Christmas cheer

Dec 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Be of good cheer, comrades, whatever ghosts you worship, or don't worship, at this time of year. True, the economy stinks; we've got a pack of fools in Lansing doing their best to ruin our state, and various other horrors too numerous to mention.

And yet there is good news most of us are overlooking. We have gotten through this year, or just about; bruised and battered, true; facing worse economic news to come, yes.

But in some key ways, we are better off than a year or two ago. Nationally, we are actually about to have some form of universal health care, imperfect, but far better than nothing.

And in our state and our town, the good news is that we've sobered up. Detroit and the auto industry have mostly dropped their delusions and are increasingly facing reality. Remember: One year ago the no-longer-big three, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, were tottering on the brink of extinction. Not just bankruptcy, extinction. Southern Republican senators like Alabama's Richard Shelby, were against giving them a penny.

Had Chrysler and GM been forced to declare bankruptcy then, it might have provoked a panic that would have plunged the already shaky stock market into something like what happened in 1929. The impact would have crippled suppliers too.

Many of them supply the entire industry, and that might well have sent Ford into bankruptcy too. We could have been going through a second Great Depression, right now. Yet we avoided that. President George W. Bush, of all people, did us a favor by throwing a few billion at Chrysler and General Motors, if for no other reason than to avoid their collapse on his watch. Then, President Obama continued life support. When the sick two finally declared bankruptcy, everyone was ready for it, and the markets barely quivered.

What's more, the machinery was in place to get them into and out of bankruptcy as quickly as possible. Naturally, none of us knows if they will survive long-term. But they aren't dead yet.

When the nation elected Barack Obama on Nov. 4, 2008, it was a sign it was willing to sober up too, after our disastrous eight-year wallow in crackbrained fantasyland, in which the nation tied itself to Bush and his dangerously crazy puppet master, Dick Cheney, and thereby ruined itself financially, morally and in nearly every way you can imagine.

Detroit went through a similar, though different binge on pretty much the same timetable, electing a vulgar, self-indulgent man-child mayor not once, but twice.

A year ago, Kwame Kilpatrick was still in jail, and the equally repellent Monica Conyers was still on City Council, disgracing Detroit daily. Now, four elections later, we have a mayor who is, regardless of how you feel about his policies, a sensible and responsible grown-up. Dave Bing is trying to find a way for the city to survive, avoid bankruptcy and have a future.

That's not easy, and he knows it. Fortunately, Kilpatrick, who was mumbling about a comeback a year ago, has continued to publicly disgrace himself, increasing the odds that nobody will ever feel nostalgia for him or what he represents.

Monica C. is a convicted felon, and other council embarrassments, such as Barbara-Rose Collins, Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, and the flatlining Martha Reeves, are gone too.

Meanwhile, Robert Bobb and his staff got another year to try to save the wretchedly used and abused Detroit Public Schools. Vast and difficult work lies ahead.

Success is far from certain, but rational, sensible men and women are trying. What we have to do individually is harder. Here's the present we all need to give ourselves: We can have a future — you, me, Detroit, maybe even those of us who want to make cars. But we have to create it ourselves.

Two years ago, you could still find shop rats and engineers who thought the auto industry would roar back, and again provide good-paying mindless jobs for hundreds of thousands. Now, pretty much everybody realizes that's over. Instead, there is a new delusion; people waiting for the next big industry to arrive and put us all back to work at high-paying secure jobs making condoms or search engines or something.

Not going to happen. To be sure, some wonderful thing might come about; nobody saw Henry Ford and Bill Gates on the horizon before they showed up and created new industries. But we can't sit around waiting for that.

We're doing our best to settle accounts with our mistakes in the past. Now, we're going to have to build a future. That means all of us. We have to take responsibility for this state, both for ourselves and for all of us. Karl Gregory, a distinguished professor emeritus from Oakland University and one of the wisest men I know, likes to quote Jackie Robinson:

"Life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives." They don't get that in Lansing yet, where a bunch of narrow-minded ideologues intend to allow higher education and the cities to be destroyed next year, rather than pay for them.

We'll talk more about that in the future. Meanwhile, enjoy the holiday and accentuate the positive, as they used to say. We've lost a lot this year, but that includes stupid illusions, Bush and Cheney. And that ain't all bad.

Need a last-minute gift? Reading books — real books you can hold in your paws — is an idea so out, so retro, that I predict it will come back in. You may think I am a dinosaur, but consider this. Leave your laptop, your Kindle or even your Blackberry on the bus, and you are out big bucks. Lose a portable paper book, like that dog-eared Sue Grafton mystery you are reading, and you probably can still make the rent. Plus, you can write in a book, stick notes and recipes and pieces of paper in it.

If you know someone interested in the sort of stuff I write about — history, , politics and Michigan — here are three paperbacks I'd recommend. (Coincidentally, all were published by the University of Michigan Press this year.)

Bath Massacre, by Arnie Bernstein ($18.95), is the story of America's first school mass murder, right outside Lansing in 1927. A bizarre and mysterious farmer named Andrew Kehoe meticulously packed and wired explosives into the walls of the town school, killing dozens, for reasons nobody to this day understands.

The Toledo War, by Don Faber ($24.95), is a fascinating and funny look at the 1835 "war" between Ohio and Michigan, in which we got cheated out of Toledo as a result of presidential power politics (some things never change). There's also a lot of interesting stuff about what Michigan was like back then.

Finally, there's a brand-new book that nobody, but nobody, should ever be without: Michigan's Upper Peninsula Almanac, by Yoopers Ron Jolly and Karl Bohnak. For a mere $27.95 you can learn everything there is about what's on top of the mitten. Did you know that the nation's longest-running talk show is on WIKB in Iron River? Do you know about the Gitchee Gumee Agate and History Museum? Been to the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival? 

Go get this book, now, ya, for sure. Seriously, I'm having a hard time putting it down.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]