Why I Forked Over $55 for a Copy of Mein Kampf

I mentioned yesterday that the last book I found at John King Books was the one that broke my budget. It became its own post because I felt I needed to offer an explanation as to why I shelled out $55 for this 1939 printing of the first unabridged English translation of Mein Kampf.

As the introduction explains, the text is fully annotated to explain the history behind events Hitler mentions in the text and to correct false information.

Click on the picture and enlarge to read some of what the editors of the annotated edition have to say about their work.

Now, why on earth would I want such a book? I’m not a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist, though a card tucked in the pages which we discovered once we were back home certainly suggests that those people are active and looking to recruit like-minded people…

I have smudged out the contact information, but in case you’re curious, this group is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Whatever my other reasons for buying this book, at least I have prevented the possible recruitment of another racist SOB.

One of the reasons I bought this book is that I am a student of history, particularly of the 20th century, and I am deeply interested in how historical events led to the world we live in today. I am also researching Adolf Hitler and the geopolitical realities of his lifetime for a series of books I hope to write someday. Thus, it is invaluable to have this pre-WWII view of the book and the man that changed the course of history. The editors are not looking back at Hitler through the historical lens of WWII and the Holocaust, but from the standpoint of what were to them current events. The introduction to this book mentions the reasoning behind the timing of this edition, and a preface even makes note of the tremendous speed at which they felt pressured to produce it.

In some ways, producing this book is a bit like people buying The Art of the Deal or other Trump-authored books after the election to see just what kind of man had come to power. This introduction was certainly written before the invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 as it makes no mention of it. The world knew Europe was headed for conflict after Germany’s 1938 annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia, but it had no inkling of the scope of the war that would engulf the entire globe over the next six years. Seeing how they saw these events as they were unfolding rather than simply reading history from the standpoint of someone looking back in judgment — How could they have thought they could appease Hitler? How could they have turned a blind eye to what he was doing? — is vital for an honest, non-revisionist understanding of why world events happen as they do. It removes the “hindsight” glasses we are always inevitably wearing when we study history and allows us to see with the biases that the people of that time had.

When you read portions of Mein Kampf that deal with the question of race, and especially the Jewish people, you wonder how on earth anyone could believe any of it. While Hitler can even sound reasonable in some of his views of more political questions (even if you disagree with him, there are logical underpinnings to his arguments in this sphere), the logical leaps he makes when talking about race sound utterly absurd to us. How could anyone have followed this guy? We’ve all seen the newsreels. He was a raving lunatic. They must have all been brainwashed. I’ve even heard an acquaintance of mine say that she thought they must have been eating something bad or the water must have been poisoned for them to blindly follow him.

But that kind of talk removes responsibility from the real people who carry out horrific acts, and it makes those of us in the 21st century feel quite sure of our intellectual and moral superiority to those in the past. We would never do such things. No one could fool us the way Hitler fooled them.

Really?

The fact of the matter is, if you study even the century that led up to World War I, what do you find? Rampant antisemitism. What do you find after WWI? Rampant antisemitism. Leaders like Hitler cannot lead without a following. He struggled for years to gain his, but once he found the right combination of political views (including blaming the Jews for WWI and for the Marxist revolution in Germany after the war) and built the right kind of propaganda machine (which he talks about extensively in Mein Kampf) he found a very willing audience to listen to and applaud and follow him. They wanted someone to blame and they wanted someone to make Germany great again. He wasn’t a lunatic. He was a very clever man who knew how to convince people that he was going to fix everything that was wrong.

We live in a day when our president throws a lot of blame around. When it has been suggested that we register and track people of a particular religion. When the working class population is hard-pressed and suffering from long-term joblessness and wage stagnation. When we vote in someone from outside the establishment in order to shake things up. Our times are not so unlike those that led up to two of the most deadly and destructive wars in history (approximately 100 million people died as a result of WWI and WWII combined — that would be like the entire populations of California, Texas, New York, and Illinois combined…dead).

Now, I’m not equating Trump and Hitler. Trump’s a bumbling idiot muddling through a job he’s perhaps realizing he didn’t really want to do after all. Were Trump a decent orator, maybe (maybe) I’d be more concerned about him. (Aside: Imagine the crazy tweets Hitler would unleash if he’d had Twitter.) No, sir. Trump is no Hitler.

I’m simply saying that it’s important to study our history and to resist chronological snobbery, which suggests that since we live in a later time we are more enlightened or savvy or moral than those who lived in the past. We’re not. We must always be on guard against bad leadership and we must always be on guard against our own capacity to do evil…especially when we have convinced ourselves we are doing good.

Because the more pressing question, the more disturbing question is: Could we regular, everyday Americans be more like all those regular, everyday Germans in the 1930s than we think?

Why I Don’t Think 2016 Was “The Worst Year”

Social media posts over the past 3-6 months would have us believe that 2016 was the “worst year,” if not ever then at least in living memory. A number of prominent celebrities died, some of them young, some of them tragically young. A fairly despicable human being was elected president of the United States and no one knows quite what to expect from him. Problems that I guess some people had thought were largely solved (though I can’t imagine why beyond wishful thinking) reared their ugly heads. Violence against people because of race, sexuality, and religion was too regular for our tastes.

Yes, some terrible things happened, and their impact was amplified by the frequency with which we saw them on social media and the 24 hour news cycle. Our parents’ or grandparents’ generation only had to confront such realities of life on planet earth once or twice a day in the newspaper or on the evening newscast, not every time they compulsively opened Facebook when they had to wait twenty seconds for their slow work computer to open a document or wait through the indecisive person in front of them at Starbucks.

But are our times truly worse than theirs? Is 2016 to be the new yardstick of calamity?

You’re probably thinking, “Geez, Erin, it’s just hyperbole. Don’t you understand simple rhetorical devices?”

Yes, I do. I also understand the power of putting our problems in perspective. And here’s just a little of that.

  • Between 1347 and 1352, possibly 50 million people died of bubonic plague, 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time.
  • In 1520, smallpox was introduced to the Americas and would eventually kill more than 60% of the native population.
  • Between 1769 and 1792, more than 20 million people succumbed to famine in India.
  • Adding up the deaths from starvation and disease during the deadliest famines in Russia (1601-1603, 1921-1922, and 1932-1934) and you get between 14 and 17 million people.
  • From 1861 to 1865, up to 750,000 Americans died during the Civil War.
  • From 1915 to 1924, 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman government.
  • In 1918, not only was World War I reaching its bloody crescendo, but a flu pandemic killed somewhere between 20-50 million people, depending on who you ask.
  • In July 1931, floods in China killed between one and four million people. In fact, if you look up the ten most deadly natural disasters ever recorded, you’ll find China in five of those spots, including the top four (in 1556, 1887, 1931, and 1976). PLUS, between 1958 and 1961, tens of millions of Chinese civilians lost their lives to famine.
  • Or perhaps choose any year between 1939 and 1945. In that span of time, 60 million people lost their lives (most of them civilians, 6 million of them to genocide) during World War II.
  • In August 1945 nearly 130,000 people were killed, tens of thousands of them in mere seconds, when the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including 90% of the doctors and 93% of the nurses in Hiroshima alone.

And disasters, both natural and manmade, are not limited to the time before color film. I’m willing to bet that many of my readers remember these more recent events.

  • Between 1975 and 1979, 500,000-3,000,000 people died in the Cambodian genocide.
  • In the first half of the 1990s, 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsi people lost their lives to genocide in Rwanda. And let’s not forget places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, and Sudan when it comes to recent genocides.
  • In 2004, an earthquake and resultant tsunami killed 280,000 people all over southeast Asia.
  • In 2010, 160,000 Haitians were killed by a massive earthquake.

By comparison to all this, even the tragedy of September 11, 2001, pales in comparison, does it not? And yet anyone alive during that time would certainly say that was one of the worst years they had ever experienced.

Yes, in 2016 there were a disturbing number of terrorist attacks, which are so unsettling because they are unpredictable and unexpected. Yes, in 2016 a number of Baby Boomers died of cancer (this is not so unexpected). Yes, a possibly fascist manchild with an itchy Twitter finger was elected president.

This post isn’t about belittling people’s feelings about 2016. Is is about helping us all sit back, take a breath, and appreciate what we’re NOT going through. The perspective we take on bad things that happen should always be informed by all of the things that aren’t happening that could be happening.

The world is a dangerous place. We are dangerous people. We do terrible things to each other and terrible things can happen to us, at almost any moment. But to let 2016 drive you to despair? What if your grandparents or great grandparents had let that happen to them when 60 million people — their sons and husbands and fathers, their daughters and wives and mothers — died during WWII?

The world will never be safe. We cannot fix all of this. We can do a lot, and that much we must do, but the world is the world. Bad things happen. And we must get on with life, striving to love one another despite our faults, and working toward peace and safety. And you know what helps in that noble pursuit? A positive attitude and a little perspective.

So stop dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, and look to the future you want to make. Do the work, cheerfully, and maybe you’ll find in that future that 2016 was barely a blip on your radar.

A 90-Degree Walk in the Marshlands

Not far from downtown Bay City, Michigan, is the body of water from which it derives its name: the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron.

A low, marshy area, it has a strip of sandy beach that in many places is only reachable by boardwalk.

On the horizon lies the power plant that supplies the area with electricity.

There’s something about this sight that feels quintessentially Bay City, but I’m not sure I can articulate why.

Perhaps it’s because so much of the natural environment was so fundamentally changed when white people finally settled here. When the area was first surveyed it was determined unfit for human habitation. Nothing but swamps and unbearable swarms of mosquitoes.

The story goes that much of lower Michigan was settled only after East Coasters were essentially tricked by unscrupulous land agents into buying land they hadn’t seen in person when what they were actually buying was swamp.

You can’t build or farm on a swamp, of course. So you drain it. And you start a mosquito control program.

And the land becomes something it was never meant to be. It becomes farms and shipyards and sawmills and factories.

But it still wants to be a swamp.

It wants to be a place where water is slowly filtered through a network of soils and plants and microscopic creatures.

It wants to feels the wriggling tadpoles in the warm shallows and the sliding fish in the deep places.

It wants to feed the roots of poplars and birches and the cottonwoods that were sending their confetti down all around me as I strolled along the margins of the marsh.

It wants frogs and toads, red-eared sliders and snapping turtles.

It wants to sustain little forests of lily pads that, as the mother of an eight-year-old son, I can’t help but see as a colony of green Pac-Mans.

Even during this incredibly hot day, the breeze from the bay tickled the leaves on the trees and bid them send their shade upon Earth’s weary creatures.

Between horizons on either side, I could believe that I was in a very wild place.

But a glance to the left revealed dozens of waterfront houses. And a glance to the right…

That power plant that I never knew I’d depended on when I lived in the Essexville/Bay City area as a child.

Still, if I looked in the right place…

I could see something beautiful and quiet and wild.

And that’s what I’m always looking for.

La liberté ou la mort

The news of the attacks on Paris is on my mind, as it is likely on yours. I’m sure the French people, still sensitive after the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year, are feeling a lot like we did in America after 9/11. Shock and fear will turn inevitably into anger and outrage. The freedoms and liberties our countries both hold dear will be tested and chipped away as people exchange bits of them for the illusion of safety. And the lines between caution and paranoia, between rational steps toward security and the threat of bigotry and racial profiling will have to be navigated. How do we protect ourselves from radicals without becoming, in some way, like them?

It’s an intellectual and practical struggle we need to have, within our own minds and as nations. What do we tolerate in the name of liberty? What wounds do we allow to fester in the name of political correctness? In America today it seems we are far more outraged by people voicing opinions that are different from ours than we are about real atrocities. And when it becomes too uncomfortable to think about, we turn to entertainment to take our minds off it. We have that luxury.

For most of 2015, I have been researching German and French history in the 19th and 20th centuries, paying special attention to the cultural and political forces that led up to both World Wars. I’ve been studying anarchists and socialists and fascists, capitalism and communism, the forces that unite people and the ones that divide. And the sobering reality one must face when reading about history is that it is in no appreciable way any different today than it was then. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

As we are learning about history in school, we use timelines in order to visualize when events happened. And I think this gives us (or it gave me, anyway) the sense that we are progressing, we are moving forward, and that is a positive thing. But just because time is passing does not mean we are improving. Progress is a myth we want to believe so we’ll feel better about ourselves in comparison to those who preceded us. It’s chronological snobbery at its most dangerous, because when we believe we are morally superior to the generations that came before us, we fail to guard against falling into the same sins and mistakes.

This is a strong theme in The Bone Garden and it’s an even more powerful force in another novel I’m beginning to develop, one that will take place in Europe in the time leading up to World War I (which may actually just be the first of a trilogy I’m envisioning that will go all the way through World War II). And as I’m reading about the political and social climate of Europe at that time, I have uncovered a fact that I missed in all of my history classes — perhaps because we spent far more time on what happened than why it happened.

And that’s this: Hitler was not an anomaly. He didn’t appear out of nowhere. He didn’t spring forth from his mother’s womb as a monster. He was created. He was the personification of his times. He did not invent antisemitism. He did not invent pan-German nationalism. He did not invent the idea of a vast Jewish conspiracy orchestrating conflicts and wars from behind the scenes. All of those ideas and beliefs were already out there, in books, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches. He merely took them seriously enough to work them out to their inevitable end. And he couldn’t have done it without followers. To treat him as a crazed lunatic who somehow hypnotized an entire nation is to forget the very important and very scary fact that millions of people were ready to follow him. Yes, he lied to them — often. But they wanted to believe him.

People must believe in something. Leaders of Muslim extremist groups like ISIS have given disenfranchised young men and women something to believe in — and they act on it by attacking and murdering innocent civilians, just as the SS did in Nazi Germany.

What have we to offer them that is better? Freedom of thought? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? Freedom of speech? Yes, all of those things. But how will we inspire belief in those ideals when we don’t appear to believe them anymore ourselves?

Can we say, with any conviction, “Give me liberty or give me death?”

When the Jupiter Exploded

On this day twenty-five years ago I was ten years old and getting breakfast at a friend’s house after a sleepover when there was the distant sound of a large boom and a shiver under our feet. I thought it must have been a small earthquake. I didn’t know it then, but a gas tanker on the Saginaw River had just exploded.

Photo from flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dryfuss/6907978395
Photo from flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dryfuss/6907978395

Plan A was to let the fire burn itself out, so the inferno raged for 36 hours before authorities decided that they needed to try Plan B and actually fight the fire. For days after, I could see a plume of black smoke that faded slowly to gray. Even after crews thought the fire was out, it reignited and had to be suppressed again.

It was one of those things you remember because it seems so otherworldly. Explosions happen in movies, not real life. Miraculously, only one life was lost, an Iowa sailor who drowned while swimming away from the blast.

For an excellent article about the Jupiter explosion, click here. For more images, visit the Saginaw River Images blog.

How Far We Haven’t Come

Remember how I was so pleased in my last post to be able to work on something new? Well my brain swiftly switched gears back to something old. Something incomplete. Something festering.

Back on December 10, 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Adventures in Shameful American History that discussed a number of cultural and historical realities I was struggling with as I completed research for a novel I was writing called The Bone Garden. It was before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, before the unrest in Ferguson and the riots in Baltimore, before the massacre in Charleston.

In January and February of 2014, I wrote the first draft of a novel that turned out to be frighteningly timely. It traces the race relations within several generations of one white family, from auspicious beginnings as participants in the Underground Railroad, to a mixed bag of love and hate during the Civil Rights era, to a new reconciliation in the modern time. For the next year, I worked hard on that novel, revising it multiple times, editing it to a high gloss. But there was always a problem with the modern-day timeline. I fixed some of it, but it still never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t as good as it could be. Compared to the other two timelines, it seemed…too easy.

The day after the shooting in Charleston, I attended a prayer vigil at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan. The crowd was relatively small in number but great in spirit. There were mostly African American worshipers, but a fair number of white worshipers as well. The Spirit was moving and pain was released and anger was expressed and sorrow was felt. It was deeply emotional and raw.

Growing up in a white small town in the Lutheran church, I had never been part of a service quite like that before. I’m a Baptist since I married a Baptist pastor, but it’s not a “shoutin’ church,” if you know what I mean. It’s not a charismatic congregation. It’s pretty tame. But I have been privileged to join together with other churches in the city every year, usually during Holy Week, to worship together. Stiff white Methodists and shouting black Baptists and proper Presbyterians and calm Congregationalists, all worshiping together. These have been some of my most memorable times in the house of God.

Even so, this prayer vigil was qualitatively different. It was a lament.

I drove away from that service with a heart that was still heavy. Yes, I believed God would give comfort to the bereaved. But it still happened. There was still a terrible racist person who murdered nine people, including some in their seventies and eighties, for no reason other than his idiotic, misguided, backward, reprehensible beliefs. Beliefs that were taught. And are taught. All over the place. Still.

And I realized what bothered me about the modern-day storyline of The Bone Garden. It wasn’t true. Fiction — good fiction — tells the truth. And I wasn’t doing that. I wanted my modern day white characters to be better than their fictional predecessors. But they aren’t. Yes, some are more understanding and more accepting and more loving. But others are not. They cannot be. Because Dylann Roof exists. Thousands of Dylann Roofs exist, and more of them are being trained up every day. And I do a disservice to the truth to ignore that when writing this story.

So I’m back at it, working hard to make things real. No matter how difficult it is for us to stomach. We look back at our parents’ generation and think that we are better than them. We would never support segregation or turn the other way when peaceful marchers were set upon by dogs and attacked with fire hoses. We would never have let 100 years pass between the Emancipation Proclamation and Selma.

But is that the truth? Obviously not. That Confederate flag flying high in South Carolina? It’s not down yet.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Gave His Iconic “I Have a Dream” Speech in Detroit First

I’d wager that most of you didn’t know that before the March on Washington, DC, was the 125,000-strong Great March on Detroit. And that’s where 25,000 people first heard this iconic speech in Cobo Hall (now Cobo Center).

For the complete audio and text of his speech in Detroit, click here.

May we all take time today to remember a great man, a great minister, and a great Christian who made the greatest sacrifice for a great cause.

I’m pleased to say that this June 23, 1963 event is a turning point for two characters in my current WIP. And I’m extra pleased that I happen to be writing that chapter the very week we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s what I call Providence.

Adventures in Shameful American History

If I’ve been absent from the blog lately, it’s because I’m steadily checking things off my end-of-year to-do list, including much reading. I’m finishing up preliminary research for my novel and have spent much of the last six months exploring the very violent history of race in America, from pre-Civil War through the 1960s. And despite having minored in US history in college, it has been jaw-droppingly eye opening.

In school, we generally learn about the slave trade, the escalation of slavery with the advent of the cotton gin, the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation (whose 150th anniversary we have recently noted in this country), and the very beginnings of the period known as Reconstruction (maybe). During this time we learn to love Frederick Douglass, the former slave who ran in white circles, and to appreciate, but be slightly suspicious of, the more dangerous-sounding W.E.B. Du Bois. We then briefly consider the Industrial Revolution before we plunge into a string of wars overseas–the Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

Finally we circle back around to the race question. How have the descendants of those freed slaves been faring all this time we’ve been focused on lands across the oceans? Apparently poorly. So we read about the Civil Rights Movement and learn to love a pacifist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. and learn to be wary of people who preach revolution like Malcolm X. At least, that’s how it went when I was in my mostly white high school.

We get the arbitrary bookends of a struggle, as though Civil War were the beginning and Civil Rights were the end, which, obviously they weren’t. But even if they were the beginning and the end, what happens when we read just the first and last chapter of a book and nothing in between? We might be able to figure out what happened at the end, but we won’t understand why. Most importantly, we will not have had any way to identify with or even develop much empathy for the protagonist because we haven’t seen his struggles clearly. We’ll be given a clue here and there in the last chapter, but we won’t really know what those clues truly mean.

This is what happens when educators and media focus on the grand moments in history (like the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech) and yet neglect to help people fully understand the very long story that connects them, the frighteningly grim realities that tie those singular pretty moments together. We watch the stage being set and we see the moments before the final curtain, but while the play is being lived out on stage, we’re standing outside the theatre having a smoke.

So what happened while we weren’t paying attention? What happened in the years between Emancipation and I Have a Dream? That’s what I’ve been reading about. Day after day, week after week, I’ve been reading. And I have been stunned at all I never really allowed to sink in.

As a young student, my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was that it was about fairness. It wasn’t fair for one group to be treated as second class citizens. I never really understood how far beyond “separate but equal” or belittling speech or dirty looks the issue really went. The photos in our history books of “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs cannot begin to help a person understand the sheer magnitude of the continuous suffering of black people in America.

Our books should have shown children picking up severed toes and fingers of lynching victims as souvenirs. Because that happened.

Our books should have shown people strung up and tortured for nothing more than baseless accusations or because they were nearest person with dark skin that the crowd had handy. Because that happened, at one point every four days.

Our books should have shown close-ups of anguished faces of bereft mothers, wives, children, and brothers. Because that happened with heartrending regularity.

Instead, we saw blurry figures seated at counters or standing in lines or walking down the street. Always from a distance too great to see the expressions on their faces.

And what could never be shown in a photo, but that can be drawn–slowly–from 1,000+ pages of interviews, statistics, newspaper clippings, and historical inquiry, is the psychological terrorism that lay beneath the outright terrorism. The confused and hurt minds of children growing up under a cloud of invisible and arbitrary rules, worried that even the smallest infraction could be the catalyst to their own death or the deaths of loved ones. The utter lack of any sense of self-worth that generation upon generation must have felt. The hopelessness.

But we don’t have time for real history. We only have time for soundbites and headlines. And so we don’t understand times past and thus we don’t understand the present time. We think, “Why are they so angry? Why can’t they just be patient? Why can’t they let things right themselves naturally?”

The more I’ve read, the more I realize that, had I been alive and black in the 1960s, I almost certainly would have been militant. I now understand those figures in history that I had been subtly taught to stand in judgment of for their confrontational writings and speeches. I think I would have admired Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to organize a nonviolent movement, but I would have found it hard to undertake personally. And I now have even more respect for the incredible individuals who did take part in peaceful civil disobedience and did not retaliate when they were attacked, hosed, bombed, and beaten–an almost supernatural forbearance.

There is no denying that the history of this country is one steeped as much in violence and oppression as any other in the history of the world. We like to believe that we are different. But we aren’t. We are not somehow above it. We pretend we are and we sit in judgment of societies that make no attempt to hide their violence. We decry genocide while we recently (in my parents’ lifetime) often stood but a hair’s breadth away from it. We focus on ideals and gloss over realities.

When you take the time to read deeply about slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, the Great Migration, race riots, and all the many political maneuverings carried out in order to subjugate, separate, and even annihilate the descendants of slaves in America, you see the awful truth: our history isn’t pretty.

But, you may argue, my ancestors never owned slaves, never lived in the South, never this, never that. I know. I can say the same about mine. Many of mine weren’t even Americans until the 1940s. The reality is, though, that if you live in America, its history is your history. We cannot avoid being formed by it. The present realities of our lives and our relationships with those people who look different than us are partially a product of that cumulative history, whether or not we had anything to do with it.

The thing is to not ignore it. Pretending violence and racism and subjugation do not exist does nothing to negate them. It is simply refusing to acknowledge the flames even as the house burns down around you. We should be able to learn about the past, talk about the past, and use the past to inform the future. A better future.

As I finish my initial research (right now I’m reading the incredibly readable and fascinating The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration) I am sobered, stunned, stupefied by the past–and yet I’m looking forward to working through our history with fiction. Sometimes the best way to display the truth in such a manner that others grasp it and allow it to change them is through stories. And I have a story to tell.

I only hope I am up to the task.

A History of English in 10 Minutes

Have you guys seen this? I love reading about and discussing word origins (or making them up when information isn’t readily available) and I love studying the development of the English language. So many intriguing questions…

How did we come to have the largest vocabulary of any spoken language, along with thousands upon thousands of archaic words that have fallen into disuse and create an endless source of material for those page-a-day calendars? What makes English so unique and adaptable? How did English become the international language of business and commerce?

Do yourself a favor and watch this great little history over your morning coffee or at your lunch hour.

“All is amazement and confusion.” — A Review of Detroit City Is the Place to Be

One of my avowed reasons for starting this blog is to bring you reviews of books about or set in Michigan, and/or written by Michigan authors. While I intend to review both fiction and nonfiction, both new releases and those decades-old, my first review (nonfiction) is oddly timely as the book has just released. I found it calling to me uninvited on the front table at Schuler Books & Music, a Michigan independent bookstore with locations in the Grand Rapids and Lansing areas. I hadn’t planned on starting reviews until 2013, but I cannot help but press you to buy this book. Even at hardcover prices it is well worth your hard-earned cash.

Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli

Refreshingly nonpartisan and presented without the author’s own ego and agenda getting muddled up in things (a flaw so common in nonfiction books that take on difficult subjects), Detroit City Is the Place to Be is simultaneously a lesson in how we got here and how we might possibly get out of here. A Detroit area native (though he now lives in New York City), Mark Binelli covers almost every angle of the problem of Detroit, including historical and current racial tensions, the explosive growth and painful contraction of the auto industry, the eroding tax base and lack of resources, the distrust of outsiders, the blight, the fires, the violent crime, the music, the ruins, the drug culture, the despair, and those small, shimmering pockets of positivity (one almost can’t call them hope just yet) that while things may not quite have bottomed out, the city really has nowhere to go but up.

Binelli weaves a comprehensive and yet somehow still comprehensible tapestry of facts, statistics, and personal stories that gives the reader the big picture of Detroit but doesn’t miss the importance of the details. Even for a Michigander who has been hearing and reading about Detroit’s decline for decades, there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments. In these pages we meet real Detroiters: UAW members losing hope, teen moms grasping a better life for their children, “hustlers” coming up with their own work when jobs are nonexistent, concealed pistol enthusiasts, urban prairie dwellers, guerrilla lawn mowing brigades, and many more. Whether they stick with Detroit because they can’t afford to move or out of a solid sense of loyalty to their family history and their city, they are in it for the long haul and they are not (quite) ready to give up yet.

As one of those people says in Binelli’s book, “Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.” And as Binelli himself says, “Detroit, if anything, is a place where the past cannot be shook loose. It hangs on, tenaciously, creeping over the city like a slow-growing mold, until–this begins to seem inevitable, if you get into a certain mood–the entire place will be nothing but past.”

This is not a book of solutions. It’s not a plan to rightsize a monolith of the nearly bygone modern industrial era. It’s not a crunchy, hippified manifesto on returning to subsistence farming and turning abandoned houses and factories into artists’ studio space. It’s not a vision for a utopian society of light rails, rooftop gardens, and flashy tech jobs. All of those elements are to be found in Detroit City Is the Place to Be because there are earnest people proposing scenarios like these, but they are not exactly championed by Binelli. Rather, like a good, impartial journalist without  an ax to grind (amazing, right?) he puts it out on the table for the reader to chew on, bones and all. He leaves the situation in all its absurdly complicated glory because to come to the end and present a “solution” to the problems plaguing Detroit would be the absolute most naive and insulting thing to do. Real life is complex enough. Real life in Detroit is perhaps even more so. And it’s refreshing to read an author who gets it, who knows that you can’t solve a problem like Detroit with a five step plan imposed from the outside.

We naturally want a tidy solution to be discovered (as though people just haven’t been looking hard enough for the past, oh, let’s say 80 years). But we do a disservice to the people living the nightmare on the ground in Detroit (or in other complicated, violent, and seemingly hopeless situations, as this can all be extrapolated to other post-industrial towns and even to volatile areas of the world such as the Middle East) when we imagine that a few policy changes or a few new companies moving to town will solve the problem. Short of a sudden and unprecedented inflow of free money (which doesn’t exist, of course) the rebuilding of this great city will be slow and painful and no one will be completely happy with it at any stage.

Though I’ve never lived in Detroit, both sides of my family are part of its history and growing up we took several trips a year down I-75 to visit grandparents and cousins. Like an intercontinental funnel, various streams of my ancestors made their way first to Canada from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany. After pit stops in Ontario ranging from 10 to 125 years, they entered the United States through Detroit. They were farmers, machinists, shop girls, cigar rollers, cabinetmakers, printers, ad men, mechanics, and middle management in retail stores. And slowly over the past two generations they have fanned out from Detroit and are taking my family history west, north, and even to the Eastern seaboard. But Detroit feels like the center of it all to me, the crux of family history. Detroit is where my people are buried.

My great-grandparents farmed land that got swallowed up by the creeping suburbs (and may now very well be in the process of returning to nature, as it were). As a girl, my grandmother performed traditional Scottish dancing at the opening of the Ambassador bridge. My first experience with a race other than my own was playing with my grandparents’ black neighbors. My grandfather’s basement was peppered with tools he had probably pilfered from GM. A Thanksgiving pastime when we visited the Detroit area after the leaves fell was to drive around and gawk at the enormous suburban homes of basketball stars, musicians, and executives. Now people go to gawk at decay.

As a realist in general, I cannot be wildly optimistic about the future of Detroit (and the bulk of Binelli’s book certainly didn’t nurse any idealistic notions that may have been trying to take root in the deep recesses of my subconscious, despite his more hopeful conclusion). But as one who trusts in the transformation of individual lives through the work of God, I can’t be hopeless either. I agree with Binelli’s implicit message that policy changes and business tax breaks and film crews cannot save Detroit on their own. But the spirited people who refuse to leave, who patrol their neighborhoods, who create beauty from ashes–those are the ones who, one by one, family by family, can keep hope alive.

For those of us on the outside, it’s good to remember that before you can save something you must care about it, and before you can care about something you must be educated about it. Detroit City Is the Place to Be is an education. It’s Detroit 101. Whether readers (like myself) use what we learn to try to make a difference is up to us. But we couldn’t have a more concerned, honest, and gentle teacher than Mark Binelli.

I highly recommend this book to every Michigander; to anyone interested in big cities, the post-industrial age, urban planning; to anyone tempted to write Detroit off as a lost cause. It will ground you in reality even while it points to a faint light in the distance that we may reach if only we are brave enough to travel a treacherous road.

Note: The quote in the title of this post is from a description of the city of Detroit after the Great Fire of 1805, found on page 45 of the hardcover book. The quote reads in full “The town of Detroit exists no longer . . . History does not furnish so complete a ruin, happening by accident, and in so short a space of time. All is amazement and confusion.”