At NASA’s Cape Canaveral, rocket launchers from the space program’s glory days in the 1960s that are too big to move or scrap now that NASA has decided that any grievances and assuaged feelings are more important than exploration and the pursuit of knowledge are simply stenciled “Abandon In Place.”
That can apply to discarded cultures far beyond NASA as well; Detroit may be the first city that has abandoned its old culture in place, becoming Pompeii without the volcano, Lisbon without the earthquake.
A recent edition of PJTV’s Trifecta, featuring Steve Green, Scott Ott, and Bill Whittle, features the depressing title of “Detroit’s Mark Twain Branch Library is Abandoned,” and equally glum description:
The Mark Twain branch of the Detroit library system closed for renovations and never opened its doors again. Is this proof that liberalism collapses the great achievements of civilization? What happened to the money, and what does it say about the destructive power of taxes and unions? See the pictures of the ruined library that has Trifecta so deeply troubled.
As Steve Green notes, virtually all of the information inside those books is now available via the Internet or via eBooks such as the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook. But if you don’t know where to begin to find the information you’re looking for, as Hillary would say, what difference does it make?
One of the themes of Zev Chafets’ brilliant 1990 book Devil’s Night is that at its peak in the mid-20th century as a major industrial center of the northern United States, Detroit’s minority population suffered for decades, as the city was patrolled by a largely southern-bred and racist white police force. When Coleman Young became mayor of the city in 1974, he essentially flipped that equation on its head, making Detroit the first explicitly reverse-apartheid city in America. Or as Chafets quotes Arthur Johnson (1925-2011), then the president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and a vice-president at Wayne State University:
“Detroit has helped nurture a new black mentality,” Johnson said, pounding his desk for emphasis. “More than any other city, blacks here make an issue of where you live. If you’re with us, you’ll find a place in the city.”
Whites often say, in their own defense, that many middle-class blacks also leave the city at the first opportunity. I mentioned this to Johnson, but he waved it away. “The majority of the black middle class is here. We are engaged in the most determined, feverish effort to save Detroit. Why? Because Detroit is special. It’s the first major city in the United States to have taken on the symbols of a black city. It has elected a strong, powerful black mayor, powerful in both his personality and his office. Detroit, more than anywhere else, has gathered power and put it in black hands.”
So how did that work out in day-to-day reality? As Chafets wrote elsewhere in Devil’s Night:
Detroit today is genuinely a fearsome-looking place. Many of its neighborhoods appear to be the victims of a sadistic aerial bombardment— houses burned and vacant, buildings twisted and crumbling, whole city blocks overrun with weeds and the carcasses of discarded automobiles. Shopping streets are depressing avenues— banks converted into Fundamentalist churches, party stores with bars and boards on their windows and, here and there, a barbecue joint or saloon. The decay is everywhere, but it is especially noticeable on the east side, which has lost roughly half its residents in the past thirty years— the most extreme depopulation of any urban area in America.
Worst of all is downtown. Several of the landmarks on Woodward Ave. remain, and in the past few years there have been several grandiose building projects, but they can’t obscure the fact that downtown Detroit is now pretty much empty… Detroit, America’s sixth largest city, is the only metropolis in the country where you can walk a downtown block during business hours without passing a living soul.
Presumably, as a byproduct of this cultural revolution, there was the related phenomenon of what Tom Wolfe calls “Starting From Zero,” or the belief that a millennia of past accumulated knowledge is no longer necessary or even desirable; the photos of the abandoned library and thousands of forgotten proof is a tangible illustration of Detroit’s failed, stillborn attempt to “Start From Zero.”
In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote:
What Orwell feared were those that would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us too much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would beoame a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
As he remarked in Brave New World Revisited the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.
Detroit under Coleman Young was a mixture of both philosophies. Young provided the distractions, the belief that the whites in the suburbs were the enemy – Detroit’s mass version of Emmanuel Goldstein. The rest took care of itself. In the link to his Trifecta segment on his PJM blog, Steve Green writes, “It’s Fahrenheit 451 in Detroit — minus the firemen.” There was need for them — no reason to burn the books if everyone has been convinced that they’re not worth reading; you simply abandon the culture in place and let it rot.