Right now, I'm struggling my way through Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff. I say struggling, because it's the audible equivalent of crawling through broken glass. Charlie is a terrible writer, a Mickey Spillane wannabe, and his reader, Eric Martin, speaks in unintentionally hilarious tough guy patois. Charlie wants you to know just how gritty and mean his life has been and he chooses every single word to prove it.
On another level, the book is terrific. Charlie didn't just write the book, he lived the lives of the people in it, to the extent he could. For example, he spent time riding along with a fire engine crew as they go from one arson scene to another in some of the worst parts of the city. Ignoring the cheesy Sam Spade voice-over, what you learn is amazing in its description of a city falling into ruin. More on that in another blog post. There's something much, much larger to deal with first.
What happened? I don't mean in financial terms, I mean in human group dynamics terms. I'm not nearly finished with the book, but so far, Charlie has missed the biggest story of them all. It's not about the firefighters with worn out equipment or the rampant theft and decay, there's something deeper and simpler at work.
For all his protests to the contrary, Charlie is your run-of-the-mill, doctrinaire journalist. For example, he holds all the correct views on race. Both blacks and whites moved from the South in great numbers to take jobs in Detroit's factories when the place was booming, but to Charlie, the whites are "rednecks" and the blacks are just blacks. He summarizes the sad story of Detroit's racial woes, but up to the 1967 riots, the blacks come across as people sitting at the back of the crowd during the Sermon on the Mount, nodding their heads and all agreeing to be meek. Meanwhile, Charlie tells you about Klan membership in the white community. White flight out of Detroit is portrayed as a kind of betrayal of the city.
Whatever the case may be, he's missing the biggest change of all. It's not that the factories went under or the government became Zimbabwe-corrupt, the biggest change is what happened to society.
Did blacks living in, say, rural Georgia in the 1910s burn down each other's shacks just for fun? Did the "rednecks" of 1912 Alabama abandon their children through divorce or illegitimacy? Did either of them sit passively while the worst elements of society wrecked their neighborhoods?
Charlie spends a lot of time yapping about corrupt leaders, but then Charlie is a fashionable fellow and that's very chic these days. Leaders come from the general population and in a democracy they're elected by the rest of us. You don't end up with Kwame Kilpatrick by accident.
In a society of sex and drugs and rock and roll, isn't Detroit pretty much what you'd expect?