How to Rig an Election

A review by Bob Roman

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How to Rig an Election by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. Yale University Press, 2018. 310 pages, $26.00.

howtoriganelectionBeing a Dude of a Certain Age gives one the potential (at least) for a perspective informed by history. In my case, also being a long-time Chicagoan, I listen to conservative ravings about voter fraud with a certain amount of sympathy. Don’t get me wrong. It is raving: a toxic mix of deliberate lies and Stage IV cynicism…. But election fraud, of which voter fraud is but one manifestation, does indeed happen. And any activist participating in Chicago elections up until about 1990 would have been either a witness to voter fraud or blind. Thus it is completely natural that I grabbed this book from the Chicago Public Library shelf as soon as I saw it.

What Cheeseman and Klaas have not done is provide a how-to cookbook on the subject. Their primary interest is in examining the increasing number of multiparty elections being held in the world in the face of a coincident general decline of democracy. They take the Polity IV scores for democracy (an established political science measuring tool with CIA finger prints) of nations and divide the nations into four categories: pure authoritarian, dominant authoritarian, competitive authoritarian, and electorally democratic. It is the middle two categories that are of interest to the authors. Why would the ruling elite (and especially the guy at the top) go through the charade of having an election? What are the strategies they apply to ensure a favorable outcome? Why do they choose one strategy over another?

This is not an exercise in kicking around the less developed world. The authors emphasize that the strategies surveyed have been practiced nearly everywhere and some date back to the Roman Republic. They illustrate the strategies with case studies from Belarus to the United States (including Chicago). The strategies discussed are reflected in the chapter titles: Invisible rigging: How to steal an election without getting caught; Buying hearts and minds: The art of electoral bribery; Divide and rule: Violence as a political strategy; Hack the election: Fake news and the digital frontier; Ballot-box stuffing: The last resort; Potemkin elections: How to fool the West.

Every strategy is going to present trade-offs in terms of benefits, costs, and possible consequences. Cheeseman and Klaas attempt to show the choices made are reasonable decisions though not necessarily rational decisions. (Inherent biases do not make for maximized self-interest.) The authors seem to feel that access to foreign aid is a significant factor in these calculations. The book didn’t provide me with any means of deciding just how important a factor it is though maybe it’s a cheap way of financing a military. They do examine just how consequential charges of fraud are to foreign aid. For aid provided by the United States, the consequences vary widely, apparently on geopolitical considerations.

It’s also not always clear just what constitutes “rigging”. The authors do deal with this ambiguity. For example, vote buying: in some cultures, it might be legal if not also expected. If the secrecy of the ballot is preserved, does it really make much of a difference? Take the money (or whatever) and vote as you please. And gerrymandering: this is something that has been widely practiced here in the States. Indeed, the term derives from Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, one of the authors of the Bill of Rights and an early practitioner in the art of district drawing. The authors use Illinois’ 4th Congressional District as an example and they get it wrong. They assert: “The net result is a weakening of the power of the Latino vote and more Republican-electing districts than the electoral maths should reasonably allow.” But the 4th Congressional District was drawn specifically so that the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities would be nearly guaranteed to have a representative: In other words, maximizing “the power of the Latino vote”. The 4th Congressional District is an instance of ethnic gerrymandering, something required (to a point) by Federal law. As for partisan gerrymandering, the Illinois House and Senate were in charge of redistricting in 2011. Each were controlled by a Democratic caucus with a Democratic Governor. This was not a Republican gerrymander. In any case, a Republican district in Chicago would be a genuine work of art; there are so few of them. It’s only recently that partisan gerrymandering has become widely regarded as dirty word in the States, and that’s mostly because it recently became so one-sided. Otherwise it’s been a standard feature of the system. The League of Women Voters in fact challenged the 2011 Illinois map on its partisan bias and got nowhere in state or Federal court. So is it a bug or a feature?

In my humble opinion, the weakest part of the book is the final chapter that deals with how to stop election rigging. The authors agree that “Long-term democratic reform is almost always driven from within” but then go on to concentrate on what the international community might do. Most of us are nowhere near the levers that steer the international community and considering how geopolitical considerations influence those who are near the levers, the rest of us have some reason for skepticism. So is there anything to take away for the rest of us? Possibly. It is useful to think of the rigging strategies in terms of their costs and benefits. Thinking that way helps in deciding what charges of fraud are plausible amid all the usual noise and it provides a way of considering how the cost of fraud might be raised when considering reforms.

But I think that if we want honest and (heaven forfend) fair elections here in the States, three things may be necessary. One is money. Election campaigns swim in money, but the process of voting and tabulating is expected to run on the proverbial cold dog soup and rainbow pie. Aside from better voting equipment, election judges need to be better paid and, in return, to be better trained. Another is transparency. For all the love “transparency” gets as a buzz word, local governments tend to be unreasonably, indeed illegally (at least in Illinois) private. Elections, here in the States, are done by local government. Activists concerned with the digitized tabulation of ballots have found getting an audit of any given election means being heavily lawyered-up. The knee-jerk reaction by local officials seems to be a deep desire to have the most recent election done and off their desk and panic that any outside examination of the books would reveal a comedy of incompetence. And maybe fraud? And finally, an openness to alternative systems of voting would be useful, provided we also keep in mind the ways in which they might be gamed. Since elections are so local, we have huge opportunities for experimentation, though forums for evaluating the results are somewhat lacking.

It’s also worth noting that a cancerous cynicism is pandemic in the land and that, too, is a danger to democracy. It’s a cynicism that’s hard to argue with: Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, “I did not have sex with that woman”, Weapons of Mass Destruction… on and on. What’s not to mistrust? Add to that the professionalization of politics (inevitably drawing boundaries between the professionals and the laity), that politics is very much a business like automobiles or real estate or banking with its own barriers to entry and jargon and technical knowledge — politics becomes not something we do but something that happens to us, will or nill. In that case, why vote? Well, you should, even if a riot might seem to be more effective. This needs to change. It’s also outside the scope of this book.

Finally a note on the book: it’s not exactly a political science monograph, or rather it’s not just that. It’s also a good and entertaining read. It can be read as a serious study or it can be read as a sort of political voyeurism. Either way, it is worth your time. After all, rigging elections is as American as cherry pie.

Spirits of the Vasty Deep

a review by Bob Roman

Spirits of the Vasty Deep by Brian Stableford. Snuggly Books, 2018. 297 pages $17.95

stablefordBrian Stableford has been around for a long time. He’s been on my shit list for a long time, too, though for not as long but long enough for me to have forgotten why. Occasionally, an author will cop an attitude or pander to an ideology or write very poorly or write something otherwise irritating and: Enough! Time is too short and swift to bother with any more. In the case of Stableford, possibly it was his 1970 novel, The Blind Worm. Or perhaps not; I mention that novel because I have a copy that was issued as an Ace double novel and I can’t otherwise imagine what the problem was. I picked up Spirits of the Vasty Deep because I had forgotten about The Blind Worm. And that was a good thing because this is a good book, a good gothic novel: terror and medievalism with science fiction elements and some modern add-ons from The Da Vinci Code.

Gothic is not a genre that I’m particularly fond of at all. And the novel begins in a pretty standard Gothic way. Author Simon Cannick, having lost his Bristol apartment to a new landlord and sky-rocketing rent, moves to isolated St. Madoc in coastal northern Wales where he had, to his surprise, inherited a cottage. And then there is the partially ruinous Abbey and the secretive family that has for time out of mind resided there. Is there anything not Gothic in that set-up?

Well, the protagonist is not a helpless and to-be-victimized female, but a geezerly obscure author, possibly based somewhat on Brian Stableford himself. The terror is pretty mild and there is more humor than might be typical. Much of the early part of the book is basically dialogue in a pseudo-scholarly, nerdy Da Vinci Code vein. Somehow I did not find that boring. Stableford wrote well enough to bring it off.

Stableford does play some misdirection games regarding who the important characters are and who are secondary. It maybe helped, for me, that the characters are mostly geezers. Being one myself, there’s a certain pleasure to be found in identifying with them.

So what happens? Read the damned book: seriously, this is a good read, folks. Brian Stableford is now officially off my shit list though The Blind Worm hasn’t gotten any better.

Yip Abides for a Year

The first year in review

October 31 was the first anniversary of Yip Abides: 417 posts, though there were a few missed days. Blogs are basically stacks; the newest entries are on top. Older posts are buried like geological strata. So here are the best of those 417, in my humble opinion: 116 posts of Yip Abides’ first year, by category, in reverse chronological order – as if the blog were a queue instead of a stack. Let the posts buried by time stand forth!

There’s a lot of good stuff that did not get included below, so exploring will be rewarding if you care to do so. The categories are a good way of focusing your browsing, depending upon your interests. While tags have something of a social function in WordPress, vaguely similar to Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms, I’ve used them here as a subject index. Unfortunately, with the theme I’m currently using, you can’t browse by both category and tag.

And what is in store for the coming year? Fewer posts, most certainly, perhaps not even one each day as I expect to have other irons in the fire than just this blog. There’s been a distinct tendency toward photos over other content lately; that would be easy to continue. In any case, I’m making this up as I go along so you’ll find out as soon as I do.

The first post: Hello World.

Photo Wall

Rock Island in Bureau Junction – old GP7 1275 on the Peoria line.

Birdman Lives! – the man and the mural.

Terror in the Subway! – Tyrannosaurus CTA.

Winter Has Come – photos from 1358 W. Greenleaf.

Mash Note – everyone should get at least one.

28 Thoughts on Trees – trunks, light and leaves.

Wallartee 2 – murals from the hippie underground.

Artists of the Wall 2017 – the annual mural arts in Loyola Park.

Wallartee 5 – two murals under the CTA Red Line @ Pratt.

Wallartee 6 – mural under the CTA Red Line @ Farwell.

Pounce! – Gargoyle gonna getchu.

Artists of the Wall 2018 – the annual mural arts in Loyola Park.

Teddy Bear’s Picnic – Lunt Avenue at the CTA Red Line.

The Face in the Door – stare at the door and the door stares back.

Carpets of the Sun – grasses and sedges and sun and shadow.

Beeves in Summer – cool cattle in shades…

Whirl – we spend our lives circling the edge of an event horizon.

Reflexions – water and light.

Paranoia Agent in Rogers Park – actually, Little Slugger has come.

Without the Shadow, Would We Know the Light? – a meditation.

Bird on Cable – the bird professed to know me but I found our acquaintance hard to swallow…

Cat & Floor – This is your floor on catnip.

Lurking – Troll @ work.

Spun Glass – you really need to see this! IMHO, it’s way cool.

Groot Home Chicago – return to roots. But wait! There’s more.

The Gizzard of Odd – oh my…

Rapid Transit – the CTA Red Line @ Jackson. It’s a long way down…

The Last Evening of Summer – Leone Park Beach.

No Idea – will the last person leaving…

On Fullerton Avenue – what is it?

A Botanic Afternoon – my annual Fall pilgrimage to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The Light! The Dark! The Day! – and Captain Beefheart

Video Wall

The Gunfighter – almost certainly the best comedic western since “Blazing Saddles”.

Wild West Fan Co. – maybe the best comedic western since “Blazing Saddles”.

Frankie Sinatra — Geezer demons in a music video. I hate music videos.

This Won’t Hurt a Bit – except for the wallet biopsy. Health care in America.

Bindle Bros – there’s a hipster born every second.

Waltzing into Anarchy – bugger the bankers and politicians…

I Trust Youin the face of orchestrated hate.

World Builder – a very sweet virtual reality love story.

Descendants – keep this in mind on Valentines Day should you think of flowers. (Whoopi Goldberg!)

Alien Love – a truly alien love story… or maybe it’s a music video.

You Gotta Believe in Something – Nina Paley sez to Moses.

Over Time – a most amazing muppet wake: a must see.

I Hate Music Videos – but I keep watching this one: Cats!

Catnip: Egress to Oblivion? – classroom drug education.

Monsieur COK – which came first: the capitalist or the egg?

Fugu & Tako – the charismatic sex appeal of being a puffer fish.

Human Fountains – mind blowing… with an incredibly sweet soundtrack.

Happiness! – and the commodification thereof. A great Steve Cutts animation.

Hyper-Reality – the singularity doth come & gone but alienation remains.

AMA – you geezers think that Esther Williams was great? Hah! Watch this underwater dance!

Mom Commercial – happy Mothers Day? Amazing!

Long Term Delivery – a bizarre comedy about a secret division of the USPS.

Flamingo Pride – a hoot, especially if you watch it all the way to the very end.

Time Travel: UGH! – warning: immature content. But you’ll love it anyway.

Dissonance – for Fathers Day. Love and madness.

Curmudgeons – a geezer love story. (Danny DeVito!)

La Vague – spells gone wrong: tres cute!

The Head Vanishes! – A trip to the sea side singing a different tuna…

Final Offer – if John Grisham wrote science fiction…

Love & Theft – full screen and headphones recommended.

Fish Heads – I regret the existence of this video. And the song. So will you.

Who Will Pay? – If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Really.

Apollo 8 – Earthrise, 50 years later.

The Kings of Siam – Halloween is coming.

Poetry

Worthless – a powerful commentary written and performed by Agnes Torok.

A – it’s entropy, after all.

You Look Good in Red – yes, you do.

On Having an Infected Finger – after having helped loot a cigarette machine.

If You Were a Whale – imagine that.

The Cat Got His Tongue – and more as well.

Subway Love – by Max Stossel.

Apocalypse Rhymethe anthropocene in rhyme by Oliver Harrison

Caffeine Zombie – can’t wait to get up in the morning and have some nice…

Waiting – for love and trains.

Eye – cats, all the way down.

Politics

It’s a Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall – about a small 1991 strike that stopped an anti-union jihad from beginning in Wisconsin. That was then.

Employment and Survival in Urban Americaan interesting public event that later became a major part of the “Obama is a socialist” narrative pushed by conservatives.

A Living Wage: It’s the Law! – on the passage of living wage ordinances for Chicago and for Cook County.

No More Business As Usual – remember Enron?

What I Saw of the 2018 Women’s March

The USA PATRIOT Game – part of Chicago DSA’s campaign against the USA PATRIOT Act.

Debt and Taxes – a subtle mix of malice and incompetence back in 2005, and it only got worse from there.

It Was May Day and I Couldn’t Stop Smiling – with a half million people in the streets: sure!

What Do Hotel Workers Want? – old Sam Gompers knew…

Wal-Mart Rampant – Chicago surrenders while proclaiming victory.

But Is It Organizing? – unions and workers’ centers.

A Small Battle in a Larger War – Jorge Mujica’s 2015 campaign for the 25th Ward.

Our Revolution: It’s a Start – Bernie Sander’s post-convention organization.

Everyone Is Joining the Resistance – anger to action.

Dubya and his band of thieves – don’t imagine they’ve given up on mugging the elderly.

Fake News – If it’s fake, it’s not news. If it’s news, it can’t be fake. Really?

Wrapped in Steel – Chicago’s southeast side at a time of transition.

The OTHER 9/11 – Time to rub your nose in it.

Brett Kavanaugh – All his sins remembered…

Prose

Tom Broderickrest in power, as they say.

Julie Was a Free Spirit – that was then…

But We Were Always Like Thatthis could be about several different things…

The War of the Roaches – soon to be a BBC 4 documentary featuring Tony Robinson?

Bureau Junction – a postcard and some family history.

The Answera sad mix of father and son and cultural change.

Mysterious Neighbor – some things are best not known.

The Tail – a shaggy shark story.

Reviews

Why Socialism Failed in the U.S. – discussing “It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States” by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks.

The Really OTHER America – a review of “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

Don’t Sleep with Stevens! – Timothy J. Minchin’s account of labor’s mid-20th Century campaign to organize the South.

The Wounds That Never Heal – a review of “Flashback: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War” by Penny Coleman.

When the Democratic Party Lost Its Soul – a review of “Kennedy vs. Carter” by Timothy Stanley.

Anarchy! – a review essay of “More Powerful Than Dynamite” by Thai Jones and “In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti” by Susan Tejada

Bad Moon Rising – Arthur Eckstein’s account of the FBI and the SDS. Do si do!

In This Corner of the World – Sunao Katabuchi’s incredibly beautiful but troubling animated video of WWII Japan.

Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show – a review of Eric Scott Fischl’s horror fantasy novel, because I like barkers.

Design with Nature – a retrospective on landscape architect Ian McHarg’s influential book and the documentary movie based on it.

Which Side Are You On? – a review of J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy”.

Djinn City – a review of the new fantasy novel by Saad Hossain.

Djinn City

A review by Bob Roman

Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain, The Unnamed Press, Los Angeles, 413 pages, $17.99

I’ve been whining about how so much of genre fiction amounts to remixed clichés that have, through endless repetition, become almost unpalatable even when cleverly constructed, even when accompanied by an important message or point. Well, Earth may be a small planet but it is, nevertheless, a big world. Meet Saad Z. Hossain, a writer of science fiction fantasy social satire from Bangladesh: a breath of richly oxygenated water in what is otherwise becoming a grossly over fertilized dead zone in the pop sea.

Hossain achieves this partly by bringing a cultural perspective from Bangladesh that gathers originality as it becomes an import. There is an additional benefit for readers in the States as Hossain writes in English. With translated work, one is also dependent on the work of the translator who, even when competent, might not be suited to the material. On the other hand, some American appreciation of Bangladesh (and the Indian subcontinent in general) will help illuminate Hossain’s commentary and humor.

Hossain is a funny author very much in the style of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and he is a more than competent story-teller. Unlike Hitchhiker’s Guide, Hossain’s humor is as much in service of his story as it is in service of social commentary or absurdity for its own sake. (Hitchhiker’s Guide began as a BBC Radio drama, not as a novel. Story-telling was consequently a secondary priority.)

Djinn City is a big story, populated by a great many characters: Caution! It’s worth paying attention to them all as multiple characters play major roles, even if they tend to exist more as humorous caricatures than as carefully crafted personalities. That they are caricatures is mostly a trade-off as a character-driven soap opera would have been a very different project (but maybe fascinating?) and probably much longer. I only have one regret about this. I would have loved to have gotten better acquainted with Aunt Juny. She is a powerful character that gains strength from her violation of gender expectations. As written, her caricature functions partly as a commentary on those expectations and some of that humor is nervous laughter evoked by just how uber competent someone like Juny must therefore be. Her function in the plot is kind of a deus ex auntie, as it were, out djinn-ing the djinn.

Bringing a story to a close is a major test for a story-teller. At this test, Hossain is either brilliant or horrifying. If it is the latter, you will see a sequel sometime very soon. When I reached the end, I was full, happy but ready for something different. A sequel: no thank you. You might see Djinn City on the big screen, however. I understand the film rights have been sold.

I do have one complaint about The Unnamed Press edition of this book. Brendan Monroe’s cover art is seriously lame. He could be an artist but, in this case at least, he is no illustrator. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a new book of fiction with a table of contents with chapter titles?

If my comments are not enough to motivate you to read this book, there’s a much better (or at least different) review by John Venegas at Angel City Review.

Which Side Are You On?

a review by Bob Roman

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages, $27.99

This memoir is about coming of age in the Appalachian parts Ohio and Kentucky. The book has been out for a while now, and there have been a considerable number of reviews: Understandably, as J. D. Vance self-identifies as a conservative and this book promises a reasonable insight into the cultural revolt that delivered some crucial working class votes to Donald Trump. Most of the reviews, rightwing and leftwing, were written with an ideological and political argument in mind and most of them present something of a caricature of what you will actually find in the book. It’s mostly been “Hooray for our side!”, “Boo for their side!”, “Who appointed Vance spokesman for the hillbillies?” In my humble opinion, the best of the reviews, but still not great, is Joshua Rothman’s The Lives of Poor White People in The New Yorker.

Vance actually gives the reader two things with his book. One is a personal story of resilience, growth and discovery that is well-written and engaging. It very much reminds me of Nathan McCall’s rather more violent 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, but it could easily be any number of other escape from poverty biographies.

The other thing is a discussion of poverty as a social and political issue. Vance steps into the middle of a very old conversation, best represented by an exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As I recall the conversation, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “The rich are very different than you or me.” To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

It is here that Vance and most of his reviewers lose their way. Vance’s journey is more than just an escape from penury. He grew up in unstable, traumatic, violent, self-destructive circumstances that, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and Middletown, Ohio, schools, left him unprepared to navigate the adult world. This was not only the lack of knowledge and confidence to negotiate bureaucracies or to accumulate and use “social capital” — in other words all the expected aspects of what some call the “culture of poverty.” It was also how to negotiate emotional and social intimacy. A happy family was a stunning discovery. It’s understandable that Vance would stand before this broad new vista and consider: “The rich are very different than you or me.”

Or are they? As I said, it’s an old conversation, and I remember earlier an iteration of the debate where, in reply, an author stripped a family biography of all class and ethnic identifiers. On the face of it, the stripped biography could have fit quite nicely among the worst of Vance’s home town of Middletown. The family? An American political dynasty: the Kennedys. If that’s not enough, just consider how dysfunctional celebrity gossip is sold to us as entertainment. Or consider Donald Trump. “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

So J. D. Vance has picked a side, and given his experience, his choice is entirely understandable. I think this is the point most reviewers miss. What Vance misses is the degree to which the dysfunction of hillbilly culture is really a reasonable attempt by individuals to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. As individuals, the odds are stacked highly against them. As Trump might put it, the game is fixed. As individuals, they are essentially powerless and of no consequence and they live lives of no consequence — no consequence for themselves and maybe not even for their children as why should anyone expect circumstances to improve? Under these circumstances, being lazy is not unreasonable, though being poor comes with more of an overhead of work than the better off might imagine.

Capitalism may have failed them, but so has everything else, including the left. You can find exceptions like occasional desert oases. Families, extended or otherwise, sometimes provide the needed support; Vance may be an example of this. Church communities can also serve, not just as a source of values and norms but as a venue for mutual aid. But when industry died, unions went away as well. There’s no political organization that has a presence outside the middle and ruling classes. I suspect a survey of Middletown would find a disorganized community: few clubs and civic organizations, few businesses, churches with mediocre market penetration among the faithful, and on…. Not much different than many urban poor neighborhoods.

Vance portrays this as a crisis. It is a crisis but it’s not exactly a new crisis. Poverty in Appalachia gets discovered periodically every few decades then forgotten except for when it is convenient for discrediting whatever had been previously proposed as a solution. Vance seems to imply this is a new crisis: a half truth. Just as Blacks had the Great Migration, hillbillies had their own exodus north (Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23)for some of the same reasons. (Arguably Black migrants were as much political refugees as economic migrants, hillbillies not so much.) What is new for southeast Ohio is that the jobs, the greener fields that the hillbillies fled to, left the country or were automated, leaving these economic migrants stranded.

Vance is not really very helpful with explaining the Trump phenomenon, partly because the book was published prior to the election. His account does kinda help make sense of it to me at least. The best way of thinking about Trump with respect to working class voters is as a wooden shoe: as an act of sabotage, in other words. For many voters, Trump was not elected in support of any particular agenda (promises! promises! politicians promise then go away) so much as an intent to disrupt things as they are. Loki, Coyote, Disrupter-in-Chief: Trump need not do anything more than make the world scream to be a success. Whether they’ll put up with success for four years is another matter.

So read this book. It’s not likely to change your mind in any major way. But Vance’s experience is worth sharing even if his diagnosis is inadequate. He’s also far closer to what might pass as the political center than any of the reviewers would let on. But I don’t think Vance is any longer a hillbilly. These days he’s one of them.

Design with Nature

a review by Bob Roman

How could I resist:

“The world is a glorious bounty. There is more food than can be eaten if we would limit our numbers to those who can be cherished, there are more beautiful girls than can be dreamed of, more children than we can love, more laughter than can be endured, more wisdom than can be absorbed. Canvas and pigments lie in wait, stone, wood and metal are ready for sculpture, random noise is latent for symphonies, sites are gravid for cities, institutions lie in the wings ready to solve our most intractable problems, parables of moving power remain unformulated and yet, the world is finally unknowable.

“How can we reap this bounty? This book is a modest inquiry into this subject.”

Thus begins Ian McHarg’s classic introduction to ecological planning, Design with Nature (1969).

Back in July of 2018, I wrote a brief post remembering the extraordinary early PBS television program The Great American Dream Machine. In that post, I mentioned an earlier, pre-PBS program, Public Broadcast Laboratory. Both of these programs had a big influence on my values and my politics. In particular, one Public Broadcast Laboratory episode included an hour-long documentary directed by Austin Hoyt based on landscape architect Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature. That episode, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” was my introduction to Ian McHarg, and I was hugely impressed.

I’ve only been able to find one complete episode of Public Broadcast Laboratory and a partial episode: “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” the McHarg documentary, both on YouTube.

“Multiply and Subdue the Earth” is below. It is of only adequate quality; you won’t gain anything by putting YouTube in full screen mode. And it’s grey-scale when the original film (and TV program) was color. Around the turn of the century, this documentary was still available for rental from a division of Indiana University, VHS format, but the folks who had done the transfer from film had waited too long. The color dyes were becoming distinctly magenta. Grey-scale may thus be a mercy. (Copies of Public Broadcast Laboratory episodes are also held at the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston and possibly elsewhere. It may be that a fair copy exists or could be cobbled together.)

How do the documentary and the book hold up? Watch it yourself; the hour is well worth it:

The documentary is in large part a summary of McHarg’s book, but it begins where McHarg ends: with Dr. John Calhoun, another mostly forgotten yet influential thinker of the mid-20th Century. Dr. Calhoun was obsessed with population studies for various rodent species. He would set up rodent utopias where the population was supplied with as much food and water as needed, with no restrictions on breeding. Things would go well until population densities would reach a tipping point. Then rodent society, such as it is, would begin to break down and, even though they were supplied with adequate food and water, the population would collapse: rodent apocalypse!

This dovetailed very nicely with Paul Erhlich’s Population Bomb (1968) over-population argument because the reply to Erhlich and cassandras like him was that technology would save our asses: one way or another food and water and other necessities would be obtained or invented, especially with greed as the motivator. Calhoun’s experiments suggested that utopia, be it capitalist or socialist, would not suffice. You’ll note that in the documentary, much of Calhoun’s list of rodent social dysfunction address the insecurities of the time: gender definition, clockwork orange violent crime, aimless hedonism and sexuality, social isolation. That alone should raise some warning flags regarding the research.

Well, we pretty much know how to cure cancer in mice; it’s been studied so well and so often and for so long. But humans are not mice. While I’m not a scholar and so can’t provide the cites (I recall that back in the 1970s there was an article about this in Scientific American), I do know that others were motivated by Calhoun’s work to study population densities in other species. Other species don’t all react as rodents do and even rodents have coping strategies when the means are available to them.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was also common to associate population growth with poverty. This was reasonable enough when one considered the condition of the Indian subcontinent and of China at the time. Subsequent experience and research shows that capitalism benefits from expanding population and doesn’t deal well with declines — capitalism is expand or die, after all. On the other hand, it does not follow that expansion can continue indefinitely.

Calhoun also inspired at least two major works of fiction. One is said to be Robert O’Brien’s award-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) that later became a nicely done animated feature movie. If I have doubts, it is mainly because O’Brien’s book postulates NIMH experiments boosting the intelligence of rats and mice (genetic engineering, circa 1971!) and because Calhoun was hardly the only person at the Institute doing research with rats.

The other book is John Brunner’s 1967 classic novel, Stand on Zanzibar. Brunner’s novel takes Calhoun seriously and applies a straight-line projection of the trends as would be expected from Calhoun’s experiments. I’ve mentioned Brunner’s novel twice before on this blog and this post is supposed to be about Ian McHarg not John Calhoun not John Brunner; however, McHarg did facilitate a study of health in Philadelphia that suggested some degree of negative correlation between the density of population and good health, supporting Calhoun’s thesis. This was not in the documentary, but an account of methodology and findings is in McHarg’s book.

Design with Nature is an education about ecology (which is not just biology) and its use in planning with case studies encompassing a wide variety of landscapes, including urban and suburban environments, and a discussion of philosophy. If you can find a hard cover, coffee table edition, you should prefer that larger format as the book is lavishly illustrated and the graphics are not just pretty but also a vital part of the content.

For a democratic socialists such as myself, the thunderclap was not so much McHarg’s distaste for market forces and his embrace of planning, but that he was able to provide a coherent and workable methodology of just how planning could be done. Furthermore, it is a methodology that can be computerized, although in 1968, that was aspirational rather than practical.

McHarg contends land-use decisions cannot be left entirely to the market, whatever “market” means. As McHarg put it:

The economists… ask with the most barefaced effrontery that we accommodate our value system to theirs. Neither love nor compassion, health nor beauty, dignity nor freedom, grace nor delight are important unless they can be priced. If they are non-price benefits or costs, they are relegated to inconsequence. The economic model proceeds inexorably towards its self-fulfillment of more and more despoliation, uglification and inhibition to life, all in the name of progress — yet, paradoxically, the components which the model excludes are the most important human ambitions and accomplishments and the requirements for survival. (Page 25)

If the market, left to itself, leads to “despoliation, uglification and inhibition of life,” the environmental record of planning under soviet-style “real existing socialism” is catastrophically worse. McHarg doesn’t touch that subject at all though there were surely inklings trickling out from behind the “iron curtain.” But McHarg does insist on another necessary dimension: values. Here, McHarg places the blame on the “great western religions born of monotheism,” hence the title of the documentary, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth.” Considering that other cultures, including the avowedly atheist soviet socialism, have done as poorly if not worse, this strikes me as being a bit of false determinism born of personal grievance: something connected with McHarg’s father, I would speculate after having read McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life. Still, a belief “that man and nature are indivisible, and that survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes” (page 27) seems to be necessary.

One thing that is not discussed in the book is how this planning might be institutionalized. The documentary suggests that land-use planning be moved from the local level to the state, using Hawaii as an example. In the movie, at least, McHarg endorses the idea. I’m not sure. Hawaii, after all, is a geographically small state. It could be a useful move, but consider the sometimes willful, pigheaded misunderstanding of things like environmental impact statements (not a requirement of local zoning but of state or federal) and how easily such requirements can be portrayed as “elite” outsiders dictating to the detriment of local residents: Perhaps a multilevel governmental approach would be better, though the division of responsibilities and appeals would need to be thought out better than my vague observation.

In retrospect, McHarg was entirely too optimistic about the weight of science in the process. The evidence, even the science, can always be argued over. Regulations that describe process and decision-making are hard to write without self-subversive ambiguity or without stultifying rigidity or without being an exercise in well-intentioned futility. (Regarding the last, McHarg was totally contemptuous of strip-mining regulations that required companies to restore the land “to its original contours.” What the hell does that mean?) There is also the issue of people using the process for ends alien to its intent: gaming the system. Whether it be Not In My Back Yard fanaticism or “paid troublemakers,” this aspect is pretty well an assumed motive by those afflicted with the pathological cynicism of our times.

The law — or more specifically the courts — is also a difficulty in the United States. According to McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life, he was aware of the difficulties involved in the “takings” aspect of constitutional law. It appears that he underestimated the difficulties there, as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has been eager to require governments to pay for any inconvenience imposed on landowners, even when said inconvenience would pay dividends by avoiding predictable disaster, like not building on a primary dune along the seashore or in a floodplain of a river — never mind that in building so, the developer is “taking” from future owners of that property, the government (disaster rescue and recovery) and the surrounding community. If it can’t be priced, it doesn’t exist, and most courts are committed to advancing a libertarian agenda whenever they can get away with it.

It is a pity: McHarg had long ago grown weary of arguing aesthetics with his clients. Designing with nature is intended to not only be beautiful but also to save money by minimizing costs of construction and maintenance,  while delivering beauty and continuing productivity — the substance behind that happy happy buzz word “sustainability”. That approach is also a clue as to how this might be integrated into a social democratic version of capitalism — though, granted, it is not clear that such a version of capitalism is itself genuinely sustainable as social democracy.

2019 will be 50 years since both the publication and the documentary. It’s really past time that we touch base with what may be last hopeful moment in our history. You can start by watching the documentary and by reading the book. Remember, it is entirely possible to profitably hunt a species to extinction (it’s been done), and likewise we have a grand opportunity in the next several decades to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to profitably breed and consume ourselves to the same end.

Post Script: For an example of fairly extreme human crowding, consider Hong Kong:

Where the Marshland Came to Flower

a review by Bob Roman

Where the Marshland Came to Flower by Peter Anderson. Kuboa Press, 2018. 194 pages, $6.

marshlandThis anthology of stories is not something I would ordinarily read these days, though it might have been something I would have picked up decades ago when I was reading my way through the fiction stacks at the Chicago Public Library: whatever looked interesting, serendipity starting with “A” and working upward toward “Z”. Yes, I made it through the alphabet twice, but I don’t remember a word of it.

I ran across this book because, for the past several years, I’ve been paying occasional visits to the author’s blog site, Pete Lit. The thought of a literary liberal one or two towns over from my reactionary Lawrence Welk childhood home was amusing, and his posts, mostly to do with what he was reading or quotes therefrom, were interesting though they mostly did not tempt me to follow his bibliography. Then came his announcement of his latest book… and it’s available for free.

The “marshland” in the title is, of course, Chicago, a fitting homage to the swamp that preceded the city and to its name, variously translated from the Miami as “wild onion” or “skunk cabbage”. Each of the dozen or so stories is subtitled with the particular Chicago neighborhood in which the story is set; the book title is thus sweetly apt. This is both really nice and more than a bit risky, what with the current obsessions with authenticity and appropriation, not to mention a vulnerability to nit-pickers on geography and names and the like.

Does Anderson navigate these hazards successfully? Not exactly, I think. As literary fiction, these stories are not obliged to be dramas. Often nothing much happens; instead the narrative serves as a vehicle for sketching a character (who may or may not undergo some transformation, great or small) or as social commentary or as a platform for virtuoso word-smithing. Speaking of which, I do have one small grievance regarding Anderson’s writing. Trains do not “chug” — for over fifty years they haven’t. Since the author is a regular METRA commuter into Chicago, he really ought to know better. Nit picking, begging your pardon, but still!

The characters are often nicely drawn, but something, je ne sais quoi, is lacking. This leaves some of them inhabiting a sort of literary uncanny valley. I suspect this is more noticeable given the nature of the story-telling, and I don’t mean to make too much of it as I’ve seen really well-known authors land in the same place.

The character that sticks with me the most is Mario, from “Prime Time,” mostly because I could hear, in my mind, Tom Waits’ song “Romeo Is Bleeding.” Mario is at a point in his life where he could become someone much like Waits’ Romeo, and it’s a hair cut that decides the matter.

Two of the stories had particular interest for me. “Constant Volume” takes place in Rogers Park, a neighborhood where I’ve lived for over the past third of a century. The protagonist, George Borowski, is a resident building superintendent of vaguely liberal political persuasion. He has fallen from being a fleet automobile mechanic to his precarious employment, from having a second floor apartment with a view to an unimproved basement “garden” apartment, from having a girl friend to being alone with a TV. The antagonist is Denny Palmer, a conservative Loyola University student resident in the building. I wonder about the name choice there: Palmer as in Chicago’s old aristocracy vs. the ethnics? This is a commentary story. I do have one nit to pick: Sheridan Park is not in Rogers Park but somewhere on the west side. Anderson certainly knows this and I wonder if this was a misdirection toward disguising an individual Anderson knows.

“Sous” takes place in Armour Square. I lived in that “neighborhood” for about three years. Armour Square was not actually in any way a single neighborhood back in the 1970s, despite what city maps might say. It was, at minimum, a half dozen rather different neighborhoods (I lived in two of them), some of which did not tolerate other parts of Armour Square, never mind most of the rest of Chicago. While I lived there, had you asked, I would have drawn the northern border at 26th Street, so it was interesting that Anderson’s protagonist is from Chinatown, the neighborhood’s actual northern territory. It’s a character study, wherein the protagonist affirms his values. Only Chinatown from Armour Square is represented in the story, but I had a backyard garden back then, too.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, though take this with caution because, once again, it’s not my usual reading material; I’m not a literary critic and I don’t have literary critic standards. Am I thus pounding a irregular polygon peg into a square hole? Regardless, I didn’t feel as though my reading time was wasted and I felt other folks ought to hear about the  book. And so you have.

Voilà.