For my birthday last year, my grandmother sent me a homemade binder full of genealogical research she’s been doing. My grandparents have always been proud of their German ancestors, who seem to have been refugees from the crushed 1848 revolt in Baden. My point of entry into all this is that Baden is where Friedrich Engels lived, agitated, and barely avoided reprisals at the time, so I guess I was hoping to find evidence that, at some point, an ancestral Reister had sheltered the communist apostle in a foxhole as the Prussian infantry tromped by. But I didn’t find that in the family tree. What I found instead was much darker.
In among the antique photos and hand-drawn family trees was a cluster of Dutch names. Scanning that slim and distant branch of Riemersmas and Schaddelees, I discovered that one of my first ancestors to leave Friesland in the late nineteenth century was a woman named Leuwina Prins.
As I read that name, a grim and inevitable familiarity snapped into place like a sun visor overhead. Prins, in English, turns into Prince. If you’re a left-winger from Michigan, which I am, that surname is—I struggle to find a comparison. A creeping artillery barrage. A pair of steel shears squealing down the surface of a blackboard.
Back in Ann Arbor later that summer, I had lunch with my grandfather, who grew up in Grand Rapids, the capital of Western Michigan. When I asked what his Dutch family were like he was pretty blunt: they were, at best, phlegmatic and market-driven people. He told me they raised Holstein cows, whose milk they sold, and one Guernsey, whose richer and creamier milk they kept for themselves.
This was damning circumstantial evidence, but I nonetheless told myself after lunch that it was probably just a coincidence, that there was no reason to jump to gloomy conclusions about the name. Prins might very well be a common name among the Western Michigan Dutch. Few Dutch families had surnames at all before the 19th century; Napoleon’s army forced people to take binomial names in order to catalog and control them, and many seem to have just picked them at random, or as jokes. For poor Frisian farmers, calling yourself The Prince might have been such an obvious joke that everybody came up with it independently. It’s probably nothing.
But I can’t shake my suspicions, and I can feel a cold arabesque curling back from my body through history, linking my Frisian progenitors, the nasal accent that I’ve tried for my whole life to suppress, and the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, whose birth name is Elizabeth Prince.
I remember the day I learned that I had an accent. It was the summer before fifth grade and I was watching Rocket Power, a second-tier NickToon about extreme sports kids in Southern California. These kids all had the California accent, meaning they drawled their vowels from the back of the throat. You could almost picture the vowels, reclining on Venice Beach, lazily lifting a tanned arm to signal a friend. They were an expression of pure bliss, the “aaaaa” of a people sinking, as one, into a jacuzzi.
Whereas all the vowels I heard in my daily life sounded like they were being squeezed through a thin-gauge sausage machine, contorted into snakelike nasals. I couldn’t identify why these two Englishes were so different—the Californian languid, the Michigander contorted—but they seemed to signal a spiritual chasm between me and the rest of the country. Coming to know Betsy Devos over the last decade, I’ve realized that that chasm is very deep indeed—but, I’m afraid, not unbridgeable.
The Michigan accent is unique, and as weaselly as Betsy DeVos herself. Its cousins overshadow it: if you’ve seen Fargo, you know about the Minnesota accent, but you have probably not been exposed to the Michigan accent in much detail. This is a correlative to Michigan’s status as a backwater: if you’re driving through the Midwest, unless you deliberately go out of the way, you will not drive through Michigan. You’ll take I-80 from Pittsburgh up to I-90 through Cleveland, you’ll come perilously close to the state line in eastern Indiana, but at no point will you actually cross over into the Great Lake State. Michigan is a cul-de-sac, a stale promontory stuck out into a mussel-infested sea. But because of this the Michigan accent has developed some weird, hypertrophied traits, the way birds develop huge beaks on isolated islands. Among those traits are its nasal vowels.
You know these nasals when you hear them. There’s nothing else in the world like them. They are oily and elongated, like trails of cheese smeared across the ceiling of a pizza box. People with thick Michigan accents say things like “We wint dyown to the Coney Islend end heeuhd lench with the Schmitts.” You could almost write Michigan English like the Etruscans wrote their language— syncopating the vowels, so “Alexander” looks like “Alcsntre”—because every vowel is the same “eeuhh” sound. The truly gifted can turn that one nasal into an actual triphthong, “eeaauhhh,” and it starts to sound like a vocalic python, coiling up around the consonants and strangling them.
I have come to believe that Michigan English sounds like this because it is the cry of the shame of generations. Think about this: the inhabitants of the Lower Peninsula are the descendants of people who didn’t have the courage to move to Minnesota. Elizabeth Donner fed the corpse of her husband to her own children so they’d live to see California, and the people of Michigan couldn’t even bring themselves to cross the Mississippi. They had to live with that for the rest of their lives. They were the settlers who settled.
In central Michigan, there is a town that was founded purely as a scam. In 1835, a wagonload of people from upstate New York were told that there was a prosperous village and acres of choice farmland at a bend in the Grand River. When they got there, they found that no such village had ever existed. For nine months of the year, actually, there was no land at all. It was just a marshy floodplain, and from March to November it was underwater. And the settlers were too broke to go back to New York, so they had to stay.
This non-place was founded as Biddle City, but those poor grifted settlers gave it the name of their lost hometown in New York: Lansing. Today it is the capital of Michigan. The descendants of those rubes are making fateful decisions about lead content in municipal water supplies now.
To be from Michigan is to twist on the hook of that history. Generations of the tricked, snubbed and cowardly all crammed into one skinny landmass together and too scared to leave it, with nothing but a dialect to express their torment. Eeeaauuhh. Eeuuh. Eeaagh.
This is the ooze from which Betsy emerged. Her family has stalked around the edges of Michigan politics since I was a kid, slowly building up their own little Koch Enterprises, and now they have put her in a position to inflict revenge, on behalf of the whole state, for centuries of humiliation.
DeVos’s parents first profited off of the auto industry. Now, cars are one of the few things that ever made people proud to be from Michigan: everybody in the country needed them, and for fifty years you had to get them from Detroit. For that brief fifty-year period, Michigan was more than a political oxbow, and heroic dramas worthy of any American state played out there: the Flint sit-down strike, the early life of Students for a Democratic Society, the riots in 1967. But it was at the end of the run, in the mid-1970s, when Japanese automakers were moving in and the Big Three were wobbling like Oxford dons after a big dinner, that Edgar Prince, Betsy’s father, started selling sun visors with lighted mirrors to the auto industry. There followed moveable armrests and, eventually, cupholders.
Is there a better symbol of today’s repulsive automobiles, bloated and subcontracted to shit, than the cupholder? When people want to laugh at the moribund American auto industry, they rightfully go for the cupholders. There was a whole subplot on 30 Rock about them. Edgar Prince created that kind of car design, and now those cupholders are paying for Milton Friedman Liberty Academy in Detroit.
So Betsy entered this century with money: from the cupholders, but also from her brother Erik’s rent-a-cop firm Blackwater, and from Amway, the pyramid scheme overseen by her husband Dick Devos, a befuddled creature who looks like the missing link between Rick Santorum and a salamander. She lacked formal power, though, and it must have been a unique kind of humiliation when Dick lost the 2006 gubernatorial election: doing his best to imitate George W. Bush, Dick was swamped by Jennifer Granholm, the chosen candidate of an organized-labor machine that had delivered decades of votes to the Democratic party. Betsy must have looked at that defeat and decided that she was going to have to build a machine of her own, not realizing that she was the machine.
Thirteen years and one societal collapse later, the Devoses now essentially run Michigan politics. They run it like the Mob, really; short term limits mean state legislators are more loyal to the Republican party machine than to their districts, and the state has high campaign finance caps that nobody but the DeVoses can afford to meet. That means that the DeVoses are the state. If Republicans break ranks, the DeVoses find primary challengers. If Democrats threaten Republican areas, the DeVoses bury them completely. Thanks to them, Michigan’s rural school districts are vacuums and its urban ones are dotted with educational fiefdoms like Mad Max microstates. Our outgoing governor, an eyeless, chinless, shitgulping worm called Rick Snyder, stayed in charge by licking their boots for a full decade. If Michigan is ever in national news, it’s because people in Flint keep getting billed for their poisoned water. Through years of humiliation and failure, the DeVoses have managed to create an ancap Tammany Hall, and now, thanks to about 11,000 voters who couldn’t stand the embarrassment anymore in 2016, Betsy is unleashed on an unsuspecting country.
We have to look at the actions of the DeVos family as the Michigan accent, spit on and sneered at for generations, slowly marshaling its strength. With every every hideous misadventure, it digs deeper into its own filth. The vowels get longer and more tortured, the resonating area is pushed farther and farther up into the nose. Lost to all emotions but shame and vengeance, the accent is coiling up for a suicidal counterattack. First it wrecks its own state and then, not yet satiated, it prepares to attack the remaining 49.
Listen to Betsy DeVos talk to Tim Kaine about federal funding for schools: he says “funding” and she somehow says “fehnding.” See the cold fury in her eyes when she tells Elizabeth Warren she’s never been a public school teacher: “I heeyave nat, Sinnater.” She is not really in control of her body anymore, if she ever was at all; the accent is driving her around like a Gundam.
She seems to have good intentions—not just good intentions, but genuinely utopian intentions. The Christianity, the free market stuff. But does that matter? Has Amway led the rebirth of the American small business? Has Blackwater reformed the American military? Of course not. Amway makes almost half of its money in China, and Blackwater has had to change its name twice to escape the humiliation its adenoidal chud employees brought it when they panicked and killed 17 peaceful demonstrators in 2007. I believe that Betsy DeVos really does want to build a better world, but whenever she touches anything it turns to cinders. She’s helpless.
This is because she is not really a person. She might be upset by the total failure of everything she tries to do, or that everybody keeps making fun of her. It might humiliate her when everybody in the country laughs at her stupid fucking idea to arm teachers to shoot errant bears. It doesn’t matter. The entity called “Betsy DeVos” is nothing but a Leviathan for those Biddle City pioneers, knee-deep in the mud, and all their descendants in Warren, Howell and Grayling. The ghosts of our cheated ancestors impel her. If they can’t have America, nobody can.
I live in California now, in the land of relaxed vowels and abundant public goods. Everybody goes for hikes in Griffith Park. Everybody does acid at Joshua Tree. And yet the UC system is a labyrinth where hundreds of millions of dollars vanish silently, LAX has special lanes for Uber drivers, and Google engineers ride around in private buses. A concessionaire bought the name “Yosemite”, the actual name, out from under the National Park Service a couple years back. It is, in a horrifying way, familiar.
I keep wondering when I’ll hear them, those strangled diphthongs, coming off the tongues of all these beautiful sunburned people. Not too long, I expect. Not too long. Unless we can put things right in Michigan—shut down Enbridge, clean the Rouge River, treat Flint water like the public good it is, throw open for the hungry the doors of Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, flense the shame from every rock and dune—soon we’ll all be talking like Betsy, from Honolulu to Bangor, from Nome to Miami.
I am not optimistic, but I know which side of that struggle I’ll be on.
*U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.