Good Reads: From Chicago as the future, to a pessimistic US, to Blackwater's origins

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes nostalgia for Chicago of the 1980s, why Americans are failing to see they still rule the world, the stability beneath the chaos of democracy, the Awá tribe of Brazil, and the rise and fall of Blackwater.

By , Managing editor

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    Awá Indians stand in a forest in Maranhao state, Brazil.
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Thomas Frank is something of an old-school, lunch-pails-and-union-halls liberal – at least as intellectuals go. So Chicago in the 1980s was his kind of town. In an essay in Harper’s Magazine, Mr. Frank recalls a city struggling with the end of a great industrial era: “The ruins that surrounded you on the South Side were the relics of a civilization that had built great things, that had made the world go.”

Now elite Chicago’s embrace of its working-class roots is strictly ironic. Frank sits at a trendy restaurant over “a winking parody of the Chicago-style hot dog: an assembly of sliced-up steak, ‘hot dog bun puree,’ ‘housemade pickles,’ a mustard-flavored wafer, and so on.” His lament: “In Chicago’s strangely tidy streets, the rest of the nation can get a glimpse of the future: a city that works – for a few.”

Cheer up, America, you still rule

The voice of The Economist is almost a throwback to an era when it felt like the grown-ups were in charge. (Of course, The Economist would observe that we’re only remembering it that way.) In the lead-off piece of a special report on American foreign policy, the magazine in effect tells America to quit moping and pull its socks up.

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There are plenty of concerns, failures, and new rivals on many fronts, yes. The Economist is especially critical of the venture in Iraq led by George W. Bush. But it argues that Americans are too busy contemplating their own decline to stand up and notice that they still rule the world, and the world still needs that leadership. So stop with the whining jeremiads. “It is time to cheer up. The world America faces today may seem cussed and intractable, but the world America looked forward to shaping after the fall of the Soviet Union was never as pliant and welcoming as it imagined. And America’s strengths are as impressive as ever. On every measure of power it remains dominant.”

Chaotic on the surface, stable beneath

Ah, but it shall ever be thus, explains David Runciman in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure,” he writes. A political scientist at the University of Cambridge, Professor Runciman cites the history of democracies lurching “from complacency to fury and back again,” swinging from “unwarranted optimism” to “unwarranted pessimism” with little room for voices in between.

The first to notice this was – who else? – Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1831 was “immediately struck by the frenetic and mindless quality of democratic politics.” But beneath the constant grumbling, rancor, and occasional panics of American democracy, Tocqueville noticed something else: “that underneath the chaotic surface, it was quite stable.”

Native survival in the Amazon

Prospects are fairly dim for the Awá people of the Brazilian Amazon. Alex Shoumatoff, writing in Vanity Fair, describes his 10 days visiting what he describes as the most endangered tribe on the planet. Only some 350 members remain. Not enough, Mr. Shoumatoff points out, “to take on the madeireiros, the loggers who are killing their trees and their animals and are now within a few miles of here, and the thousands of other invasores who have illegally settled on their land and converted a third of their forest to pasture.”

He is greeted by an impassioned speech by an Awá father. “ ‘We are Awá,’ he says. ‘We don’t succeed in living with chickens and cows. We don’t want to live in cities. We want to live here.... We don’t want anything from the whites but to live as we live and be who we are. We just want to be Awá.’ ”

Shoumatoff writes: “I think of all the speeches like this given by brave natives in the Americas over the last 500 years, who were trying to save their people and way of life and world but were unable to stop the inevitable, brutal advance of the conqueror and his ‘progress,’ and how this is probably what is going to happen here, to this remnant tribe in its endgame.”

A private-sector military

The rise and fall of Blackwater, the private security firm that rode the Iraq war to fame and fortune and then back down again, is chronicled by Drake Bennett in Bloomberg Businessweek – mainly from the vantage point of Blackwater founder Erik Prince.

A former Navy SEAL, Mr. Prince founded a training facility in North Carolina. When the Iraq war broke out, he tapped a network of fellow special forces veterans to quickly put together security teams for the US government. He credited his company’s explosive growth to the nimble agility that is the advantage of the private sector over the rigid bureaucracies of the official military.

The flip side of that virtue is that some critics blame Blackwater’s mistakes on poor training and preparation. Prince blames, above all, the self-protective State Department. “If I could send a message back to my younger self, it would be: Do not work for the State Department at all.”

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