Feed the artists

Back to Detroit: the July/August Atlantic featured a modest article entitled ‘Fifteen ways to Fix the World’. One that seems so ridiculous it might actually make sense is to turn Detroit into the capital of the newly proposed high-speed rail network. The factories which spewed GM’s mechanical jalopies could be reconfigured for train production, and no doubt Michigan’s many skilled engineers would like to stay in their homes if jobs will come back. With twelve percent of energy consumption in the US coming from new building projects, refitting existing structures makes as much sense getting vaccinated before going abroad. (I really hope I don’t get Dengue fever. I’ve had enough plague this summer.)
Other ideas from the article:

  • License kids to drink before they turn 21, provided they have gone through a course in alcohol awareness: ‘Clearly, state laws mandating a minimum drinking age of 21 haven’t eliminated drinking by young adults – they’ve simply driven it underground, where life and health are at greater risk.’
  • Amp up federal arts funding: ‘For every $30,000 or so spent on the arts, one more person gets a job, compared with about $1 million if you’re building a road or a hospital.’ This clearly isn’t sustainable in the extreme, but maybe there’s a happy medium?
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The Detroit-Kabul connection

I’m beginning to settle into the school where I’ll be teaching for the next month. It feels very remote, so naturally my first instinct is to get online. I find I can open very few of the pages that result from my search for ‘Uighur uprising.’ Facebook and Blogspot have been completely blocked (as have YouTube and Myspace). For the foreseeable future, then, I’m going to be exploiting friends’ good will to post these thoughts.
But more on China later. In a trend I foresee continuing, I want to backtrack a few days and an ocean.
On Tuesday, I drove from northern Michigan to Detroit with Jon, a friend of my brother’s who spent four months teaching accounting at Kabul University. (He too kept a blog, and I’m hoping I manage to keep this one as interesting as his).

Like any delusional idealist who studied post-conflict development in college, I’ve thought it might be interesting to look for work in Afghanistan. I heartily agree with the new philosophy governing (at least in theory) the latest troop surge. The language (Dari, a dialect of Farsi) is nowhere near as intimidating as Arabic. Three other friends who have worked there as civilians rave about the beauty and dynamism of the country. And, cheesy as it seems, I like to think that I could help build things there, and that I could put my education to good use.

I pestered Jon with questions for most of the four hour drive to Detroit. The news isn’t good. 

Kabul is, unsurprisingly, a disaster after thirty-odd years of intense conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Bombed-out buildings, no underground sewage, the kind of poverty that makes you ashamed to be human and not devoting all your efforts to changing things… To top it off, plants not far outside the city process sewage by burning it, giving the air high fecal content. I never thought I would hear about something that made the smog in China sound appealing.
Towards the end of our drive, we passed a gigantic factory on the outskirts of Detroit. Rivers of rust trickled down the side of the building as if it were the victim of a drive-by shooting. With the sun catching the edges of glass in the broken windows, it looked somehow splendid in all its catastrophe.
‘That,’ said Jon, ‘that is what Kabul looks like.’

I guess the news isn’t good in Detroit either.

Still, I think I might like Kabul. Feces notwishtanding.
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3, 2, 1…

Truly, northern Michigan in summer is one of the most beautiful places in the world (not my leg).

The crystal-clear lakes bring to mind a less pleasant beach experience I had last summer, which I described the last time I updated this blog:

‘Qingdao is an old German colony with one of the most unappealing beaches I have ever seen: brown, rocky and weed-strewn, tidepools that smell more like cesspools, and a horizon dominated by ill-conceived modern architecture. After two days, I headed back to Beijing. On my way out of the city, I marveled at its size: it seems like there are enough skyscrapers to house all the jobs in the world. And yet there are cranes everywhere – dormant while the city struts its stuff for the Olympics, but ready to roar back into action. Celtic tigers and lions notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a future not dominated by the Chinese dragon.’ (23 Aug. 2008)

I’ll be back in China next Friday. Can’t wait to see how things have changed.

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