Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome

John F. Wasik, The Cul-De-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream.

After detailing the recent bursting of the housing bubble, John Wasik asks, "Why was the American psyche so heavily invested in home ownership?" Answering his own question, Wasik points to the history of Americans' inherent desire to own property to begin his explanation. He looks to the Jeffersonian conception of the "pursuit of happiness" that replaced Locke's "preservation of [men's] property" in the Declaration of Independence. According to Wasik, property was only a part of Jefferson's conception of the "American Dream."

America would expand far beyond [Jefferson's] beloved Blue Ridge Mountains. It would be an enlightened development led by yeoman farmers. THe key to this master plan: a massive acquisition and settlement of disrete parcels of land into subdivisions. It was precise. Eventually it would become a bulwark of democracy.

Thus, the Louisiana Purchase provided the opportunity for all as envisioned by Jefferson, who helped to inculcate in the American mind an ethos of opportunity based on national expansion by the expansion of property ownership. What was good for the citizens was good for the country. This basic philosophy was reinforced by Lincoln's settlement policies; the Homestead Act of 1909, the New Deal and so on.

Yet, somewhere along the way the inherent "good" of home ownership shifted. It was no longer enough to own a home (albeit, via a 30 year mortgage!). After the dot com bubble burst and 401(k)'s took a dive, "Homes became the financial panacea of the middle class," according to Wasik. Low interest rates, easy loans, sub-prime...we all know the terms by now. The result was the housing crisis of 2008/09. But there is more to the story.

As Wasik details extensively, the expansionist mindset still prevails in America and has led mostly middle-class families into sprawling "spurbs" far out in the former hinterlands. And now the reality is undercutting the conventional wisdom of the past. Does it make sense to work 1-2 hours from your home (a 5,000 square foot McMansion that houses you, your spouse and 2 kids), which forces you to spend too much time on the road commuting to and from work and traveling between box stores and play dates in your gas-guzzling SUV? As Wasik tells it, this rapid expansion away from established population centers has strained our infrastructure and our health and has foisted unneeded bills onto our budgets.

In the second half of the book, Wasik offers visions of a future towards which he hopes Americans will turn . In short, he sees our national salvation somewhere in a marriage between New Urbanism and Green Technology. However, cost is a prohibitive factor, and, recognizing this, Wasik is always willing to temper his "gee whiz" fascination with innovative green technology with pragmatic sticker shock. Custom green costs a lot, but it may lead to more cost-effective innovation down the line. Of course, someone is going to have to pay for it as the kinks get worked out! (And tax-payer dollars are going to play a big role in subsidizing such experimentation).

Cost is also a factor in Wasik's prediction that people will be moving back to the cities. So long as energy prices continue to rise, people will look to avoid paying those costs by looking for smaller abodes that are closer to work and play. However, that's assuming that those population centers reform current zoning laws, spruce up rundown sections and generally make themselves more attractive to the single set and aging boomers. Wasik thinks they will.

Though not heavy-handed, Wasik shows no love for the Bush Administration and guarded hope for the policies thus far promised by the Obama Administration. Time will tell if his faith is rewarded. Overall, Cul-De-Sac is a good synthesis of current Green and New Urbanism thinking ("Green Urbanism"?) and Wasik is an interesting and lively guide.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gaspee Day 2009

In Warwick and Cranston, Rhode Island, Gaspee Day commemorates the sinking of the HBMS Gaspee by Rhode Islanders in 1772. From Wikipedia:

In early 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed HBMS Gaspée into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay to aid in the enforcement of customs collection and inspection of cargo. Rhode Island had a reputation for smuggling and trading with the enemy during wartime. Dudingston and his officers quickly antagonized powerful merchant interests in the small colony. On June 9, the Gaspée gave chase to the packet boat Hannah, and ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay. Her crew were unable to free her immediately, but the rising tide could allow the ship to free herself. A band of Providence members of the Sons of Liberty rowed out to confront the ship's crew before this could happen.[5]

At the break of dawn on June 10, the ship was boarded. The crew put up a feeble resistance and Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and wounded, and the vessel burned to the waterline.
That's the short version, be sure to go to for MUCH MORE.

And every year, about this time, we still hold the Gaspee Days Parade. Here are some pics (many more to be found at official websites):

The Kentish Guards

Minutemen (including Rehoboth)

Colonial Navy of Massachusetts

Ancient Mariners of Connecticut

The Patuxet Rangers

Friday, June 12, 2009

Spinning Rome

A couple years ago, while dismantling a piece of contemporary policy-wonkism, Jim McCormick explained Peter Heathers' Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization thusly:
These books summarize the post-WW2 archaeology and literary analysis covering the late Roman and post-Roman periods, and offer a useful corrective to a more recent trend in scholarship which has created a soft-soaped "Late Antiquity" ... in competition to the "Dark Ages" of popular imagination. For these revisionist scholars of the last thirty years, the migration of barbarians into the Roman empire (both eastern and western branches) was both justifiable ("they only wanted the Roman good life") and relatively benign ("they settled in and became staunch allies"). Heather and Ward-Perkins discredit this post-modern, New Age image of the Fall very thoroughly but we shouldn't be surprised if major portions of Western academia and literati will choose to hold onto such a rosy-hued version of Roman/barbarian relations. If only the Romans had been nicer to the barbarians, they'll proclaim, so much unpleasantness could have been avoided.
Recently, David Frum reviewed Adrian Goldworthy's How Rome Fell and also threw in the aforementioned books. He essentially agrees with McCormick:

The prevailing soft multiculturalism of our times has made the phrase “the fall of Rome” a surprisingly controversial one. It’s much preferred to talk about “transformation” rather than “decline and fall.” In this “transformationist” view, the High Classical period of 200 BCE-250 CE subsides gradually, almost imperceptibly into the “Late Antiquity” of CE 350-700. The barbarians did not invade; they migrated. Rome did not fall; it experienced a “fusion” with the new migrants in a “cross-cultural exchange.” (I am quoting here from the catalogue copy of a recent museum exhibition on the arts of Late Antiquity.)

I agree that there is a tangible post-modern influence upon the cultural equivalency revision from "invasion" to "accommodation". But both Frum and McCormick engage in oversimplification and caricature of the relevant--particularly recent--historiography to comment on contemporary times (McCormick more directly than Frum) . I'll stick with Ward-Perkins and Heather directly, who have more accurate analysis and assessment of the historiography (extended and edited excerpt):

HEATHER: The old view was essentially that internal decline had destroyed its capacity to resist: moral decadence, depopulation, lead poisoning, the debilitating effects of its recent conversion to Christianity, or another internal cause of your choice. It is important to remember that the Empire had always had important limitations....But all of this had always been true, and won’t explain the catastrophic collapse of the fifth century. In my view, the roots of collapse have to be sought in the outside world, among the barbarians. I should say that I use ‘barbarian’ here only in the sense of ‘outsider’ (one of its Roman connotations).


I am entirely convinced by all the evidence that shows that the late Empire was not being torn apart by irrevocable processes of decline by the fourth century. Where I do part company with some revisionist scholarship, however, is over the argument that, because some Roman institutions ideologies and elites survived beyond 476, therefore the fall of the western Empire was not a revolutionary moment in European history. The most influential statement of this, perhaps, is Walter Goffart’s brilliant aphorism that the fall of the Western Empire was just ‘an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand’. Goffart means that changes in Roman policy towards the barbarians led to the emergence of the successor states, dependent on barbarian military power and incorporating Roman institutions, and that the process which brought this out was not a particularly violent one.

To my mind, this view of the end of the Western Empire is deeply mistaken. Surely, there were plenty of Roman elements in the successor states, but one key institution was missing: the central authority structure of the Western Roman Empire itself. This had unified much of Western Europe for 500 years, but by 500 AD, had entirely ceased to exist.

WARD-PERKINS: When it comes to explaining the fall of the Western Roman Empire, we both believe that a series of unfortunate events was central to the story. Events (such as the arrival of the Huns), and chance play bigger parts in both our accounts, than deep structural weaknesses. I even argue that the eastern Roman Empire, which survived until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, was saved, not because it was structurally stronger than the West, but mainly because it happened to have been dealt a favourable geographical hand. A thin band of sea separated and protected the heartlands of eastern prosperity (in Asia Minor and the Near East) from the barbarian-infested Balkans.

It is interesting that both of us should prioritize events and chance over structural change, because this seems to be the way that historians are moving right across the spectrum of historical thought. When I was a student, in the early seventies, we were all into profound structural changes, that swept people along inexorably; and we viewed events as banal and superficial. Nowadays (and probably it is just another fashion), individuals and concatenations of events, all of which might have gone differently, are seen as central to human history. In theory at least, according to modern thinking, I might be writing this sentence, not in England, but in a still-extant province of Britannia – if a few things had only gone better in the fifth century.

HEATHER: Here, there’s maybe a bit of difference between us because I do believe in the importance of structural change outside the Empire. It’s the argument I start to develop in the last chapter of my book, but much more elsewhere, namely that having to co-exist with a large and aggressive Empire pushes neighbouring populations into processes of socio-economic and political change, the end result of which is to generate societies more capable of parrying the Empire that started everything off. There is, in other words, a kind of Newton’s Third Law: to every Empire there is an opposite and equal reaction which undermines the preponderance of power in one locality on which the original Empire was based. This, in my view, is what happens in spades in the Near East with the Sassanians, and is already happening in important ways in non-Roman Europe, when the Huns come along to generate a precocious unity among the Germani. But, given enough time, the Germani might have got there anyway!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Review: Horse Soldiers

Doug Stanton, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Stor of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.

Almost immediately after terrorists attacked American soil in September, 2001, members of the Army Special Forces began to prepare for entry into Afghanistan. While a nation sat shocked at the events of September 11th, these "silent warriors" relied on their own ingenuity and creativity to prepare for battle: Cold weather gear, batteries and modern GPS's were just a few of the things these warriors purchased on their own in the days leading up to their deployment. And their ability to improvise was a preview of what was to come in Afghanistan. As in past wars, no one had written a "how-to book" on war in Afghanistan. So the members of the Special Forces learned as they went along.

In a book full of characters, the journey of Special Forces Captain Mitch Nelson and the men under his command lay at the heart of the book, particularly the time Nelson spends with larger-than-life Afghani General Abdul Rashid Dostum. It is Dostum who shows Nelson the lay of the land in Afghanistan and who helps Nelson gain insight into the tribal/Warlord culture.

Throughout the book, Stanton illustrates the intricacies of Afghanistan's politics, such as how the leaders of the three rival factions of the Northern Alliance were fighting together while also positioning themselves politically and geographically for a peacetime nation. Stanton also shows the sort of deal-brokering that went on between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, often facilitated by family and tribal ties. Dostum even mentioned to Nelson that sometimes he would go light on attacking the Taliban here or there if some of his men told him they had family in the opposing camp. In one instance, Dostum radioed the Taliban to tell them that he had Americans with him and that they were coming to get them!

For their part, the Special Forces, well trained in politics and technology, found one area in which they were unprepared: horsemanship. The Northern Alliance relied on actual horsepower on the battlefield. Stanton describes how, like warriors out of a bygone age, Afghani soldiers raced and rode at their mechanized Taliban opponents. And, with the help of well-targeted American bombs, they won the day.

Stanton doesn't focus solely on Nelson and Dostum. Several other members of the Special Forces have their stories told and one sub-plot involves the journey of the American Taliban, Johnny Walker Lindh, and how he ended up in Mazar-i-Sharif on the day 600 Taliban prisoners revolted. This last part of the book, which details the revolt and the attempt to take back the fort, is a clearly written and exciting read.

Stanton has produced a fine work of contemporary, boots-on-the-ground history. It's surprising that the story hadn't yet been told, but it was worth the wait. Now, onto the movie!

Friday, June 05, 2009

It doesn't seem as "old" when the pictures are in color

New color photos of Hitler have been released and are published in Life magazine.

As a kid who grew up (mostly) in the age of all-color TV, seeing anything in black and white--old pictures from the Civil War or old movies and news reels of WWII--seemed old or "other."But these color pictures and color movies of WWII and similar images of early 20th century Russia (for instance), bring what had seemed remote historical events closer to our modern age.

And that makes the events and people of a bygone age more real, for good or ill.