The Weakness of Shepherds


Woe unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD.
Jeremiah 23:1


Laquan McDonald was killed by Chicago police in the middle of Chicago’s Pulaski Road in October of last year; the video of his death was not released, however, until just before Thanksgiving this year. In response, mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel fired police superintendent Gerry McCarthy, while many have called for Emanuel himself to resign—actions that might seem to demonstrate just how powerful a single document can be; for example, according to former mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia, who forced Emanuel to the electoral brink earlier this year, had the video of McDonald’s death been released before the election he (Garcia) might have won. Yet, so long ago as 1949, the novelist James Baldwin was warning against believing in the magical powers of any one document to transform the behavior of the Chicago police, much less any larger entities: the mistake, Baldwin says, of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son—a book about the Chicago police railroading a black criminal—is that, taken far enough, a belief in the revolutionary benefits of a “report from the pit” eventually allows us “a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book”—or watching such a video—“at all.” It’s a penetrating point, of course—but, in the nearly seventy years since Baldwin wrote, perhaps it might be observed that the real problem isn’t the belief in the radical possibilities of a book or a video, but the very belief in “radicalness” at all: for more than a century, American intellectuals have beat the drum for dramatic phase transitions, while ignoring the very real and obvious political changes that could be instituted were there only the support for them. Or to put it another way, American intellectuals have for decades supported Voltaire against Leibniz—even though it’s Leibniz who likely could do more to prevent deaths like McDonald’s.

To say so of course is to risk seeming to speak in riddles: what do European intellectuals from more than two centuries ago have to do with the death of a contemporary American teenager? Yet, while it might be agreed that McDonald’s death demands change, the nature of that change is likely to be determined by our attitudes towards change itself—attitudes that can be represented by the German philosopher and scientist Gottfried Leibniz on the one hand, and on the other by the French philosophe Francois-Marie Arouet, who chose the pen-name Voltaire. The choice between these two long-dead opponents will determine whether McDonald’s death will register as anything more than another nearly-anonymous casualty.

Leibniz, the older of the two, is best known for his work inventing (at the same time as the Englishman Isaac Newton) calculus; a mathematical tool not only immensely important to the history of the world—virtually everything technological, from genetics research to flights to the moon, owes itself to Leibniz’s innovation—but also because it is “the mathematical study of change,” as Wikipedia has put it. Leibniz’ predecessor, Johannes Kepler, had shown how to calculate the area of a circle by treating the shape as an infinite-sided polygon with “infinitesimal” sides: sides so short as to be unmeasurable, but still possessing a length. Liebniz’s (and Newton’s) achievement, in turn, showed how to make this sort of operation work in other contexts also, on the grounds that—as Leibniz wrote—“whatever succeeds for the finite, also succeeds for the infinite.” In other words, Liebniz showed how to take—by lumping together—what might otherwise be considered to be beneath notice (“infinitesimal”) or so vast and august as to be beyond merely human powers (“infinite”) and make it useful for human purposes. By treating change as a smoothly gradual process, Leibniz found he could apply mathematics in places previously thought of as too resistant to mathematical operations.

Leibniz justified his work on the basis of what the biologist Stephen Jay Gould called “a deeply rooted bias of Western thought,” a bias that “predisposes us to look for continuity and gradual change: natura non facit saltum (“nature does not make leaps”), as the older naturalists proclaimed.” “In nature,” Leibniz wrote in his New Essays, “everything happens by degrees, nothing by jumps.” Leibniz thusly justified the smoothing operation of calculus on the basis of reality itself was smooth.

Voltaire, by contrast, ridiculed Leibniz’s stance. In Candide, the French writer depicted the shock of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755—and, thusly, refuted the notion that nature does not make leaps. At the center of Lisbon, after all, the earthquake opened five meter wide fissures in the earth—an earth which, quite literally, leaped. Today, many if not most scholars take a Voltairean, rather than Leibnizian, view of change: take, for instance, the writer John McPhee’s big book of the state of geology, Annals of the Former Earth.

“We were taught all wrong,” McPhee cites Anita Harris, a geologist with the U.S. Geologic Survey as saying in his book, Annals of the Former World: “We were taught,” says Harris, “that changes on the face of the earth come in a slow steady march.” Yet through the arguments of people like Bretz and Alvarez, that is no longer accepted doctrine within geology; what the field now says is that the “steady march” just “isn’t what happens.” Instead, the “slow steady march of geologic time is punctuated with catastrophes.” In fields from English literature to mathematics, the reigning ideas are in favor of sudden, or Voltairean, rather than gradual, or Leibnizian, change.

Consider, for instance, how McPhee once described the very river to which Chicago owes a great measure of its existence, the Mississippi: “Southern Louisiana exists in its present form,” McPhee wrote, “because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there … like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions.” J. Harlen Bretz is famous within geology for his work interpreting what are now known as the Channeled Scablands—Bretz found that the features he was seeing were the result of massive and sudden floods, not a gradual and continual process—and Luis Alvarez proposed that the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era, popularly known as the end of the dinosaurs, was caused by the impact of an asteroid near what is now Chicxulub, Mexico. And these are only examples of a Voltairean view within the natural sciences.

As the former editor of The Baffler, Thomas Frank, has made a career of saying, the American academy is awash in scholars hostile to Leibniz, with or without realizing it. The humanities for example are bursting with professors “unremittingly hostile to elitism, hierarchy, and cultural authority.” And not just the academy: “the official narratives of American business” also “all agree that we inhabit an age of radical democratic transformation,” and “[c}ommercial fantasies of rebellion, liberation, and outright ‘revolution’ against the stultifying demands of mass society are commonplace almost to the point of invisibility in advertising, movies, and television programming.” American life generally, one might agree with Frank, is “a 24-hour carnival, a showplace of transgression and inversion of values.” We are all Voltaireans now.

But, why should that matter?

It matters because under a Voltairean, “catastrophic” model, a sudden eruption like a video of a shooting, one that provokes the firing of the head of the police, might be considered a sufficient index of “change.” Which, in a sense, it obviously is: there will now be someone else in charge. Yet, in another—as James Baldwin knew—it isn’t at all: I suspect that no one would wager that merely replacing the police superintendent significantly changes the odds of there being, someday, another Laquan McDonald.

Under a Leibnizian model, however, it becomes possible to tell the kind of story that Radley Balko told in The Washington Post in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. In a story headlined “Problem of Ferguson isn’t racism—it’s de-centralization,” Balko described how Brown’s death wasn’t the result of “racism,” exactly, but rather due to the fact that the St. Louis suburbs are so fragmented, so Balkanized, that many of them are dependent on traffic stops and other forms of policing in order to make their payrolls and provide services. In short, police shootings can be traced back to weak governments—governments that are weak precisely because they do not gather up that which (or those who) might be thought to be beneath notice. The St. Louis suburbs, in other words, could be said to be analogous to the state of mathematics before the arrival of Leibniz (and Newton): rather than collecting the weak into something useful and powerful, these local governments allow the power of their voters to be diffused and scattered.

A Leibnizian investigator, in other words, might find that the problems of Chicago could be related to the fact that, in a survey of local governments conducted by the Census Bureau and reported by the magazine Governing, “Illinois stands out with 6,968 localities, about 2000 more than Pennsylvania, with the next-most governments.” As a recent study by David Miller, director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the greater Chicago area is the most governmentally fragmented place in the United States, scoring first in Miller’s “metropolitan power diffusion index.” As Governing put what might be the salient point: “political patronage plays a role in preserving many of the state’s existing structures”—that is, by dividing up government into many, many different entities, forces for the status quo are able to dilute the influence of the state’s voters and thus effectively insulate themselves from reality.

“My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill,” observes the Jehovah of Ezekiel 34; “yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.” But though in this way the flock “became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field,” the Lord Of All Existence does not then conclude by wiping out said beasts. Instead, the Emperor of the Universe declares: “I am against the shepherds.” Jehovah’s point is, one might observe, the same as Leibniz’s: no matter how powerless an infinitesimal sheep might be, gathered together they can become powerful enough to make journeys to the heavens. What Laquan McDonald’s death indicts, therefore, is not the wickedness of wolves—but, rather, the weakness of shepherds.


Is Streamsong Real?

“Young man, the Soviet Union is our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy.”
    —General Curtis Le May

Just finding Streamsong, the new golf resort ballyhooed as the “Bandon Dunes of Florida,” is an exercise in navigation: miles from any interstate highway, it’s surrounded by what appears, alternately, to be the savannah of the Serengeti Plain or an apocalyptic post-industrial hellscape. Either a lion pack or Mad Max appear likely to wait around the next turn. It’s a Florida unknown to the tourists on either coast—but Streamsong exists where the real map of Florida is being drawn, where the real history of the state is being written. That, even if one of Florida’s major exports is a denial that history exists, and the resort’s operations may in one sense dispute the very idea of maps.

Streamsong is located in the central part of Florida, far from the tourist beaches; there are no other big-time golf courses in the area. It consists, so far, of two 18-hole golf courses, the Red and the Blue. The Red was designed by Tom Doak’s Renaissance Design team, and the Blue by the partnership of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the Masters winner who is a connoisseur of golf course design. Both teams are grouped together as part of golf’s “minimalist” design movement; according to Renaissance Design, the “minimalist’s objective is to route as many holes as possible whose main features already exist in the landscape.” The landscape at Streamsong, however, that faced the two architectural teams was by no means natural.

This part of Florida is the preserve of enormous cattle ranches and massive phosphate mining operations. They’re industries that don’t often make it into the tourist brochures. Yet as dependent as Florida is on tourism—and at least some of it is definitely golf-related—Streamsong is the result of changes in the second of those industries. And, as it happens, it’s mining that’s at the center of a debate over the future of the state itself, as reported in the Tampa Bay Times in 2010.

Phosphate mining is, according to the director of the Tampa Port Authority Richard Wainio, “a singular industry … Florida doesn’t have a lot of big industries, and this is at or near the top of the pile as far as economic benefit for the state.” The phosphate industry, which ships its product through Tampa Bay, is in other words the economic machinery that the gloss of Disney World and South Beach obscures. Most of the state’s visitors, and likely by far the majority of its citizens, have little notion of what phosphate mining is nor how it can affect their lives. A little backstory might be in order then.

It begins somewhere around 50 million years ago, during the Eocene era—when the piece of Africa that would become Florida broke away from its parent plate and attached itself to the North American plate during the event that shattered the super-continent Pangea. In the eons since, shallow seas rose and fell over the rock, depositing the fossils that, when they were discovered in the 19th century, led to the central part of the state to be called “Bone Valley.” Animal bones and teeth concentrate phosphorus, as does the existence of animal life generally: phosphorus contains a lot of energy within its chemical bonds, which makes it necessary for nearly all life on earth—and thus, valuable.

“Bone Valley” is drained by the Peace River, which rises near the town of Bartow, the nearest larg(ish) town to Streamsong. A report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the river—done because the Corps manages the slow-flowing “river of grass” called the Everglades—not long ago held that “phosphate mining had led to the loss of 343 miles of streams and 136,000 acres of wetlands in the Peace River region.” That finding was a major piece of the evidence introduced by the enemies of phosphate mining in their lawsuit.

The largest company to mine phosphates in the Bone Valley is a company called Mosaic, a behemoth corporation formed out from a merger of two predecessors: IMC Global and the crop nutrition department of Cargill, each of them massive companies in their own right. Mosaic “is the largest producer of finished phosphate products, with an annual capacity greater than the next two producers combined.” If any one company has contributed to the degradation of the Peace River, then Mosaic—whose corporate forebears have operated in the Peace River watershed since before 1909—is the primary suspect. And Mosaic is, also, the owner of Streamsong—despite being such a large company, the resort is the company’s first foray into golf, or anything like tourism at all.

It’s an odd kind of timing, of course, since the numbers of golf courses in the United States are declining, not rising these days. Golf is an industry that took a major hit during the recent economic troubles: “Over the past decade,” said the New York Times in 2008, “the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America has been in a kind of recession.” Nevertheless, Mosaic went ahead and built two courses by top-name design teams at just the time many courses in the United States were shutting down. Just what that timing may, or may not, have to do with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, seeking to limit phosphate mining is unclear.

If building Streamsong is a tactical exercise meant to further a long-term corporate goal—and there’s no knowing at the moment if it is—then it’s well-within a Florida tradition of commercial strategy. European intellectuals, for instance, have long noted that Florida is, perhaps even more than California, known as a place with a tenuous connection to reality: the homeland of what the sophisticated Europeans call “hyperreality,” a place where signs no longer refer to an external “reality.” Where, in fact, the difference between signs and their referents no longer exists.

One such thinker, the Frenchman Jean Baudrillard, conjured up the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ fable, “On Rigor In Science,” to describe Disneyland. Borges’ short, one-paragraph tale describes an imperial society so wedded to precision that nothing less than “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire” would do. In such a place, the difference between a place and its representation would break down; so too, Baudrillard argues, are the Disney parks “perfect model[s] of all the entangled orders of simulation.” Another such Florida place, which as it happens was the starting point for my own trip to Streamsong, was that seemingly-dull “retirement community” (as they’re called), “the Villages.”

According to one resident, the Villages are “one of the places the Spanish looked for the Fountain of Youth.” But where Ponce de Leon left empty-handed, the new residents of the place are more fortunate: “‘we found it!’” Just how the Villages found this “Fountain of Youth” is something that the Mosaic Company might do well to examine. Assuming, to be sure, that it hasn’t already.

The real history of the Villages is that they began as a way to sell Florida swampland in the Lady Lake area of the state when the previous way of selling it—mail order—was outlawed by federal law in 1968. (Because it lent itself to fraud so easily, obviously.) Partners Harold Schwartz—significantly, a former Chicago advertising executive—and Al Tarrson’s attempts to develop the land as a mobile home park throughout the 1970s largely failed until in 1983 Schwartz bought out Tarrson and brought his son, H. Gary Morse (also a Chicago ad man), on to run the company. Morse’s idea was to re-aim their company towards a higher-income bracket than potential mobile-home owners; the master-stroke was building a golf course and not charging greens fees to play it. Tens of thousands of residents followed.

That isn’t, obviously, the history that the resident who talks about Ponce de Leon refers to when he mentions the Fountain of Youth. THAT history, it seems, comes from another source: according to a story from the St. Petersburg Times in 2000, “the Morse family (with the help of a bottle of Scotch and a case of beer) concocted a ‘fanciful history’” of the Villages; complete, in fact, with a reference to a tale of a visit from Ponce de Leon himself. The reason for this fabricated history is simple enough: as Gary Morse himself told the St. Petersburg Times reporter, “We wanted a town to remind them of their youth.”

Yet while the original “town center” development in the Villages—“Spanish Springs”— began the idea concocting “history” out of whole cloth, it’s the newest,—“Lake Sumter Landing”—that sails to a farther shore. “It features,” one Timothy Burke, a student at the University of South Florida notes in his paper, “An Economy of Historicity: The Carefully-Crafted Heritage of the Villages,” “no fewer than 76 ‘historic’ locations”—despite the fact that many of these sites “hadn’t existed six months prior.” Nearly every shop in the shopping district has a plaque adverting the building’s antiquity, complete with some tale or other of a previous tenant or notable: as Umberto Eco, author of “Travels in Hyperreality,” might say, Lake Sumter Landing “blends the reality of trade with the play of fiction.” So, the local movie theater not only claims to be an old vaudeville palace, it asserts that a traveling magician once “threw a playing card from the stage at the ceiling of the theater so hard that the card lodged in a crack in the plaster—where it remains to this day.” The top? Yeah, we’re over it.

Still, the idea behind the plaques isn’t just for entertainment value. Reading these plaques, nearly all of which refer to how the “original” inhabitants of the place arrived there from somewhere else—as, perhaps not coincidentally, do the current residents. It’s one way that, as Burke says, “the stories contributed to their adaptation of the Villages as a ‘home’”: the fictional characters described in the fictional histories inevitably come from places like Maine or New York, not Alabama or Tennessee. So, for instance, the fictional Upton family, proprietors of the eponymous Feed and Tack Store—“now” a restaurant—came to Lake Sumter from Pennsylvania. Almost certainly, the meaning of these varied origins is meant to reflect the varied origins of the current residents: the former Nebraska businessmen or Cleveland dentists who chose to spend the rest of their lives there. The “fanciful history,” in other words, allows each new resident to imagine themselves already having “roots” in what is, in reality, a landscape almost wholly ignorant of what actually preceded it.

Burke interviews one resident, for instance, about the fictional history, and asks whether “she felt there was an authentic heritage to the Lady Lake area that was being overlooked” by the fictional history of Spanish Springs and Lake Sumter Landing. “‘Oh,’” the former New Jersey schoolteacher says, “‘but this is Florida. It probably wasn’t the nicest history.’” Perhaps so: actual local historians, Burke says, report that before the “northern invasion” of the Chicago advertising executives, “the Lady Lake area was ruled by cattle baron Clyde Bailey”—who, given the history of the cattle industry in America, was presumably not a Boy Scout.

Assuming though that we can juggle the distinction between “real” and “fake” on top of “nice” and “not nice”—a pretty complex mental operation—maybe we can presume that—though the “fake” history of Lake Sumter Landing is likely “nicer” than the “real” history of Clyde Bailey’s Lady Lake—it doesn’t necessarily mean that the real history of the Villages is all that much different from that of Lady Lake. Like the old-time robber barons of a company town, Gary Morse owns “all or part of pretty much everything worth owning in the Villages, including the bank, the hospital, the utilities, the garbage collection company, the TV and radio stations, and the newspaper,” according to a story in Slate. But not merely that—which is what got Morse in trouble with the IRS recently.

This summer, the IRS ruled that government bonds issued by the Villages’ governing board—called a community development district, or CDD—“did not deserve to be tax-exempt” like other bonds issued by CDDs throughout Florida. Why? “Because,” as Slate said, “everyone who sits on the district board—like everything else in the Villages—is controlled by Morse.” Or as the New York Times reported: “the IRS states that the district does not function like a true government.” An actual government, for example, is usually worried about what its voters might think about how that government spends its money.

That’s why IRS agent Dominick Servadio questioned “why the Village Center Community District used $60 million in bond proceeds to buy guardhouses, golf courses, and small parks that cost Mr. Morse … less than $8 million to build,” according to the Times. “‘If I was a resident of The Villages,’” Mr. Servadio wrote, “‘I would be outraged by this transaction.’” The Villages, it seems, has responded by saying that Mr. Servadio is not nice: “‘It’s really been upsetting the residents,’” the Times quotes Janet Tutt, district manager for the Villages, “‘to deal with the stress and anxiety.’” One imagines that yes, there is likely some stress involved when discovering that one’s government has been swindled for a 700 percent profit—but just where that blame lies is perhaps not so clear-cut as Ms. Tutt might say.

None of this, to be sure, has anything directly to do with Streamsong which, so far as I know, does not pretend to have always been there. It is true that a golf course—particularly one built in Florida, which was unaffected by the Ice Ages—is always a kind of fakery, because despite what Tom Doak might claim no golf course simply takes the land it’s built on as is: “All over the world,” says geologist Anita Harris in John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, “when people make golf courses they are copying glacial landscapes.” Yet fairly obviously, the resort wasn’t built simply because the company felt that its land demanded a golf course to be put upon it, in the way that some say that the sea by Monterey, California demanded Pebble Beach be built. Almost certainly, the company expects some return for its investment: a return that may or may not have any reference to the Sierra Club’s lawsuit.

Yet even were there some “plot” involved in the building of Streamsong, the judgement of whether it actually signifies something “nefarious” or not ultimately comes down to what value you place on phosphate mining generally. As it happens, phosphates are part of all living things: it’s an essential nutrient for plants, for instance, and necessary for nearly all metabolic processes in animals. Phosphates also allow muscles to store energy for immediate use, and they build our teeth and bones. This is not even to address industrial uses—without phosphate mining, in short, a great deal of the contemporary world, “natural” and “artificial,” falls apart.

Countering those points, the Sierra Club notes what opponents of mining always note: that the benefits of mining rarely accrue to those living near the site of the mine. Sixty percent of the ore shipped out of Florida, for example, leaves the United States—historically, mostly to China—and while the mining industry provides some jobs, those numbers are dwarfed by the numbers of jobs in Florida that depend on a clean Peace River watershed, including the hundreds of thousands that drink Peace River water. As with nearly all mining operations, phosphate mining leaves behind it a cleanup trail—and in the case of Florida, that includes small amounts of radioactive uranium that will likely outlast even the corporations that do the mining, much less any of us human beings alive today.

To which Jean Baudrillard, for one, might reply “Just so.” Already, in 1975, the French intellectual had published “Simulacra and Simulations,” which argued that, today, the distinction between the Real and the Imaginary had fallen: in his words, the “territory no longer precedes the map.” “Disneyland,” he says, “is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real.” Or, to put it in a way that might be more applicable to those residents of the Villages who appear quite ready to believe that the place was built by Santa Claus, Disneyland “is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that childishness is everywhere.” Is Streamsong a cover for iniquitous business practices, or an attempt at an “enlightened” capitalism that recognizes the (alas, completely necessary) damage it does?

Or, to put it another way: Is Streamsong Real?