March 2004 Read

March 28th, 2007

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Robert Kaplan is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic magazine, and the author of several books on war-ravaged regions of the world including the Baltics (Balkan Ghosts), the eastern Mediterranean (Eastward to Tartary), and Afghanistan (Soldiers of God). However, my favorite piece is An Empire Wilderness, in which Kaplan turns his attention to North America in which he produces a travel narrative filled with observations on our past, present, and potential future. The result is a commentary on our society from an American who has spent a great deal of time witnessing and thinking about political, social, and religious struggle and change in other parts of the world. From a border crossing near you, here is this month’s read.

“The world in the foreseeable future will depend more on the preferences of Americans than on any single factor. Whether in preserving the balance of power in Europe, in Asia, or in the Middle East, or in restructuring the United Nations, the wishes of the United States will be impossible to ignore. America’s enormous technological advantages will sustain it as the military superpower for decades hence. But America’s foreign policy, like that of any other country, is an extension of its domestic inclinations and conditions. Thus it is of the utmost importance to understand the direction American society is going in.”Thus begins An Empire Wilderness, a North American travel narrative written by Robert Kaplan. For anyone that has read Kaplan (The Atlantic, Balkan Ghosts, etc.), this book represented somewhat of a departure in focus. Before this book, the vast majority of Kaplan’s journalistic and authoring research had been spent in some of the poorest and war-stricken regions of the planet- the Baltics, Afghanistan, and the eastern Mediterranean to name a few. One of the reasons why his writing is so well-respected is because he seems to take nothing for granted. Kaplan’s objectivism forces him to get a first-hand account of what is actually happening on the ground, move among a given population, to get his context. And this is one of the primary reasons why this book is so interesting. In order to get what he felt was as objective a viewpoint on America as possible, Kaplan embarked on a 2-year journey across his home country. He traveled almost exclusively west of the Mississippi, which he deemed necessary because he felt that 1) he had spent most of his life east of the river and therefore felt his inspection should exclude that part of the continent, and 2) he felt that to truly understand the future of the United States, one must understand the social, religious and conservatory changes taking place across the various parts of the nation. These changes, Kaplan argues, are more acutely evident in the western half of the country. And so, Kaplan’s book begins at the historic “gateway” to the West- Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

This book is compelling and disturbing at the same time. Kaplan’s natural style draws you in; it is laced with interesting and fascinating characters (a somewhat shady American entrepreneur trying to start massive telecom projects in Mexico is one, personalities on a Greyhound trip across the Heartland, a driven conservation advocate in Montana). His observations on the changing physical landscapes, intertwined with commentary on the corresponding economic, social and demographic shifts is cool. So is his insight into the future of urban development and eco-sensitivity (or lack thereof) in places like Vancouver and Los Angeles.

But it is the disturbing, almost fatalistic nature of his views on the future of the United States as a nation that hooks you. The inexorable pull of economic liberation that draws immigrants through our massively porous southern border is given great attention, with lots of heart-breaking context around what this pull is also doing to the Mexican economy, the drug trade, and the break-up of the traditional rural Mexican family. The rise (or reprise) of Christian fundamentalism is described as prominent across the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, fading to obscurity once one reaches the secular pods of southern California and the eclectic culture of acceptance in places like San Francisco and Seattle. Kaplan’s perspicacious conversations with various public officials and private environmental advocates concerning the ravage of our national parks and waterways leaves one with a sense of gloom, bordering on panic. And the portrayal of the complete desolation of most central U.S. metropolitan areas (such as St. Louis), juxtaposed against the efforts of various community and religious organizations to save inner-city youth, is at once deperssing and prophetic.

Nonetheless, this is an important book. It’s important because once in a while, it’s good to read honest journalism about what’s happening within the social fabric of our own country. I get the strong sense, living in Texas at least, that most Americans are blind to most of the problems that we face, and choose to ignore or flat-out deny that we have some obvious challenges that need addressing. This book is a touchstone for taking an honest look at some of the forces shaping the future of our country.

Entry Filed under: Book Reviews

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