July 18th, 2017



Nor are all changes for the better, argues Robert D. Kaplan in Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World, tonight's Book Review No. 15.

It's become a thing of late for pundits and public intellectuals to go on anthropological excursions into the Flyover.  We've documented a number of these things, particularly since the surprise outcome of the national elections.

Mr. Kaplan, however, is an old hinterland hand, both in the States and abroad, and his vision tends to the tragic.  That's not necessarily the case as he earns the Rockies. That is a reference to his truckdriver father's experience with road trips, and it's not wholly wrong, there being a thousand miles of prairie and plain and plateau and seven-layer salad before the Front Range looms in the windshield.  Now imagine crossing all that open space in a prairie schooner.  But you have to appreciate an explorer who treats his in-car navigation as the enemy, "because it steers me only onto the interstates."  He ignores it.  Along the way he discovers the true source of American intellectual strength.  "The Big Ten is the capstone of a vast social, economic, and political process that, again, stares right at us, even as we don't notice it."  (Rockies: 74)  In Illinois, it's a different sort of player with railroads, in this case the flood-loading of land barges of grain hoppers.  "I know that it is the immensity of the continent that required the development of more powerful locomotives than in other parts of the world, something which, in turn, enabled the development of long-distance engines for our warships, so that the strength of our navy is directly related to the size of the dry-land continent and the rail lines spanning it."  (Rockies 77.)  And coastal types can eat their bread and pump their gasohol into their hybrid cars without ever contemplating how it gets there.  As far as those engines, well, the Electro-Motive 567 series diesel powered World War II passenger and freight trains, destroyer escorts, PT boats, and submarines alike.  And thus, cross-country, where a pattern emerges of the thinner people living in the more upscale areas, and where a lot of the citizenry are, in presidential terms, Jacksonians (a stance less common among the political class.)  Then in San Diego come the current warships, a "stabilizing presence" in his view.  But not enough of a power to function as tools of empire, conventionally understood.  All the same, those tools must be used wisely.  For in Mr Kaplan's view, the United States comprise a continental empire, one that -- as the settlers earning the Rockies and beyond learned -- must be frugal with their assets.

Earning the Rockies also draws heavily on the works of an earlier generation of social scientists: Bernard DeVoto, Wallace Stegner, Halford Mackinder.  Names now obscure, names perhaps in a bad odor because their perspectives don't align with contemporary aesthetics.  And yet it might not be possible to make sense of the actually existing United States without contemplating anew what they saw.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)