Commentary Magazine


An Empire Wilderness by Robert D. Kaplan

An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future
by Robert D. Kaplan
Random House. 393 pp. $27.50

In the 19th century, Henry Adams, sitting astride his breeding and his erudition, elegantly noted the decline of civilization. Today that venerable tradition of refined pessimism is carried on by another New England institution, the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Over the past couple of years, the Atlantic has run gloomy essays on the perils of mad-cow disease, the threat of global cooling, the failure of welfare reform, the travails of federalism, the end of democracy, the scandal of our energy policy, the weakening of intellectual property rights, the collapse of our political system, and on and on. Some of these essays have been intelligent and even path-breaking, some rather less so; but their cumulative effect has been to make the Atlantic into the world center of genteel foreboding.

One of the main writers in the Atlantic’s stable is Robert D. Kaplan. A long-time foreign correspondent, Kaplan published an influential book, Balkan Ghosts (1993), about the intractability of ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and another, The Ends of the Earth (1996)—an earlier version had appeared as an essay in the Atlantic—arguing that social breakdown and conflict in the third world, and especially in Africa, were paradigmatic of the global future. Now he has returned to his homeland and written a book about the United States, excerpted in three issues of the Atlantic. The prognosis is not good.

An Empire Wilderness is a travelogue. An Easterner himself, Kaplan drove through the American Mid- and Far West—Kansas, Texas, California, Montana, and other places—recording his observations and conversations. Three of his most fascinating stops were at military installations. He describes the course of study at an army post and officer-training center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; takes us inside a nuclear-weapons facility near Amarillo, Texas; and venturing eastward, tags along with 54 military officers studying the Civil War battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi.

But Kaplan’s purpose is not especially to limn the gap between American military and civilian culture. The premise of his book is rather that our national future can be glimpsed in the West—in towns like Omaha and Portland, suburbs like Orange County, and lonely outposts in places like Nebraska. His tour of these sites is designed to allow us to see where America itself is heading.

In pursuit of this goal, Kaplan devotes a fair amount of space to deadpan descriptions of, for example, shopping in Orange County or the differences in body shape among waitresses serving different demographic groups. But he does arrive at an organizing theme: namely, that under the ruthless force of the global economy, our once-cohesive nation is disintegrating into isolated and radically unequal city-states:

The same spirit of individualism that helped build the nation may henceforth deconstruct it, as new worldwide settlement patterns link similar communities by new computerized technologies and air travel while traditional states defined by geography wither.

Kaplan calls this the “medievalization of the continent,” and he sees powerful intimations of it in the West. In time, he says, most of America will become a loose confederation of urban pods, divided between a few that are rich and globally linked and many that are poor at best, squalid at worst. These divisions, moreover, will exist not only among cities but within them. Take Santa Fe, New Mexico, which to Kaplan offers

further proof that there are two Americas: the people who own stocks and mutual funds and have seen their assets rise dramatically in the 1990’s and those who are completely dependent on wages, which have risen far less if at all.

Kaplan tries manfully not to fall in with run-of-the-mill declinists. “This book is not about the decline of the United States,” he writes, but about its “transformation.” Toward the end he cites Henry Adams himself to endorse the view that America may slip gently from its current primacy into “a silver age if not another golden one.” But the overall tone of Kaplan’s book does not suggest the coming of a silver age; it suggests something much darker:

Perhaps only after democracy slips away, silently replaced by the power of corporations and other great concentrations of wealth in a society whose basic instincts are tranquilized by pharmaceuticals, masturbatory gambling, and the voyeurism of coliseum sports, will the true destiny of American reveal itself.

As this passage suggests, it is not only the down-and-out among the poor of East St. Louis or on a Hopi reservation or a Greyhound bus (“many ragged haircuts, bad complexions, grimy baseball hats turned backward, people coughing and smoking cigarettes”) who elicit Kaplan’s pessimism. Rather, what appears to distress him most is the spectacle of the middle class and the affluent. Confronted with the greenery of Phoenix, Kaplan laments: “(T]he fusion of trees and lush lawns maintained by sprinkler systems suggests that humankind may be pressing its luck here.” High real-estate prices in Tucson do not set him to thinking about how desirable it is to live there but about “a century-old speculative bubble that has yet to burst.” Kaplan’s middle-class America is rampant with false consciousness, a place where sports fans are deluded and even casino winners, whether or not they know it, are a joyless lot.

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It may be worth remembering that the country Kaplan is describing is America in the late 1990’s—a country with low unemployment, low inflation, declining crime rates, high consumer confidence, manifold opportunities, and general satisfaction. It is far from a perfect place, but few have ever been so fortunate as those who live here. Whatever merit there may be in Kaplan’s theory about the loss of national cohesion and our devolution into “city-states,” his description of America is so skewed that it is often difficult to make the leap from the America he describes to the country that really exists.

Not that Kaplan is alone in his gloom. During his journey, he meets local observers, friends of friends, who tend to be every bit as disenchanted as he. An ex-cop talks about how society is growing more brutal. An elderly real-estate developer laments the way new housing developments create loneliness. Local academics testify to pervasive selfishness and racism. A cable-TV installer claims the future is exemplified by a little girl in a filthy trailer home, plopped down in front of the TV day after day to have her mind rotted by soap operas and game shows.

What is striking about the testimony of Kaplan’s local experts, as about Kaplan’s observations themselves, is how abstract they all are: no individuals ever leap out from them. Communities are described the way correspondents describe a refugee camp, as clumps of undifferentiated humanity. The poor are fat and unhappy, the rich are thin and self-absorbed. Of an affluent café in Omaha, Kaplan says that it is indistinguishable from affluent cafes on the East or West coasts. Really? When he comes across some happy workers in Texas, he writes, “Everybody here, despite race or geographical origin, looked and talked alike.” Again, really?

Kaplan never defines what he means by the phrase “global economy,” the alleged culprit behind the depredations he catalogues. Nor does he stop to ask whether his isolated communities are more or less isolated than they were in the past—in the 1880’s or the 1920’s or the 1950’s. In these respects as in others, An Empire Wilderness seems less about a place than about a certain enduring sensibility. To judge by Kaplan’s interlocutors, that sensibility, once the exclusive property of Eastern elites, has become yet another of our society-wide commodities, a way of marking one’s cultural status as a sophisticate.

But there are other sensibilities—including the optimistic one whose premise is that people are actually quite resourceful when it comes to building their lives and that, under conditions of freedom, they tend to create communities and institutions to meet their aspirations. No doubt the truth lies somewhere in between, but perhaps the thing to say finally is that throughout American history, the optimistic sensibility has been a more reliable predictor of the national destiny than the pessimistic one.

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