“Oh, for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumor of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war.
Might never reach me more!”
Having written books on the Balkans (Balkan Ghosts) and the most disorganized parts of Africa (The Ends of the Earth), Robert Kaplan, contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly, has turned his eye on the western half of North America. Such bastions of Middle American stability as Omaha, Nebraska, and Tucson, Arizona, are subjected to the author’s characteristic scrutiny: that of an observant traveler well informed by history who takes due note of the social fissures in whatever place he happens to be visiting. These cracks—usually foreshadowing more serious social fragmentation and often used by the author to explain seemingly unavoidable cycles of conflict and failed leadership—provide Kaplan with the narrative thread by which he is able to convey his own, generally pessimistic, worldview.
The idea for such a book about the American West is itself arresting. An Empire Wilderness is an unambiguous sign that concern about the impact of economic globalization and mass immigration on America’s long-term cohesion—which has preoccupied realist and traditional conservatives for years—is beginning to affect the center and left of the political spectrum as well, having bypassed the more established Beltway right and its mainstream journals with their notorious reluctance seriously to entertain such issues. Kaplan explores his subject with detached understatement, always aware that he is speaking of (and to) a nation that has not experienced a major national tragedy since the Civil War and whose leaders behave as if it enjoyed a permanent exemption from the condition of being human. Yet in the graceful writing and the half-alarmed asides, there is insight and painful realism; as a portrait of half a continent undergoing rapid and generally wrenching change, An Empire Wilderness is first rate.
Kaplan begins his journey at the Army staff college in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas—the departure point for hundreds of wagon trains and the cavalry’s Indian campaigns, the base where Eisenhower studied war and Colin Powell served as commander. Sitting awestruck in the Protestant memorial chapel, going over the names of those fallen in battle, Kaplan feels himself at the “core of nationhood.” Today’s officers are adept at computer modeling (urban warfare, possibly on the American continent, is a hot subject), conversant with history, well read, and personally disciplined. A select group by measure of achievement and, quite often, bravery, they cannot help but be conscious of the cultural gaps separating them from the elites on both coasts. Whether black or white, Leavenworth’s officers usually have rural and blue collar roots-backgrounds which, though once well represented at the higher levels of American government and business, are now marginal nearly to the point of quaintness. Kaplan notes, in an almost off-hand way, that the living conditions at Leavenworth are Spartan by contemporary standards, the consumption of modern creature comforts not even remotely equivalent to that enjoyed by financial and information age executives in New York or Los Angeles (a fact that is probably of no consequence for the time being, though it is not impossible to imagine circumstances in which it might matter).
From Leavenworth, Kaplan proceeds to St. Louis—more precisely, to several disparate St. Louises, his description of which amounts to a template for that of subsequent American cities, all of them breaking into different “communities,” the parts losing relationship to one another. St. Louis’s middle class, now ensconced in newly incorporated edge cities, lives in gated communities protected by private police forces; left behind, of course, are the black poor. Kaplan tours North St. Louis with a black police department major, 40 years old and all too aware that, by every measure, the place is worse off than when he was growing up. As with many contemporary American slum neighborhoods, the decaying architecture is beautiful, dominated by stately brick houses inhabited by squatters and drug dealers. Unskilled factory jobs have disappeared, and with them any market for physical labor offering a living wage. Kaplan likens this development to the closing of the frontier at the end of the last century: Both were disastrous for those not blessed with above-average intelligence and skills. Wistfully, he calls for the feds to do something—”it’s as if government were never here,” he says of East St. Louis. But there are no easy solutions, and perhaps even no acceptable ones: “A culture rooted in Europe had moved out and a culture deformed by slavery . . . had moved in, a transformation too great to be controlled by traditional democratic government, with its limited powers and half way measures.” As a brief for authoritarian redistributionism, Kaplan’s is more candid than most.
Outside their rotting inner cores, the Midwestern cities are expanding. In newer office lobbies, dozens of foreign periodicals are on display; in the offices beyond, professionals track market conditions half a world away on computer screens. Cities like Omaha now have active foreign policy associations, which Kaplan finds European in tone: very practical where matters of trade are concerned, with little interest in human rights or crusades for democracy. Thus, in the heartland, the middle class has distanced itself from the local poor, while forging new links to communities beyond America’s borders. For Kaplan, the creation of these distinct worlds recalls Teddy Kollek’s concept of Jerusalem as a “community of communities” where different groups live side by side without any real contact with one another.
Yet Kaplan is impressed by multiethnic Los Angeles, which for him inspires not Blade Runner scenarios but enthusiasm for the glitzy new malls bursting with a thousand kinds of Asian food. Even much-maligned Orange County, now multiethnic and buzzing with commerce, he finds compelling. In a trendy restaurant where crowds of Indian, Chinese, and Iranian yuppies gather to make deals, he recalls how John Gunther, whose Inside U.S.A. was written 50 years ago, used to ask where the power was, finding it often in the local party machine. Today, it was here in this restaurant, “dispersed among many more people and much less accountable, for the issue was simply profit, disconnected from political promises or even geography.”
The fly in the ointment, of course, is the question of patriotism. “Will this place fight for its country? Are these people loyal to anything except themselves?” Kaplan wonders. His host, an Orange County business editor, acknowledges that loyalty is a problem, but perhaps “patriotism will survive in the form of prestige, if America remains the world economic leader.” If not, Angelenos and others will discover whether or not a society without binding ties can survive a serious decline in prosperity.
While high-end multiculturalism is attractive, low-end cosmopolitanism is truly dreadful. Kaplan finds Tijuana hardly Mexican at all but a multicultural sludge, with street hustlers touting wares in Japanese and Hebrew, Disney figures along with plastic Jesuses. But beyond the border city lies Mexico itself—in Kaplan’s view a tragic society weighted down historically by an “hydraulic civilization” whose tyrannical bureaucracies have brutally mobilized regiments of forced labor and where effective American influence is exerted not by counseling on behalf of multi-party democracy or rooting out corruption but through the huge American appetite for narcotics (drug dealers are now the largest engine of Mexican economic growth).
Kaplan spends several chapters describing his travels back and forth across the border—a line he believes to be arbitrary and in the process of dissolution, as Mexico moves north and melds inexorably with Texas and the Southwest. Even as he makes pronouncements concerning the arbitrariness of borders, however, Kaplan provides contradictory evidence of his own. Take, for instance, Nogales, Arizona: a Mexican-American town in recession because of the weak economy south of the border. Yet much of the style of its Spanish-speaking residents —the way they talk, their gaits, their habits as office workers—is distinctly American. The second- and third-generation townspeople advocate the continued maintenance of the international border and have kind words for Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Says one whose great-uncle rode with Pancho Villa, “We don’t want an open border where all of Mexico’s problems come here.”
Still, the line between the United States and Mexico has blurred, while interior barriers within America have become more distinct. The most depressing part of Kaplan’s narrative is his description of the contemporary American rootless—white members, generally, of what was once the working or lower middle class. Watching these people hypnotically pouring coins into a slot machine on a Mississippi gambling barge, an Army major comments ironically, “And we risk our lives for this.” In Tucson, a Navajo cable TV installer talks about his trailer-park customers who live in homes with no furniture, no food besides chips and beer, no sign of friends or relatives. TV, he says, “is the whole existence for a new class of silent people.” Riding a Greyhound bus from Albuquerque to Amarillo, Texas, Kaplan is appalled by his fellow passengers: freaks in sweatpants and baseball caps, single mothers shepherding children with punk haircuts, no one conversing or reading. Never, he avers, whether in Yugoslavia or Mexico or Africa, has he traveled in a more rootless or unstable crowd. At the trip’s end, he takes a taxi from the bus terminal to the Amarillo airport—and crosses “the real border, back into middle class America.”
The most cheerful destination in Kaplan’s North American journey is “Cascadia”—Vancouver, Canada, Portland, and Seattle, the cities of the Pacific Northwest. Here, there is money, hightech talent, plenty of natural beauty, and the kind of people who appreciate it. The ethnic mix, especially in Vancouver, is white and Asian, more particularly Anglo-Saxon and Chinese —a cultural mix Kaplan extols as “the most potent in the history of capitalism.” Here, finally, in a sea of people having in common a lack of connection to the American past, Kaplan finds the most hope for America. “People would fight for this,” he says of Vancouver—its mild cosmopolitanism, its ordered grid of streets, its blend of British planning and ecological consciousness. From here, he can see not only to the end of the American nation but beyond it to the rise of a shimmering bourgeois city-state; like Henry Adams contemplating the end of the American empire a century ago, he finds the thought “in no way unpleasant.” However, there are difficulties here, both practical and moral. Kaplan seems aware that no region long survives without inspiring loyalties and a sense of civic virtue. But if the only portion of the United States capable of generating a sense of loyalty is the wealthy Northwest, where does that leave the rest of the country? If the greater American nationstate which supports “Cascadia”—as a market for its products, a guarantor of military security, and a barrier to uncontrolled immigration —were to splinter or collapse, Cascadia’s most-favored quality of life would not endure very long.
Globalization, the intractability of black poverty, the shrinking of the middle class, the erosion of democratic debate and practice, the Mexicanization of the Southwest, multiculturalism at both the high and the low end of society—these are grand themes for a travel book to bear, and Kaplan carries them beautifully. Still, there are moments when his semi-detached, above-the-battle perspective becomes exasperating: What would be wrong in acknowledging more explicitly that the collapse of the historical American nation-state would be an unmitigated disaster for tens of millions of people? It isn’t really enough to reply that the kind of change the West is undergoing is a tectonic shift, beyond the influence of political choice. If it is not inevitable that the inner cities should be overtaken by crime, neither should it be that the wages of working Americans stagnate nor that the border dissolve into nothingness. The hollowing-out of America’s once-broad middle class—rightly seen by Kaplan as a threat to the continued practice of democracy—is in great part a result of policies formulated in Washington; different policies could reverse or mitigate it. To argue such points would probably require a far more heavy-handed and contentious book than the one Kaplan has written. But it takes away nothing from this deeply intelligent and smoothly engaging work to hope that such a book makes a dramatic appearance soon.
[An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (New York: Random House) 393 pp., $27.50]
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