Big Babbitt Is Watching You: The Commonwealth Of Belle Isle's Totalitarian Spirit

January 27, 2013, 11:42 AM

Detroit City Council is expected to approve Belle Isle's state park lease Tuesday. If that happens, the daffy plan to sell the island to an investor group wishing to create a quasi-independent "commonwealth" for $1 billion will be put down, mercifully, like Old Yeller.

Unfortunately, this will not settle the matter completely. Don't think for a second that advocates of an autonomous tax-free protectorate are finished. Detroit’s finest public space may have been their location of first choice, but their dream of an Ayn Rand-inspired principality will not die so easily.

Given the prominent names endorsing this thing (Hal Sperlich, David Littmann, Larry Mongo, Clark Durant, John Rakolta, Keith Crain, etc.) we can surely expect to hear about a Commonwealth 2.0 scheme at some future point in time, for some to be determined locale.

It might be tempting to dismiss Rodney Lockwood's self-published "Belle Isle: Detroit's Game Changer" as the sort of tedious fiction found in a high school creative writing class. The 144-page novel features the typeface and paragraph spacing choices popular with adolescents padding term-paper page counts. But it would be irresponsible to ignore it.

Too many civic leaders have already chosen to pay attention. Some, for reasons that make no sense, have even embraced this simple-minded vision written by a man who, based on his publicity photo, is into Star Wars cosplay.

Rather than just mocking the stilted dialogue, absurd plot conventions, and unspoken homoeroticism of Lockwood's fantasy world, we must give serious consideration to his vision. 

But as St. Augustine once said, "but not yet." This book is a treasure trove of unintentional comedy. This earnest, tract-like attempt at literature makes even Upton Sinclair's most ponderous "novels" seem like Goddamn Marcel Proust. Imagine Philip Roth building senior housing communities in northern Macomb County and you will understand the terribleness that is "Belle Isle: Detroit's Game Changer."

The 1973 Of Tomorrow...Today!

The plot, set 30 years into the future, involves a visit to the pleasant island community of Belle Isle by Joe, a 6'2" blond-haired, blue-eyed Syrian-American doctor and Detroit native who now lives in Damascus. Joe's high school best friend, Darin, is kind of Belle Isle's Wizard of Oz. He's portrayed (heroically) as a cross between Robert Moses, Thomas Jefferson, and the president of the Del Boca Vista Phase Two condo association.

Both characters are fastidious middle-aged men who take pride in their appearance and watch what they eat. Darin, we learn, used to help girls shop for clothes in high school.

Neither Joe nor Darin appears to be married now or have children. If either was ever married, or currently has a romantic partner, it is a secret kept from readers. This is particularly odd considering the novel basically consists of conversations between the two long-time friends who, it is explained, have rarely kept in touch over the last 20 years. In their time together never once do they say anything about their personal lives.

Perhaps, like many a confirmed bachelor, these men are simply married to their work. Affairs of the heart are handled are handled with, let's call it, discretion.

At one point in the story Darin holds a dinner party at his condo. All five guests are men. And the condo? Only one word can properly describe this (ahem) bachelor pad: Fabulous.

"The condo had a clean modern feel with touches of natural materials. Italian grey stone pavers at the entry transitioned into a light oak floor of the Great Room. The ceiling was also the same light oak. Opposite the entry was a large fireplace with a chimney that reached to the 10' ceiling. Both the fireplace and chimney matched the stone pavers of the entry. On the walls were paintings and pictures Darin had acquired in Asia. Individual light fixtures resembling inverted snow cones hung from a serpentine chrome track lighting base."

A writer who seemingly takes such great pains to alert readers of his characters' sexuality without overtly discussing matters like relationships and families must be, himself, a remarkable psychological study.

The unmistakable closet that Lockwood locks his characters into isn't the only peculiarity of his opus. He also takes great pains to demonstrate Belle Isle's diversity, yet it is the diversity imagined by a person who likes the concept in theory but isn't comfortable with diversity in real life.

As previously noted, Joe, the son of Syrian immigrants, has the requisite blond hair and blue eyes of the Aryan ideal. A restaurant hostess is described for no apparent reason as "appearing to be of Asian descent.” A plucky Mexican immigrant named Hector began his life on Belle Isle picking up garbage but now runs a landscaping business. Because of course he does. An African-American accountant, readers learn, used to be a humble cab driver attending night school. Before that he was a gang-banger. Another African-American character, we're told he was "of African descent," owns a construction company. However, before the Commonwealth of Belle Isle's largesse funded a massive job-training program in Detroit, he was just another Negro living on food stamps and Section 8 housing subsidies.

Even more laughable than these painfully obvious ethnic stereotypes is the technology of this future world. Darin and Joe haven't kept in touch much since high school. One assumes that sometime between now and 2043, Facebook imploded and no social network rose replace it. There is also a monorail. Readers are expected to be impressed by what amounts to a Belle Isle People Mover.

Weirder still, everyone on Belle Isle uses PDAs rather than smartphones. In fact, thanks to Belle Isle's competitive business advantages (or something), PDAs will be manufactured right here in Detroit! I must have skipped the part about Belle Isle's time machine and how it is used to ship these Detroit-made PDAs back to 1998.

Rodney Lockwood's ideas about the future suggests a man who still clings to his AOL email address and a societal vision set into stone during the Watergate era.

Dumbed Down Ayn Rand, Which Was Dumbed Down Nietzsche

Yet we cannot take this horrid prose too lightly because this is a vision far too many see as Detroit's shining path to prosperity. Lockwood's reputation as a successful builder and former head of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce may blind some to the fact that he's written a terrible novel describing what seems like a child's fantasy world.

Worse than the unintentional comedy of a businessman's vanity-published novel, is the totalitarian nature of its vision. This actually isn't surprising when you consider Lockwood's worldview is a cousin, once removed, of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Some decades after Nietzsche's death, a Russian expatriate and b-movie screenwriter named Ayn Rand did to Nietzsche what Hollywood often does to literary masters: She dumbed him down for a broader audience. Her two novels, the engaging if pedestrian “Fountainhead” and the intolerably bad “Atlas Shrugged,” amount to a kind of Nietzsche for Dummies woven into the overwrought plots of thousand-page pulp romance novels.

Fast forward to the present day, even as modern society considers raping the daughters of prominent architects gauche, Rand’s books remain popular. Lockwood’s “Belle Isle” is an unapologetic Randian fairy story, complete with a currency named for the writer.

It is therefore the “Atlas Shrugged” review penned by the heroic anti-communist Whitaker Chambers that best sums up “Belle Isle:”

"I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous," Chambers wrote in the National Review. "It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the “looters.” These are proponents of proscriptive taxes, government ownership, Labor, etc. etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality."

Chambers went so far as to suggest totalitarian tendencies at the core of Rand’s work: “It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible…From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!””

Lockwood’s prose has its own totalitarian heartbeat, though his is not the totalitarianism of Hitler or Mao but that of Franco and Tito. He doesn’t wish to exterminate his intellectual enemies. He only wants to flee from them, into a city-state as tree fort/tax haven that protects the self-ordained righteous Übermensch from parasitic lesser men.

War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Concrete Is Communist

Lockwood explains how his hero Darin, as Belle Isle's master planner, established intricate building standards for this utopic Belle Isle. He and his staff must approve the aesthetic choices of every structure on the island. Concrete is not allowed because it is ugly and Communist. The Soviets built many things with concrete, so exposed concrete is not permitted. Seriously.

Private automobiles are also banned. You must take the monorail, walk, or ride a bike. Non-emergency service vehicles (i.e. garbage trucks and delivery vans) are only allowed to operate between 3:00 AM - 7:00 AM.

If Detroit or Troy or Grosse Pointe Shores attempted such policies the outrage would be immediate and fierce, mostly from the crowd behind this Belle Isle fantasy. Also people awakened by their neighbor's 4:00 AM lumber delivery.

Propose something as benign as adding a bike lane to an existing road or establishing an historic district and you'll be hit with a barrage of nonsense about socialism and Agenda 21. In this libertarian wonderland, however, residents throw off the yoke of oppressive government by submitting building plans to bureaucrats who ensure designs aren't too Soviet.

The entire urban planning vision laid out in this book runs counter to the sort of mixed-used, Jane Jacobs-style cities one might expect in a deregulated free market paradise. Instead, readers find a pre-determined zone for residential buildings, another for commercial buildings, and still another sporting and recreation facilities. There is even a district reserved for schools and churches.

In our ideologically imperfect United States, we find schools and churches tucked into the fabric our neighborhoods. It is only when our betters create their perfect society on Belle Isle will we finally learn the joys of commuting across town to find an elementary school or synagogue in the state-approved worship and learning zone.

This zeal for a world built in Lockwood’s image also manifests itself in his vision for mainland Detroit. Having possibly read a USA Today infographic about the Detroit Works Project, Lockwood sees Detroit breaking apart into multiple small cities separated by agricultural “green zones” from which any remaining residents would be forcibly removed. Detroit proper would essentially be downtown and midtown, or “Delta City” in Paul Verhoeven’s less optimistic vision for Detroit's future.

Lockwood fails to explain why Corktown or East English Village would benefit from hiring their own City Clerks or building the infrastructure for their own police departments. Here we see what Chambers meant about fiction's “mischief.” Any idea can be successful by fiat. The city of Brightmoor must be a good because the author says so.

The character of Darin is himself problematic. Even though, readers learn, Darin's office is incredibly modest--he is but a humble servant of the people--he enjoys a comfortable lifestyle complete with a lavish high-rise condo and a regular table in the Belle Isle Four Season's penthouse bar. How does he afford such luxury on his civil servant's salary? It's not explained. Maybe his father is Bernard Kilpatrick.

Lockwood's vision for Belle Isle's elected government is so limited in power that most judges are part-time employees and the island's legislative council often cancels meetings for lack of an agenda. Yet, behind the democratic facade, Darin and his bureaucracy hold tremendous power over life on Belle Isle.

This Commonwealth is as much a state rooted in the concept of managerial capitalism as the post-New Deal United States. The difference is while the managerial class created by Roosevelt—a group readers will quickly surmise Lockwood despises—sought to uplift the “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” Lockwood’s apparatchiks exist to ensure his oligarchical community is spared the obscenity of exposed concrete.

Even our happy Mexican immigrant/landscaper Hector’s success in this new world of free market opportunity hinges largely on a lucrative government contract to landscape Belle Isle’s parks. Naturally, Hector’s friendship with the powerful Darin had nothing to do with his good fortune. Things like that simply don’t happen on Belle Isle. Ideological purity, and a secret anti-corruption committee, have purged original sin for the island’s inhabitants. Everyone is honest and good.

History tells us that any powerful entity operating in secret will, on a long enough timeline, become corrupt. This Anti-Corruption Committee aims either to be the great exception to that rule or is an Orwellian mechanism to ensure corruption isn’t democratized to the mere highest bidder, but is limited to only benefit the right sort. Either way, yet another layer of governmental bureaucracy created especially for this supposed libertarian paradise.

For all its laissez faire affectation, the government of Belle Isle controls every aspect of life on the island in a way virtually all Americans would find uncomfortable.

“My point is that a society that doesn’t respect individual freedom, that holds an elitist view that the common man can’t make good decisions in the face of expert opinions, that the experts must make the laws to protect the common man from his poor decisions, becomes a society that is easily manipulated by the clever among us to their own advantage,” explains Darin late in the book.

He’s ostensibly talking about the United States that Belle Islanders fled, but in truth he’s betraying the hypocrisy of his supposedly superior society.

On Belle Isle, medical malpractice cases are decided by special panels of doctors rather than ordinary juries because, well, Darin can explain it: “In technical matters we figure the common man doesn’t have the training and expertise to understand and make good judgments in today’s increasingly complex world.”

A cynic might suggest such a system is the manipulation of clever doctors. After all, a jury of doctors has incentive (fewer successful malpractice suits mean lower medical liability insurance costs for all doctors) to reject even valid malpractice claims. What’s more, since malpractice is not only a medical but also a legal finding, it’s hard to see how a jury of only doctors is better equipped than a jury of carpenters, marketing associates, and housewives to make that legal finding. Why do these special expert juries lack members with legal training?

The answer is Lockwood believes lawyers are bad people and the common man must be protected from their dastardly clever manipulations. That’s why, instead of allowing lawyers to sell their services at prices they see fit, as plumbers and accountants and mainland lawyers do, Belle Isle’s barristers must participate in what looks suspiciously like an Obamacare health insurance exchange designed to keep contingency fees down.

This selective antipathy toward free market is also apparent on the Detroit side of MacArthur Bridge, where residents keep their cars in a Belle Isle government-owned parking garage. Apparently, the market forces of America’s privately-owned parking industry would be too great a burden for islanders wishing to keep their Buick handy.

Give Me Your Tanned, Your Well-Fed, Your Booboisie Yearning To Avoid Capital Gains

Nowhere is the role of an omnipresent government more obvious than in the highly selective residency requirements.

In the United States people are free to live wherever they want. Find a willing seller or landlord and move. American citizens can move to and from any state, or even U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, as they wish. However, even a daughter of Detroit’s Islandview neighborhood cannot rent an apartment on Belle Isle without government approval. Again, this self-ordained enclave of liberty demands special powers to impose limitations on the migration rights of American citizens in what would remain American territory.

Relocation to this quasi-nation requires one to pay a six-figure entry tax and pass a background check. Some residents are allowed to forgo paying the entry tax, but they must qualify for that privilege. Our Mexican friend Hector, upon learning about Belle Isle's "magic train" in the sky, went through an application process that required him to take English classes and write an essay about the virtues of limited government. 

And, yes, Rodney Lockwood’s token Mexican character is literally portrayed as a childlike peasant wowed by stories of “magic trains.” 

Anyway, there would appear to be a great demand for Ivy League admissions officers on Belle Isle. They are quite capable of accepting dimwits with rich fathers and Mayflower lineage while culling a list of the petit bourgeois’ best and brightest. The Princeton Review may find Belle Isle entry test prep to be a profitable sideline. And cynics wondered how Belle Isle’s quasi-independence would create 200,000 jobs in John Rakolta’s imagination!

The history of the United States has witnessed waves of immigration and nativist backlashes, but never in the republic’s history has anyone attempted to micromanage a population quite like what’s envisioned for Belle Isle.

The process as laid out seems to reduce persons to the sum of their economic parts, either in cash or trade, such as an essay proving you would be the “right kind” of immigrant and willingness to pick up garbage between the hours of 3:00-7:00 AM. This would not be the first society to dehumanize its citizens to economic cogs.

“The previous regime - armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology - reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production,” Vaclav Havel said of Czechoslovakia’s communist rulers. “In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone.”

Totalitarianism By Any Other Name

The real meaning of Belle Isle’s arrogant and intolerant ideology is that men like Rodney Lockwood no longer have the patience for the messy and complex nature of a free and open society. They know What Is Best™ and want to live in a place where their vision of What Is Best™isn’t challenged by contrarians and skeptics.

This is not a new phenomenon. Since the dawn of civilization men have claimed there’s is the One True Path™. These men (and women, lest we forget Carrie Nation) have always attempted to purge all who would object. This is the essence of totalitarianism, to limit life to just what the most powerful deem proper.

In Rodney Lockwood’s Commonwealth of Belle Isle, cement front stoops and storefront churches in shopping districts will not be tolerated! He calls this freedom.

What isn’t explained to how these all these rules would be enforced. The Commonwealth of Belle Isle’s government sounds like the home owner’s association from hell with police powers. Of course, even if Belle Isle doesn’t devolve into a nightmare of legalistic enforcement of petty rules, history suggests it will, but even it that doesn’t happen, this will be an inherently totalitarian place.

Simply by selecting its inhabitants with the specificity envisioned here, the Commonwealth of Belle Isle would forgo any claim to being a free society. Everything is planned by a Leviathan power structure, including the fitness of one's potential neighbors.

Just as in any totalitarian nation, the right to exist on Belle Isle is limited to only those who agree with the official ideology. The difference is dissent here needn’t be crushed. It would be forced to remain on the other side of the bridge.

A truly free society must tolerate the existence of even those voices who seek to undermine the very notion of liberty. However, it is also the responsibility of engaged citizens to reject and refute, not only the ideas that run counter to our open society, but also the men and women who champion them. Rodney Lockwood and his fellow advocates of this Commonwealth of Belle Isle should be assigned to the dustbin of local history.

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