James and Me

Fenster writes:

Fenster, he has long had a love/hate relationship with James Kunstler’s work.  I expect most readers here will know of him.  If you don’t, here’s his Wikipedia page, which provides the basics but fails the capture some of the piquant qualities that are part and parcel of his persona.  And here is a link to his main web page, which has content of its own and is also a jumping off point to other venues such as Clusterfuck Nation (ongoing commentary), podcasts, autobiographical sketches and other such.

He has a distinctive and strongly expressed world view.  He is perhaps best known as a fierce critic of the American suburbs.  It was in that incarnation that I first met up with his work, and was immediately attracted to it.

Fenster, he/I grew up in a postwar 900 foot ranch house in a lovely New England town undergoing serious suburbanization post World War II.  I was lucky enough not to live in the actual cookie-cutter Levittown-style developments popping up here and there.  In our case, a small developer had bought a few parcels in the midst of a cacophony of Federals, Colonials and Victorians and erected a couple of ranches–thin walls, hollow doors, one bathroom, no privacy.  The works.

So, while I avoided the tracts and really liked the neighborhood, I grew up with the strongest sense of disconnect between the beauty of a New England town and the house in which I grew up.

My distaste is and was largely aesthetic.  I have always been pretty happy to adopt a live and let live attitude to the matter of the suburbs.  My father loved that house and detested the dense and urban Brooklyn of his childhood.  I took that seriously and not as a case of false consciousness.

Kunstler’s view starts with aesthetics and runs parallel to mind but does not stop there.  For one, his hatred runs whiter hot than mine.  More importantly, it spills over into a fully fleshed-out gestalt involving false consciousness, peak oil, the end of Western Civilization and the return of an agrarian economy.  Under his view, the suburbs are ugly but guess what?  The world is ending too!  You can’t have one without the other.

As I wrote on my blog in 2004 (now only available in the Internet Wayback Machine):

Despite my fondness for Kunstler’s aesthetic views, I find him to be a toxic polemecist of the worst kind, someone who is tolerable, perhaps, as a prophet in the wilderness but who would be dangerously authoritarian on a policy level.

Kunstler seems to vacillate between, on the one hand, refusing to believe that people who live in suburbia might like it, and, on the other, granting them that agency but holding that they are selfish and living in a dream world.

To the first point, he likens the passion for the suburbs to Islamic jihadism and maintains that suburbanites are haunted by the unconscious knowledge that their way of life has no meaning. That seems a little, um, extreme to me. If there is a jihadist in this debate, it is more likely to be Kunstler, as he is the one who would have others change their habits to suit his idea of heaven. He accuses David Brooks (who had been writing with some bemusement but not condemnation of the rise of what he called Patio Man–ed.)  of being as wedded to “diversity” as any fuzzy-thinking academic. Yet once again, you wonder whose ideology is more reminiscent of academic diversity-think: Brooks, who really is watching and appreciating myriad life forms taking shape, or Kunstler, who may well prefer architecture using indiginous materials but insists on everyone living there towing the line on a shared philosophy–his.

(To the question of agency) Kunstler eventually plays the trump card: the suburbs will just have to change because of the coming, permanent, oil shortage. Maybe. To me–a non-professional concerning energy, like Kunstler himself–it sounds an awful lot like he’s using the energy argument to advance his own philosophy, and his interests.

So I pretty much tuned out for the last ten years.  I read one of his post-apocalyptic novels set in his upstate New York locale and enjoyed it.  But I only occasionally visited his site and when I did I quickly got bogged down in the dark and stormy rhetoric which he seemed to love to churn out and to which, frankly, both he and his readers seemed addicted.

When fracking started catching on and the idea of peak oil–never a consensus view in the first place–came under more pressure I visited his site to see his response.  He more of less doubled down on his pessimism.  As he sees it, fracking is characterized by bad economics, it will implode soon and make no mistake the world is still going down.  At the same time I noted a shift away from too great a reliance on oil for his apocalyptic assertions in favor of a broader financial collapse, allowing him free rein on all manner of hard to prove but fun to write exercises in muscular prose.

Now, I do believe that Western Civ is a lot more fragile than its residents suppose.  Our way of life is predicated on a complex array of vulnerable systems that could well be disrupted with disastrous results–energy transmission, the internet, telecommunications, food supply.  More importantly, our culture itself is too easily taken from granted as bulletproof.  Recent events in Europe show this as a dangerous way of thinking.  Cultures are as vulnerable to disruption as the internet, and with more profound consequences.

So I cannot totally scoff at Kustler’s Cassandra qualities.  He may not be right or expert on the specifics of peak oil or international finance.  And he may unfairly claim he saw it coming if disaster of one sort or another eventually strikes.  But I do think we live in difficult times.

I returned recently to his site and have found to my astonishment that while he still loves to go overboard in his comic, high prophecy style he is also coming back to Earth in some of his thinking.  That’s welcome.  In fact, he is downright persuasive on matters such as the migrant crisis, Trump, and the issues presidential candidates should be addressing but are not.  It is refreshing to see him worried about matters such as the militarization of police.  After all, if civilization is about to end such things would be too trivial to mention.  So welcome back to Earth, Jim.

Full disclosure: I have long viewed Kunstler as my doppelganger.  He is for sure more accomplished and prominent than I–and for sure a better self-promoter–but we have very similar histories.  We are contemporaries.  He was born almost a year to the day before me.  And we have followed very similar paths.  This from a comment I wrote here at UR several years back:

I don’t live in the same place as Kunstler but I have in the past. The source: his interesting memoirs, here:


He is a year older. He applied to the same colleges I did. He moved upstate to go to college at Brockport in ’66; me Syracuse ’67. His flirting with the counterculture sounds just about like mine. He spent a summer on Cape Cod as a low-rent dishwasher in ’69; me ’71. We both wrote short memoirs of the experience. He moved to Boston in ’72, same year I did. In Boston we both made the attempt at writing about politics and culture. He was actually published, in The Real Paper, one of Boston’s alternative weeklies where a current friend was then one of the folks in charge. He wrote a piece about a meeting of the loony John Birch Society; I wrote one, which I tried to get published in The Real Paper, about a meeting of the even loonier National Caucus of Labor Committees.

K left Boston in the early 70s to return to upstate NY, first back near Brockport then Albany. I left Boston for grad school in Albany in 1975. K’s last memoir puts him in Washington DC in 1975; I arrived there on a Congressional Fellowship in ’77.

K eventually stumbles across Saratoga Springs, the area in which he has since lived. No, I have not followed him there, but about 10 years ago came within a whisker of taking a position at Skidmore  and I have a summer place upstate.

I also was struck by his style of memoir writing. It feels very much like mine.

All that said, we are two very different people. Once he leaves the memoir form he quickly becomes didactic and almost tyrannical in his prose. His thinking, too. Interesting that when writing about himself he lets the blemishes show but when writing about THE WORLD, he knows it all.

Having a doppelganger like this is a good thing, I think.  I can rant on about how he has gone overboard in his apocalyptic thinking but if we are more similar than it seems what does that say about me?  Perhaps if he has been guilty of excess pessimism I have been in my own way guilty of excess Pollyanna-ism.  He seems to have backed away from his more radical rhetoric and that coincides with my own growing sense of alarm.  It seems we are getting closer in our views and I expect to read his stuff more regularly now, and to permit myself to be more open to persuasion than I was previously.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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8 Responses to James and Me

  1. Fake Herzog says:

    I can’t stand Kunstler — never could. Yet, I just read this all the way through and I’m a better man for doing so — you know how to tell a great story. I tend to be a bit pollyannaish myself, although with a strong streak of doom and gloom when it comes to the culture (unlike Kunstler I really think capitalism/technology can solve resource problems — the question for me is whether we will have a people that will have the human potential to sustain capitalism in the years to come.)

    Like you both, and it seems like the Blowhards as well, I’m a reactionary when it comes to aesthetics — I’m blessed to live in a city with so much great architecture and art (Chicago.)


  2. agnostic says:

    The biggest difference is that he’s 100% Jewish and you’re the offspring of recent Germanic immigrants — not just kinda-sorta, way-back-when German like some Americans. You’ve said your father was 1st-gen German-American, and your mother’s side was only one more generation removed from Sweden.

    And given when they were born and growing up, that makes your parents and grandparents members of THOSE PEOPLE. You know who.

    But just in case you didn’t get it, the hysterical Kunstler spells it all out for us in that typically tone-deaf post about Trump:

    World leaders considered Hitler a clown in the early going, too, you know. But the Germans were wild about him. He pushed a lot of the right buttons under the circumstances. Trump is worse than Hitler. And the American people, alas, are now surely a worse lot of ignorant, raging, tattooed slobs than the German people were in 1933. Be very afraid.

    He thinks that Germans of your parents/grandparents’ generation were only a micro-step higher on the hominid totem pole than today’s “ignorant, raging, tattooed slobs” of America.

    Slight difference with your own view, I’d think — and not in a minor way. You look on what’s going wrong with the American people as one of them, and make jokes to lighten the depressing view in a self-deprecating way. Kunstler the outcast/misfit Jew sees the American people as an alien race, and uses “humor” as part of his greater project of belittling, denigrating, and humiliating The Other.


  3. agnostic says:

    That also explains why he’s piping down about how the world seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket thanks to The Powers That Be, while you’re growing more concerned and ready to do something.

    Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, populism was at a nadir. He could rail against this or that high-level institution and feel secure about the anti-Establishment response, since there wasn’t much of a response to speak of.

    Fast-forward to the first election in many generations when a populist candidate stands a good shot at getting elected President (Trump). He sees how riled-up the population is getting — only they’re getting riled up by Trump rather than Kunstler, who despite decades of sermonizing has only managed to rile up some lib-arts grads. Trump has galvanized his huge base of supporters in a manner of months.

    So, now that his hyper-sensitive Jewish spidey-sense for Gentile mobs bearing torches and pitchforks has been triggered by real-life, actual populist action, he’s toning down the doom-and-gloom rhetoric, which would only feed the drunken mob lumbering about in search of a “scapegoat” (his words — I wonder who he has in mind as the potential scapegoat? Cut to the end of the post where the Nazis are invoked.).

    Now his Jeremiads are reserved for the common people struggling to assert their own interests on immigration, trade, taxing the rich and lessening taxes on the middle, etc.

    Whereas you, not being Jewish, look at people and populists getting upset and loud, yet don’t assume they’re only a hop skip and a jump away from a mob chasing after the elites (he means the Jews) with torches and pitchforks. That, in fact, they have a good point and some real action needs to be taken, regardless of who you’d prefer the galvanizer-in-chief to be.


  4. agnostic says:

    We can safely dismiss as a Serious Thinker (TM) anyone who non-ironically compares Trump to Hitler — not because we should, in general, ignore hysterical Nazi comparisons, but because Trump in particular is so opposite to Hitler that only a lazy, tin-eared moron would think they were similar.

    Everyone’s seen Hitler making speeches by this point — he’s so deadly serious, and so adhering to his script, as though it were a recital of classical oratory.

    Everyone who has seen Trump speak has seen the exact opposite — he is insistent on just winging it rather than memorizing a speech, and he constantly uses informal humor as well as self-aware commentary on his speeches themselves (often as asides that interrupt the speech).

    But to the moronic pundits, they see a hard-headed speaker working up a crowd, and OMG IT’S LIKE THE GERMAN CROWDS RALLYING AROUND HITLER!

    How tone-deaf, shallow, and cartoonish can the chattering classes get? With the most curveball of election seasons now upon us, we’re about to find out.


    • Fenster says:

      There is a lot to chew on in these three quite serious comments. You are a regular commenter here and I always read and value your input. I tend to think you dwell overly on nefarious Jewish influence and you have done that again here. Is it persuasive?

      Let me start with an admission of the type I put into the original post. As I examine my own behavior and thoughts I never come to disown them but I can use the reflection of other thoughts and events to suggest where I might be biased, or at least hold different views. I cop to the Pollyanna charge.

      People say you can’t be colorblind. Of course not but my Northern European training causes me to put a priority on the neutral rather than the tribal. It is not true, strictly speaking (we all have tribal instincts) but it is adaptive. Those who lecture about the impossibility of color blindness are, whether they know it or not, making a social brief for the opposite POV–that because we can’t achieve perfect colorblindness let us amp up the sensitivities. To me, the (proud?) grandson of German immigrants, this is picking a scab. Or what Google Translate would call Abreißen eines Schorf.

      So I do come at things, as you suggest, with that “of the people” neutral sense. And in turn I tend to miss that other groups more marinated in ethnic identity might not have that same tendency. And I do include Jews in that. I saw Jews in a somewhat colorblind or ethnic blind fashion for many years before I saw any indication that they might tend to favor things Jewish over things not.

      That said, I am not hugely persuaded by your tossing K into this mix. I guess I can see it to some extent, now that I read the Trump piece over more carefully. I just don’t see much real evidence over K’s long paper trail of a real Jewish urge under the surface trying to get out. It’s not as though the mythology he has created–a world reborn as a post Civil War agrarian economy, honest Jeffersonian yeomen struggling to make ends meet in rural upstate New York–has any real tie to things Jewish, which tend toward the cosmopolitan. In fact, I think you can make a better case that he is rebelling against many things we normally associate with Jews. Perhaps you will argue he can’t help it and he is showing his true fear of the people at long last. Maybe, but his long track record of being suspicious of money and modernity does not strike me ethnic in that way.


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