuming and collapse in on itself. Even highly successful series that do have coherent narrative arcs–let’s take Lord of the Rings or the three original Star Wars films as the most basic examples possible–leave so many crumbs and loose threads that the demands of fan pressure and the allure of dollar signs can take the whole enterprise down the rabbit hole and away from the narrative precision of its founding creator. (This isn’t to say that fan fiction and derivative works can’t also plague stories more rooted in realism, but it’s a somewhat less common phenomenon.) The media circus that is modern television and film is also a beast more voracious than any dragon that, while fascinating, will leave me more than pleased to leave it all behind and return to my preferred world of fiction about normal humans on this planet.

Rather than linger on the “eternally fungible” Dothraki and Unsullied or Grey Worm’s abysmal negotiating, I’ll conclude with a few positives about this all-consuming series. While Lena Headey’s talents went to waste in Season 8, the Lannisters’ collective arcs remained the most satisfying in the show, even with Jaime lurching here and there with poor Brienne. Some of my own favorites, like Jorah and Olenna Tyrell and (sort of) Varys, made satisfying exits that were firmly in character. Tyrion got in a few final quality soliloquies. Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow, who usually bored me, finally rose to the occasion in the final episode, and also came to a satisfying ending. Sansa’s story was one of genuine growth and just deserts, and a welcome contrast to the bevy of characters who seemed to succumb to the most thinly drawn caricatures of their own natures. I don’t know if Bran deserved his crown, but by the logic of Westeros, Sansa certainly deserved hers.

And so we bid a fond farewell to needless torture and incest-fests and wanton slaughter and the bloodlust they inspired in us. As I predicted after season five, the collective reaction to the final season’s dumpster fire was enormously amusing. We thank Game of Thrones for introducing us to sexposition and a healthy helping of quality catchphrases, though let’s please stop trying to give Sam credit for inventing democracy when the Greeks were there over a thousand years before the Wars of the Roses that inspired Martin. I congratulate Drogon for his wisdom to roast the Iron Throne once and for all, and like him, I think it’s time we collectively fly off to find some new adventures.

A Flagging Effort

18 May

I have just wasted the better part of a Saturday afternoon being thoroughly entertained by the submissions to Duluth’s flag redesign project. (The city has chosen 41 semifinalists and will announce finalists this Tuesday, though for maximum amusement I recommend perusing all 195 submitted designs plus some choice comments here.) The flag design debate is hardly Duluth’s most pressing issue, though symbolism has power, as anyone trying to figure out what to call the Minneapolis body of water south of Lake of the Isles and north of Lake Harriet can attest. Many of these seemingly benign symbolic debates have become hyper-politicized, largely to the exhaustion of someone who cares much more about outcomes than names, but symbols do have power, and as Duluth’s existing flag is unspeakably lame, the development of a new one is a worthwhile exercise.

The comments in the full document certainly show how this could become politicized if the flag committee isn’t careful. Does the flag honor Native Americans or Scandinavians or a French explorer, or none of the above? Do we choose a monument or two to highlight, or perhaps some historical moment or another? The options are endless, and the contest wisely began by sharing some good flag design principles and opening up the process to comment. (The best comment comes from the individual who wrote “This town is dying. Thanks.” Let it never be said that Duluthians aren’t unfailingly polite, even when in peak troll mode.) But, unlike the Minneapolis lake debate, this one has the potential to remain fun and creative, and with any luck, that is what it will remain. Any design critiques that follow are meant in that spirit.

An initial review of the nearly 200 submitted designs mostly left me exasperated that there were so many damn lift bridges. Too easy, and better left to seals or fun ornaments. (The flag numbered 56a in the document of all submissions is the only bridge design that remotely tempts me.) The contest also reinforced the notion that no one has any idea how many neighborhoods Duluth has, as attempts to include stars or stripes to acknowledge the city’s neighborhoods included wildly different numbers of neighborhoods. The submissions from students add some fantastic color to the offerings, including the Looming Loon of Doom (flag 10) and the meta flag-within-a-flag (20).

As someone with a reasonably strong knowledge of world geography and flags (I think my dad still has the placemat with all of the world flags on it that I ate off of us a child), some flags were also awkwardly close to real-world ones. If you told me that 1 or 15c were flags of sub-Saharan African nations, I’d believe you. I would naturally assume that 74 belongs to some Muslim-majority country, while I actually checked to see if 5 and 84a had been pilfered from some Pacific island micro-state. 55 made me think Duluth had suddenly acquired the Sydney Opera House.

Some logos can’t help but bring to mind certain associations in individuals’ own heads, too. For example, 94d looks like the logo for my favorite DC college bar, which has a nautical theme, and 59’s northern lights vibe also made me think of the antenna farm atop the hill, which may or may not be intentional but is not exactly the most thrilling symbol of the city. 55d can’t make me forget the leaked draft of a logo for Amy Klobuchar that came out before she announced her presidential run, even though I do kind of like that rusty red to acknowledge that side of Duluth’s history. The blue and green color scheme makes plenty of sense, both because of the city’s water and trees and because of those are the colors of the current city flag, but some versions get very close to the state of Minnesota’s branding, which I think is passable but tries too hard with the funky font. Likewise, 23 reminds me of a marvelous old logo for Lake County that had Split Rock Lighthouse illuminating the county on a map of Minnesota, all with some text in comic sans around it. Alas, I can’t find this beauty to share it with you all. I’m sure others will be similarly triggered by certain flags.

Some designs I don’t particularly like as flags, but they might make decent logos for someone or something. 93c’s rails and lakewalk design should go on the cover of some city small area plan, while I’m a fan of the agate Lake Superior in 50. The seagull-lighthouse combo variations in number 78 would make a slick logo for something, but seems a bit much here, and I have an aversion to honoring flying rats on our city flag.

Some flags just try too hard. If you read the description of the un-numbered flag that was presumably supposed to be 95, it does start to make sense, though my initial reaction to a chain on a flag was…not positive. The various 43s and 48, the varying shades of blue in the otherwise interesting 60, and any flags that start throwing in several symbols or pictures just don’t do it for me. 34 is a semifinalist that checks a lot of boxes I like, but still maybe just does too much, and I’m not sure that shade of orange will age well.

I’m still not sure if I love or hate the anchor de lis that appears in a few designs (and made the semifinals), and waffled on 6 as well (which didn’t). Of the several I jotted down as early choices, only the rather radical 2d made the semifinalist cut. After the deluge of blue and green, I liked some of the red and orange ones that threw in some real contrast. I also seemed drawn to ones with diagonal lines that seem to signal shoreline and Duluth’s ridges. For me, the clash of ridge against lake has always been the most striking feature of this city. To that end, I’d endorse 15a and maybe 21. A fun variant on this might be to go with a non-rectangular flag.

But my winner, I think, is 98e: striking, deep colors that capture that clash of ridge and lake with a big north star hanging over it all. I can look at that flag and feel like I’m wandering along the lakeshore or atop the ridge on a clear summer night. Its symmetry will hold up as it gets buffeted by a November gale, it doesn’t feel like it’s wasting any space to fill out that rectangle. Focusing on natural features gives us something all Duluthians share and spares us any descent into a debate over whose ancestors or which parts of the economy we are or aren’t honoring. It also doesn’t look like any other flag or symbol I’m aware of. I’d gladly run that one up a flagpole someday.

Or we can just go all in on 80 and embrace our inner Lowell Lion.

Interesting Reading, 5/11/19

11 May

A return of the sporadic feature in which I highlight interesting articles I’ve read this weekend:

First, I was floored by a piece by an anonymous DC-area mother in the Washingtonian that detailed her 13-year-old’s descent into the world of the alt-right. The author is a witness fragility of a childhood in an online environment, a victim of so many of the worst aspects of contemporary life. First, call-out culture and a bunch of sorry bureaucrats wreck her son, and his depression finds an outlet in chats with people he’s never met and tumbles down into an algorithm-reinforced echo chamber. The son drags his mother through a horror story that culminates with an alt-right rally on the National Mall, a sequence that reminded me of George Packer’s biting summation of the absurdity of the Covington Catholic incident, and by extension the entire national mood, earlier this year. But the author’s ability to recognize that absurdity, and draw out her son’s nascent recognition of it as well, starts to show us the way out. How many adolescent lives, and in turn entire lives, go off the rails because no one takes a kid seriously, whether out of clueless condescension or well-meaning protectiveness?

I’m also a sucker for articles that validate my wariness of a childhood spent glued to electronic devices and communities that do not meet in person. I’m young enough that an early online world was available for me to fall into as a teenager, though I took the much more benign path of living countless hours in online forums discussing a baseball team. It was harmless and was even the source of my college admissions essay, though if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would get out a lot more. (I would not label my online hockey commentary the same way: that has produced many genuine real-world connections and brought me into a genuine real-world community; one, probably not coincidentally, where the high school kids involved seem to do a better job than many of not living out their lives online.) This is only the latest that makes me believe that the online world, while with many benefits, has left us with a new form of malaise that we are only beginning to understand.

Speaking of George Packer, he’s out with a new book, one that will shoot to the top of my summer reading list. Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is a sprawling portrait of Holbrooke, one of the most iconic diplomats of his era before his untimely death in 2010. “[I]f you could read only one book to comprehend America’s foreign policy and its quixotic forays into quicksands over the past 50 years, this would be it,” writes Walter Isaacson in a New York Times review. From Vietnam to the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, Holbrooke was a larger-than-life figure who tried to re-write world history, and Packer’s take on his ambition and hubris make this a book that combines sweeping history and an incisive character study. When my favorite social commentator writes an authoritative work on my own road not taken, how can I not be absorbed?

As for the road I did take, here’s Addison Del Mastro in The American Conservative riffing on a new book on Midwestern industrial decline, Tim Carney’s Alienated America. Carney laments the demise of civil society in Middle America; while sympathetic to their value in creating strong communities, Del Mastro doesn’t think a few new churches will fix anything. He instead points to the social contract that built these place: one or several dominant companies endowed pretty much everything in the company towns, and when the companies contracted or died, the towns did with them. They arose in an era of corporate benevolence and hard-won labor peace, but that consensus is now long dead, crushed by the rise of global competition and corporate thinking. At the end of the day, places need “to transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them,” lest they become places left behind by history.

The world is more complex than it may look from Del Mastro’s perch in Washington. My own city is part company town, but also part pretty lakeside retreat and part later suburban outgrowth, and has diversified reasonably well, both through the “eds and meds” new gloss that Del Mastro mentions rather dismissively and as a regional center that still enjoys the benefits of a working port. That isn’t enough to keep a substantial chunk of a city out of poverty, but it has been enough to generate some sense of collective hope about the future, which, as he notes, can make a real difference. So what, then, constitutes death for a city? If the old industry dies but it bounces back thoroughly, as with Pittsburgh, is that still a death? Maybe we should stop trying to anthropomorphize something that by its very nature includes tens if not hundreds of thousands people all in various stages of living, dying, thriving, and struggling.

What is true, however, is that the road back for most of these old industrial cities and towns, if there is one, will look very different from the corporate dominance and benevolence of the 1950s and 1960s. Those days had their glories and also their downsides, but we are now several generations removed from them, and while there’s value in preserving some history, that part of the past is not prelude to the future. Nor, perhaps, should it be. But, more on that later.

The Darkest Roots of Civilization

6 May

I concluded my last post with two lines from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’ve never read the thing, but it was one of those passages I once saw someone else quote somewhere that I felt compelled to copy down for my own later use. Here is the passage in full. Pimlico, for the curious, is a district of London that, when Chesterton wrote around the turn of the 20th century, was a downtrodden corner of the city. Neighboring Chelsea was (and still is) a high-income district.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

For what it’s worth, it seems some people came to love Pimlico. It was the home base for the Labour Party as it rose to prominence in the early 20th century, the home base of the Free French during the Second World War, and became home to many MPs, including Winston Churchill. Like much of London, it is now home to some fabulously expensive real estate, though it also retains a substantial public housing development, Churchill Gardens.

Granted, Pimlico has the perk of sitting a stone’s throw from Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Not every town or neighborhood that qualifies as a “desperate thing” has such convenient neighbors. But there are more roads to greatness than through proximity to power, and communities are more than their median incomes. For that matter, people may have very different ideas of what exactly constitutes desperation.

Whatever one may think of Chesterton’s Catholic apologetics in other contexts, this is one spot where his use of religious language adds a necessary dimension to his point. Rootedness really is in many ways a sacred act: while I’m always one to caution against the worship of temporal things, commitment to place goes deeper than commitment to so many of the other obligations that can come along in a life. Jobs come and go, institutions and beliefs evolve and undergo some drastic shifts, people are vital but mortal and equipped with agency that can lead them in any number of ways. But while their characters can change, cities and towns and neighborhoods almost always stay.

Relative permanence allows a place to develop a history: a language about itself, or a smattering of languages all feeding in to one sprawling, complex narrative. They may all be radically different, but they all share a place, and that is enough to give it a sense of direction through time. And people in these places can write themselves into these histories, whether as Chesterton’s worshipers pursuing greatness or simply as people who are content in a place where they can contribute in small ways. It starts with a commitment and grows from there, from a little community up to a civilization, with all the splendor and horror and contradictions that these human constructs entail.

Not everyone falls for places the way some of us do. We all have our objects of worship, and I don’t begrudge many others for theirs, especially if they are clear-eyed as to the limitations of these objects of affection. For me, though, the foundations of human possibility, of Hannah Arendt’s new beginnings, seem best grounded in a place. So let us all give a little more love to our Pimlicos: they need not rise up to be Florence, but they can be better versions of themselves, and that, for now, is enough.