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Tucson Weekly First Impressions

Robert Kaplan's 21st-Century American Travelogue Is Written For The Ruling Elite.

By Jim Hotep

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: 

An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, by Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, 1998. $27.50 hardback.

HISTORY IS DESTINY. Believe that and there's still no guarantee you'll read An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future without frustration. This is no traditional history book.

Here, geography determines history, so that life on the North American continent--from the dense jungles of Qunitana Roo at Mexico's big-toe to Canada's frozen bellybutton in Hudson Bay, and Kansas cornfields somewhere in between--is the logical result of landscape necessity. Military action is an apparent exception.

The Civil War changed everything. It was the pivot point to our present. And ever since, American military might has made the world safe for democracy, although it all may amount to a brief shining moment before democracy, too, fades in the inexorable sweep of historical tides. This could easily happen since the social contract which held us together as a nation, drawn from our viscerally felt relations to the "vast wilderness," no longer holds as national glue, dried out with the nation's expansion across the continent and the effective shrinking of the planet. But, our military should keep us from falling over the edge into the terrors of the Millennium.

These are just a few of the assumptions you've got to buy not to get angst from reading An Empire Wilderness, author Robert D. Kaplan's latest, wide-ranging, difficult and uneven work. Kaplan's project since the late 1980s is to foresee the world we'll find in the 21st century. To do this, he's chosen to write travelogues, and he has journeyed to the front lines at the most dangerous and wretched places of the earth. Kaplan has more than once risked his life to get the story. In the Balkans with warring Croats and Serbs, with the Kurds on the Iran-Iraq border, in Africa, and the Far East.

Last year, in his To The Ends of The Earth (see: http://weeklywire.com/tw/06-05-97/book2.htm), Kaplan told an "apocalyptic" tale of how most of the world beyond the reach of electricity, good plumbing, and decent food is flying apart. Poverty, disease and rapacious plundering of resources for the primary benefit of the First World will never allow the Third World to catch up, propelling pent forces in the "underground" of the planet to explode, rupturing the comfortable bubble covering Western civilization. Now, Kaplan turns his sights on home.

The American tour Kaplan takes is to no one place--he would journey to the horizons of an America being reborn at the harrowing precipice of the 21st century. Edging the borders of this American Century, Kaplan weaves together a tapestry of pieces bubbling over with keen observation and insight, the best of which have already appeared over the last five years in the Atlantic Monthly. What emerges is a patchwork designed to show the devolution of the United States towards a loosely-held confederation of city-states, an "empire" Kaplan foresees entering a "silver age" of civilized prosperity.

Kaplan follows the trails of soldier-explorers and pioneers who were the first to encounter the wilderness of the North American West. And like them, he finds what may seem strange and new, presenting a picture of North America that those living the experience are not likely to see.

What Kaplan finds at the edge of tomorrow includes:

  • A decentralized empire built of steel, glass, marble and polymers designed from no geographic or cultural origins, inhabited by an international mosaic of people from distant cultures, all living in city-states with a vast no-man's land between.

  • World-wide corporations replacing government services in all but regional defense and dispute resolution.

Kaplan starts and ends his journey to the New America with homages to the military strategic training center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, near where the Spanish conquistadors led by Coronado ended their entry into the American heartland.

Kaplan treks mountain roads, talks with just plain and mightier folk, and ruminates across the continent's Westside--from Canada's Rockies to the Pacific Coast, from Mississippi riverboat casinos to Orange County high-end malls, and from Mexico City north through Sinaloa and Sonora across the border to Tucson. He bypasses Phoenix, writing it off as an oasis of "lawns, shopping centers and office parks." Much of the book is written in a mournful tone, just above a dirge.

"What we call 'the border' has always been a wild, unstable swath of desert, hundreds of miles wide, where culture was always as thin as the vegetation," says Kaplan early on in his discussion of the differences between Mexico and the Arizona borderlands.

Kaplan's view of borderland history minimizes the fact that the Spanish did not come with soldiers alone. Like the good exemplar of Roman tradition it was, Spain presented a fist and an open hand. With the fist came the Conquistadores, who sought gold. With the open hand came the padres, who sought to cultivate souls. Kaplan chooses to see the borderland in terms of the Conquistadors alone, and ignores the padres who stayed. And this was slow, patient work, the cultivating of souls. The only padre Kaplan mentions is Fray Junipero Serra: Kaplan stays at a hotel named for him in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico.

Many of those who have seen the borderlands desert for the first time see it as empty of life. Kaplan is no different. "A cindery wasteland stubbled by thorns," he calls the Sonoran Desert. He shows no signs of having read the

commentators on desert life and histories such as Officer, Nabhan, Fontana, Yetman or Sheridan. But he does quote from names familiar to Tucson Weekly readers--Bowden, Franzi, Smith, McKasson and a mysterious unnamed Tucson city appartchik, who for all their fervor and crisp soundbites, provide here more heat than light.

Kaplan emerges from his short Arizona desert stay with the unremarkable insight that what goes on in D.C. doesn't really make much sense in the real world.

Nevertheless, the best of what Kaplan does in these pages is the result of keen observation and powerful, provocative insight. But don't expect depth. This is a top-level view, for all Kaplan's riding in Mexican buses. It's a set of first impressions, stoked by a partial historical eye. His writing is not really for those living in the desert or any of the urban "pods." This book is primarily directed at the members of the elite who live by cellular phone, and whose best address is an electronic mailbox. It will undoubtedly make a very compelling PBS series.

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