Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Routledge Companion to Mobile Media. Gerard Goggin and Larissa Hjorth (eds.).(Routledge) . April 2014.

Comprising 47 chapters, The Routledge Companion to Mobile Media, edited by Gerard Goggin and Larissa Hjorth, is an important resource on mobile media. I found that   that this book’s value lies in its diversity; some chapters interrogate methodological approaches to the subject, and others demonstrate these approaches in action. The constant developments in mobile media make it an exciting field of scholarship, and this book exploits these exciting energies.  
Mobile communication, data privacy, and “selfies” have all beenmaking the news recently. Look at any headlines, in fact, and you are likely to see something concerning mobile devices; you may well even be looking at them on your smartphone or tablet. Since their introduction in the late 1970s, mobile devices have reached an extraordinary level of development, achieving market penetration in the 1990s, and saturation today, with their promises of mobility, ubiquity, and instantaneity.
Topics including social media, mobile Web, media convergence, the media-“reality” interface, among many others, have been addressed across the humanities and social sciences. Several edited collections offer broad pathways into the field, for instance Mobile Technologies: From Telecommunications to Media edited by Goggin and Hjorth (2009), The Mobile Media Reader edited by Arceneaux and Kavoori (2012), Studying Mobile Media: Cultural Technologies, Mobile Communication, and the iPhone edited by Hjorth, Burgess and Richardson (2012), and Mobile Media Practices, Presence and Politics: The Challenge of Being Seamlessly Mobile edited by Hjorth and Cumiskey (2013). The strengths of these works lie in the diversity of approaches and breadth of scholarship.
The Routledge Companion to Mobile Media, edited by Gerard Goggin and Larissa Hjorth(Australia-based researchers who are pioneers in the field), is another important resource on mobile media. As the authors point out, scholarship on the topic has been dispersed across publications and disciplines; this book aims to bring the scholarship together and to be an authoritative reference work. Through seven sections and forty-seven chapters, it presents a wide range of approaches to mobile media. The editors point to the universal and global scope of the book:
While its global impact is undeniable, in each location we see how the mobile phone shapes, and is shaped by, the everyday. In other words, as global as the mobile phone is, it is also local upon every level. Far from even in its uptake, the mobile phone reflects and amplifies existing inequalities while also providing new avenues for expression and agency. (p. 1)
To reflect the uneven nature of mobile media, the book’s contributions adopt a variety of methodologies and approaches to the subject matter.
Leopoldina Fortunati’s contribution (“Understanding the Role of Mobile Media in Society: Models and Theories”) gives a good sense of what is at stake in studying mobile media. Mobile media are at the centre of technological innovation: “their heterogeneity across platforms, content, and media makes them challenging to study and define” and Fortunati finds “there is a need to systematize studies to date” (p. 21). This chapter focuses on the mobile phone as the most representative device of mobile media. It maps the ways the mobile phone has been understood, shows the limits to these understandings, and suggests new models of understanding.
Fortunati proposes a new model to overcome the limitations of various theories on the power relations between mobile technology and society, which works in two ways: it introduces the categories of space and time, and thus makes it possible to contextualise media in a particular context, and it conceptualises mobile media as cultural objects that interact not simply with society as a whole, but with producers and users of technological artifacts. The chapter’s success lies in its discussion of the implications of the theories presented. These are theories with broad relevance to anyone studying mobile media, regardless of their disciplinary association. Fortunati is self-assured in her criticisms of prevalent models of technology and her suggestions for future research.Fortunati outlines four main ways in which mobile media have been understood: as technological artifacts designed for information and communication, as relational objects that act in power relationships with humans and human society, as technologies defined by their uses, and as socio-technical systems that elaborate a generalist notion of how technology and society interrelate. She favours the latter framework because it does not look at specific technological devices, but focuses on “the complexity of general situations” (p. 23). This is an appropriate framework due to integration and convergence among various mobile technologies: we use several devices in everyday life, together, and sometimes all at once.
Many of the contributions work through the kinds of suggestions Fortunati makes. Kyoung-hwa Yonnie Kim’s chapter (“Genealogy of Mobile Creativity: A Media Archaeological Approach to Literary Practice in Japan”) adopts something similar to the technology-society-user-producer model. It also demonstrates the geographically specific case-study form that many of the contributions take. Kim analyses Japanese mobile media within the specific framework of Media Archaeology, a subfield of Media Studies that is attracting much interest at the moment.
Kim argues that cultural forms of creativity, such as keitai shôsetsu (“mobile phone novel”) and hagaki bungaku (“postcard literature”), should be understood not in a linear new/old form of development, but as complex cyclical forms. In this light, such mobile media forms share structural similarities with email, literature, and photojournalism, and do not offer categorically new or “fresh” experiences. Combining ethnographic field research and close scrutiny of her sources, Kim arrives at satisfying conclusions. Participatory forms of culture attributed to digital media can be seen in these earlier media in a “grassroots” form. This contribution demonstrates a productive way to conceptualise mobile media, enabling them to be related to a range of media technologies “despite the chronological gap and difference in social backgrounds” (p. 222). However, it is too brief to go into as much detail as I would have liked; something that is observable in many of the book’s chapters.
As a whole, this book’s value lies in its diversity. Its chapters are brief but suggestive. Some interrogate methodological approaches to the subject, and others demonstrate these approaches in action. It is not comprehensive, but that would be impossible due to the nature of its object of study. In this shifting landscape, I’m not sure “definitive” is a term able to be used. The constant developments in mobile media make it an exciting field of scholarship, and this book exploits these exciting energies.

First Time Ever: A MemoirOct 24, 2017 by Peggy Seeger Hardcover (Faber & Faber)

First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger  – a memoir of folk royalty,She was from the American music establishment, he was born of Scottish socialism, and their love led to the 20th century’s most beautiful ballad


Peggy Seeger with Ewan MacColl at home in Beckenham, south-east London, in 1965. Photograph: Brian Shuel/Redferns

The song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, written in 1957 by Ewan MacColl, son of working-class Scottish socialists, for Peggy Seeger, an American 20 years younger than him and a self-proclaimed “spoiled middle-class girl”, is one of the most beautiful love ballads of the 20th century.

Seeger’s description of how they fell in love is far from starry or sweet. He had, she recalls, a “hairy, fat, naked belly poking out, and was clad in ill-fitting trousers, suspenders, no shirt, a ragged jacket and a filthy lid of stovepipe hat aslant like a garbage can.” On their first night together he couldn’t get it up. The second time round there was time for a quickie. “I was discomfited but compliant.”

MacColl’s father was an iron-moulder with crippling asthma. His psoriatic mother worked 16 hours a day as a charlady. She had two late miscarriages and opened a penny-a-week burial insurance policy for her other children. Seeger, by contrast, came from folk royalty. Her mother, Ruth, was the first woman to win a Guggenheim fellowship for composition; her father, Charles, was a pioneering musicologist. Regular house guests included Woody Guthrie, who once brought with him, fresh out of jail, blues singer Lead Belly. Songwriter Elizabeth Cotten, who discovered a young Peggy lost in a department store, became a housekeeper, was befriended by her brother Mike, and was lured back on to the stage after a gap of 25 years.

Though she kept a diary, her most vivid memories owe less to notetaking than they do to her eye for telling details

Though Seeger has kept a diary for much of her life, her most vivid memories owe less to notetaking than they do to her eye for telling and exuberantly recalled details. In the Vermont of her youth, she writes of “moonlight caught in the xylophone of icicles on the cabin’s overhang”. Her mother “wore a stiff girdle which creaked if you hugged her”. Her overly traditional music teacher at school played the piano with theatrical flourishes she found embarrassing: “Slow has got to be soupy; fast has got to be like little mice gone mad on a wedge of cheese.” Most striking is her description of how MacColl devoured books “much as a whale sieves krill through its baleen comb”.

Peggy Seeger performing at the Enterprise pub in Covent Garden, London, in the late 1950s-early 1960s. Photograph: Alamy

Seeger rarely goes easy on herself. She tells of how she was a “lolloping, spontaneous loner” as a teenager, and would flirt with houseguests such as folklorist Alan Lomax or the radical German composer Hanns Eisler. The latter, by then a balding 50-year-old, rebuked her: “You’re doing that on purpose, aren’t you? Don’t.” Of Charles Parker, the BBC producer with whom she and MacColl created the landmark Radio Ballads series from 1958 to 1964, she says:“His ascetic face bore such a look of longing that I nearly invited him into the bed for comfort.” It’s painful to read of her later days with the sick and ailing MacColl, whom she loves, while also arranging trysts with her female lover.

Their times together were rarely smooth. Her social milieu had been assaulted by McCarthyism. MacColl had previous wives and children. Until the royalties started coming in from soul singer Roberta Flack’s cover version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, they barely scraped by. Life on the road – popping Dexedrine pills to stay awake, having disgruntled patrons pour beer over her head – is both arduous and addictive.

Seeger and MacColl held fastidious, almost spartist beliefs about what was or wasn’t real folk music. You don’t have to be an anything-goes postmodernist to discern a trace of passport control in her boast that she can “easily spot a decayed version, a rogue word or an ill-fitting melody in print or performance”. This kind of sectarianism inspired one Lancashire folk club to forbid the singing of Yorkshire songs.

These days she readily admits to having doctored, pruned and tinkered around with traditional tunes, and even calls out her “vociferous and hypocritical purisms”, but claims that “we believed we were sticking as faithfully as possible to the style and intent of the original makers and carriers of the songs”.

Equally, in an age when anyone wielding an acoustic guitar or sporting a long weekend’s facial topiary is said to belong to some new-folk movement, it’s moving to hear Seeger evoke, in profound and felt fashion, her relationship to history: “On stage, I become as the narrow neck of an hourglass, bringing stories and singers from the past to the present; a relay runner hoping that someone will take the song from me and carry it into the future.” These songs she likens to “human nutrition”, to “a community”.

At a time when digital hustlers burble forth about disruption and accelerated obsolescence, it’s all the more wonderful to read Seeger write about tenderness and tenacity, value and vitality, culture and continuity, about folk music being “like a cardiograph: the form being the graph paper and the content the heartbeat”.

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical WorldApr 17, 2018 by Catherine Nixey Hardcover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt )

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey
The clash between the classical order and Christianity is a tale of murder and vandalism wrought by religious zealotry, evoking modern-day parallels


Remains of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, once a Hellenistic place of worship, converted to a Christian church in the Byzantine era. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

“The theologian,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” Gibbon was a child of the European Enlightenment, and he viewed his task as a historian of early Christianity as a dispassionate, scientific one: to see things as they are, rather than as the pious would want them to be. The conclusions he reached were, perhaps inevitably, controversial in his day. The pre-Christian Roman empire, he believed, was characterised by “religious harmony”, and the Romans were interested more in good governance than in imposing religious orthodoxy on their many subjects. A distinctive feature of early Christianity, by contrast, was for Gibbon its “exclusive zeal for the truth of religion”, a blinkered, intolerant obsessiveness that succeeded by bullying and intimidation, and promoted a class of wide-eyed mystics. Indeed, Christian zealotry, was, he thought, ultimately responsible for the fall of the Roman empire, by creating citizens contemptuous of their public duty.

Pre-Christian Rome tends to be imagined as cruel and punitive. Christianity is painted as brave and principled

This spirit permeates Catherine Nixey’s book. In her view, the standard modern picture of the Roman empire’s conversion remains, even 200 years after Gibbon, glossed by Christian triumphalism. History, she believes, has given the Church an undeservedly easy ride. Pre-Christian Rome tends to be imagined as cruel, arbitrary and punitive; it is thought to be, in her fine phrase, “a chilly, nihilistic world”. Christianity, conversely, is painted as brave, principled, kind, inclusive and optimistic. The task she sets herself – her own melancholy duty – is to rip away this veneer and expose the error and corruption of the early Church.

This is also, however, a book for the 21st century. What concerned Gibbon was the clash between faith and reason; for Nixey, the clashes are physical ones. This is, fundamentally, a study of religious violence. Her cover displays a statue of Athena deliberately damaged: its eyes have been gouged and its nose smashed, and a cross has been etched into its forehead. The story of this defacement is told in her prologue and reprised in her final words. The events happened in Palmyrain the late fourth century, when some of the oasis city’s magnificent temples were repurposed as sites of Christian worship. Her choice to begin in Palmyra is, of course, a careful one. When she speaks of the destruction wrought on the architecture of the Syrian city by “bearded, black-robed zealots”, the reader thinks not of marauding fourth-century Christian fundamentalists but of television images from recent history. “There have been,” she writes, and “there still are … those who use monotheism and its weapons to terrible ends.” What is revealing about that last sentence is not the connection she draws between savage practices in Christian late antiquity and in the name of Islamic State but the phrase “monotheism and its weapons”. Many modern commentators like to speak of religious terrorism as a horrific distortion of religious truth; for Nixey, monotheism is always weaponised and 
waiting only for someone to pull the trigger

 Brutal end … Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in the film Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar. Photograph: Allstar/Cinebiss

The story of the destruction of Athena is the amuse-bouche for a feast of tales of murder, vandalism, wilful destruction of cultural heritage and general joylessness. We hear of the brutal end of Hypatia, the Alexandrian philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who was murdered by a Christian crowd in the early fifth century (an event dramatised in the Spanish movie Agora). Less well known, in the anglophone world at any rate, is the case of Shenoute. A contemporary of Hypatia’s, he lived further south, in rural Egypt, where he became the abbot of the complex now known as the White Monastery (which still stands in today’s town of Sohag). Shenoute is now considered a saint in the Coptic church, but his piety manifested itself in a particularly ugly guise: he was part of a gang of thugs who would break into the houses of locals whose theological views they felt to be unsound, and smash up any property they objected to on religious grounds.

Even more than the physical violence, it is the cultural devastation that draws Nixey’s eye. Early in the book, she describes how she was brought up in her youth to think of late-antique and medieval Christians as enlightened curators of the classical heritage, diligently copying philosophical texts and poems throughout the ages so that they were saved from oblivion. Her views in this matter have evidently shifted somewhat over time. In this book, early Christians are much more likely to close down the academies, shut temples, loot and destroy artwork, forbid traditional practices and burn books. Rather than praising Christians for preserving slivers of classical wisdom, she argues, we should acknowledge how much was knowingly erased.

Destroying a pagan statue or burning a book becomes a no more violent act than amputating a gangrenous limb

Where did this appetite for destruction come from? Nixey’s short answer is a simple one: demons. Many ancient Christians believed that the world we inhabit is a perilous place, crowded with malevolent supernatural beings, who sometimes manifest themselves in the form of fake gods. It is the Christian’s duty to root these out. Destroying a “pagan” statue or burning a book, then, is a no more violent act than amputating a gangrenous limb: you save the healthy whole by preventing the spread of the infection. If you think that a marble statue is possessed by a demon, then it makes a kind of sense to dig out its eyes and score a cross in its forehead. If you think, along with the North-African theologian Tertullian, that “Satan and his angels have filled the whole world” and laid traps for the virtuous in the form of sensual pleasures, then avoiding the Romans’ bathhouses, dinners and spectacles is perfectly rational – as is a disdain for sexuality. The early Christian world was in a state of perpetual metaphysical war, and choosing sides inevitably meant knowing your enemies.

Bluff bonhomie … portrait of the Roman poet Horace. Photograph: Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

But demons are only half of the story. The real blame, for Nixey, lies at the door of the church fathers, whose spine-tingling sermons ramped up the polarising rhetoric of violent difference. They wove “a rich tapestry of metaphor”, construing theological opponents of all kinds as bestial, verminous, diseased and – naturally – demonic. It was language itself – the forceful, lurid language of a handful of elite males – that stoked the fires of Christian rage against its enemies, fires that blazed for a millennium: “the intellectual foundations for a thousand years of theocratic oppression were being laid.”

Nixey has a great story to tell, and she tells it exceptionally well. As one would expect from a distinguished journalist, every page is full of well-turned phrases that leap from the page. She has an expert eye for arresting details, and brings characters and scenarios to life without disguising anything of the strangeness of the world she describes. Most of all, she navigates through these tricky waters with courage and skill. Writing critically about Christian history is doubly difficult: not only are the ancient sources complex, scattered and disputed, but also there are legions of modern readers waiting to pounce on the tiniest perceived error, infelicity or offence.

Martyrdom certainly has a strangely magnetic allure, as we know from our own era

If there is a weakness in this book, it stems precisely from its Gibbonian roots. This is, fundamentally, a restatement of the Enlightenment view that the classical heritage was essentially benign and rational, and the advent of Christianity marked civilisation’s plunge into darkness (until it was fished out by Renaissance humanists). Nixey studied classics, and her affection for classical culture runs deep: she writes with great affection about the sophisticated philosophies of the stoics and epicureans, the buoyantly sexual (and not infrequently sexist) poetry of Catullus and Ovid, the bluff bonhomie of Horace and the unsentimental pragmatism of men of affairs such as Cicero and Pliny. When she speaks of classical culture and religion she tends to use such descriptions as “fundamentally liberal and generous” and “ebullient”. How, then, do we explain the Romans’ unfortunate habit of killing Christians? Nixey thinks, like Gibbon, that they were interested, principally, in good governance and in maintaining the civic order that the unruly Christians imperilled. Ancient accounts, she argues, show imperial officials who “simply do not want to execute”; rather, they are forced into it by the Christians’ perverse lust for martyrdom. Now, martyrdom certainly has a strangely magnetic allure, as we know from our own era, but the Romans were hardly bemused, passive bystanders in all of this. There is something of the zero-sum game at work here: in seeking to expose the error and corruption of the early Christian world, Nixey comes close to veiling the pre-Christian Romans’ own barbarous qualities.

But this book is not intended as a comprehensive history of early Christianity and its complex, embattled relationship to the Roman empire, and it would be unfair to judge it against that aim. It is, rather, a finely crafted, invigorating polemic against the resilient popular myth that presents the Christianisation of Rome as the triumph of a kinder, gentler politics. On those terms, it succeeds brilliantly.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political LifeNov 7, 2017 by Robert Dallek Hardcover (Viking)

Franklin D Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek – a stark reminder of strong leadership

Donald Trump’s weaknesses implicitly come to the fore as a master of the presidential biography captures Roosevelt’s compassion and sense of solidarity


Franklin D Roosevelt throws out the first ball of the third game of the 1933 World Series at Griffith Stadium, Washington DC. Photograph: B Bennett/Getty Images

Had it not been for last year’s election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, Robert Dallek’s new biography of Franklin D Roosevelt might have simply been a very good book. Given Trump, it feels like an essential one. Dallek, who has previously written biographies of John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, here captures a full life in a single volume with brisk prose. We see FDR’s rise, helped by his wife, Eleanor, within the Democratic party; his sudden contraction of polio, which left him paralysed from the waist down; his election, first as governor of New York and then president of the United States; his “New Deal” response to the Great Depression; and his leadership in the second world war.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were patrician bohemians, not radicals but liberal enough to include in their circle strong-willed eccentrics – the hyperactive gambler Harry Hopkins, or the cigar-smoking, slacks-wearing journalist Lorena Hickok – committed to social reform. Hopkins, among the most leftwing of FDR’s brain trust, made the Works Project Administration a success and organised FDR’s vast logistical wartime bureaucracy. Hickok, who as an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration pushed the Roosevelts to attend to labour and civil rights issues, had become Eleanor’s most intimate emotional, and no doubt sexual, companion.

Words that altered the consciousness of a nation

Dallek shows how Old Dutch family wealth, noblesse oblige, tolerance, a debilitating disease, and an interest in modernist culture combined to create in FDR an instinctively brilliant politician. The author says he wrote his account to remind “a younger generation with limited knowledge of American history, of what great political leadership looks like”. He only mentions Trump once, but FDR’s strengths – his ability to compromise, his regulatory programme and awareness of the environment, his diplomacy and care for social well-being – implicitly highlight Trump’s weaknesses.

Roosevelt, one of his contemporaries remarked, never gave “the impression he was tired or bored”, nor did he often show irritation. Trump has an attention span as long as a tweet and the impulses of a sugar-addled toddler. Polio robbed Roosevelt of the ability to walk, an open secret that he occasionally used to establish a bond with voters. “Imagine where I might have been without my private resources to rehabilitate myself?” he once asked. Here, Roosevelt was inviting voters to identify with him not to perpetuate a fantasy that they, too, might become millionaires, but rather as a way of generating human solidarity, a shared sense of how we all have times when we need help.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s. Photograph: Fotosearch/Getty Images

Dallek emphasises FDR’s nonideological nature, his willingness to try, and err, and try again. In so doing, he made some policy decisions that, in the long run, helped give rise to Trumpism. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, in the depths of the depression, when faith among US citizens in the virtues of the laissez-faire state was at an all-time low. Promising “action, and action now”, he easily could have nationalised the banks. Instead he stabilised and regulated them, which Dallek says restored confidence. It also left finance free to regather its strength as a bastion of private power, which it used, starting in the 1970s, to spearhead the nation’s rapid deindustrialisation. In so doing, it laid the foundation for today’s low-wage unequal economy, which produces, in addition to anxiety and desperation, a steady stream of angry voters.

Roosevelt likewise wasted political capital and government resources reconstructing a collapsed agricultural sector, not so much saving small farms as creating a kind of agro-industrial corporatism. FDR, Dallek writes, should have focused “on the urban industrial centers as the mainstay of any revival”. Roosevelt’s modest, meagerly funded and short-lived Federal Writers Project stimulated a vibrant cultural modernism, employing authors such as Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellowand artists such as Jackson Pollock. But for more than 80 years, New Deal federal programmes have pumped trillions of dollars into an ever smaller number of poorly paying agricultural corporations in a handful of mostly reactionary states, including Texas and Arizona, today’s base of Trumpism. Dallek doesn’t mention it, but Roosevelt also missed a chance to include a programme of national health care in his signature social security legislation, which, had it been included, would have narrowed the opportunities for the right to discredit the welfare state. And to appease southern Democratic party conservatives, he exempted agricultural workers, many of them African-Americans, from New Deal protections, including the right to organise labour unions. If the south had been able to unionise, the Dixiecrat backlash, which first targeted the civil rights movement but went on to defeat most of the New Deal, might have been less effective.

Dallek is a master of the genre of presidential biography, but how can one continue being a Rembrandt, detailing the light and shadow of golden age captains, after the arrival of the grotesque, when political culture has become a carnival? The genre, a moneymaker for big publishing houses during gift-giving seasons, provides important ideological support for American exceptionalism. Biographers generally treat their subject’s crimes and cruelties – Thomas Jefferson’s rape, Andrew Jackson’s genocide, or JFK’s sexual assault of a teenage White House intern – as personal foibles.

In FDR’s case, Dallek criticises the second world war internment of Japanese-Americans, his alliance with southern segregationists and refusal to come to the aid of Germany’s Jews. He might also have mentioned Roosevelt’s deportation of millions of undocumented Mexican migrant workers. In keeping with the genre’s formula, Dallek balances these wrongs against FDR’s many rights and gives him credit.

But Trump scrambles the formula. He represents one of two possibilities: he is either presiding over a wholly un-American movement that has captured the institutions of government; or he is the realisation, the manifest destiny, of an entirely American form of racism. Either way, future biographers will have a hard time describing Trump’s vices – such as his compulsion to humiliate successful African-Americans, demonise Mexicans and migrants and to coddle Nazis – as personal failings, and balance them against the nation’s virtues. Short of a complete revision of the genre into a branch of Marxism, my sense is that future presidential biographers will write with ever more hagiographic urgency, blurring whatever minimal distinctions mainstream historians made between “good” presidents such as FDR and catastrophic ones, such as George W Bush.

Still, Trump’s brutalism limits the ability of future presidential biographers to present less flattering details as simply part of building a character portrait. “Oh, Eleanor,” FDR rebuked his wife, after she joined an interview with Walter Lippmann, “Shut up. You never understand these things anyway.” “Uncharacteristic,” Dallek writes. “Blunt,” a previous biographer said of this encounter. “Trumpian” may well be the word future presidential biographers use to describe such scenes.

Armageddon and Paranoia: The Nuclear Confrontation since 1945Mar 1, 2018 by Rodric Braithwaite Hardcover (Profile Books)

The Nuclear Confrontation by Rodric Braithwaite review – Armageddon and paranoia.An insider’s view of the ethical dilemmas and intelligence blunders that fuelled the cold war.As a lifelong diplomat whose last foreign post was as Britain’s ambassador to the Kremlin in the Soviet Union’s final years, Rodric Braithwaite acquired decades of insight into UK and US policy on nuclear weapons. In policy debates in Whitehall as well as in meetings with Soviet officials, he took part in numerous discussions on arms control. He has also read a phenomenal amount of the literature on “the bomb” and, unlike most other western researchers, has studied the work of Russian analysts. This includes the memoirs of physicists involved in the Soviet nuclear programme, many of which have not yet been translated into English.

Personal experience plus careful study have given him a remarkable platform from which he brilliantly dissects the ethical dilemmas facing the scientists who developed the weapons as well as the policymakers who framed strategies for their potential use, both groups knowing full well that they could bring humankind to Armageddon. There was equivalence on the western and Soviet sides and Braithwaite is absolutely fair in describing this.

He is equally even-handed when he comes to explain each side’s paranoia. Policymakers routinely accepted the worst-case analysis of the other’s arsenal, confusing capabilities with intentions and suspecting that the adversary was trying to sneak out of his proclaimed acceptance of parity by secretly developing a first-strike potential. With public access to official papers now available, Braithwaite writes that within months of Hiroshima the US drew up contingency plans to use nuclear bombs on the USSR to “deter or reverse any Soviet adventure in Europe”. Yet no proof has emerged that Stalin ever had such plans, he writes. Nothing changed with his successors. “There is no evidence that the Russians ever hoped to incorporate western Europe by military means,” Braithwaite adds, but western planners were bound to consider Soviet deployments as a potential invasion force since, as Anatoly Dobrynin, Moscow’s longtime ambassador in Washington, commented in his diary, “we were building up our nuclear and conventional arms in Europe beyond any reasonable measure”.

The atomic bomb drops on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Photograph: Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/EPA

Braithwaite is especially interesting on the “special relationship” with the US, pointing out that the US initially tried to cut Britain out of any joint research on nuclear weapons. Successive British governments, Labour as well as Conservative, wanted the bomb because they did not trust Washington to defend Britain in all circumstances. The bomb also gave them, they felt, prestige. Braithwaite makes that last point in a bracket and with no attribution since he remains nothing if not discreet, rarely alluding to inside knowledge beyond a few references to his own “unpublished diary”.

As a career civil servant, Braithwaite had more affinity with the decision-making class than with street protesters. He has little to say about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)although he mentions that MI5 for 25 years described it as “communist-controlled”. This was an extraordinary intelligence blunder which Braithwaite merely puts in a footnote. He ignores European Nuclear Disarmament (END), which had links with eastern European peace campaigners, and makes only one brief mention of its leading light, EP Thompson. Instead, he repeatedly stresses that the massive anti-nuclear demonstrations in the UK and US had no effect in changing government policy, seeming to find satisfaction in the fact that all this public noise was, in his view, unsuccessful.

Successive British governments wanted the bomb because they did not trust Washington to defend Britain

This reaction is baffling since Braithwaite shows considerable sympathy for the top policymakers who, in the psychological comfort of losing responsibility on retirement, came out against the bomb, including former US secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. If you admire the sinner who repenteth, why be so dismissive of the scruffy saints who went marching past with banners that displayed the same message?

Braithwaite ends his book with the conclusion that “whatever their nationality, the politicians were trapped in a web of inexorable logic. The nuclear weapon could not be uninvented. If their opponent had it or was getting it they too had to have it if they were not to fail in their patriotic duty”. That is not wholly true. Earlier in the same chapter he mentions that Canada, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil were capable of acquiring the skills necessary to develop their own nuclear weapons but renounced them. He could have added that Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which already had them on their territory, gave them up. It might have been useful to examine the reasons why all these states went non-nuclear and the way their publics reacted. The evidence would suggest that in some contexts it need not be a politician’s “patriotic duty” to have the bomb. Abandoning the nuclear option may make better national sense and command broad political support.

CND demonstrators on a march from London to Aldermaston in 1958. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

The key issue in any country is the perception of the threats it faces. Could there be alternative ways of defending or insuring against them without resort to a nuclear arsenal? One man about whom Braithwaite writes with admiration is Joseph Rotblat, a Polish émigré physicist who worked on the Manhattan project to develop the US bomb but after Hitler’s defeat became a campaigner for nuclear disarmament and set up the Pugwash conferences of international scientists. (He won the Nobel peace prize in 1995). Based in Britain, Rotblat was a member of the Alternative Defence Commission, a group of British scientists, academics and peace campaigners, which produced two reports in the 1980s that looked at the threats facing the UK and analysed how defence and foreign policy could meet them satisfactorily without nuclear weapons (Full disclosure: I was a member of the commission, too).

Many of the ideas the commission put forward – “sufficiency’, “non-offensive or non-provocative defence” and “interdependence” – emerged in the policies advocated by Gorbachev’s advisers during perestroika. It remains an irony that CND and END were attacked as dupes or fronts for Moscow while influence actually went in the opposite direction. Even under Brezhnev there were hints of this. The Kremlin’s 1982 declaration that it was adopting a strategy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons mirrored the western peace movement’s position. Whitehall and Washington may have been stoney-faced towards peace movement demands; Moscow was less so.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. Tyler Cowen. St. Martin’s Press. 2017.

In The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Tyler Cowen extends his previous work on economic stagnation into an examination of a broader sense of stasis that has enveloped US society and culture. While events of 2016 have made the book’s anticipation of an impending and dramatic shift less prescient than may otherwise have been the case, I nonetheless welcomes the book for its important observations about the end – whether here or to come – of US domestic complacency.

The end of America’s complacency


Politically speaking, 2016 was dramatic – and 2017 promises to be even more so. Yet, Americans are living in a world of historically unprecedented stability and calm. Fewer people move for jobs, and those who have jobs tend to stay in them for longer. For all the talk of disruption and change, the US economy – like the economies of other advanced Western nations – has become less dynamic, with miniscule rates of productivity growth. A dominant part of federal spending is on autopilot, dictated by commitments made by earlier generations of politicians instead of being the subject of day-to-day political deliberations.

Tyler Cowen has made arguments about the West’s economic stagnation before. In his latest book, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, he extends these into a much richer narrative that weaves together observations about stasis in the US economy, the impact of technology in curating our personal bubbles, broader cultural trends including developments on college campuses and the dysfunctions of US politics. Taken together, these phenomena have created a ‘zeitgeist of community-enforced social stasis’, with manifestations ranging from the NIMBY (‘Not In My Backyard’) mentality through to NIMTOO (‘Not in My Term of Office’), CAVE (‘Citizens Against Virtually Everything’) and BANANA (‘Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything’).

Even if stasis is a correct description of the past decades of US history, the main weakness of Cowen’s book is that it reads like a description of an era that is now over. Under the new administration, drastic changes seem like the safe bet, even though their exact contours are still radically uncertain. Cowen acknowledges that complacency is not sustainable as a permanent state of affairs. Yet in today’s unsettling time, his prediction of a ‘Great Reset’ at an uncertain time in the future does not strike one as nearly as prophetic as it likely would have been had the book been published a year or two ago. That does not detract, however, from the validity – and importance – of a number of observations that Cowen makes.
Image Credit: (torbakhopper CC BY 2.0)

First, what accounts for the decline in America’s economic dynamism? One culprit is the improved ability of people to match their consumption patterns and surroundings to their preferences. Some of the consequences are perfectly benign. With Spotify and other platforms, it is easier to find and listen only to music you like. It is much simpler to find the right bargain through eBay than by visiting actual consignment stores. As a result, the consumer choices we make tend to be more satisfying and last us longer.

On the flipside, because matches are better, there are fewer of them. That leads to less churn and dynamism in the economy. Moreover, better matching does not help everyone equally and leaves many Americans behind. The matches between individuals of high socioeconomic status result in stable marriages and low divorce rates. Simultaneously, marital norms among lower-educated lower earners have all but collapsed over recent decades. Matching is also at work as cities gentrify, creating more desirable surroundings for the more successful, while pricing out poorer segments of the population. The outcomes include falling social and geographic mobility and segregation by income as well as race.

On the labour markets, better matching means that the highly skilled, productive and bright find it easier to interact with each other, leading to the emergence of clusters of highly successful firms in places such as the Silicon Valley. Companies typically rely on extremely stringent hiring standards, which take into account not just credentials and cognitive skills but also expected fit with the corporate culture – oftentimes proxied for by credit rating (which is apparently checked for 60 per cent of all new hires).

If, for whatever reason, you are suspected of being a misfit, climbing the social and economic ladder will be extremely difficult. In a sense, Cowen argues, highly hierarchical societies such as Korea offer greater opportunities for upward mobility, since they provide a set of behavioural norms – such as deference to one’s bosses, adherence to the dress code and other corporate mores – which enable individuals to succeed, even when starting from nothing.

The government is another source of stasis. Only twenty per cent of federal spending is determined by actual political deliberation, a fraction that is expected to fall to just ten per cent by 2022. The rest is dictated by existing obligations. The US Congress has also resigned itself to playing a much smaller role in making decisions about war and peace: ‘After the highly unpopular Iraq war, representatives do not want to be burdened by a ‘‘war vote’’,’ writes Cowen, ‘instead preferring plausible deniability’.

While much of the reporting in recent years has focused on the gridlock and divisions within Congress and across different branches of government, the true problem is that elected US representatives simply do not care enough to reverse the status quo. Paradoxically, they are re-elected at high rates, notwithstanding the extremely low levels of trust in Congress, suggesting that large parts of the electorate, too, are content with, or at least indifferent to, more of the same.

Ultimately, America’s stasis cannot last forever. At home, if the existing social order limits the prospects of large numbers of Americans, they will turn against it. Internationally, the static calm in liberal democracies increases the pay-off from predatory behaviour by actors such as Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un. If Crimea can be annexed without prompting a forceful response, why not try something more outlandish? With the West seeking to be only left stable and undisturbed instead of acting as the world’s policeman, the incidence of local conflicts and attempts to extort liberal democracies will only rise, thus eroding the peace and stability we have known throughout much of our lifetimes.

As a result, Cowen argues, the age of steadily decreasing rates of international violence is coming to an end – just like America’s domestic complacency. That conclusion might seem today almost self-evident. But that does not make it any less true or less important. ‘There is the distinct possibility’, the book concludes ominously, ‘that, in the next twenty years, we are going to find out far more about how the world really works than we ever wanted to know.’

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Forks Over Knives - The Cookbook: Over 300 Recipes for Plant-Based Eating All Through the Year Paperback by Del Sroufe (Author),‎ Isa Chandra Moskowitz (Contributor),‎ Julieanna Hever MS RD CPT (Contributor),‎ Darshana Thacker (Contributor),‎ Judy Micklewright (Contributor) (The Experiment Books) (IBRCookBooks)

A whole-foods, plant-based diet that has never been easier or tastier—learn to cook the Forks Over Knives way with more than 300 recipes for every day!

Forks Over Knives—the book, the film, the movement—is back again in a cookbook. The secret is out: If you want to lose weight, lower your cholesterol, avoid cancer, and prevent (or even reverse) type 2 diabetes and heart disease, the right food is your best medicine. Thousands of people have cut out meat, dairy, and oils and seen amazing results. If you’re among them—or you’d like to be—you need this cookbook.

Del Sroufe, the man behind some of the mouthwatering meals in the landmark documentary, proves that the Forks Over Knives philosophy is not about what you can’t eat, but what you can. Chef Del and his collaborators Julieanna Hever, Judy Micklewright, Darshana Thacker, and Isa Chandra Moskowitz transform wholesome fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes into hundreds of recipes—classic and unexpected, globally and seasonally inspired, and for every meal of the day, all through the year:

Breakfast: Very Berry Smoothie, Breakfast Quinoa with Apple Compote
Salads, Soups and Stews: Kale Salad with Maple-Mustard Dressing, Lotsa Vegetable Chowder, Lucky Black-Eyed Pea Stew
Pasta and Noodle Dishes: Mushroom Stroganoff, Stir-Fried Noodles with Spring Vegetables
Stir-Fried, Grilled and Hashed Vegetables: Grilled Eggplant “Steaks”
Baked and Stuffed Vegetables: Millet-Stuffed Chard Rolls
The Amazing Bean: White Beans and Escarole with Parsnips
Great Grains: Polenta Pizza with Tomatoes and Basil
Desserts: Apricot Fig Squares, Bursting with Berries Cobbler . . . and much more!

Simple, affordable, and delicious, the recipes in Forks Over Knives—The Cookbook put the power of real, healthy food in your hands. Start cooking the plant-based way today—it could save your life!

Featured Recipe: Mushroom Stroganoff

Stroganoff originated in Russia as a beef dish served in a rich sour cream sauce. And though there are many versions of the original recipe, I prefer this plant-based one, made with rich porcini mushrooms and lots of fresh herbs.

Serves 4
2 large shallots, peeled and minced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons minced thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1 pound portobello mushrooms, stemmed and cut into large pieces
1 ounce porcini mushrooms, soaked for 30 minutes in 1 cup of hot water that has just been boiled
½ cup dry white wine
1 pound whole-grain fettuccine, cooked according to package directions, drained, and kept warm
1 cup Tofu Sour Cream (recipe follows)
Chopped parsley

Place the shallots in a large skillet and sauté over a medium heat for 8 minutes. Add water 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time to keep them from sticking. Add the garlic and thyme, and cook for another minute. Stir in the salt and pepper, rosemary, and the portobello mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the porcini mushrooms, and their soaking liquid, and the wine. Stir, and cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes.

When the stroganoff is finished cooking, stir in the sour cream. Add the cooked noodles and toss well. Serve garnished with the parsley.
Tofu Sour Cream

Use this healthy dairy alternative in any dish that calls for sour cream. Serve it with baked potatoes and fresh chives, with tacos or enchiladas, or with Mushroom Stroganoff.

Makes 1½ cups
1 package extra firm lite silken tofu, drained
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth and creamy. Chill until ready to serve.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Remarking the Rustbelt..... MidWestern Mentality.......This is Detroit, 1701-2001: An Illustrated History (Great Lakes Books Series) by Arthur M. Woodford Hardcover, ( Wayne State University Press)Frontier Metropolis: Picturing Early Detroit, 1701-1838 (Great Lakes Books Series) y 1 Edition by Brian Leigh Dunnigan , (Wayne State University Press),Asian Americans in Michigan: Voices from the Midwest (Great Lakes Books Series)Mar 16, 2015 by Victor Jew and Sook Wilkinson Paperback (Wayne State University Press),.Tin Stackers: The History of the Pittsburgh Steamship Company (Great Lakes Books Series) Hardcover by Al Miller (Wayne State University Press),Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (American Business, Politics, and Society) Hardcover; Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America's Rust Belt, 1969 984 (Heritage) Paperback – December 15, 2003 by Steven High(University of Toronto Press) – May 31, 2016 by Tracy Neumann (Author) (University of Pennsylvania Press);Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland 1st Edition by Edward McClelland (Bloomsbury Press) ,From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965 (Iowa and the Midwest Experience) Paperback – June 1, 2017 by Jon K. Lauck (University Of Iowa Press);Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities Reprint Edition by Chad Broughton (Oxford University Press)

Image result for Rust Belt

After my Texas-born wife and I moved to Michigan—an eleven-hour drive in the snow, during which time itself seemed to widen and flatten with the terrain—I found myself pressed into service as an expert on the region where I was born and where I have spent most of my life. “What is the Midwest like?” she asked. “Midwestern history, Midwestern customs, Midwestern cuisine?” I struggled to answer with anything more than clichés: bad weather, hard work, humble people. I knew these were inadequate. Connecticut winters and Arizona summers are also “bad”; the vast majority of humans have worked hard, or been worked hard, for all of recorded history; and humility is one of those words, like authenticity or (lately) resistance, that serves mainly to advertise the absence of the thing named.

I soon learned that I was hardly the only Midwesterner left tongue-tied by the Midwest. Articulate neighbors, friends, colleagues, and students, asked to describe their hometowns, replied with truisms that, put together, were also paradoxes: “Oh, it’s in the middle of nowhere.” “It’s just like anywhere, you know.” “We do the same things people do everywhere.” No-places are as old as Thomas More’s Utopia, but a no-place that is also everyplace and anyplace doesn’t really add up. Nor, at least in my experience, does one hear such language from people in other regions—from Southerners, Californians, Arubans, Yorkshiremen. Canadians live in a country that has been jokingly described as America’s Midwest writ larger—Canada and our Midwest share, among other things, manners, weather, topography, and a tendency among their inhabitants to downplay their own racism—yet they are hyperspecific in their language, assuming a knowledge of local landmarks that it never occurs to them non-Canadians may not possess. They assume that whatever their setting is, it is a setting, not, as Midwesterner-turned-expatriate Glenway Wescott once wrote of Wisconsin, “an abstract nowhere.”1

When pressed, a person might explain these tropes of featurelessness by pointing out the similarities imposed across the Midwestern landscape by capitalism. Boosters sometimes still call the region “America’s breadbasket,” and for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was also, to a large degree, America’s foundry, and, during World War II, its armory.2 (Such is the extractive quality of Midwestern economic history that some historians have proposed that we take seriously the painter Grant Wood’s irritated description of the region, in his 1935 pamphlet Revolt against the City, as a colony of the East.)3 What all of this means in practice, of course, is vast visual repetition: mile upon mile of cornfields, block upon block of crumbling factories. (Willa Cather: “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.”)4

But even used and battered landscapes have their particularity. Detroit’s blight isn’t Cleveland’s blight, any more than Manchester’s is Birmingham’s. Nor are any two cornfields truly exactly alike, despite Monsanto’s best efforts. The British cultural imagination has been formed by writers such as Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence who are perfectly capable of distinguishing among bleaknesses; there’s no reason the American imagination should not pay the Midwest the same tribute. Especially in a period when some of the more interesting art and music consists of similar procedures repeated on a massive canvas, when cultured people are trained to find meaning in the tiny variations of a Philip Glass symphony or an early John Adams tape piece, you’d think we could learn to truly see Midwestern flatness as something richer than mindless repetition. (Willa Cather again: “No one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry.”)5

Even if we insist, wrongly, on seeing the Midwest’s physical geography as featureless, there’s no reason to extend the mistake, as many even within the region do, to its cultural landscape. In a 2015 essay for Slate, “The Rust-Belt Theory of Low-Cost High Culture,” reporter Alec McGillis marveled at the cheapness—and, it seems, the mere presence—of good orchestra and museum tickets in interior cities:
The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the best in the world, offers a “young professional package,” with regular concerts and special events, for a mere $15 per month—$20 for a couple. When I visited the St. Louis Art Museum, a monumental building deep within verdant Forest Park, I was stunned by its wealth of German expressionists (it has the world’s largest collection of Max Beckmanns)—all for the entrance fee of $0. In Milwaukee, I spent hours with my laptop at the cafe in the art museum’s Calatrava-designed wing.… In Detroit, friends and I got a prime table at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, its oldest jazz club, for a $10 cover.6

I appreciate McGillis’s enthusiasm, but why on earth was he so surprised? This is a part of the country where, the novelist Neal Stephenson observes, you can find small colleges “scattered about…at intervals of approximately one tank of gas.” Indeed, the grid-based zoning so often invoked to symbolize dullness actually attests to a love of education, he argues:

People who often fly between the East and West Coasts of the United States will be familiar with the region, stretching roughly from the Ohio to the Platte, that, except in anomalous non-flat areas, is spanned by a Cartesian grid of roads. They may not be aware that the spacing between roads is exactly one mile. Unless they have a serious interest in nineteenth-century Midwestern cartography, they can’t possibly be expected to know that when those grids were laid out, a schoolhouse was platted at every other road intersection. In this way it was assured that no child in the Midwest would ever live more than √2 miles [i.e., about 1.4 miles] from a place where he or she could be educated.7

Minnesota Danish farmers were into Kierkegaard long before the rest of the country.8 They were descended, perhaps, from the pioneers Meridel LeSueur describes in her social history North Star Country:

Simultaneously with building the sod shanties, breaking the prairie, schools were started, Athenaeums and debating and singing societies founded, poetry written and recited on winter evenings. The latest theories of the rights of man were discussed along with the making of a better breaking plow. Fourier, Marx, Rousseau, Darwin were discussed in covered wagons.9

If you’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, you know that many of these schools were founded as centers of abolitionist resistance, or even as stops on the Underground Railroad.

When, looking in your own mind for a sense of your own experiences in a region, you find only clichés and evasions—well, that is a clue worth following. So I began, here and there, collecting tidbits, hoarding anecdotes, savoring every chance piece of evidence that the Midwest was a distinctive region with its own history. In doing so I noticed yet another paradox: If the Midwest is a particular place that instead thinks of itself as an anyplace or no-place, it is likewise both present and not present in the national conversation. The Midwest is, in fact, fairly frequently written about, but almost always in a way that weirdly disclaims the possibility that it has ever been written or thought about before. The trope of featurelessness is matched by a trope of neglect (for what can one do with what is featureless but neglect it?). Katy Rossing, a poet and essayist, has described the formula:

1. Begin with a loquacious description of the Euclidean-flat homogeneity of the landscape. This place looks boring. It looks like there’s nothing here worth thinking about. Example: “The sins of the Midwest: flatness, emptiness, a necessary acceptance of the familiar. Where is the romance in being buried alive? In growing old?” (Stewart O’Nan, Songs for the Missing)
2. In fact, it seems no one has really thought about it before, they all write. What IS the Midwest? The West, South, and East all have clear stories, stories that are told and retold in regionally interested textbooks, novels, movies. The Midwest? It’s a humorously ingenuous, blank foil for another region. Example: Fargo, Annie Hall.
3. But wait a minute, the writers tell you, it turns out this place isn’t empty at all! They spend the remainder of the article crouched in a defensive posture.10

Rossing misses one or two tricks—there must also be a resentful invocation of the term flyover country (“a stereotype,” as one lexicographer points out, “about other people’s stereotypes”).11 And one must end self-refutingly, by pointing out a number of example of Midwestern distinctiveness or high achievement, all of which—the frontier, Abraham Lincoln, populism, the Great Migration, Chicago, the growth and decline of manufacturing—are so thoroughly discussed as to bring the article’s initial premise into question.12 The density of these evocations of let’s-stop-ignoring-the-Midwest only increased after the 2016 election,13 as national newspapers, ignoring the dozens of articles they had already published on the region, pledged themselves to the Rust Belt as though to a strict Lenten discipline.14

Actually, there is no dearth of commentary upon the Midwest, once you begin to look for it. Historian and politico Jon Lauck points to the region’s rich historiographic tradition in The Lost Region; journals devoted to the region’s history and literature come and go (MidAmerica; Midwestern Gothic); the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature sponsors superb, if frequently ignored, scholarship; regional independent presses win awards and capture attention (Coffee House, Greywolf, Dzanc, Belt, Two Dollar Radio); writers as major as Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, David Foster Wallace, and Richard Powers set book after book in the region. (Morrison in particular is so identified with the South—because, to be blunt, she’s black—that people forget she’s from Ohio. The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved are set there, Song of Solomon in Michigan.) If you took English in high school, you read—or pretended you read—Cather, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Sandra Cisneros, and Theodore Dreiser, all of whom wrote of the region lovingly or ambivalently; if you took it in graduate school, you may also have read Wescott, William H. Gass, Saul Bellow, Jaimy Gordon, Dinaw Mengestu. The situation resembles nothing so much as the episode of the television show Louie in which the main character, stricken with guilt over his lapsed friendship with a less successful comedian, appears at the man’s house and demands a reunion, a reckoning; whereupon the old friend, after a meaningful silence, remarks that Louie has delivered the same speech twice before: He’d forgotten each time. Our reckoning with the Midwest is perpetually arriving, perpetually deferred.

Andrew R.L. Cayton, one of the foremost historians of the region, gives a partial explanation for this neurotic repetition: Much of the discourse about the Midwest is mentally filed under the heading “local,” not “regional.”
Historically, when people in the Midwest argue with each other over questions of identity, they fight over issues on universal, national, or local levels. They talk about what it means to be an American, a Lutheran, a farmer, a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, a black man; they almost never talk about what it means to be Midwestern, except in the most cursory fashion. In trying to locate a “heartland code,” one ethicist found that residents of the St. Louis area invoked generalities, such as “respect for family,” “respect for religion,” “respect for education,” “honesty,” “selflessness,” and “respect for the environment.” They rarely got more specific than that.… In virtually all the recent work on the Midwest, it remains a setting, not a particular constellation of attitudes or behaviors.15

We Midwesterners talk about ourselves, and we are talked about by others, but in terms either universal or local: Abe Lincoln of the log cabin, or Abe Lincoln of world history, but not, despite the movie, Abe Lincoln of Illinois, who was formed in part by that “great interior region” he lauded in his 1862 Annual Message to Congress.16 A Midwesterner may be a human, an American, a Detroiter, at most a Michigander, but a “Midwesterner” only when reminded of the fact. Cayton blames this lack of “regional consciousness” in part on geography: “Regional identity—the creation of an imagined community—requires a strong sense of isolation. And the Midwest is not, strictly speaking, isolated. It is in the middle.” More important, however, is the intensity of local attachment: “But it is less regional rootlessness than local rootedness that makes the construction of a regional identity so difficult in the Midwest.… Localism, this pride in family, town, and state, leaves little room for interest in a coherent regional identity. In general, Midwesterners want to be left alone in worlds of their own making.”17

Cayton’s last remark, in particular, throws light on the way the Midwest is often depicted in American art, and the way Midwestern artists tend to function. Think of Grant Wood’s farm couple, posted like sentries; of the intensely self-aware little Midwestern scenes that dot the landscape of American popular-music history like a series of private kingdoms: Motown in the ’60s, Ann Arbor–Detroit in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cleveland in the mid-’70s, Minneapolis in the early ’80s. Think of Prince, who famously shot down Matt Damon’s attempt at conversation—“I hear you live in Minnesota”—with that wonderful remark, at once quintessentially Prince and quintessentially Midwestern: “I live inside my own heart, Matt Damon.”18 From Prince in his private Paisley Park kingdom in the middle of Minnesota; to Robert Pollard in Dayton, with his one-person record industry; to Bob Dylan, cloistered in his private languages and allegories; from William H. Gass’s novels and stories, walled and defended in purple prose and private grudges like old Michigan fort towns; to Marilynne Robinson’s elaborately homemade worlds and worldview; to Gwendolyn Brooks’s lifelong loyalty to Chicago, the Midwestern artist hunkers down on the landscape; she lives in her own heart. We remember her, then, as the artist of that patch of landscape, not as a “Midwestern artist.”

If it is not the Midwest that is missing from American history or culture, or even from the national conversation, but simply a Midwestern “regional consciousness,” as Cayton puts it, one naturally wonders whether such a category is important in the first place. Do Midwesterners need another “grid” (to borrow a term from the social critic George W.S. Trow) on which to plot their own lives? We already have families, towns and cities, a country, a species. Perhaps we are simply Americans, with no need for further differentiation.

It’s certainly tempting to think so—because this idea is actually the one that gives the Midwest its most persistent self-understanding, the frame in which we see ourselves and through which others see us. We think of ourselves as basic Americans, with no further qualification. “The West, South, and East all have clear stories,” as Katy Rossing puts it. But in the Midwest, we don’t. We’re free. And that is our story.

The authors of this story are not terribly hard to name. One of them is Lincoln, who, in his 1862 address to Congress having already labeled the Midwest the “great interior region,” went even further, commending it as “territorially speaking…the great body of the republic.”19 It’s a part of the country, but also, give or take, the country. Another author was Frederick Jackson Turner, whose The Frontier in American History (1920) characterizes the Middle West (as the slightly more dignified phrase of his day had it) as follows:
Both native settler and European immigrant saw in this free and competitive movement of the frontier the chance to break the bondage of social rank, and to rise to a higher plane of existence. The pioneer was passionately desirous to secure for himself and for his family a favorable place in the midst of these large and free but vanishing opportunities. It took a century for this society to fit itself into the conditions of the whole province.… Little by little, nature pressed into her mold the plastic pioneer life.… From this society, seated amidst a wealth of material advantages, and breeding individualism, energetic competition, inventiveness, and spaciousness of design, came the triumph of the strongest. The captains of industry arose and seized on nature’s gifts. Struggling with one another, increasing the scope of their ambitions as the largeness of the resources and the extent of the fields of activity revealed themselves, they were forced to accept the natural conditions of a province vast in area but simple in structure. Competition grew into consolidation.20

Turner’s Middle West is a sort of buffer zone between capitalism and the democracy of yeoman farmers, the straw mattress on which Hamilton lies down with Jefferson. “The task of the Middle West is that of adapting democracy to the vast economic organization of the present,” he writes.21 One might have thought this was everybody’s job. By tasking the Midwest in particular with the work all citizens of a developed democracy must do, Turner cannot help suggesting that the region is defined solely by a sort of extra degree of Americanness, by being American to the nth power. (Wescott again: “What seems local is national, what seems national is universal, what seems Middle Western is in the commonest way human.”)22 As the geographer James Shortridge puts it, “The Middle West came to symbolize the nation…to be seen as the most American part of America.”23 Nor is average Americanness quite the same as average Russianness or average Scandinavianness, for the United States has always understood itself, however self-flatteringly, as an experiment on behalf of humanity. Thus, Midwestern averageness, whatever form it may take, has consequences for the entire world; what we make here sets the world’s template. The historian Susan Gray has even detected echoes in Turner’s language of Lamarckian evolution, a theory dominant among biologists a century ago, when Turner was writing. The new characteristics that the “old” races of the world acquired in their struggle to build a world among the prairies and forests would create an actual new, American race.24

Small wonder, then, that Midwestern cities, institutions, and people show up again and again in the twentieth-century effort to determine what, in America, is normal. George Gallup was born in Iowa, began his career in Des Moines at Drake University, and worked for a time at Northwestern; Alfred Kinsey scandalized the country from—of all places—Bloomington, Indiana. Robert and Helen Lynd, setting out in the 1920s to study the “interwoven trends that are the life of a small American city,” did not even feel the need to defend the assumption that the chosen city “should, if possible, be in that common-denominator of America, the Middle West.” They chose Muncie, Indiana, and called it Middletown.25 We cannot be surprised that the filmgoers of Peoria became proverbial, or that newscasters are still coached to sound like they’re from Kansas.26 Nor that a recent defender of the region’s distinctiveness feels he must concede, in the same breath, that it “was always less distinctive than other regions,”27 or that a historian can call “ordinariness” the Midwest’s “historic burden.”28 If it is to serve as the epitome of America for Americans, and of humanity for the world, the place had better not be too distinctly anything. It has no features worth naming. It’s anywhere, and also nowhere.

What does it do to people to see themselves as normal? On the one hand, one might adopt a posture of vigilant defense, both internal and external, against anything that might detract from such a fully, finally achieved humanness. On the other hand, a person might feel intense alienation and disgust, which one might project inward—What is wrong with me?—or outward, in a kind of bomb-the-suburbs reflex. A third possibility—a simple, contented being normal—arises often in our culture’s fictions about the Midwest, both the stupid versions (the contented families of old sitcoms) and the more sophisticated ones (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, that living argument for the value of banal goodness). I have yet to meet any real people who manage it. A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.

I took the first option. As a child, I accepted without thinking that my small town, a city of 9,383 people, contained within it every possible human type; if I could not fit in here, I would not fit in anywhere. (“Fitting in” I defined as being occupied on Friday nights and, sooner or later, kissing a girl.) Every week that passed in which I did not meet these criteria—which was most of them—became a prophecy. Every perception, every idea, every opinion that I could not make immediately legible to my peers became proof of an almost metaphysical estrangement, an oceanic differentness that could not be changed and could not be borne. I would obsessively examine tiny failures of communication for days, always blaming myself. It never occurred to me that this problem might be accidental or temporary. I knew that cities existed, but they were all surely just Michigan farm towns joined together n number of times, depending on population. Owing to a basically phlegmatic temperament, and the fear of hurting my parents, I made it to college without committing suicide; there, the thing solved itself. But I worry what would have happened—what does often happen—to the kid like me, but with worse test scores, bad parents, an unlocked gun cabinet.

But I also worry about the people who can pass as Midwestern-normal. At its least toxic, this can lead to a kind of self-contempt: the nice, intelligent young women in my classes at the University of Michigan who describe themselves and their friends, with flat malice, as “basic bitches.” In artists, it can lead to self-destructive behavior, to the pursuit of danger in the belief that one’s actual experiences have furnished nothing in the way of material. It also leads us to one of the other great stereotypes of Midwesterners, one that I think has a little more truth to it than the nonsense about hard work and humility: We are repressed. Any emotion spiky or passionate enough to disrupt the smooth surface of normality must be shunted away. Garrison Keillor, and in some ways David Letterman, made careers from talking about this repression in a comic mode that both embodies it and transmutes it into art. The Minnesota writer Carol Bly finds it less amusing:
[In the Midwest] there is a restraint against feeling in general. There is a restraint against enthusiasm (“real nice” is the adjective—not “marvelous”); there is restraint in grief (“real sober” instead of “heartbroken”); and always, always, restraint in showing your feelings, lest someone be drawn closer to you.… When someone has stolen all four wheels off your car you say, “Oh, when I saw that car, with the wheels stripped off like that, I just thought ohhhhhhhh.”29

Critiques of emotional repression always risk imposing a single model for the Healthy Expression of the Emotions on a healthy range of variations. But anyone who has lived in the Midwest will recognize the mode Bly describes, and if you’ve lived there long enough, you’ll have seen some of the consequences she describes:
You repress your innate right to evaluate events and people, but…energy comes from making your own evaluations and then acting on them, so…therefore your natural energy must be replaced by indifferent violence.30

Donald Trump won the Midwestern states in part because he bothered to contest them at all, while his opponent did not. But we cannot forget the way he contested them: raucous rallies that promised, and in some views incited, random violence against a laundry list of enemies. Since his victory, the Three Percent Militia has become a recurring, and unwelcome, character in Michigan politics.

A regional identity built on its own denial, on the idea of an unqualified normality: This sounds, of course, like whiteness—a racial identity that consists only of the absence of certain kinds of oppression. (White people can, of course, be economically oppressed, though if the oppression goes on in one place long enough they tend to lose some of their whiteness, to be racialized as that Snopes branch of the human family, the white trash.) And here we hit upon the last major stereotype of the Midwest, its snowy-whiteness.

If the South depends on having black people to kick around, Midwestern whites often see people of color as ever new and out of place, decades after the Great Migration. The thinking goes like this: America is an experiment, carried out in its purest form here in the Midwest; people of color threaten the cohesion on which the whole experiment may depend. Thus, while Southern history yields story after story of the most savage, intimate racist violence—of men castrated and barbecued before smiling crowds, dressed as for a picnic—Midwestern history is a study in racial quarantine.31 Midwestern cities often dominate in rankings of the country’s most segregated. And though the region has seen its share of Klan activity and outright lynchings—I write this days after the acquittal of the St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer who killed Philando Castile—the Midwest’s racism most frequently appears in the history books in the form of riots: Detroit, 1943; Cleveland, 1966; Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Detroit again, 1967; Chicago, Cincinnati again, and Kansas City, 1968; Detroit again, 1975; Cincinnati again, 2001; Ferguson, 2014; Milwaukee again, 2016. A riot is, among other things, a refusal to be quarantined. And the Midwest quarantines its nonwhite immigrants, too—the people from Mexico and further south, from the hills of Laos or the highlands of Somalia, and from the Middle East, who commute from their heavily segregated neighborhoods to harvest the grain, empty the bedpans, and drive the snowplows. This is not to mention the people whose forced removal or confinement gave rise to the notion of the Midwest as an empty canvas in the first place. The twentieth-century history of racism in the Midwest is, on the whole, both a terrible betrayal of the abolitionist impulse that led to the settlement of so much of the region and a fulfillment of the violence inherent in the idea of “settling” what was already occupied.

Our bland, featureless Midwest—on some level, it is a fantasy. The easiest, most tempting tack for a cultural critic to take with fantasies is to condemn them. Given what ideas of normalness, in particular, have done to this country, to its nonwhite, nonstraight, non–middle-class, nonmale—and also to those who are all of those things, and are driven slightly or fully crazy by the effort to live up to the norm that is their birthright—it is tempting simply to try to fumigate the myth away.

Tempting, but probably not possible. As the English moral philosopher Mary Midgley argues, myths are “organic parts of our lives, cognitive and emotional habits, structures that shape our thinking.”32 Since thinking cannot be structureless, a frontal attack on one myth usually leaves us in a state of uncritical, unnamed acceptance of a new one. Self-conscious attempts to create new myths, meanwhile, are like constructed languages; they never quite lose their plastic smell. We should ask instead whether our story of the Midwest—this undifferentiated human place—contains any lovelier, more useful, or more radical possibilities. At the very least, we should try to name what there is in us for it to appeal to.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy has been read so often as to be reduced to a gingham study in Americana, and Robinson, a complex and in some ways cranky thinker, to “an Iowa abbess delivering profundities in humble dress.”33 This is a strange way to think about the story of a man dying before his son’s tenth birthday; of an emotionally distant drifter who fails at prostitution and eventually marries a pastor; of an Eisenhower Republican family that loses its chance at partial redemption because the kindly dad is a racist. If conflating Marilynne Robinson with cozy regionalists like Jan Karon gets more people to buy Robinson’s books, I suppose I can’t object too strenuously, but it may lead some readers to miss the strangeness of passages such as this one in Home (2008):
In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.… Strangers in some vast, cold city might notice the grief in her eyes, even remember it for an hour or two as they would a painting or a photograph, but they would not violate her anonymity.34

This passage offers a stunning inversion of the trope of featurelessness. While acknowledging that the place (in this case Gilead, Iowa) has a history (“the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes”), Glory Boughton, the narrator, longs for the “anonymity” and “impersonal landscape” of a “vast, cold city” (Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee). She longs for “deracination,” for the sense of being an anyone moving through an anyplace. Why should a person long for this? Anonymity is usually felt as a burden, and the sense that one is a mere “basic person” can imprison as much as it liberates.

Yet the passage resonates, because we humans need to feel that we are more than our communities, more than our histories, more even than ourselves. We need to feel this because it is true. The cultural conservative ideal, with its deeply rooted communities—an idea that finds a strange echo in the less nuanced kinds of identity politics—is a reduction as dangerous to human flourishing and self-understanding as is the reduction of the mind to the brain or the soul to the body. The “deeply rooted community” is, in reality, at least as often as not, a cesspit of nasty gossips, an echo chamber in which minor misunderstandings amplify until they prevent people from seeing each other accurately, or at all. As for the identities that drive so much of our politics, they are a necessary part of the naming and dismantling of specific kinds of oppression—but we’ve all met people for whom they become a cul-de-sac, people who ration their sympathy into smaller and smaller tranches of shared similarity until they begin to resemble crabbed white men. Moral imaginations, like economies, tend to shrink under an austerity regime.

Every human is a vast set of unexpressed possibilities. And I never feel this to be truer than when I drive through the Midwest, looking at all the towns that could, on paper, have been my town, all the lives that, on paper, could have been my life. The factories are shuttered, the climate is changing, the towns are dying. My freedom so to drive is afforded, in part, by my whiteness. I know all this, and when I drive, now, and look at those towns, those lives, I try to maintain a kind of double consciousness, or double vision—the Midwest as an America not yet achieved; the Midwest as an America soaked in the same old American sins. But I cannot convince myself that the promise the place still seems to hold, the promise of flatness, of the freedom of anonymity, of being anywhere and nowhere at once, is a lie all the way through. Instead, I find myself daydreaming—there is no sky so conducive to daydreaming—of a Midwest that makes, and keeps, these promises to everybody.

And then I arrive at the house that, out of all these little houses, by some inconceivable coincidence, happens to be mine. I park the car. I check the mail. I pet the cat. I ready myself for bed. I can’t stay up too late. Between the Midwest that exists and the other Midwest, the utopic no-place that I dream of, is hard work enough for a life.

Glenway Wescott, Good-Bye, Wisconsin (New York, NY: Harper, 1928), 39. Quoted in Richard Nelson Current, Wisconsin: A History (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 161.
See C.K. Hyde, Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2013).
Edward Watts, An American Colony: Regionalism and the Roots of Midwestern Culture (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2001), xii. See also Watts’s “The Midwest as a Colony: Transnational Regionalism,” in Regionalism and the Humanities, ed. Timothy Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz (Omaha, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 166–89.
Willa Cather, My Ántonia (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), 5. First published 1918.
Ibid., 1.
Alec McGillis, “The Rust-Belt Theory of Low-Cost Culture,” Slate, January 1, 2015,
Neal Stephenson, “Everything and More Foreword,” in Some Remarks (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2012), 273.
See Thomas Wetzel, “A Graveyard of the Midwest,” MidAmerica 26 (1999): 10–24.
Meridel LeSueur, Ripening: Selected Work, 1927–1980 (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982), 36.
Katy Rossing, “Smothered: American Nostalgia and the Small Wisconsin Town,” Hypocrite Reader, January 2012,
This supposed pejorative appears to have been popularized by Midwesterners reacting defensively to the region’s supposed unpopularity in the coastal mind. See Gabe Bullard, “The Surprising Origin of the Phrase ‘Flyover Country,’” National Geographic, March 14, 2016,
For two examples, see Matthew Wolfson, “The Midwest Is Not Flyover Country,” The New Republic, March 22, 2014,, and Michael Dirda’s review of Jon Lauck’s The Lost Region, Washington Post, February 4, 2014, Alternatively, one might simply Google the phrase “Not just flyover country.”
Eric Schulzke, “The One County That Tipped Michigan to Trump,” Deseret News, November 16, 2016,
See Anne Trubek, “The Media Didn’t Forget the Rust Belt—You Did,” Refinery29, November 17, 2016,
Andrew R.L. Cayton, “The Anti-Region,” in Cayton and Susan E. Gray, The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 148.
Abraham Lincoln, “Second Annual Message to Congress,” in Lincoln: Political Writings and Speeches, ed. Terence Ball (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 157.
Ibid., 149, 150.
Kenzie Bryant, “Prince Had No Time for Matt Damon’s Small Talk,” Vanity Fair, July 18, 2016,
Lincoln’s delimitation of a “great interior region”—“bounded east by the Alleghenies, north by the British dominions, west by the Rocky Mountains, and south by the line along which the culture of corn and cotton meets”—doesn’t exactly conform to the US Census Bureau’s definition of the Midwest, nor to any of a half-dozen other common definitions. (Lincoln, “Second Annual Message,” Referring to the West, which at that time included Michigan, the nineteenth-century novelist Caroline Kirkland wrote, “How much does that expression mean to include? I never have been able to discover its limits.” Me neither. (Kirkland is quoted in Edwin S. Fussell, Frontier in American Literature [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954], 3.)
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York, NY: Holt, 1950), 154. First published 1920.
Ibid., 155.
Quoted in Ronald Weber, The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992), 7.
James Shortridge, The Middle West (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1989), 33.
Susan E. Gray, “Stories Written in the Blood: Race and Midwestern History,” in Cayton and Gray, The American Midwest, 127.
Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in American Culture (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1959), 7–8. First published 1929. The identification of Middletown and Muncie is attested in a number of places; see the chapter on Middletown in Sarah E. Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
See Edward McClelland’s delightful How to Speak Midwestern (Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2016), 9–10.
Wolfson, “The Midwest Is Not Flyover Country.”
Nicole Etcheson, “Barbecued Kentuckians and Six-Foot Texas Rangers: The Construction of Midwestern Identity,” in Gray and Cayton, The American Midwest, 78.
Carol Bly, “From the Lost Swede Towns,” in Letters from the Country (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1981), 4.
Ibid., 5–6.
I mean this more or less literally. The book exists; see Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Mary Midgley, Myths We Live By (London, England: Routledge Classics, 2014), 7.
Mark Athitakis, The (New) Midwest (Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2017), 9.
Marilynne Robinson, Home (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 282.