Review: A People’s History of the United States

Review: A People’s History of the United States

A People's History of the United StatesA People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a country famous for its historical ignorance, Howard Zinn sold two million copies of a 700-page history book. In a country famous for its allergy to the left, Howard Zinn wrote a best-seller from a staunchly left-wing perspective. Every evaluation of his book must begin and end with this achievement. Whatever you like or dislike about Zinn, clearly he did something right.

As you set out to judge this book, you must first decide whether it is a work of inquiry or of advocacy. This distinction has worn thin in our postmodern age, as we have become hyper-aware of the inescapability of bias. Nevertheless I think the distinction holds good in theory, however blurred it may be in practice.

An inquirer searches for the truth, even if the truth contradicts her original opinion; an advocate attempts to motivate people, to bring about some action, even if the action is somewhat vague or far-removed. An inquirer will risk dense and dry writing to get her point across; an advocate will risk simplification and generalization to get her point across. An inquirer will highlight information that her thesis doesn’t account for, and will include counterarguments and consider their merits; an advocate will minimize inconvenient information and will knock down strawmen of counterarguments.

This book is clearly a work of advocacy. And it is important to remember this, since as a work of inquiry A People’s History of the United States has almost no merit whatsoever. Zinn mostly relies on secondary sources, and makes no attempt at addressing counterarguments or at accommodating different viewpoints. His aim is not to explain American history, but to use American history to spark outrage.

Granted that this book is advocacy, we must then ask two more questions: whether it is responsible or irresponsible, and whether it is altruistic or selfish. Responsible advocacy uses careful research, seeks out unbiased sources, and acknowledges those sources; irresponsible advocacy uses lies or severe distortion of facts, or simply lies by omission. Altruistic advocacy acts on behalf of a wide swath of people, not just a narrow interest; selfish advocacy does the opposite. As an example of responsible, altruistic advocacy, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring addresses an issue of broad concern using careful research. On the other hand, the cigarette industry’s fight against the researchers who uncovered the negative health effects of smoking was an example of irresponsible, selfish advocacy, fighting on behalf of a small group using outright lies.

It is worth noting, by the way, that these two values can come into conflict. In these situations the advocate is faced with a choice: What is better, to distort the truth for a worthy cause, or to tell the truth at the expense of that cause? You might say that, if dishonesty is required, the cause can’t be worthy; but the fact remains that careful scholarship is often at odds with popular success—and popular success is what advocates aim for.

I think Zinn faced just this dilemma in this book, forced to choose between a work that would satisfy academics and would sell well, and he chose popularity. Granted, given the constraints of a popular book, I think he is decently honest with his sources. And it is worth noting that Zinn is frank about his political biases and goals. Nevertheless, I think it is obvious that he relies on books—again, mostly secondary sources—that are broadly sympathetic with his views; that he selectively quotes those who aren’t; and that he questions the motivations of any who disagree with him. What we must ask, then, is this: Does Zinn’s moral aim excuse this approach?

I think, on the whole, it does. At the time Zinn first wrote this book, history books used in public schools were unabashedly nationalistic, omitting labor movements, women’s movements, civil rights movements, and pushing aside the atrocities committed against the Native Americans. In other words, the history commonly taught and known was a history of presidents and elections, wars and victories, a history that ignored large swaths of underprivileged people. Of course Zinn didn’t change this single-handedly; he was the beneficiary of an entire academic movement. But his book, by its popularity, played an important role in changing the status quo. By the time I went to school, we had units on women’s movements, labor movements, and the barbarous mistreatment of blacks and Native Americans. It is also largely thanks to Zinn, I believe, that there is a growing movement against the celebration of Columbus Day (a person who I don’t think we ought to celebrate).

It is eminently right that the injustices and oppressions and inequities of American history be laid before the public. For history is never a neutral series of facts. Every political ideology relies on some historical narrative. Thus, systematically omitting episodes of history is equivalent to squelching certain political views. And even though I am not always in agreement with its ideology, I think that the United States suffers from its lack of a strong leftist movement.

Just recently, the political power of history has been dramatically demonstrated through the conflict over Civil War statues. More and more people are coming to the conclusion, I think rightly, that having statues of Confederate generals is not politically neutral. Of course we must learn and commemorate history. But it is impossible to remember and commemorate everything. We are always faced with a choice; and this choice is shot through with ideological questions. What we choose to remember, and how we choose to remember it, is a moral issue; and I think Zinn is right to remind us of the struggles of the unprivileged and powerless against the privileged and powerful—not for their sake, but for ours.

This, in brief, is why I generally approve of this book. But I do have many criticisms.

Most superficially, I think this book suffers from a lack of organization. Many chapters feel like hasty cut-and-paste jobs, jumping from topic to topic, summarizing and quoting from different sources, without anything more than a sense of outrage to tie it together. In this way, the book is bizarrely reminiscent of a a Bill Bryson work: a hodgepodge of stories, thrown together in a loose jumble. I also think that Zinn should have highlighted more individual stories and condensed some tedious lists of movements, if only for dramatic effect.

More seriously, I think that Zinn commits the moral error of many on the left: by holding people to a stringent standard, the important moral differences between groups are minimized. This was most noticeable on his chapters on the Civil War and World War II, in which Zinn goes to lengths to undermine the moral superiority of the North and of the United States. I absolutely agree with Zinn that the North was hardly a utopia of freedom and equality (racism was almost universal), and that the United States was hardly a shinning beacon on a hill (think of the Japanese internment camps, the Dresden bombing, or the nuclear bombings). Nevertheless, I think that, with all their inequities and injustice, the Union and the United States were clearly preferable to the slave-owning Confederate or Nazi Germany. Minimizing this difference is dangerous.

I also object to the way that Zinn makes it seem as though the United States is controlled by a vast conspiracy, or that all the elements of power work together in one seamless ‘system’ (one of Zinn’s favorite words). He does, at one point, acknowledge that this system arose unconsciously, through necessity and in stages, and is not, for the most part, used intentionally by the powerful. But this, then, leads to the question: What is the difference between an unconsciously developed and unintentionally used system of control, and no ‘system’ at all?

Or consider this paragraph:

The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to a small number who are not pleased.

Zinn’s message is clear: that this is an unjust situation created by powerful people. But think about what he is saying: The United States is a country where most people are content and where the discontented are allowed to express themselves. Phrased like this, the observation looses its outraged and semi-conspiratorial edge; indeed it doesn’t seem so bad at all. I cite this only as an example of Zinn’s use of rhetoric and insinuation to make political points, a dishonest habit. Another bad habit is his tendency to question the motivation of the people he intends to criticize. Every reform or government action aimed at equality is, for Zinn, just a concession aimed at promoting the long-term stability of ‘the system.’ Again, this leads to the question: What, in practice, is the difference between a self-interested concession and an honest attempt at reform?

I also want to note that Zinn’s effort to write a “people’s” history became, at times, a thin pretense. This was obvious whenever the general opinion didn’t match his own. Zinn was not simply chronically “the people”; he consistently chooses to focus on those who shared his ideals, whether they represented the majority or a small minority. This was most obvious in the chapter on the Second World War, which focuses on the small group of people who disapproved of it. But it was a tendency throughout. Here is a typical passage:

After the bombing of Iraq began with the bombardment of public opinion, the polls showed overwhelming support for Bush’s action [Bush Sr.], and this continued through six weeks of the war. But was it an accurate reflection of the citizen’s long-term feelings about war? The split vote in the polls just before the war reflected a public still thinking its opinion might have an effect. Once the war was on, and clearly irreversible, in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervor … it was not surprising that a great majority of the country would declare its support.

This is special pleading at its worst. The people’s opinion, when it disagrees with Zinn’s opinion, is of course not really their opinion; it is just manipulation. But when the people do agree with Zinn, it is of course their “true” opinion.

This, by the way, is another nasty habit of the left: a pretense to knowing the true interests of the unprivileged, even if the unprivileged themselves disagree with the left and among each other. Thus all the differences that divide the unprivileged—racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia among the poor—are both excused and then dismissed as being superficial differences that mask a true unity, perhaps even instilled by the powerful to divide the poor. In a way this is a disrespectful view of “the people,” since Zinn apparently thinks that most people are far more easily manipulated than he is himself, and thus should be judged by a more lenient standard than the crafty powerful.

I am heaping a lot of criticism on Zinn; but I do think that, despite all this, Zinn is almost always on the morally right side: for equality, for pacifism, for democracy. And even though, largely thanks to Zinn, many of the episodes he covered in this book have made their way into school curriculums and the national awareness, I still learned a great deal from reading this. Both the Mexican-American War (which, to protest, Thoreau spent a night in jail) and the Spanish-American War (which resulted in prolonged, brutal fighting in the Philippines), two American power-grabs, still receive scant coverage in classrooms. And the long, ignominious history of U.S. intervention throughout the world, propping up dictators and plotting to topple governments, is still not widely known—and it should be.

I think Zinn has already been quite successful in changing people’s perception of history. But is this book inspiring or motivational? On the one hand, Zinn is a powerful writer whose every line carries a sense of justified outrage; and outrage, as Zinn shows, is what motivates many to fight for change. On the other, Zinn portrays movement after movement trying and failing—only about one in ten even partially succeeds, it seems—which can easily create a fatalistic cynicism. I was often reminded of the Onion article: “Humanity Surprised It Still Hasn’t Figured Out Better Alternative to Letting Power-Hungry Assholes Decide Everything.

It’s a joke, I know, but I do wonder about this. In a way this is the issue raised by—heaven help us—Game of Thrones: Is it really better, morally speaking, to be an idealist like Ned Stark, if that leads to your defeat at the hands of less scrupulous parties? This is one of the oldest questions in politics; and the way you answer it determines, to some extent, where you fall on the political spectrum. Zinn represents one answer, and I think it is one we too often forget in our cynical age.

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Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The seven train slowed to a stop in the Mets-Willets Point station and a distorted voice crackled onto the PA system: “Last stop, last stop everybody, this is the last stop, please exit the train.” Normally the seven goes to Flushing; but today it terminated one stop earlier because of track work. With a chorus of sighs and groans the passengers shuffled out and pushed down the stairs to the buses waiting on the street, a stopgap solution used when the subway is shut down.

The buses were much smaller than the train, of course, so we had to pack ourselves in tight. When the final passenger squeezed in, the doors shut and we started moving, throwing nearly everyone off balance. Most people were silent, but behind me a man began talking: “Honestly, this is unbelievable—unbelievable! Every week, track work, signal problems, delays. Every week another problem. And they keep raising the fare! We pay more money, more money, and the service gets worse and worse. These damn MTA people, they don’t even use the subway. You know who’s on the MTA board? Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono hasn’t taken the subway once in her life!”

Except for the Yoko Ono part (I don’t know where he got that from), the man was right: service on the subways is getting worse, even though the fares keep going up. The quality has gotten so bad lately as to approach a crisis. This summer we have had two derailments, and a track fire that sent several people to the hospital. Less dramatic, but no less important, are the delays: signal problems and overcrowding cause constant tardiness. On some lines, the trains are late more often than on time. Since nearly 6 million people use the subway per day, this is a serious political liability. True to form, the politicians have done what they do best: point fingers at each other. The mayor blames the governor, and vice versa, until finally governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency regarding the subways.

Living in Madrid has given me a new perspective on the NYC subway. Before I moved I had just assumed that, by their very nature, subways were dirty, uncomfortable places. The trains screech and wail on the tracks, and jerk back and forth when they pull into the station. The stations themselves are sweaty, claustrophobic, and full of garbage and rats; and the subway cars are always packed to the breaking point. But in Madrid I discovered that a metro can be clean, sleek, and comfortable—and, most surprisingly, cheap. For comparison, a monthly ticket on the Metro North, the railroad from my town in Westchester to Manhattan, costs almost $300; and a monthly subway pass costs an additional $120. An equivalent ticket in Madrid, including both commuter rail and the metro, costs about 100€—one-fourth the price for a cleaner, safer, and better service.

Subway Interior
Modern subway interior

I may sound like I’m disparaging the NYC subway, but really I have a great affection for it. The subway has a gritty, industrial aesthetic that I find strongly appealing. And despite the frustrations, the subway represents what is best about New York: a place where people of every background, doing every activity imaginable, are thrown together in a tight space and manage—just barely—to avoid killing each other. Just the other day, for example, I witnessed a woman violently push herself onto the subway, shoving everyone out of her way to get to a seat. As soon as she reached her prize a man rightly began castigating her, and a loud argument ensued. Luckily, another man began preaching in a loud voice, drowning out the argument and restoring a tense truce as we were given a sermon about the perils of hellfire. I simply don’t witness things like this in Madrid.

For this combination of reasons—a mixture of admiration and despair—I set out to investigate the NYC subway. First I visited the New York Transit Museum, and then I read this book.

The New York Transit Museum has two locations, a small shop in Grand Central Station, and their museum in Brooklyn. The shop in Grand Central has rotating exhibits in half the store. The latest one is about the history of the seven train, which runs from Manhattan to Queens. This line was recently extended to the far West Side, with the opening of the first new station in twenty-five years: Hudson Yards. The museum in Brooklyn, near Borough Hall, is in an old subway station. In addition to the historical photos and the information on display, the museum has examples of all the turnstiles ever used in the subway; and on the old platform there are antique subway cars, going back even to when they were made of wood. (Wooden cars got a bad reputation after the Malbone Street Wreck in 1918, a terrible accident that killed 93 people. The wooden cars splintered apart upon impact.)

Wooden Subway
Wooden subway cars

If you go visit this museum, I recommend a little stop along the way. The New York City subway was officially opened in 1904. The showpiece of the new system was the City Hall station, located right under the seat of the city government. This station was lavish: decorated with ornate tile-work designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, using arches based on medieval Spanish churches. Beautiful as it is, the station had to be abandoned when the subway switched to longer cars. The short length of the platform, and the sharp angle of the turn, rendered the famous station useless. Now it sits, unused and empty, below City Hall. You can still catch a glimpse of this station, however, if you take the six train down to the Brooklyn Bridge station, and then stay on the train when it curves around to go uptown. The subway screeches horribly as it turns, but it is an eerie and fascinating experience to see the old abandoned station.

(I couldn’t get any good pictures myself, but you can find some in the gallery here. The Transit Museum does occasional tours of the City Hall Station, which you can find here.)

This book was the perfect accompaniment to the museum. Written by a professional historian, 722 Miles is, I believe, the most informative book on the market about the subway’s history.* As do many books by academics, this one began its life as a doctoral dissertation. It must have been substantially revised, however, since it is mostly free from academic stuffiness and scholarly squabbles. Hood casts a wide net, focusing on three interrelated aspects of the subway’s history: the political wrangling involved in getting it built, the role it played in the development of NYC, and the engineering methods and challenges of the subway. No engineer himself, the latter aspect is fairly basic; but the politics and the urban history are quite well done.

Old Interior
Antique interior design

The reader may be surprised (or maybe not) to learn that the subway has always been plagued with political wrangling and controversy. It was born in an era that saw major government spending and ownership as antithetical to sound business practices. But since private capital has always proven insufficient to infrastructure on this scale, the subway has been a public-private hybrid since its inception, with the state gradually taking on more and more responsibility. One reason the state had to step in was because the five-cent fare became a political stumbling block, something the public regarded as a sacred right; and so the fare remained a nickel even when the cost of a ride to the business was twice that amount.

Old Interior 2
Another old interior design

Originally the subway system was owned and operated by three separate entities: Interborough Rapid Transit (INT), Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), and the Independent Subway System (IND). A relic of this origin is preserved in the subway’s odd numbering and lettering system: the numbered lines were the INT lines, and the lettered lines BRT and IND. These three were consolidated under city ownership by LaGuardia in 1940. From that year onward, there was very little development or even proper maintenance of the subways, in part thanks to the nickel fare. Another contributing factor was Robert Moses—the villain in every New York City story—who commanded most of the federal money available during the New Deal to build highways and bridges, diverting it from subways. Later, in 1968, the subway system was transferred to the newly created Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), by governor Nelson Rockefeller. This did little to help its finances, apparently, since by the early 80s the subway was a frightful, rundown, dangerous place. (Photos from that era have a haunting, apocalyptic beauty.)

The original purpose of the subway wasn’t just to serve already built-up areas in the city. Rather, several lines were run into undeveloped areas in the hopes of relieving population density. When the seven line was built in Queens, for example, it was running into almost pristine farmland and wild fields, where many still went to hunt fowl. It didn’t take long for this land to be urbanized. The muckraker Jacob Riis played a role in this development strategy, since it was he who documented the horrors of overcrowded tenements in lower Manhattan, prompting progressives to see the subway as a tool to make the city more livable and clean. This was done under the influence of Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner who originated the idea of the ‘garden city’ (which Jane Jacobs later opposed).

Chronological turnstiles

Aside from the drier history, there are some fun facts in this book. The first underground train in New York was, I learned, not a proper subway at all, but a pneumatic train built in secret. This was the idea of Alfred E. Beach, who tunneled under Manhattan under the pretense of building a pneumatic parcel delivery system, to avoid the opposition of the corrupt legislature. In 1870 he unveiled his new train, which caused quite a sensation, despite being totally impractical for longer trips (Beach’s train only went a few blocks). I also learned that the tunnel that takes the seven train under the East River, on its journey from Manhattan to Queens, is called the Steinway Tunnel, because it was originally funded and promoted by that scion of the famous piano company. He was interested because he had a factory on the other side of the river.

This book was originally published in 1993, and it shows its age. This was a particularly bad time for the subway, when it was slowly recovering from its low point in the 1980s, and the book ends on a bleak note. Until fairly recently, the subway has been making quite a comeback since then. Just as many people are using the subway nowadays as they did in its so-called “Golden Age,” the 1920s and 30s, which amounts to almost 2 billion per year. The subways are no longer covered in graffiti and plagued by crime. Instead of posters warning passengers about mugging, they discourage ‘manspreading’ and promote basic etiquette. Viral videos also encourage passengers not to eat, clip their toenails, put their bags on seats, or to try to get on the train before other passengers have gotten off—a big improvement. We still have rats, though.

Even more impressive, the subway is building once again. Delayed for nearly 100 years, the Second Avenue line has just begun opening stations, which will relieve the overused Lexington Avenue line. We also have wifi in all the subway stations now.

Nevertheless, there are some serious problems to fix. The most daunting is to replace the subway’s signal system. This system is badly out of date. On some lines, they are still using equipment that dates from the 1930s. Having obsolete analog signals means that there are frequent malfunctions; and even when working properly, trains cannot safely run close to each other, since the old signals are not precise, which leads to overcrowding and more delays. This may seem like an easy fix, but it is estimating that it will take at least until 2045, and probably even later, to refurbish the whole system.

Despite these problems, and despite the expensive fares and the shrieking cars, I am still optimistic about the NYC subway. To me, the subway is a symbol of the entire city: dirty, grimy, overpriced, overcrowded, part worn out and part sleekly modern, where people of all sorts come to strive and struggle and suffer in a narrow space. New York simply wouldn’t be New York if it didn’t include frustration—and garbage—and rats—and loud energy; and the subway has all that in abundance.

*I’m not sure where the number 722 comes from. According to the Transit Museum, there are 656 miles of mainline track and 842 miles total. This number will be rising some more with the completion of the Second Avenue line.

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Review: How the Other Half Lives

Review: How the Other Half Lives

How the Other Half LivesHow the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Millions of immigrants came to the United States during Jacob Riis’s lifetime, and a great many of them landed on an island: Manhattan. Sadly, thousands of these hopeful souls ended up on another island: Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field, where the indigent dead are buried.

This island is still in use, by the way. Twice a week, a ferry comes bearing corpses in simple pine coffins, which are buried in mass graves dug out by bulldozers, with prisoners paid fifty cents an hour acting as pall-bearers. It was only in 2015, almost 150 years after the island began being used as a cemetery, that relatives were given permission to visit the island. Before that, the bodies disappeared completely—off limits to the public, isolated by the sea, out of the sight and out of mind. (Click here to see the New York Times’s excellent story about the island.)

I mention Hart Island, not only because it was already in use back in Jacob Riis’s day (he took a seminal photo of a burial there), but because it is a perfect example of how the city’s poor can be made invisible. In writing this book, Jacob Riis explicitly tried to combat this invisibility. He wanted to bring home to middle-class readers just how bad life in the tenements could be.

Riis was a precursor to the muckraking journalism made famous by Upton Sinclair and his ilk, who came a generation later. In Riis’s case, the term “muckraker” is almost literally accurate, since it was grime he was trying to document. Immigrants from all over the world were pouring into New York City, many of them desperately poor, and housing simply did not keep up with the need. And because there were few building regulations on the books, this resulted in squalid and unsanitary tenements—shabby and dark (many rooms had no windows), and totally packed as families took on lodgers to afford the rent. The overcrowding not only made the buildings fire hazards, but also centers of disease.

Jacob Riis first experienced the plight of the poor when he arrived in New York City fresh from Denmark, aged twenty-one, trying to find work as a carpenter. He struggled for years to get by, occasionally sleeping in police lodging houses alongside beggars and street urchins. When he eventually found his vocation as a journalist, he wound up accompanying the police in nightly patrols of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. He wrote articles about what he saw; and one of them was so successful that he eventually expanded it into How the Other Half Lives.

I must say that this book is not a very compelling read. The prose is fine, but Riis is not a natural story-teller. The writing drifts on in an aimless, impressionistic way, never quite cohering into a cogent overview of the situation. The book itself is somewhat jumbled, with each chapter focusing on one aspect of the poor neighborhoods—stale-beer dives, lodging houses, “street Arabs,” paupers, and so on. You quickly learn that, however indignant Riis may be on behalf of the poor, he is not above racial bigotry. He has an unkind word for nearly every group—Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese. To his credit, however, he is relatively progressive on the subject of the color line between blacks and whites.

I don’t know if this is true, but I quickly got the impression that Riis never actually spoke with the poor people he took upon himself to document. He mentions a few casual conversations, but no distinct individual emerges. To Riis, the poor seem to be nameless masses, with an ethnicity but not an identity. You occasionally wonder whether Riis is outraged by the injustice of the situation or is simply disgusted by the filth. This complete lack of individual stories contributes to the book’s underwhelming impact. Probably I am judging this book a little harshly, though, since I read this book concurrently with Sinclair’s The Jungle, and the comparison is not flattering for Riis.

There was one area, however, in which Riis excelled: photography. This edition has over one hundred of his photographs, and they are stunning. Riis was able to capture things nobody had before, since he was one of the first field journalists to use flash photography. The early generation of flash cameras used a pistol-like device that was extremely loud and fairly hazardous; twice Riis set fire to the room he was in. Later, he switched to a method that required him to heat the flash powder in a frying pan. The world before smart phones was harsh indeed. Considering these technical limitations, Riis’s photographs are all the more remarkable: candid, dramatic, and sensitive.

It is all too easy to criticize this book from the perspective of the present. Really, Riis is impressive by any measure. He learned English late in life and writes better prose than most of us. He was a brilliant pioneer of photography, and of muckraking journalism. He even had a small hand in the construction of the New Croton Aqueduct, since he documented unsanitary water supplies, as well as the New York Subway, since he was among the reformers who advocated for improved transportation to lessen population density in the slums. Most importantly, despite his flaws, he believed that society had an obligation to its least privileged members, and could not avert its eyes with a clear conscience.

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Review: A Sand County Almanac

Review: A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round RiverA Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River by Aldo Leopold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a dull world if we knew all about geese!

Nature is refreshing. Even a short walk in a park can powerfully clear one’s head. For whatever reason—perhaps because our ancestors lived in trees—surrounding oneself with birches and maples produces in nearly everyone feelings of warmth, comfort, and peace. And for many people, nature is more than refreshing: it is awe-inspiring, even divine. Natural environments are, for some, more uplifting than cathedrals. Emerson might have captured this strain of mystical naturalism best:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. … Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being flow through me; I am part or particle of God.

I myself have had comparable experiences in the woods. Yet both Emerson and I are pure amateurs next to Aldo Leopold.

Leopold was a pioneering conservationist and forester. He was also a superlative writer, and in this brief book he covers a lot of ground. He begins with a month-by-month account of Sand County, a poor farming region in Wisconsin. This was my favorite section, since Leopold’s sensitivity to his environment is nearly superhuman. He has a keen sense of both the history of environments—how they change with the seasons, how they have evolved through time, how they have been warped by human activity—and the close-knit interdependence of ecosystems, how each organism shapes and is shaped by every other organism, forming a perfect whole.

As a stylist, he manages to be lyrical and poetic while sticking scrupulously to what he sees and hears. His sentences are short, his diction simple, and yet he manages to evoke a densely complex ecosystem. This is because, unlike Emerson or I—and more so than Thoreau—Leopold really understood his environment. He can name every species of plant, and tell what soils they prefer and what plants they like as neighbors. He can identify every bird by its call, and knows where it roosts, what it eats, when it migrates, and how it mates. Scratches on a tree tell him a deer is nearby, his antlers fully grown; the footprints in snow tell him a skunk has passed, and how recently.

All this is described with exquisite sensitivity, but no romantic embellishment. To borrow a phrase from E.B. White, Leopold had discovered “the eloquence of facts.” And, like White, Thoreau, and Emerson, his writing has a pleasing, folksy, rambling, ambling quality, wherein each sentence is nailed to the next one at an oblique angle.

In the rest of the book, Leopold puts forward a new philosophy of conservation. This train of thought reminded my very much of another book I read recently, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book, Jane Jacobs explains how top-down approaches to city planning killed neighborhood vitality. Just so, when Leopold was a young man in the forestry service, he participated in the policy of removing predators—bears, wolves, and mountain lions—to protect livestock and to increase the supply of hunting animals, like deer. When hunting became necessary to control population, parks began building more and more roads to make access easier; and meanwhile the exploding deer population prevented new trees from growing. Thus the park was encroached upon by cars, and the ecosystem thrown off balance—in the same way that blindly building highways and public housing can destroy neighborhoods.

Leopold was, I believe, one of the first to popularize the idea that ecosystems act like one giant organism, with a delicate balance of cooperating and competing components. Every healthy ecosystem is a harmony that cannot be disturbed without unpredictable results. To again borrow from Jacobs, an ecosystem—like a city economy or a human brain—is an example of “organized complexity.” Thus ecosystems baffle attempts to understand them by thinking of their components separately, as a collection of individual species, or even statistically, as the average behavior of interchangeable parts. Complexity like this tends to be a product of historical growth, with each distinct component making minute adjustments to each other in a dense network of influence. Leopold doesn’t say this in so many words; but he does something even more impressive: he illustrates this quality using short anecdotes and schoolboy vocabulary.

His most philosophic contribution to the environmental movement is what he called a “land ethic.” Previous arguments for conservation were couched in terms of expediency: how national parks and nature reserves could benefit us economically. Leopold believed that this approach was too narrow; since hunting lodges and mechanized farms are always more profitable in the short term, this would eventually result in the destruction of wild ecosystems and the disappearance of species. We needed to move beyond arguments of expediency and see the land—and everything on it—as valuable for its own sake. Leopold believed that we had an ethical duty to preserve ecosystems and all their species, and that the aesthetic reward of wild nature was more valuable than dollars and cents could measure.

I want to go along with this, but I thought that Leopold was unsatisfyingly vague in this direction. It is simply not enough to say that we have an ethical duty to preserve nature; this is quite a claim, and requires quite a bit of argument. Further, aesthetic value seems like a slender reed to rest on. For every Emerson and Thoreau, there is a Babbitt whose tastes are not so refined. To his credit, Leopold does argue that a great part of conservation must consist in elevating the public taste in nature. Otherwise, conservation will consist of little more than the government using tax dollars to purchase large swaths of land. Individuals must see the value in wilderness and actively participate in preserving it. But molding tastes is no easy thing; and, more importantly, if we are to do so, there must be compelling reasons to do it.

The most compelling reasons for conservation are, I believe, expediency—but expediency in the widest sense. The difference between folly and wisdom is not that the former is preoccupied with expediency and the latter higher things; it is that wisdom considers what is expedient on a grander scale. Leopold comes close to making this same argument. He was, for example, ahead of his time in being deeply concerned about extinction. Every time a species disappears it is an irreplaceable loss; and considering that our medicine partly depends on new discoveries, extinctions may have terrible consequences for us down the line. (I saw a PBS special the other day about scientists trying to discover new antibiotics by shifting through raw soil.) Since Leopold’s day—long before Silent Spring or An Incovenient Truth—we have learned plenty more ways that environmental destruction can be equivalent to self-destruction.

Carping aside, this is a deeply satisfying book: lyrical, descriptive, educational, and innovative. Leopold realized what Orwell also realized: that winning converts requires both argument and propaganda. He does not only argue for the value of nature, but he really captures the beauty of unspoiled environments and serves it up for his readers’ consideration. We are not only convinced, but seduced. This is propaganda in its noblest form—propaganda on behalf of nature.

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Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American CitiesThe Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a common assumption: that human beings are charming in small numbers and noxious in large numbers.

I picked up this book immediately after finishing The Power Broker, and I highly recommend this sequence to anyone who has the time. The conflict between Robert Moses, czar-like planner of New York City for almost half a century, and Jane Jacobs, ordinary citizen and activist, has become the source of legend. There is a book about it, Wrestling with Moses, a well-made documentary, Citizen Jane, and an opera, A Marvelous Order, with a libretto written by a Pulitzer Prize winner (I haven’t seen it). The two make an excellent hero and villain. Moses, the autocratic, power-hungry city-planner who eviscerates neighborhoods and bulldozes homes. Jacobs, the underdog autodidact, community organizer, defender of Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park.

The two did not only clash in life—with Jacobs leading protests to stop Moses’s highways—but, more importantly, in thought. More diametrically opposed conceptions of the city could hardly be imagined.

Moses was, at bottom, a follower of Le Corbusier, a modernist who put forward the idea of the Radiant City. The idea was to create a city with all the different functions in separate zones—sections for retail, business, manufacturing, residences—and to create as much green space as possible by putting everything in high-rise buildings, freeing up land for parks. These buildings would be connected, not by ordinary roads, but by giant superhighways. In a way, it is a conception of the city that is anti-city: there would be no streets, no corner shops, no neighborhoods. The impulse was, I believe, originally progressive: to erase differences in class by creating uniform conditions for everyone. But in Moses’s hands this philosophy became deeply reactionary: isolate the poor people of color in projects and build highways for the car-owning middle class.

Jacobs was absolutely opposed to this model. There are innumerable theoretical differences between Jacobs and Moses, but I think the most essential difference is this: Jacobs loved cities. She loved walking around cities, chatting with neighbors, gazing at street-life, making small-talk at local shops, sitting on stoops and leaning out windows. And so her idea of urban planning is not to pack everyone into high-rise buildings to get them off the street, but the reverse: to get as many people on the street as possible. She loves the messiness of cities. A healthy city is not, for her, a work of art, consciously designed. It is more like a biological organism, shaped by natural selection into a well-functioning, complex, interrelated, constantly-changing whole. Healthy cities are not made by planners but by ordinary people.

Since the publication of this book, Jacobs’s ideas have become enormously influential—so influential, in fact, that it is difficult to see anything radical about what she says. One of her basic principles, for example, is that a well-used street is a safe street, because the presence of many bystanders discourages crime. I suspect that this seems obvious to most people. But when you look at the projects that Moses and his ilk built—high-rise buildings surrounded by lawns, with no shops, restaurants, or anything else to attract people to street level—you realize how totally out of touch they were. Indeed, the whole idea of housing projects sounds like a recipe for disaster: pack all the poor into one area, set income limits so anyone successful has to move out, discourage all street activity to eliminate a sense of community. And in practice the projects were disasters—centers of delinquency and despair.

Jacobs’s recipe for creating a healthy neighborhood has four ingredients: (1) mixed uses, so that different kinds of people are drawn to the area at different times of day for different reasons; (2) a mixture of old and new buildings, so that there is low-rent space available for small businesses and low-income residents; (3) small blocks, so that streets are not isolated from one another; (4) and sufficient density of residents, to create the necessary amount of economic and social activity. The goal is to produce a neighborhood like her own Greenwich Village: with lots of street life, with successful residents who choose to stay long-term, with local stores and restaurants and cafes, and with a steady influx of immigrants.

To use a metaphor, Jacobs thinks we should try to create an ecosystem with a lot of biodiversity; and to do this we need a lot of biomass and a lot of separate niches. The essential fact about ecosystems—which also applies to cities—is that they are a delicate balance of different elements, deeply complex, shaped by the action of countless individual players over countless eons. This level of complexity is baffling to the human mind, which is why we so often disrupt ecosystems by trying to “improve” them. Urban planning does the same thing with cities.

The Moses approach (to continue the metaphor) is agricultural rather than natural: sweep away the natural environment and create an artificial monoculture. Monocultures never spring up in healthy ecosystems. Lacking biodiversity, they are inherently vulnerable and difficult to maintain. We expend enormous amounts of money and energy defending our wheat fields from vermin and disease. The same principle applies to the housing projects, which need constant police surveillance to remain remotely viable.

This gives a taste of Jacobs’s guiding idea, perhaps, but I can hardly do justice to the wealth of thought in this book. Jacobs has convincing sociological insights into what makes streets safe or unsafe, what makes city economies thrive or stagnate, why housing projects fail and slums form, why parks are used and unused, why city governments are so often inefficient and ineffective, and even includes her ideas on the history and progress of science. In a way, this book is a constant rebuke to academe. At the time, academic urban planning was entirely stagnant, relying on ideas and principles that hadn’t been modified in thirty years and which were never very good to begin with. It took someone like Jacobs, an autodidact without a college degree, to break up the orthodoxy—and she had to endure a lot of sexism and condescension in the process.

What made her so successful, and what has made this book so enduring, was a rare combination of talents: keen observation, a highly original mind, the ability to think on multiple scales at once, hard-nosed practicality, and a healthy sense of social responsibility. In this book she relies on her wide and somewhat eclectic reading, but even more on her own eyes and ears. She has visited successful and unsuccessful neighborhoods and had talked to their residents. She has led protests and was a frequent visitor of City Hall. When you read this book, it is easy to see why she has become something of a hero for many citizens and academics: she is absolutely unafraid of authority, either intellectual or political, and she had the mental and personal resources to win.

It is, of course, ironic that her ideas, so heterodox, eventually became the new orthodoxy of urban planning. When Jacobs passed away in 2006, there were many who called for an end to her intellectual reign.

The most common criticism, I believe, is that Jacobs did not anticipate gentrification—the gradual takeover of neighborhoods by the affluent. This is the most talked-about problem in New York City today. There’s a popular blog, Vanishing New York, which documents all the small business and local establishments being pushed out by big money. Jacobs’s own former neighborhood, Greenwich Village, is a prime example: now it is nothing like the bustling, bohemian, working-class place it was in her day. I’m not sure if Jacobs can be fairly blamed for this, however. For one, she anticipates how successful neighborhood can become “too successful” and lose their vitality as more money pours in. What’s more, she was very concerned with maintaining housing for low-income tenants within successful neighborhoods, and includes a novel plan to do so in this book.

In any case, this book is not just a recipe for creating neighborhoods. In an oblique way, it presents an entire ideology. Jacobs is a proponent of what you might call progressive decentralism. Normally, decentralism is associated with the right, at least here in the US, but Jacobs make a strong case for leftist decentralism. Large, vertically-oriented government structures simply cannot understand or respond to individual citizens’ needs. The answer is to empower local government so that citizens can shape their own neighborhoods. Government must help the disadvantaged, but must do so by cooperating with local forces and private individuals—exploiting economic and social elements that naturally arise, instead of imposing its own cumbrous structure.

This book can be read even more broadly, as an attack on suburbia and modern isolation. Cities are the future, as Jacobs reminds us—hotbeds of ideas and centers of population growth; and cities are natural products, created by the free choice of individuals, places that organically foster their own sense of identity and community. Suburbia is a rejection of cities: artificial products created through the deliberate policies of planners. Not shaped by free choice, they are not organic communities; and even if they escape being unsafe, like the projects, they foster that constant specter of modern life: isolation. When you hear Jacobs describe her own neighborhood in Greenwich Village, you get a sense of what so many places nowadays lack: neighborliness, friendliness, a group of semi-strangers and sidewalk acquaintances who will go out of their way to help each other, a sense of communal ownership and belonging.

In sum, this book is a true classic: ensconced in an intellectual climate that no longer exists, responding to contemporary problems with eloquence and insight, and championing a perspective that is still vital.

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Review: The Jungle

Review: The Jungle

The JungleThe Jungle by Upton Sinclair

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every day in New York they slaughter
four million ducks
five million pigs
and two thousand doves for the pleasure of the dying,
a million cows
a million lambs
and two million roosters,
that leave the sky in splinters.

—Federico García Lorca

I expected to dislike this book, because it is a book aimed at provoking outrage. Outrage is a species of anger, and, like all species of anger, it can feel oddly pleasurable. True, anger always contains dissatisfaction of some kind; but anger can also be an enormously enlivening feeling—the feeling that we are infinitely right and our opponents infinitely wrong. Outrage joins with this moral superiority a certain smugness, since we feel outrage on behalf of others, about things that do not affect us personally, and so we can feel satisfied that we would never do something so egregious. Judging from how ephemeral public outrage tends to be, and how infrequently it leads to action, outrage can be, and often is, engaged in for its own sake—as a periodic reminder to ourselves that we are not villains, since villains couldn’t feel so angry at injustice inflicted on so distant a party.

In a way, the history of this book justifies my suspicion. Upton Sinclair spent seven weeks working in the meatpacking industry in Chicago, and wrote a muckraking novel about the experience. An avowed and proud socialist, his aim was to raise public awareness of the terrible conditions of the working poor—to write the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” as Jack London called the book. The book did cause a lot of outrage, but not for the intended reasons. The public interpreted the book as an exposé on the unsanitary conditions in the meat factories; and the legislation that resulted was purely to remedy this problem. As Sinclair himself said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” This is one of those ironies of history that make you want to laugh or cry: a book aimed to publicize the plight of the working poor made an impact solely in the way that working conditions affected the middle class.

About halfway through, I had decided that this was a brilliant piece of journalism and a mediocre novel. But the second half made me revise my opinion: it is a surprisingly decent novel, too. This is impressive, since fiction is not Sinclair’s strength. His characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional and static; in this book they serve as mere loci of pity. Furthermore, they never really come alive, since Sinclair writes almost no dialogue. In the first half, when the protagonists are at work in the yards, the plot is drearily predicable: things go from bad to worse; and, as Shakespeare reminds us, every time you tell yourself “This is the worst,” there is worse yet still to come. But after Jurgis, our hero, finally leaves the meat factories, the novel really comes alive. Things still go from bad to worse, for the most part, but there are some surprising reversals and exciting adventures.

In any case, this book is primarily a work of journalism, and on that level it is absolutely successful. Sinclair is an expert writer. He deploys language with extreme precision; his descriptions are vivid and exact. And what he describes is unforgettable. His portrayal of grinding poverty, and the desperation and despair it drives people to, is almost Dostoyevskyan in its gruesomeness. And unlike that Russian author, Sinclair is very clear that the problem is systematic and social—how decent and hardworking people can fall into an economic trap with no options and no escape. He shows how and why the working poor are free only in theory, how and why the oppressed and exploited are virtually owned by their bosses. And it must be said that his descriptions of factory processes are viscerally disgusting—so disgusting that they do distract a little from Sinclair’s message. The meat factory is the book’s central metaphor: a giant slaughterhouse where hapless animals are herded and butchered. As becomes painfully clear by the end of the book, the working poor are hardly in a better situation than the pigs.

By the end, Sinclair succeeds in producing that rare sensation: reasoned outrage. For there are, of course, situations in which outrage is the only logical response—monstrous injustice and inhuman cruelty—and the working and living conditions in the meatpacking district was one of them. Sinclair succeeds in this by relating facts instead of preaching. (Well, he does some preaching at the end, but it is forgivable.) He does not sentimentalize his characters or exaggerate their nobility; they are ordinary and flawed people. He does not use mawkish or cloying language; his narrative voice is pitiless and cold, like the world he describes. This book is a testament to the positive potential of outrage. The world needs more muckrakers.

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Review: The Power Broker

Review: The Power Broker

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New YorkThe Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East—to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.
—Henry David Thoreau

“Who’s Robert Moses?” I asked my brother, after he bought this book.

Well, who was he?

To drive from my house to the city, you need to take the Saw Mill Parkway, across the Henry Hudson Bridge, onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. Those roads, and that bridge, were built under the direction of Robert Moses. If you have a flight to catch, you take the Hutchinson Parkway across the Whitestone Bridge to the Whitestone Expressway, which takes you the JFK airport; these, too, are Moses constructions. To get from my house to my old university in Long Island, you can take Bronx-River Parkway, which links up with the Cross-Bronx Expressway; then cross over the Throgs Neck Bridge onto the Long Island Expressway or the Northern State Parkway—and that bridge, and every one of those highways, is a Moses project.

Who was Robert Moses? He had formed the world around me. Robert Moses was the most decisive figure in shaping 20th century New York. But what was his job?

In his forty-four years as a “public servant”—from 1924 to 1968—Moses came to hold twelve titles simultaneously. He was the New York City Park Commissioner, with control over the city’s parks and parkways; he was the Long Island State Park Commissioner, with control over all the parks and public beaches on Long Island; he was the chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, with near-total autonomy from the city or state government. He was the chairman of the New York Power Authority, the chairman of the State Council of Parks, and the head of Title I, which oversaw all the public housing in New York City—and this is not to mention his membership on the City Planning Commission and the City Youth Board—and his eventual title as the City Construction Coordinator, which gave him control over nearly all public works in the city.

Robert Moses was a master builder. He built hundreds of miles of parkways and expressways; he opened hundreds of parks and playgrounds; he built some of the biggest bridges and tunnels and dams the world had ever seen. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of people, condemning and demolishing their homes, and tearing the hearts out of old neighborhoods. How did he build so many things, acquire so many titles, move so many people? How, in other words, did he get and hold onto so much power? This is the central question of Robert Caro’s biography. And I can’t give you an idea of Caro’s biography, or why it is so incredible, without giving you an idea of Robert Moses.

The old adage about power and corruption is repeated so often, in such different contexts, that it can sound stale and meaningless. Moses’s story gives meaning to the adage—and qualification. He began his career as an idealist and a reformer; he was an opponent of nepotism, graft, and privilege. Moses’s first major effort was to institute civil service exams and strict pay scales that would serve as checks on government inefficiency and corruption. This effort failed utterly, defeated by the forces Moses hoped to check, leaving him out of a job.

After that, Moses learned to change his tactics. He stopped being an uncompromising idealist and started working with the forces he had once hoped to subdue with his ideas. And once he began to use the tactics of his erstwhile enemies, his prodigious intelligence and drive allowed him to master every force in his way.

The more power he gained, the more he wanted, and the more adept he became at getting it. One strategy was legislative. He was very crafty at drafting bills, sneaking through obscure clauses that extended his reach. His first master-stroke was to give himself, as the Long Island Park Commissioner, power to condemn virtually any piece of land he chose to for his parkways. Later, he managed to pass a bill that allowed him to simultaneously hold city and state government posts. Later still, he wrote the legislation authorizing the creation of the Triborough Bridge Authority, an entity with so much power and wealth that it was essentially a separate government, unelected by the people and unaccountable to and uncontrollable by the city or state governments.

He used underhanded tactics to build his parks and roads and bridges. To get the approval he needed from government boards, he would give extremely low estimates for the construction projects; and then, when the money ran out when the project was half-complete, no politician could refuse him more money, since that would require leaving a road or a bridge embarrassingly incomplete. He used scare tactics to speed eviction of buildings, telling tenants that demolition was imminent and they needed to vacate immediately, when in reality demolition was months away. To outmaneuver opposition to his projects, he would wait until his opponents were asleep and then bulldoze and jackhammer in the night—destroying dockyards, apartments, old monuments—rendering all acts of defiance pointless.

Moses was a master organizer. He learned to use the selfish interest of the major power-players in the city to accomplish his own ends. The unions and construction companies loved him because he provided work on a massive scale. The banks were eager to invest in the safe and high-yield Triborough bonds; and Moses rewarded the banks by depositing his massive cash reserves into their coffers. Cooperative lawyers received lavish rewards as “payment,” hidden through third-parties and carefully disguised as fees and emoluments. In everything, Moses prized loyalty and doled out money, commissions, and jobs based on how much power was at stake. He also forged a close relationship with the press by throwing lavish parties and befriending many newspaper owners and publishers. His carefully cultivated public image—as a selfless public servant who Got Stuff Done—made him an asset to politicians when they worked with him, and a major liability if they antagonized him.

And the more power he gained, the more uncompromising he became. He surrounded himself with yes-men—he called them his “muchachos,” and others called them Moses Men—who never criticized, or even questioned, what Moses said. He would refuse calls from mayors and governors. He did not go to council meetings and sent delegates to City Hall rather than go himself. Once he had planned the route of a road, he wouldn’t even consider changing it—not for protests or activists or local politicians; he wouldn’t divert his road one mile or even half a mile. If you opposed him once, he would use all his connections and resources—in government, construction, law, and finance—to ruin you. He ruined his own brother’s career this way. He kept files on hand full of compromising information that he would use to threaten anyone who dared oppose him, and during the Red Scare he freely accused his enemies of being closet communists—and if that didn’t work, he would accuse their families.

Summed up like this, Moses seems to be a classic case of a man corrupted by power. He went from a hero, fighting on behalf of the citizens to create public parks, struggling to reform an inefficient and corrupt government, to a villain—bullying, blackmailing, evicting, bulldozing, handing out graft. However, as Caro is careful to note, power did not so much corrupt Moses, turning him from pure-hearted to rotten, as allow certain elements of his personality free play, unhampered by consequences. The most prominent of these elements was his monumental arrogance. There are not many clips of Moses online, but the few there are give some idea of Moses’s egotism. He was uninterested in others’ ideas and perspectives, and could hardly deign to explain his own thinking. He spoke about the removal of thousands of people in a tone of utter boredom, as if the families he was moving were less important than gnats.

Compounding his arrogance, Moses was an elitist and a racist. He built hundreds of playgrounds in New York City, but only one in Harlem. He kept the pools in his parks cold, in the odd belief that this would keep black residents away. He built exclusively for the car-owning middle-class, draining resources away from public transportation, even encouraging subway fare-hikes to finance his projects. He made no provisions for trains or buses on his roads, and refused even to build his highways in such a way that, in the future, they could be easily modified to include a railway. It would, for example, have cost only a few million to do this while the highway to JFK was under construction, keeping a few feet in the center clear for the tracks. But because Moses didn’t do this, the railway to JFK, when it was finally built, had to be elevated high up above the highway; and it cost almost two billion dollars.

Moses was also a workaholic. He worked ten-, twelve-, fifteen-hour days. He worked on vacations and on weekends, and he expected his subordinates to do the same. Politically, Moses was a conservative. Ironically, however, Moses was a key figure in the implementation of the progressive New Deal policies of FDR (who was Moses’s arch enemy, as it happens). Also ironic was Moses’s adoption of progressive, modernist urban-planning principles. His ideal of the city was, in its essentials, no different from that outlined by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who was certainly no conservative—an orderly city of parks, high-rise apartments, and highways, with no messy downtown areas and no ordinary streets for pedestrians to stroll about. But perhaps the most ironic fact in Moses’s life is that this most fervent believer in the automobile, this builder of highways and bridges, never learned to drive. He spent his life getting chauffeured around in a limousine that he had converted into an office, so he could work and hold meetings on the go.

Now if you’re like me, you may think there is something obviously wrong with a racist and elitist planning housing for poor people of color. There is something wrong with a man who couldn’t drive planning highways for an entire state. There is something wrong with a workaholic who was never home planning homes; something wrong with a lover of the suburbs organizing a city. There is something wrong with a man who was never elected wielding more power than mayors and governors. There is something wrong with a man who was scornful of others, especially the lower-class, being allowed to evict thousands from their homes. There is something wrong with a man who did not care about other perspectives and philosophies, who never changed his mind or altered his opinions, wielding power for over four decades. Really, the whole thing seems like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, many came to see Moses’s policies as disasters. Caro certainly did. Moses thought that his legacy would speak for itself, that his works would guarantee him immortal gratitude. Rather, Moses’s name came to be synonymous with everything wrong with urban planning. Sterile public housing that bred crime and hopelessness; ugly highways that cut through neighborhoods and flooded the city with cars; top-down implementation that didn’t take into consideration the needs and habits of residents; cities that had superhighways but lacked basic, affordable public transportation. Even the harshest critic, however, must admit that Moses did some good. That both the city and the state of New York have such an excellent network of parks is in no small measure due to Moses. And if his highways were hopelessly congested when Caro wrote this book in the 70s, nowadays they work quite well, perhaps because they’ve since been supplemented by better public transportation.

While the value of his legacy is at least debatable, the injustice of his tactics is not. Moses was extremely fond of saying that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” For him, the ends always justified the means. If a few people—maybe a great many people—would be inconvenienced or hurt by his projects, future generations would thank him. But I think his story is an excellent example of why this type of thinking is dangerous, since it allowed him and his followers to trample over the lives of thousands, destroying houses and neighborhoods, treating those in his way with neither respect or dignity, for the sake of the “common good.” It allowed him, in other words, to be a tyrant in good conscience. And the reason he was able to do this and get away with it was because, as an appointed official, his power did not derive from the public—something intolerable in a democracy.

And yet, as Caro points out, Moses does illustrate a conundrum at the heart of a democratic government. Moses tried to achieve his dreams through the normal channels of government, and failed utterly. It was only when Moses started circumventing the usual rules that he was able to accomplish anything. And I think anyone who has ever tried to make a group decision—whether at work or with friends—can appreciate how enormously inefficient democracies can be. Moses was unjust, but he was efficient. That’s a major reason why no mayor or governor dared fire him; while other officials were mired in red tape and board meetings, waiting for approval, allocating funds, holding public hearings, Moses was plowing through and building his works. As he was fond of saying, he Got Stuff Done. His record of achievement made him, for a time, into a political asset and a public hero.

Here is the democratic conundrum in a nutshell. Quick decisions require unilateral power. This is why the Roman senate appointed dictators in times of trouble. But just decisions require a legal framework, open debate, and the people’s approval—a slow and often painful process. And as the story of Caesar shows, it is a risky matter to grant unilateral power temporarily. Power, once granted, is difficult to take away; and power, once concentrated into one area, tends to keep on concentrating.

But the major lesson about power I learned from this book is that power is particular and personal. This is why this book is so eye-opening and shocking. Before reading this, my operating assumption was that power derived from rules and roles. You were elected to a position with a clearly delineated scope and legally limited options. Each position came with its own responsibilities and jurisdiction, unambiguously defined in black and white by a constitution or a law. Yet Moses’s story illustrates the opposite principle. The scope of a role is defined by who holds it; the power of the position is derived from the ingenuity of the individual. Everything comes down to the personality of the man (usually a man, then as now) in charge, his philosophy, his force of will, his cunning, his intelligence, as well as the personality of the people he has to deal with. Circumstances play a role too. Success or failure depends on the individual’s ability to take advantage of any opportunity that arises. Power is not embodied in an eternal set of rules but rather in an ever-changing set of particular circumstances.

Here’s just one example. Moses thought that his power over the Triborough Authority was inviolable, because he had made contracts with his investors, and contracts are protected by the United States Constitution. But when Nelson Rockefeller, the governor, wanted to merge the Triborough into the Metropolitan Transit Authority—a clear violation of the bond contracts—Moses couldn’t stop him, since the banks were represented by Chase, which was owned by Nelson Rockefeller’s brother—who wouldn’t take the matter to court. In other words, because of the particular circumstances—the family relationship between the governor and the bank—the most sacred rule of all, the Constitution, was broken and Moses was defeated. And the reason this happened was not due to any regulation; it came down to the incompatibility of Moses’s and Nelson Rockefeller’s personalities.

I have written an enormous review, and yet I still think I have not done justice to this enormous book. Caro weaves so much into this story. It is not simply a biography of Robert Moses, but a treatise on power, government, and city-planning, a history of New York City and New York State. Robert Caro is an excellent writer—dramatic, sweeping, and capable of weaving so many disparate threads and layers and levels together into one coherent narrative. The one virtue he lacks is brevity. This book is long; arguably it is unnecessarily long, full of peripheral details and sidenotes and rhetorical passages. But its length is what makes The Power Broker so engrossing. It is more absorbing than a fantasy novel, pulling you completely into its world. For three weeks I lived inside its pages.

I loved this book so much, and learned so much from reading it, that it seems peevish to offer criticisms. I will only say that Caro is clearly hostile to Moses and perhaps is not entirely fair. He is an extraordinary writer, but uses repetition as a rhetorical device a bit too much for my tastes. Also, despite this book’s huge scope and length, there are some curious omissions. Particularly, Jane Jacobs’s conflicts with Moses—which have become somewhat legendary, even the subject of a recent opera—are not covered. Jacobs, who articulated many of the intellectual criticisms of Moses’s approach, isn’t even mentioned.

All these are mere quibbles of a book that totally reconfigured my vision of power and government. I recommend it to anyone. And if you’re from New York, it is obligatory.

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Review: Walden

Review: Walden

Walden & Civil DisobedienceWalden & Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!

This month, two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau made his way into the world. Thus it seemed like a good time to revisit his thorny classic, which filled me with such contradictory feelings the first time around.

This time, I was struck first by how current Thoreau’s book reads. A vegetarian before it was fashionable, or even respectable; a pioneer of nature writing and conservationism; a godfather of activism and protest; an author of lines that, even now, wouldn’t be out of place in any self-help book; and the originator of the “stunt-book”—doing something unusual and then writing about it—anticipating both performance art and reality television in his classic account of his life “in the woods.”

It is very easy to dislike Thoreau, or even to despise him. Thoreau took himself very seriously. He comes across as pretentious and magnificently condescending, while at the same time as naïve as a child. For all his practicality, he was astoundingly impractical. His insistence that everyone in Concord learn enough Latin and Greek to read the classic texts is characteristic of him—a snobbish and pointless piece of advice, delivered with disdain. His authorial personality is so often prickly and misanthropic, rebuking the world at every turn, and this mood is never lightened by an easy humor. There is no Montaigne in this self-chronicler; instead, like Iago, he is nothing if not critical. You wonder if anything but loons and books ever pleased him. He was, in a word, a dour man.

The case against Thoreau is more serious than just his off-putting authorial personality. The most common charge made against him is that of hypocrisy. His book purports to be the record of a bold experiment in living in the woods. He describes how he built his own house, grew his own beans, baked his own bread, and rhapsodizes about the solitude and isolation he created for himself. But in reality he was living just 20 minutes from his ancestral home, squatting on land lent to him by his friend Emerson, and receiving frequent and plentiful visitors. Apparently he went home weekly to get cookies from his mother, who also kindly delivered doughnuts and pies to our hero. It is not reported whether he ate his cookies and doughnuts with milk.

This is a damning fact, considering that Thoreau carefully documents all of his expenses and goes into excruciating detail as to his eating habits—without mentioning a single cookie. He gives the impression that he was a hermit on the very edge of society, living on the produce he created, savoring his lonely retreat from the world. And all this is recorded with the stated intention of showing that self-sufficiency is possible. But if Thoreau himself can bear neither a diet of pure beans nor the stark isolation of true life in the woods, his whole experiment is a sham. It is one thing for an ordinary citizen to be hypocritical; it is another thing for a moralizing philosopher who repeatedly stresses the necessity of living in accordance with one’s tenets.

The case against Thoreau goes ever further than this. For, if his practice didn’t align with his preaching, his preaching didn’t align with his preaching either. Walden is a baffling bundle of contradictions. Did Thoreau like the steam engines or hate them? He excoriates them one moment, and the next he goes into rhapsodies about the locomotive. He praises hunting as a way of bringing oneself closer with nature, and then he condemns all killing and eating of animals. Here he is enjoining us to ignore fantasies and pay close attention to reality: “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.” And here he is telling us to do the opposite: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.”

The perplexing thing about this inconsistency is that Thoreau never admits to hesitation or doubt. He rattles off his opinions with the fervor of a zealot. And yet even his zealotry is inconsistent, for it was Thoreau who famously said “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.” This famous paean to self-determination is ensconced in a book filled with biting scorn for those who do not agree with Thoreau. In all likelihood, Thoreau himself was the least tolerant man in Concord. Considering both his inconsistency in action and speech, it is difficult to know what exactly Thoreau, who is always urging us, is actually urging us to do.

But I think that a strong case can be made for Thoreau, too—especially now. For Walden has aged remarkably well. If anything, Thoreau’s classic has become even more relevant in our harried age.

Thoreau flees to the woods because of a growing horror with every aspect of his contemporary society—the unjust government, the growing consumerism, the obsession with technology, the increasing specialization of labor, the absorption of all leisure by work, the constant petty conversation, the disregard of wild nature. The sources of this horror are, I think, in part mysterious to even himself, which might be one explanation for his inconsistency. He is like a boxer swinging wildly at an invisible enemy, or a doctor prescribing medicines for an unknown malady. But to be fair, we haven’t gotten much closer to solving the problems that Thoreau tried to tackle with such spirit.

For my part, I think Thoreau’s instincts are right, even when his diagnoses and his cures are wrong. His abhorrence of economic exchange, of interdependence, is an excellent example. Modern society obviously could not exist without exchange; the economy would collapse if we all chose to live like Thoreau advocates, and technological innovation would come to a standstill. Yet Thoreau’s abhorrence of intedependence is neither political nor economic, but moral. He recognized quite clearly, I think, that in a complex economy, we are enmeshed in processes that have moral implications. When we buy a product, for example, we don’t know who made it or how they were treated. When we patronize a shop, we don’t know what the owner does with our money. When we throw something away, we don’t know where it ends up.

Since the morality of any action is partly determined by its effects, and since many of those effects are hidden from view in a complex economy, to a certain extent we can’t even know the morality of our own life. This is why it was so inspiriting for Thoreau to build his own cabin and farm his own food; he could be sure of his “ethical footprint,” so to speak, and so could take full responsibility for his actions. Now, I don’t think Thoreau wanted to do this for the sake of others—he is extremely wary of do-gooderism—but for himself, since we cannot live authentically if we cannot know the effects of our actions.

To borrow an idea from the philosopher John Lachs, this state of ignorance as to the sources and causes of our moral lives is one part of that modern alienation that Marxists have described. When jobs become highly specialized, we might not be completely sure about our own effects within the organization in which we work. I myself have been in that situation, churning out data to be used by unknown people for unknown ends. Everyone in a complex economy, even a commercial farmer, is in this situation. Thoreau’s solution, isolating oneself in the woods, is I think undesirable—since it consists in dissolving society completely (which the misanthropic Thoreau might not have objected to)—but his experiment does at least help us to identify the causes of our “quiet desperation.”

Thoreau is also refreshing on the subject of work and leisure. The glorification of works carries with it the denigration of leisure, which Thoreau realized. When we consider only those activities as worthwhile that can make money for us, we spend our free hours in thoughtless relaxation or idling. And yet working, even if it is remunerative, is too often degrading—largely thanks to excessive specialization, which demands that we do the same thing over and over again, neglecting the full range of our capacities. Work consumes our time and energy and leaves us few moments for reflection and self-improvement. And because we consider leisure only a respite from work—since free time doesn’t pay, it is not for serious exertion—we do not even use what moments we have to achieve perspective and to develop our latent potential.

Again, Thoreau’s prescription for excessive work—to squat on someone else’s land and farm only the bare minimum—is disappointing and (pardon the pun) unworkable. And his advice for how to spend one’s free time—reading ancient books in the original language—is, at the very least, limited. But once again, his thrashing responses at least point the way to the malady that ails us, and his deadly seriousness can remind us to take our free time seriously and not squander it.

Thoreau is perhaps most valuable for his insistence on the time and space to think. Often it seems that the modern world is a conspiracy to prevent thinking. We work until we’re bone tired, and spend our free time in endless, meaningless small talk. Thoreau said: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Imagine if Thoreau could see us now, ceaselessly connected to each other with mobile telegraphs in our pockets, with scarcely anything more to say. The point, of course, is not that the telegraph is inherently bad—nor are smart phones for that matter—but that these things can easily become distractions, distractions in the existential sense, allowing idle chit-chat to intrude into every corner of our lives.

News also comes in for abuse. Too often we read the news, not with a genuine desire to learn about the world or to help us change it, but out of habit, worrying about distant problems that seldom affect us and that, in any case, we seldom try to solve. Sure, it is easy to dismiss Thoreau when he makes such dogmatic pronouncements as “To a philosophers, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” Yet I know many for whom the news is an addiction, and consuming news is the full extent of their political engagement. (And I don’t think I’m any better in this regard.) Again, the point is not that we shouldn’t read the news, but that we should not let ourselves develop a false sense of urgency that prevents us from examining our own lives.

Thoreau demands space for genuine thought. But what is genuine thought? I think this is what Thoreau had in mind with his famous lines “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Genuine thought, in other words, is thinking about the best way to live—what is deeply and lastingly important to us, and what is only temporarily or superficially important. I personally have found that even a week of relative isolation can be clarifying. It is amazing how fast anxieties and problems melt away when we remove ourselves from our usual environment. We spend so much time worrying about how to get things that we don’t stop to wonder if we really want them. It is easy, too easy, to accept goals and priorities from our environment without scrutiny.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Thoreau was reacting against problems of the modern world, problems that have only become more pervasive. His solution, which I find extremely unconvincing, is to reject society completely—and in practice, his solution is only viable for well-connected, single men with no children. Thoreau achieves a kind of purity at the expense of advocating something that is totally non-viable for the vast majority of humanity. But reading his book was, for me, a clarifying and a rejuvenating experience—a reminder to consider the more important questions of life, and also a reminder that these questions can perhaps never be definitely answered.

You may disagree completely with me about the philosophical merit of Thoreau. But his skill as a writer is indisputable. This book is a magnificent monument of prose. Whether he is describing his beloved pond or narrating a battle of ants, his writing is clear, forceful, and direct; and his fingertips occasionally touch the sublime:

If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

Thoreau’s power as a writer, combined with his undeniable originality—anticipating all the things with which I opened this review, and more—will make this book last until Thoreau’s next centennial, even if sometimes he’s an insufferable teenager.

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Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prose writers are voluminous and unwieldy; their pages crowded with commonplaces, and their thoughts expanded into tediousness.

I am a child of Sleepy Hollow, and I have lived in Irving’s shadow almost as long as I can remember.

Every Halloween, this town is inundated with tourists, who come to wander around the lovely old cemetery where the legend is set, and where Irving himself is buried. Behind my house is where they put on the “haunted hayride.” I went every year as a kid. A pickup truck drags groups of twenty in a trailer through a stretch of forest, where volunteers dressed in masks jumped out and scared the kids half to death. And of course no hayride was complete without the headless horseman himself, riding out of the shadows on a black horse with a jack-o’-lantern on his knee.

The town nextdoor is called ‘Irvington’ in Washington Irving’s honor, and it is there that his old house, Sunnyside, is situated. The house is a delightful little dwelling, a small jumble of architectural styles—gothic, Dutch, Spanish—overlooking the Hudson River. Irving was an amateur architect and landscaper, very much of the Romantic school, and re-made the old farm he bought into a charming park, with a little pond, a babbling brook, and paths that wind through the forest nearby. On the property is a sycamore tree that has been growing since 1776, seven years before Irving himself was born.

When Irving bought the property, he had unimpeded access to the river; but that changed when, ten years later, the Hudson Line railroad was built at the river’s edge. Nowadays, trains rattle by every ten minutes or so. All the old train cars have names printed on their sides; and as I sat there on a recent visit, I saw that one of the cars on the passing Amtrak was named “Washington Irving.” He is simply everywhere. There is a statue of Rip Van Winkle outside the Irvington Town Hall Theater. On the walk back to my house I passed by the Washington Irving Middle School, which I attended, the Tarrytown High School, where our football team is the Horsemen, and the Christ Episcopal Church, where Irving himself worshiped, and where his pew is still preserved.*

Right outside Philipsburg Manor—an old colonial farm that now serves as a historical site—is an ugly metal sculpture of the Headless Horseman. Right next to it is where the old bridge stood where Ichabod Crane met his fate. There is not much to see now, just a modern concrete construction. But if you keep walking into the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery you can see the Old Dutch Church, and, a little farther on, you will come across the man’s tombstone. Like his house, his grave is neither ostentatious nor grandiose, just a simple stone that lays in a family plot.

The man’s influence is inescapable. It was Washington Irving who originated the nickname ‘Knickerbockers’ (after an imaginary Dutch historian he used as a nom de plume) for the denizens of New York. The New York Knicks owe their name to Irving, and the word ‘knickers’ also derives, through devious channels, to this writer. It was Irving who popularized the myth that Christopher Columbus thought the earth was flat, which he included in a biography of Columbus that Irving wrote while living in Spain. It was Irving, too, who originated the nickname ‘Gotham’ for New York City.

We even owe our holiday celebrations to Irving, since it was he, along with Charles Dickens, who helped to make Christmas into the secular holiday of gift-giving and merry-making that it is today. Irving played a hand in the creation of Santa Claus, too, with a story about St. Nicholas in his first book. With his love of ghost stories, Irving is also one of the architects of Halloween—and thousands still make the pilgrimage to visit his tombstone in that ghoulish time of the year. I cannot even escape his influence in Spain, since it was Irving who helped to spread the exotic, enchanted image of Andalusia, and who thus helped make Spain a tourist destination; and it was also thanks to his book of stories about the Alhambra that people began taking an interest in restoring that old ruin.

Washington Irving was named after George Washington, and was born just a few weeks before the Revolutionary War was officially concluded. He was a new man for a new land. An often-told story—difficult to verify—has it that he was taken by his maid to visit George Washington when he was just six years old; there’s a watercolor drawing, still hanging in Irving’s hold house, of the old general patting the young boy on the head. Whether it happened or not, the story seems symbolic of the role that Irving would play in American literature—exactly analogous to George Washington in politics—as a pioneering leader. For it was Washington Irving who was the first American writer to be respected by his English peers. He showed that these unruly savages overseas could aspire to eloquence too.

This book is often marketed as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories; but its original title is The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and was published under that pseudonym rather than Irving’s own name. The book, often merely called The Sketchbook, is a sort of parody of the sketchbooks that other wealthy American travelers made on their visits to Europe. It is framed as a travel book, and contains many vignettes about places Irving visited. But Irving does not stick to this theme very diligently. The book also contains some short pieces about Native Americans; and the two most famous stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” are both set in New York, and purport to be found among the old papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, another of Irving’s pseudonyms.

Although the collection is miscellaneous, Irving was not a writer of great breadth, and his distinctive style is consistent throughout. Thematically, Irving was a purebred Romantic. He has a taste for quaint customs, forgotten ruins, exotic places, and old yarns—in short, everything antique, out-of-the-way, and foreign, everything that allows his imagination to run wild with conjecture. These preoccupations lead him to investigate old English Christmas customs in the country, and to rail against their disappearance. It also leads him to treat the Native Americans as noble savages, the pure emblems of a disappearing culture, as well as to focus his eye on the old Dutch lore lingering about his native New York.

In truth there is not much substance to his writing. The closest he ever gets to philosophy is the Romantic, Ozymandian sentiment that all things yield to time. Rather, Irving is a stylist. His prose is fluent and easygoing—indeed, remarkably easy to read considering its age—so effortless that the prose practically reads itself. The subject-matter is usually a description of some kind—of what someone is wearing, of a farm or a tavern, of a funeral or a wedding—and he steers clear of all argument and dialogue, maintaining the fluid rhythm of his pen as it flies forward. When he is not describing a gothic ruin, an old curiosity, or a picturesque landscape, he is involved in some ghost story or traveler’s anecdote. Some of these, indeed many, involve love affairs between gallant soldiers and young women who possess “that mysterious but impassive charm of virgin purity in whose hallowed sphere no guilty thought can live”—it’s quite revolting.

But if Irving nowadays strikes one as lightweight and Romantic to the point of silliness, one should remember that he was a pioneer and an innovator—the first American man of letters, and one of the champions of Romanticism when that movement had hardly reached this country. And if he seems more style than substance, one should also remember that Irving wrote to amuse, not to instruct; and it is by that goal that he should be measured. Even now, Irving is a champion amuser; and even if he has some unfashionable tastes, he it still fresh and good-natured after all these years:

If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself—surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.

Surely, surely, he has not.

*I recently went to visit this church. As luck would have it, I was about to knock on the door just as the rector, Susan, was on her way out of the building. When I asked about Irving’s pew, she very kindly gave me a quick tour. The old pew sits in a corner now, set aside to preserve it. The church also has Irving’s bible and prayer book—tattered old things in a glass case—as well as a copy of the 1859 issue of Harper’s Magazine that carried a front-page story about Irving’s funeral. “So many people came in, they were worried the floorboards would break,” Susan said.


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