BOOK SYNOPSIS

AN EMPIRE WILDERNESS

by Robert D. Kaplan
(Random House, 1998)

As with most episodic works, this book doesn't lend itself well to synopsis. For me to simply list the events and images of the book would be like describing an impressionist painting by listing the color and direction of the individual brush strokes. After an introduction in Ft. Leavenworth, KS, An Empire Wilderness is a travelogue from south to north across the North American continent from Mexico City to Vancouver, BC. The book ends with Kaplan accompanying a group of military officers to tour a Vicksburg, MS battleground. Kaplan balances his personal observations with interviews with people in locations along the way. Mostly he talks to movers and shakers, local boosters, politicians, real-estate agents, activists and businessmen. He visits rich and poor sections of towns, an Indian reservation, tourist spots and government facilities.

Through impressions and interviews across a broad social, geographic, economic, racial and political spectrum of present-day North America, Kaplan attempts to make predictions about America's near future. The ultimate effect is that of a pile of snapshots. Individually meaningless, they gradually create a coherent impression of present day social trends.

Here's what he came up with:

Architectural trends presage social trends. A shift in the way buildings look indicates that there will be some kind of social change that metaphorically reflects that change. Architecture is becoming more globally uniform (a shopping mall in Omaha being much like a shopping mall in Portland or in Tokyo, for that matter) and that presages the diminution of the importance of national borders. National political borders in the future will be less important than common economic or environmental interests among cities. Portland and Vancouver will be more closely allied than, say, Vancouver and Quebec.

Cities will more or less cease to be important as people arrange themselves into what he calls "post urban pods." If you want to know what a post urban pod is, just look at Orange County, California. Instead of a giant city center surrounded by semipastoral bedroom communities, Kaplan sees a trend toward large number of small cities abutting one another, each municipality having its own zoning codes, its own town council and so on. Further, these cities will tend to look pretty much alike with very little distinguishing architectural character and no distinguishing cuisine and no distinguishing fashions nor dialects. The main reason for this decentralization is that in our information age large cities are no longer necessary. It's just not necessary to have all the bankers and lawyers and politicians and businessmen physically concentrated in one spot in order to conduct business.

These separately incorporated pods also spring up because of racism and greed. He mentions at least one "town" of a short section of a single street which was "protectively incorporated" in order to protect property values.

Revitalization projects for the downtown areas of large cities are generally pipe dreams. Even in areas where such revitalizations are successful, they have been far outstripped by expansion at the periphery of those same cities. The day of the big city is over.

The effortless mobility of modern society brings with it new problems. Latter day boom towns like Tucson and Santa Fe attract gobs of job-seeking poor the way a rich foreigner at a Moroccan Bazaar attracts beggars. Since not all job-seekers find work, the unlucky ones will become social problems for the boom towns that attract them. Those with means will insulate themselves from this social problem with gated communities and private cops.

Furthermore, the middle class is polarizing into two camps, rich and poor and the rich are entrenching themselves into fortified, gated communities guarded by private cops. This trend has been working for a long time in Central America and Mexico, and as Central Americans and Mexicans move north, our rich respond just like the hispanic rich have.

The Federal Government will take on a more libertarian role, giving more power to the local governments and generally limiting its own interests to courts and military and the rationing of natural resources, in effect becoming a guardian and a referee for the varied interests within its borders.

As the central government relegates responsibility to local authorities, Indian reservations will begin politically to resemble semi-autonomous South African homelands. With reduced federal control, old grudges between tribes could re-erupt into bloodshed. Also, since these tribes have been penned onto the most economically useless land on the continent, they will be tempted to raise money with gambling enterprises and unregulated nuclear waste storage facilities.

The militia movement is a flash in the pan composed of people who embrace the mythological notion of a Jeffersonian America which never has existed and in the next decade or so will not exist.

Poor Mexicans will continue to enter the U.S. for as long as Mexico remains a shitty place for them to live and Mexico will remain a shitty place for them to live for the forseeable future because of corruption among the elite. (Kaplan is more diplomatic about it, but that's the gist.) Also, the drug trade and wages from unskilled labor in the U.S. represent the bulk of Mexico's economy. If the "war on drugs" were to someday suddenly cut the flow of drugs in half and if the INS managed to halve the number of unskilled workers that could send their paltry wages south, Mexico would disintegrate.

Speaking of disintegrating, Canada is closer to breaking up than one might have suspected (says Kaplan) because the cities along the southern border have more in common (economically and geographically) with their American cousins to their immediate south than they have to their Canadian brothers to the east and west.

Kaplan's view of these developments grows increasingly optimistic as he moves from south to north, even though he seems to regard Portland and Vancouver as something of a pasty Disneyfied utopia. He also can't avoid mentioning that these societal transitions seem to be more successful in areas where there is an abundance of Asian/WASP influence and less successful where there is an abundance of African/Hispanic influence. He tries hard to say it without saying it. He lets one of his interviewees say it. He needn't have tiptoed around the subject, but could have restated this notion as two self-evident principles, namely 1) that people who are poor in this decade are likely to be poor in the next, and 2) whether things change or not, being poor and uneducated is going to suck.

Your Host comments:

For the sake of brevity I've had to leave a lot out, although I think I've touched on most of the important points Kaplan tries to make.

There are a couple of weaknesses with some of his arguments, particularly the one which holds that architectural change metaphorically presages social change. It's an intriguing idea, but I'll need more than the one example he gives before I'm made a believer. Still, that's not the central theme of the book and he credits another tall thinker with having demonstrated the principle in another work.

I'm a little disappointed that he spent only a couple of paragraphs on Arkansas. I would like to have compared his observations to my opinions of my home state and thereby guage the accuracy of his impressions of other parts of the country.

Sometimes the reader is required to forgive (or skip) some of the author's more poetical descriptive flights. Here's one example: In describing the local accent of Victoria, British Columbia, Kaplan writes, "The words slip from people's mouths like springwater vectored by rocks in a stream." That's a pretty simile, and from a technical point of view the springwater image is a geologically consistent choice; but the image doesn't really convey anything about the accent he is trying to describe.

But that's knit-picking, isn't it?

Those three criticisms are pretty insignificant and they do nothing to undermine the more important observations he describes. His arguments are persuasive and his reasoning is generally clear. He doesn't make any surprising predictions. Rather he merely extends present trends, assuming they will continue; and by limiting the time scale of his predictions to the near future he decreases the chances that some unforseen development might unravel all his careful reasoning. Some subjects, race particularly, he approaches obliquely, so the reader has to infer Kaplan's prognostications on those subjects.

There's a lot more in the book than I've covered here, changing role of the military and the like. If paradigm shifts interest you, give Kaplan a read.

RTJ--10/26/98


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