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Reading Review: Howard Kunstler and the Politics of Giving Up

Last night, James Howard Kunstler almost lost me.

Read on after the jump.

For those unfamiliar with Kunstler, he is one of the main proponents of "New Urbanism" and has made a name for himself as something of a crank, writing at length about the failures of urban development (in 1994's The Geography of Nowhere) and the impending doom from peak oil (in 2005's The Long Emergency). And while, as he said last night during his reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on Capitol Hill, he does not consider himself a "doomer," he is largely regarded as a prophet of the downfall of our current societal structure.  

"Hope," he told the gathered audience while riffing on his great disappoint in the Obama administration — for which he cast his vote in 2008 — "is inside of us; it's inside of you. It's what you possess when you have the knowledge and ability to provide for yourself and your community. It's not what someone comes and gives you by sprinkling pixie dust on your head."

If you couldn't have guessed, this is a man who calls it like he sees it, which is appealing to a particular segment of the population that is tired of reading books they suspect are cooked. During his opening half-hour, though, Kunstler spoke very little about what the people in the room could do to help themselves. Instead he honed in on the lack of leadership exhibited in all facets of American life. He railed against Wall Street, high-speed rail, the electric car. In one of his more convincing moments, he said that our leaders should stop trying to convince us that high-speed rail was possible and should instead focus on refurbishing the existing railroad lines.

“You can’t tell me,” he said, “that people wouldn’t be happy if they could just take an eighty-mile-an-hour train from Cleveland to St. Louis that left on time, showed up on time and didn’t drop you off at a station that looks like a shipping container, or a meth lab. A two-hundred-mile-an-hour train would be nice, but it’s not going to happen. We don’t have the capital.”

He then asked that anyone in the room take up that cause, that someone enter the political arena with the idea of putting people back to work on the railroads so that the country might sustain some mode of affordable mobility as our access to petroleum dwindles. Then he moved on to his next point.

He told us to look to Johannesburg, South Africa, for a snapshot of our future, where the rich lock themselves in guarded compounds and the poor take advantage of the wealth vacuum by squatting in skyscrapers, hanging their laundry out to dry from the thirtieth floor.

"I don't like the word 'solution'," he intoned, noting that solutions too often signify any way to hold up the status quo.

Then he read from his latest, The Witch of Hebron, a work of fiction in which the author displays the texture of life that might crop up after what he posits as an inevitable societal shift; a world filled with hillbillies who invoke the Lord Jesus Christ while attempting to figure out if the bomb that went off in Washington, D.C. made them all sterile.

There's more to it than that, but I couldn't follow, because Kunstler's prose is atrocious. Told by a self-satisfied narrator, Kunstler's words relate a world plagued by unflattering caricatures; where the choice to model a character on a cross between Boss Hog and Captain Ahab might be considered nuanced. Also, the word "titties" was used. 

A latecomer to Kunstler, I first read The Geography of Nowhere earlier this year at the behest of architect, Tacoma city council member and City Arts cover subject David Boe. The book, a tantalizing overview of the evolution of suburbia, was revelatory to me. I am thankful I read it and it will continue to sit in my library, one of the finest works of American crankdom I have yet to read; strident, inventive, prescient and seemingly unfettered by fear. After listening to Kunstler wallow in his own doom last night, though, I left deflated. I couldn't help but think that this brilliant man is taking the easy way out. What is the price of declaring that "all is lost," I wondered?

I went home, sat on the couch and turned on the television. Clicking to PBS, I became engrossed in The Most Dangerous Man in America. A new documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, the film recounts the opening act in the play that lead to the end of the Nixon presidency and the Vietnam war. Ellsberg was up against a machine; threatened with prison, he tangled with hopelessness and, in many ways, he failed and was failed by a country that seemingly learned nothing from the debacle of the Vietnam War.

Yet, as the documentary showed, he has continued to fight, still regularly protesting war, now being carted off in paddy wagons at the age of 79. An inspiring character, Ellsberg is no krank. He is a believer. What, I wondered, is the price of that?

Then I thought again about Kunstler. Why, I wondered, is he asking a basement full of strangers to take the initiative to get our railroads back in line when it’s his idea?

I hope it’s not because he has to make time to write more fiction. That would make me give up.