Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Acres of Clams

By Knute Berger

It’s hard to take this book seriously. There’s something about Knute Berger that invites derision and mockery. It’s not just his physical appearance (short, rotund, bearded – sort of like the Comic Book Store Guy from The Simpsons, but nicer and furrier); it’s something about the writer’s persona he’s adopted that I find ludicrous and faintly contemptible. He fancies himself a mossback, a “curmudgeon with a conscience”, an earthy, contentious smart-ass (but with a big heart) who’s always on the look out what’s authentic and what’s fake here in Puget Sound.

Actually, he is nothing of the sort. He is, to vary a phrase of Orwell’s, “a licensed curmudgeon” – someone who criticizes but only within the limits set by those in power. He presents no real challenge to the people who count. He is harmless. If he wishes to posture as someone outside the system “telling it like it is”, the powerful will gladly grant him that boon and even play along. He’s sort of like the employee who shows up for work on time everyday, never slacks off, but reads Bakunin during his lunch hour.

Take, for instance, “Paul Allen’s Kool-Aid”, one of the few good pieces in this dreary little book. In it, Berger goes to the sales showroom of Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate company, which owns thousand of acres of property on South Lake Union that it wants to develop (with city financing, of course). There Berger sees a full-blown depiction (with dioramas!) of what the area will look like if Allen gets his way. Berger isn’t buying any of this and is rightly contemptuous of Allen’s plans. He watches a promotional film about what life could be like in Seattle in 2010:

It’s a rosy future: bars, coffeehouses, REI yuppies, trolleys – nothing like we have today, of course. An upbeat newscast from 2010…casually refers to the Seattle Mariners being in the hunt for their second consecutive world title, just to remind you this is fantasy.
Now, Berger is concerned that developers and the so-called needs of the market place tend to ride roughshod over local communities. They often trample on the environment and undermine Seattle's unique quality of life. I completely agree. So he’s against Paul Allen, right? Think again. The piece ends with praise of Allen

But you have to give Paul Allen credit, for while his vision is less bold, it is rendered most tangibly. He has realized that the race to the future will be won by a two-pronged campaign fought in the trenches and in the stars [“in the stars”? What does that even mean?] His staff is fighting for South Lake Union in the streets – lobbying, planning, organizing, co-opting, cajoling, selling. Yet they’re also investing in getting their vision out there in three dimensions. No one else has articulated a more compelling alternative that the public can see, feel, and imagine.
So the diorama really worked for you, eh, Knute? One little three dimensional display and his principles went right out the window. Now that’s journalistic integrity for you. No, despite his posturing, at the end of the day, Berger is as gung-ho as any Seattle Chamber of Commerce hack. EMP? He loves it! The Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park? It’s brilliant! Peter Steinbreuck? Heck of a guy! Berger writes of the city’s chaotic political process:

It may look like chaos – it may even be chaotic at times – but it hasn’t stopped growth or progress or prosperity. Our process, such as it is, has resulted in one of the most loved, most cherished, most desirable, most habitable metropolitan regions in the country.
Please, don’t get the wrong idea about this book, though. Before we arrive at these oases of provincial boosterism, we have to slog through miles and miles of whining and complaint. Berger is a world-class crank. And a tedious one, at that. If this book feels like a rehash, that’s because it is, being composed entirely of pieces Berger has previously written for publications like Seattle Weekly, Eastsideweek, and the website Crosscut (which has such a geriatric contributor base that it should be called Cheesecut).

Why does Knute Berger write? If it is to inform us, he doesn’t do a very good job. The Seattle reader will not learn anything new from this book; and if you’re new to Seattle the lack of background information will render it largely impenetrable to you. The historical information he provides rarely rises above the level of antiquarian trivia.

Does Berger hope to motivate us? And if so, to do what? He doesn’t seem to feel that there’s anything we can really do about any of the myriad of things he hates. He has that Scandanavian/Calvinist sense of helplessness. Developers suck – but the politicians who would limit them can’t be trusted. Boeing sucks – but all the politicians are in their pocket, so what can we do. Politicians suck, too – but they just reflect the will of the stupid, stupid populace. As for the people: “The people are incorrigible.”

Berger seems to feel that what we all need to do is embrace the authentic mossback values expressed in restaurateur/folksinger Ivar Haglund’s song – and later, ad jingle - “Acres of Clams”:

No longer a slave to ambition
I laugh at the world and its shams,
As I think of my present condition
Surrounded by acres of clams.

And now that I’m used to the climate,
I think that if ever man found
A spot to live easy and happy,
That Eden is on Puget Sound.

Well, that happy, easy-living man on the banks of Puget Sound is clearly not Knute Berger. And, neither, alas, will it be the readers of this book.

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