eyes on the U.S.

Detroit: A Cautionary Tale For Modern Civilization

"Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder," wrote British historian Arnold Toynbee. Lessons from the downfall of the automotive industry's once-glorious capital.

View of Detroit from an abandoned factory
View of Detroit from an abandoned factory
Laurent Carpentier

There is life after bankruptcy. Detroit’s default is not the beginning of the end for the municipality, but rather the inevitable consequence of sinking so far into debt that the city could not climb out. “A town exists to provide services,” said Bill Nowling, spokesperson for emergency city manager Kevin Orr. “We cannot reverse that like we could with a business. That's the difference between chapter 9 and chapter 11 bankruptcies.”

So why has Detroit’s bankruptcy created such a wave of commentary and worry across the planet? Because of its size — at its height, the fourth-largest in the United States? Because it creates an unfortunate precedent? No, the fall of Detroit is worrying because it symbolizes a fundamental change in civilization.

No junk bonds here, no subprime mortgages. Instead, the total collapse of the automobile industry, once the reason behind so many 20th century triumphs, brought the city to its knees.

Detroit was the birthplace of so many hopes and dreams during that era of prosperity — a period of time now revealing faults inherent to the system. It was here, at Ford, that Taylorism and division of labor was born. Here, again, in the General Motors factory across the street, that consumer credit (and by extension, excessive household debt?) was first conceived. Even the first mall was built here. The whole city was a motorist utopia, with automobiles encoded in its DNA.

Of course, the recent desertion of Detroit — in the last 40 years, the population has shrunk from 1.8 million inhabitants to fewer than 800,000 — can be explained by a number of key historical events. The race riots during the 1960s triggered the flight of the white middle class to the suburbs, and the financial crisis in the 1980s forced the black middle class to up and leave.

Without inhabitants, there is not a healthy tax base. Without sufficient taxes, public services suffer. And without public services, a city of empty skyscrapers simply cannot thrive.

Unfathomable sadness

“Everyone is watching what’s happening in Detroit because they're wondering if it's going to happen to them,” says Chris Jaszczak, owner of 1515 Broadway, one of the few center city cafés, above which he lives.

His Polish grandfather, a Marxist militant, was killed in Chicago, and his father participated in the first strikes in 1933. He characterizes the 1967 race riots as the “insurrection.” A Vietnam veteran turned pacifist, Jaszczak received help from Occupy Wall Street when the banks tried to evict him because he was unable to make his payments. This remains one of the last memories of the human face of Detroit.

It is undoubtedly the simple loss of humanity in the city that provokes such unfathomable sadness. Detroit is a symbol of the greatness of our civilization and of an era that we will one day call “anthropocene” — the era of man. Humans have become the primary geological force on the planet, responsible for changes not only to the surface of the earth and the land, but also to the atmosphere, the biosphere and the hydrosphere. Detroit is like a symbol of man’s decay, his limitations and what is at stake in the future.

What is happening in Detroit leads us to question our model of society. Does everything have a beginning and an end?

Six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, the first great urban civilization was born. The Sumerians developed a sophisticated irrigation system, which marked a victory of knowledge and technology over nature. Unfortunately, over the centuries, the irrigation waters transported mineral salts, salting the fields bit by bit and rendering them infertile.

All that's left of that glorious age in the now-barren region of southern Iraq are the ruins. “Civilizations die from suicide,” wrote the British historian Arnold Toynbee, “not by murder.” Rather apt, both for the Sumerians and for Detroit.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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