A Leftist Look at American Unrest

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury
by Evan Osnos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
480 pp., $30.00

The title of New Yorker writer Evan Osnos’s new book, Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, has metaphorical and literal significance. A “wildland,” the author tells us, is “a realm of nearly perfect tinder that is less a place than a condition.” Osnos opens with the California fires that raged during intense summer heat allegedly exacerbated by climate change. He then pivots to our political climate, to which, he claims, former President Donald Trump lit a metaphorical match in 2016. If only!

Osnos’s politics are thoroughly conventional for both his class and profession. He believes profoundly in man-made climate change. He advocates with all his heart for greater income equality. He sees racists under every bed. And of course, he viewed as “an exhilarating milestone” the revelation in 2013 that, for the first time in this country, more nonwhite babies were born than white ones. Yet he “debunks” the validity of the “great replacement.” Alas, much of the book is a collection of preachy non sequiturs.

There is plenty in society to be angry about, of course, and Osnos is on-target in identifying some of the outrages. First, the rich have too much money. He notes that Washington, D.C.—with its contractors, lobbyists, and so forth—is the wealthiest metropolitan area in the nation. In 2011, more than 2,000 of those residents were worth at least $30 million, all somehow getting rich from government money. And the rich spend their fortunes wastefully. The political operatives of candidate and President Barack Obama remarked that spending all the cash donated to his campaigns was impossible.

Furthermore, these titans create their own philanthropies, often of dubious value and sometimes even of destructive character. Osnos dislikes these nonprofits for allowing the rich to buy their way out of public-policy debates. He especially dislikes the influence that Koch brothers’ money has bought, about which conservatives—mindful of the resulting open borders and “criminal justice” havoc it has wrought—can enthusiastically concur. They would add George Soros’s money, too.

Also disgraceful is the environmental degradation that certain areas of the country suffer. Osnos describes how the coal-mining interests plundered the West Virginia landscape. He begins with 1990, when Asian economies were ravenous for energy. Mining devastated mountaintops and landscapes, and selenium runoff polluted rivers, deforming the fish. Mountain-top mining “buried more than a thousand miles of streams across Appalachia.” Standards for remediating the land were lax. And when mining began to die—the result of cheap natural gas and environmental lobbies, among other things—the mining companies unloaded their union contracts and pensions into new companies overwhelmed by debt. Bankruptcy came next, with courts approving the shedding of liabilities. By 2013, miners’ union membership was at an extreme low. West Virginia was left with low-paying jobs in restaurants, call centers, and health care. Miners blamed Democrats for their plight.

Then came the Charleston water crisis of 2014. Chemicals had been leaking into the Elk River from a corroded chemical-storage tank owned by Freedom Industries. The governor told 300,000 West Virginians not to drink, bathe in, or cook with the tap water. Schools closed. Businesses were losing $19 million a day. West Virginians resented the lack of national interest in their plight, noting that it received less attention than a virus on a cruise. In these and other ways, Washington lobbyists and Greenwich hedge-fund managers fleeced the country at the expense of the ordinary law-abiding citizen.

The author’s thesis would be stronger if he had actually focused on the lives of these ordinary, law-abiding citizens instead of sympathetically featuring people who have not exactly made the best choices. For example, Osnos deplores the circumstances of Angela Hughes, the mother of a premature baby, whose “job did not provide paid maternity leave.” In fact, the job did provide such leave after one year of employment, but Angela had not worked there long enough. Donated leave, however, provided her with two paid months off. Osnos also laments the plight of a diabetic boy who had to sell pumpkins in order to purchase a dog that can detect dangerous fluctuations in the boy’s blood sugar. Omitted is the fact that such dogs cost $20,000 and are of unproven effectiveness.

To further elucidate his theme that the United States immorally bestows its resources on the wealthy, Osnos focuses on convicts in three cities where he has resided: Greenwich, Conn., Clarksburg, W.Va., and Chicago—specifically a South Side slum. Needless to say, these folks do not represent an accurate cross section of America either. A former Marine with PTSD and a bad opioid addiction, the Clarksburg resident shot four men to death: two fellow drug dealers and two unlucky men delivering newspapers. The Greenwich resident, a hedge-fund mogul convicted of insider trading, was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay $13 million in fines and return $31 million to Morgan Stanley. And the black Chicago slum-dweller became a BMW-driving career criminal, first by selling cocaine, then by attempting murder. Paroled after a mere eight years, he went back to prison for selling crack cocaine.

All three men created many victims, yet Osnos chooses to tell the stories of these victimizers as representative of the effects of American social injustice.

Readers will be forgiven for expecting that a book of this title published in 2021 would autopsy the 2020 riots that followed the Minneapolis police-officer-caused death of George Floyd. What a wildland we had then! The New York Times reported that by the end of June 2020, the Floyd “protests” were already considered the largest in U.S. history. But Osnos doesn’t even mention the riots until page 366, and after wondering why such rebellion took blacks so long, he disingenuously asserts that only 7 percent of the protests involved looting or violence. Legitimizing the destruction, he quotes Frederick Douglass on his support for violent dissent: Those believing in only peaceful protests “want crops without plowing up the ground.” Four pages later, Osnos loses interest in sugar-coating the riots and turns his attention to Clarksburg and the racism there.

Conservatism gets some coverage. Osnos’s recounting of his meetings with American Renaissance Founder and Editor Jared Taylor and like-minded others brings some counterbalance to his natural bias. Osnos also expresses nostalgia for Greenwich resident Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of presidents, a Republican who believed that government exists to shape society and should be funded sufficiently to meet society’s needs. Such Republicans once embodied “courage and thrift,” says Osnos.

Osnos contrasts Prescott Bush’s conservatism with that of William F. Buckley Jr.’s competing vision: that government exists only to protect lives, liberty, and property. Individuals shape society, according to this view, and not the other way around. Osnos deplores the ascendancy of the Buckley vision through Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump, and he draws a line between this prevailing ethos and the observable environmental and human depreciation, particularly in the slums of Chicago and the West Virginia landscape.

What is the true reason that so many Americans are dysfunctional? Can anything be done about it? For his answer, Osnos strings cliches together. Veterans return from war with PTSD and drug problems. Chicago blacks cannot escape segregation. All, it is claimed, are victims of their circumstances, and the Greenwich billionaires have vacant souls. Hopeful, though, is the featured work of Jahmal Cole, a black Chicago community organizer who works with black children in the city’s slums. Between 2007 and 2010, more than half the black men on Chicago’s west and south sides were unemployed (nationwide it is about a third), a condition that Cole hopes to change.

Naturally, after the riots, Cole was buried in corporate money. He takes these children to scuba dive, to homeless shelters, and to a chiropractor’s office, among other places. When COVID hit, he paid 75 students $15 an hour to gather donated sanitizer, toiletries, and food that they could bring to the elderly, and then further help link them to doctors and services. Under affirmative-action pressure, corporations wanted Cole to quickly teach his students some social skills to prepare them for employment, but Cole found this order unrealistic. Corporations have no idea how far behind these young people are, he said. Many of them have never even seen Lake Michigan. Cole sees the need for small steps, neighborhood associations, and familiarity with local representatives.

If there’s one principle that this nation can now agree on, it is that President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural-address invocation—“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”—is no longer taken seriously: It just sounds too fascistic to some ears, as if we exist to serve government. Surely, we all need to sacrifice for the common good. But it’s troubling that Osnos is reluctant to advocate that individuals first take responsibility for the improvement of their own lives.

The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center reports that 61 percent of Americans paid no federal income tax in 2020. Yes, the pandemic and various government payouts were responsible for much of this high number, but even in 2019, 44 percent of Americans paid no income tax. And 1 percent of those who did pay accounted for more than a third of all tax dollars. Osnos sympathizes with the freeloader while sneering at his fellow citizens dutifully paying the bills. But excusing dependency while making heavy demands on those living responsibly is an ugly and unsustainable ethos. The resulting resentment might be the true wildland.

Top image: Black Lives Matter / George Floyd Protest Oakland, Ca. May 29, 2020 (Daniel Arauz, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

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