Wednesday, February 29, 2012

If Candidates Really Want to Win This Fall...

Because I write my blogs in advance, I don’t yet know the results of the 2012 Michigan Republican primaries, though you probably do. I do, however, know how much media attention has focused on the relationship between likely turnouts and the auto industry. Detroit native Mitt Romney has attempted to brand himself as a friend of auto workers, despite his open disdain for unionized labor and his previous opposition to the auto bailout.

On the very night of the primary, President Obama delivered a tubthumping speech to the United Auto Workers. He pitched a mix of policy and demagoguery guaranteed to gin up support from a group that was likely to back him anyway. While Romney and Obama compete to demonstrate who most supports workers’ economic rights, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich try to prove they support ordinary people’s moral vision.

But what I love about blogging is the opportunity to test ideas on the fly. In light of what I’ve written recently about working class values and effective advertising, I think I’ve hit a possible reason why all the candidates, whether incumbent or challenger, seem so dissatisfying this year. Rather than trying to parse their policies for success or failure, I look at their language choices. And I realize the problem: they’re asking the wrong questions.

Romney and Obama are probably closest, because both of them have focused on jobs. The moral issues Santorum and Gingrich emphasize will energize a base that, like Obama and the UAW, will already support them. But jobs aren’t good enough. Conservatives and progressives argue over questions like whether environmentalism and taxes are ethical. But blue collar workers want something else. The want:

  • beer that doesn’t taste like the can it came in
  • their plugs cleaned and tires filled so they burn less gas
  • time off to spend with their kids
  • to read luxury magazines and websites, dreaming about when they can afford a Cabin Cruiser and a Jaguar XJS
  • to leave more money to their kids than they have now

If the candidates want to win the blue collar workers who populate the “flyover states”—like the state where I live, and most of this year’s battle ground states—they need to reach voters where they live. They must frame all questions in practical terms, rather than the moralistic hyperbole both sides favor. That means addressing both their immediate needs, and their more abiding aspirations.

Consider just two practical applications: free trade and environmentalism. Conservatives love to ballyhoo the former, while progressives love the second. Notably, the two sides talk past each other, which is why, decades after both appeared on the public scope.

Economic libertarians successfully branded unrestrained international commerce as “free” trade, and cast it in terms of customers purchasing diverse products at competitive prices. This picture stuck home when, in spite of Ross Perot’s jeremiads, NAFTA not only didn’t suck American jobs to Mexico, it created a new market for subsidized American agriculture.

Progressives have made strides, however, spotlighting how many American jobs have moved overseas for pennies on the dollar. For instance, Irwin Vise-Grips moved manufacturing from De Witt, Nebraska, to rural China, undercutting an entire community’s economy. With the massive job loss, that story practically wrote itself for liberals and progressives. A town and state that ordinarily would support free trade saw its ugly face, and was repulsed.

But those same liberals suffer badly on the same job issue regarding the environment. “Climate change” and “pollution” seem like abstractions to oil drillers, timber cutters, and factory laborers who see their jobs shuttered. Liberals lose when they talk about abstractions and conservatives, and their working allies, look for economic security and wages.

Consider the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. It almost passed because it would create construction and maintenance jobs in the Great Plains. But prairie voters turned on it when they realized its ecological risks: not vague abstractions, but the likelihood it would spill oil into the main water source for six states. “Climate” and “ecology” are vague. Serving sludgy tap water to kids is specific enough to enrage ordinary workers.

We know that candidates running for office cannot speak too specifically. An old saying goes that if you have ten concrete proposals, and voters agree with nine, they will vote against you for the tenth. So I understand that they will continue speaking in abstractions. I will not ask them to stop doing so. I do, however, ask them how their abstractions speak to our needs and aspirations.

Monday, February 27, 2012


A recent NPR story about the increasing shift to digital publishing—paper book sales are on the decline, while digital books increase exponentially—gives away its silly lack of critical thought by using a source’s buzzword in the headline. Mark Coker, founder of e-publisher Smashwords, claims that “the printing press is completely democratized” by his business model. But I have to ask, is that a good thing?

Modern American culture lionizes the idea of “democracy,” and digital technology, with its instantaneous information delivery, epitomizes that goal. No longer do we have to wait on news networks, record labels, or publishing houses to deliver knowledge and art in our laps. We like this idea because it takes aesthetic decisions out of the hands of editors, who we know are often conservative and unadventurous.

But that does not make the converse true. If concentrating aesthetic authority in the hands of recognized editors and other experts encourages timidity, dispersing authority to the creators will not mean higher quality and groundbreaking innovation. Just as increasing the number of major league baseball teams did not create a surge in Babe Ruths and Ty Cobbs, author-controlled digital publishing has not made new Faulkners and Shakespeares.

I've complained before about authors who try to short-circuit the system and publish without paying their dues. Though this sounds like a cliché, writers, like other professionals, need to work their way up through the ranks. But unlike other professionals, writers don’t have arrangements to earn their chops. Young carpenters work under a supervisor. Young writers have no hierarchy.

(I say that, of course, knowing that some writers, including myself, spend time as graduate assistants. Most writers, however, are either self-taught, or study part-time. In essence, they apprentice to themselves.)

Malcolm Gladwell, in his eminently readable Outliers: The Story of Success, describes what consistent patterns identify who succeeds at a given field. Despite our fascination with child prodigies, like Christopher Paolini and Mattie Stepanek, most people who achieve mastery of any field, whether professional or artistic, share a love of practice. Gladwell says that mastery comes after only 10,000 hours of practice.

That’s ten thousand hours spent scratching your head, weeping into your beer, and beating your fists on your desk. Ten thousand hours questioning whether you’ll ever really make it, or if you’ll be a journeyman forever. Ten thousand hours which, for writers, go largely unrecognized because, unlike bar bands or mural painters, the writer’s journeyman work remains largely unseen by the general public.

Because we, the readers, see a piece of writing only after it is complete, we see it as though it sprung into the world whole and complete, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. All too often, I have received review copies from authors who believe the myth they have seen, and want to short-circuit the acceptable system. Very young apprentices want to share their finger exercises, because it’s inexpensive.

In principle, I agree with Mark Coker’s desire to put publishing in creative people’s hands. Writers like William Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf have revolutionized their worlds by stepping outside the hidebound system and taking responsibility for their own work. My fear is not that writers will disturb the system, which can be stifling, but that apprentice writers will clog the world with work unready for consumption.

My friend Jerry digitally published his masterly short story collection, God, Time, Perception & Sexy Androids, digitally. He took responsibility for his own business future. But Jerry also paid his dues, spending decades perfecting his writing and working with a range of other writers and editors. He didn’t just jump to the front of the queue, he actually learned to write, and to write well.

A carpenter does not build an inlaid Mazarin armoire with scrollwork detail the first time he turns on a circular saw. A guitarist does not play arpeggios like Eric Clapton the first time she picks up a used Alvarez. An actor does not play Hamlet on the first day of acting class. Yet apprentice writers want to publish bestsellers before they’ve learned to reach their audiences.

Because Smashwords, the Amazon Kindle platform, and other digital venues, allow writers to publish at little or no cost, it potentially encourages distribution of works at too early a draft stage. As a writer, I encourage others who love the field to give themselves a try. But I also want writers to learn their skill before clogging the publishing field with hundreds of thousands of works in progress.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

London—the Promise, the Dream

With the Olympics coming, the eyes of the world will turn to London this summer. But they will not turn to the real London; they will turn to a deliberately designed confection that will come down when the games leave town. Real people will continue to live in the city, sweeping streets and driving cabs and acting in theatres, servicing tourists, and teaching schools. London will continue being a real human city.

Canadian-born journalist Craig Taylor, who has adopted London as his own, looks at the real city in Londoners. Not the street maps or the tourist landmarks, but the people who walk those streets. He follows the people—the prestigious and the humble, the wealthy and the workaday—and lets them tell their own stories. And those stories really uncover the sparkling human beauty that lies beneath the Tourist Bureau veneer.

Ranging from a few lines to several pages, the stories Taylor gathers emphasize the scope of a city that draws people with visions of upward mobility. Dreamers, like the business student or the ex-convict or the expatriate, who strive to build new lives. The rapper, the photographer, the teacher, who try to leave something bigger behind them. The civil engineer, the barrister, the driving instructor, who just want to build a better London.

Some of the stories are remarkably revealing. Though known internationally as a financial powerhouse, a floor broker reveals that “Londin” is a stratified mess that reduces its citizens to mechanical drudges. A South Bank dominatrix describes the magnitude of subcultures that percolate under the surface of urban anonymity. Two bus operation specialists reveal the effort necessary to keep a city of millions thriving.

My favorite story is told by Sarah, a South London “skipper”—what Americans would call a “dumpster diver.” But as she lays out her life story, she actually reveals the life of a transsexual as the son of immigrants with old-world values. The contradictory pulls between urbane British modernity and the continuity of culture lie under most of what Taylor says about London. Dumpster diving is only part of a much wilder story.

And that is, beyond a doubt, the most important message Taylor gives us. Despite its millenia of history and its grand Gothic architecture, London exists very much in the present tense. People come to the city to shed their history and become new, and because of that, the city constantly reinvents itself. Unlike outlying Cotswalds crofters’ villages and Welsh hay farms, London does not pass its culture on to the next generation.

Those who, like me, imagine stepping outside our lives and remaking ourselves in a city like London can read a book like this and imagine. Whether we hope to follow through and learn from those who went before, or we decide this isn’t really the path we prefer, Taylor’s narrative speaks to anyone who has dreamed big. In that way, it’s not really about London; it’s about the part of ourselves that wants something more.

Do not expect to find maps, directions, and highlights for outsiders. Taylor does not care about travel and tourism. He does not try to teach us the parameters of pub culture. (If you want that, I enjoyed this year’s Fodor's England.) Instead, Taylor would rather create a biography of a city that refuses to stand still. His style and sweep make it come to life; Taylor’s London is a place we can imagine immersing ourselves in. We could walk to the corner, the workplace, or the store, and meet these people. London is so very real.

Taylor’s London is also more. It’s the heart of the dreams we all carry. The prerelease press pack compares Taylor’s book to American oral historian Studs Terkel, which is fair. Like Terkel, Taylor celebrates the people who turn the wheels, not the people who reap the benefits of the turning. But I would also compare him to historians like A.L. Morton and Howard Zinn, writers of “history from below.” Like them, Taylor believes that life happens in the streets, in the shadows, not in the spotlight of public acclaim.

This is no small book. Running over four hundred pages and over eighty interviews, Taylor takes readers on a real journey, not a package tour. But we don’t want a package tour, sanitized, with all the hard edges sanded off. Like a real visit to a strange city, Taylor gives us the pleasure of getting lost, seeing amazing new sights, and making our own discoveries. And what we find more than justifies the trip.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Steel Trap Detective and the Lost Little Girl

When mousy suburbanite Carol Wentz vanishes, no one thinks anything of it. Another unhappy housewife on the lam. Until her wallet appears in the house where six-year-old Iris Neff vanished eleven years ago. And in that wallet, the address and website of Manhattan PI Brenna Spector, missing persons specialist. Brenna couldn’t find Iris Neff a decade ago, so she ventures into a new and surprisingly intricate mystery today.

Alison Gaylin’s and she was introduces an interesting character in Brenna Spector, who, because of childhood trauma, cannot forget anything once it enters her head. Everything she has seen, heard, read, or experienced since she was eleven years old is embossed on her long-term memory. While this has its advantages, she can’t prioritize, can’t shirk pain, and can’t stop crippling waves of full-sensory memory intruding on the present.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it resembles the premise behind the current TV series Unforgettable. Because of mass media lag times, the two were probably in production about the same time. But don’t let that fool you; Gaylin is no mere trend-watcher. She uses hyperthymestic syndrome, a very real illness, to plumb the psychological depths of a character who cannot abandon her personal quest because time doesn’t heal all wounds.

Brenna Spector struggles to endure the day. Because she forgets nothing, everything in the present is a potential trigger for elaborate memories. Some of those memories are extremely painful, and she can find herself trapped in an elaborate tape loop of trauma. This drives a wedge between her and the human race, alienating her from family and keeping her from making friends. She develops strenuous rituals to keep herself in the present.

The current mystery initially offers Brenna the opportunity to evade her weaknesses. The upstate bedroom community of Tarry Ridge has changed so much in the decade since Brenna last visited that she assumes she’ll have no trouble separating past from present. But that proves her greatest limitation. Because the two disappearances are so tightly linked, many clues she needs have been bulldozed by recent big-city development deals.

Brenna partners with Detective Nick Morasco, a professorial cop who has already taken his lumps for how this case has unfolded. Morasco has glimpsed the tawdry network of secrets over the Iris Neff case—and now the Carol Wentz case—but since his neck is already on the chopping block, he can only help Brenna so far. As the case unfolds, though, and both detectives keep their cards close to the vest, we start who wonder who’s helping whom.

Underlying the whole case is the original trauma that caused Brenna’s steel trap memory. When she was eleven, she witnessed her big sister get in a blue car and vanish. She’s blamed herself ever since, and cannot permit herself to forget anything. Strangely, the longer she investigates the Wentz/Neff disappearance, the more parallels start to appear with Brenna’s sister and her twenty-eight-year absence.

In some ways, Alison Gaylin is almost too hip for her own good. She pinches her title from a Talking Heads tune and her premise from the same well as prime time TV writers, and she name-checks movies, teenpop singers, classic TV shows, and more pop culture than I can track without Google. Keeping up with this willfully hip story is no small task.

But Gaylin resists obvious stereotypes: nobody saves the little girl at the climax, and Brenna and Morasco evade the too-easy romance. Her mystery remains so alive and active that readers won’t figure out the answer around page 100. I found the resolution both completely unexpected, and wholly earned. And that’s plenty rare.

Gaylin reminds me of two mysteries I’ve enjoyed in the past. On the one hand, like Alex Kava’s A Perfect Evil, Gaylin presents a female protagonist in a primarily male world, standing up to a villainy so integrated into its community that it almost evades notice. On the other hand, like Paul Tremblay’s The Little Sleep, Gaylin takes a detective who cannot see the world like ordinary people do, and forces her to explore her own inner depths.

It would be too easy, and false, to say Gaylin has produced deep literature. This is a paperback detective novel, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more. But by showcasing an interesting character with a complex, nuanced struggle, Gaylin evades the traps that make culture snobs like me sneer at detective novels. And in so doing, she creates a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Little Ad That Could, Did, and Still Does

Not long after I started at the factory, the line was manufacturing a unit with an unusual added component, a bypass screen. Only engineers fathom the purpose of this strange plastic basket, shaped like a Chinese lantern and absurdly difficult to force into the other components. But work is work, and I dutifully took to forcing these sticky plastic annoyances into their slot on the filtration elements.

Fifteen minutes into my turn with the screens, a paper rectangle drifted down from the recesses of my part bin and dropped onto the line before me. I could see two business cards stapled together, with something folded between them. I couldn’t afford to examine it with the line running, so I stuck it in a corner of the bin and kept working. But when a machine went cockeyed a few minutes later, I picked the item up to take a gander.

The front business card announced Arlo and Nancy Stark, owners of A&N Plastic Molding, Inc., of Hastings, Nebraska—presumably a company with whom my employer holds a contract. Though the card gave an address and business phone, it included no e-mail or website, and a Google search later revealed only third-party sites.  The back read: “Thank you! Have coffee on A&N, 7-1-11.”

Folded between the two cards was a dollar bill.

Brief discussion with management led to the agreement that the dollar belonged to me. But much longer discussion among workers, after the line resumed running, led to the agreement that this company is smarter than quite a few better-funded and more aggressive companies. This small regional parts manufacturer did something most large corporations could not do: it got workers talking.

Boxes surrounded us on all sides, branded with supplier logos and websites. Sheaves of paperwork emblazoned with catchy mottoes fall out of every package and pamphlet. Workers have their hands in branded components every day. But none got us talking. This single pair of business cards, worth maybe a dime, with the folded bill between them, jumped out of that mess and made a real impression.

Mark Hughes, in his marketing textbook Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk About Your Stuff, advocates finding techniques to produce exactly this result. He recounts his own exploits finding ways to make people talk about his products, like getting a town to rename itself in honor of his dot-com start-up. Yet I have a hard time imagining he would have thought up this small, simple gesture, or the results it generated.

Hughes discusses finding new advertising media in today’s cluttered market. But he mentions, for instance, labelling his brand on urinal mats for the men’s room, or slapping his URL on the back of fortune cookie fortunes. Considering my adverse reaction when I see ads in public restrooms, I can’t imagine what Hughes thought when he selected urinal mats. Did he want me to angrily reject his product in advance?

By contrast, I can imagine what A&N thought as they tossed that folded dollar into a box of product, destined for a worker they would never meet. I suppose, in doing this, they must have asked themselves two questions:

  1. What end user ultimately handles our product?
  2. What does that user need?

Marketing professors might say the end user is whoever purchases the filters we manufacture. But I assert that such consumers will never open our filters to see what goes on inside the stainless steel shells. As long as the filters work, one plastic component will never cross their minds, or meet their eyes. We on the assembly line were the last humans to lay eyes on those bypass screens, probably forever.

The product brand did not intrude upon my time, as it would if it dropped out of my fortune cookie in the middle of family dinner. It was relevant to what I was doing at the time. And, though the company could not have known it would fall into the hands of a graveyard shift worker, the handwritten message offered the one thing most of us want at the end of a tiring shift: a hot cup of joe.

Today’s media landscape is awash in ads, most of which never penetrate our consciousness. Technologies like pop-up blockers and TiVo shield us from unwanted advertising. But by showing customers respect, and giving them something they need, A&N turned ordinary advertising into a meaningful connection. Which is why, six months later, I remember the incident, and still have their simple folded dollar.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lamenting the Local Record Store

The 14th Street Homer’s store in Lincoln, Nebraska, was more than a place to browse the CD racks. I could do that at Wal-Mart if I wanted. With its copious magazine racks, literature from local institutions and groups, and occasional live appearances by local artists, it became an ad hoc community center. People came to Homer’s to keep an ear to the ground for growing developments in Lincoln’s scarcely coordinated culture scene.

Nor was this unique to Homer’s. At one time, independent record stores were a cultural institution, the nexus of paths where diverse people came together to announce opportunity, promote innovation, meet people from other subcultures, or just browse the latest offerings. Stores like Denver’s Twist & Shout, San Francisco’s Amoeba, or Honolulu’s Jelly’s, all became the beating heart of their respective communities.

They also all have meaningful memories for me personally.

Jelly’s made a big impression on me in the late 1980’s. Their warehouse-sized facility near the Pearl Ridge Mall had an integrated multimedia format that presaged superstores like Barnes & Noble, which remade the market a decade later. I could wander in there and find any music, book, comic, or video that grabbed my heart’s desire. Remarkably, I never recall needing to special order anything; it was always in stock.

But as much as the content for sale, the format made a difference. Jelly’s made little attempt to slick up the place like Tower Records or Waldenbooks did, across the road in Pearl Ridge. Those stores had a gleaming high-gloss finish that seemed immune to personalization and interchangeable with any store in the islands or the mainland. These were places to conduct business with clinical precision, not to develop a relationship with the product.

By contrast, Jelly’s’ rough-hewn quality reflected the management’s guerrilla ethos. Exposed ceiling girders and particle board walls provided an unprepossessing frame for the overwhelming selection on the immaculately organized shelves. Compared to the mall stores and military post exchanges that otherwise dominated Honolulu’s media market, Jelly’s clearly loved its product more than its image.

This allowed it to develop a personality, and to attract customers who shared that love of eccentricity. Though that attitude could sometimes descend into self-parody (see this Onion article), it also permitted customers to shrug off the mall’s stultifying sameness. People who loved music and wanted their shopping experience to come with an edge could depend on Jelly’s to sell them something that respected them as an audience.

Moreover, as live local music increasingly becomes the exclusive domain of bars, indie record stores often provide unique opportunities for younger audiences. Without the ability to hear local bands play live, teens have to choose between Clear Channel radio blandness and the impersonality of arena concerts. And young musicians never get to graduate from playing in parents’ garages, basements, and other borrowed spaces.

Better commentators than me have already lamented the disappearance of indie record shops. Nor am I the first to point out that this disappearance leaves a gaping hole in many cities’ cultural life. And, in fairness, compared to the convenience of Internet shopping and web posting, having to go to a record store to buy new music and find exciting local concerts seems downright poky.

But, as I've said before about Kindle books, sometimes cultural products are more important than their content. Sure, I enjoy the music I bought at indie record stores, and still own two CDs I bought at Jelly’s nearly twenty-five years ago. But I also had meaningful encounters with knowledgeable clerks and fellow fans in the act of browsing. Jelly’s, Amoeba, and Twist & Shout aren’t just shopping excursions; they’re experiences.

I can’t say the same about iTunes. Sure, I read customer reviews, but no matter how much I like a reviewer, I have limited ability to ask questions. I never invite reviewers to coffee after shopping. Reviewers never come over so we can browse each other’s collections. And I’ll never recapture the life-changing joy I had picking up a fellow customer’s vinyl copy of Willy and the Poor Boys and travelled down a new, more adventurous road for the first time.

Some big cities still support one or two indie record stores. And their ethos lives on in indie booksellers, coffee shops, free weekly newspapers, and some church basements. As long as the need for such contact exists, someone will step in to fill it. I just miss indie record shops’ elegant, efficient centralization and exuberant community spirit.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Founders, the Foundation, and the Future of a Great Nation

Pop quiz! Who wrote this passage:
The way we talk, the way we stand, the way we dance or sing—all are influenced by the laws of our land and the principles behind them, and our laws and principles spring from these two documents [the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence].
Was it (a) Gene Hackman as Kevin Keeley, the naively moralistic senator in The Birdcage, or (b) Larry Arnn, author of The Founders' Key? Don’t feel bad if you can’t tell the difference. What Hackman played for laughs, Arnn presents in pathetic earnest. While Arnn says little that is actually incorrect, he unfortunately spotlights the core problems with much of today’s political discourse.

Arnn believes that America’s foundational documents form a continuum that time and changing society cannot break. The principles Jefferson voiced in the Declaration, Madison made practical in the Constitution. To honor one, we must respect the other, and this mutuality makes America’s political framework immune to social upheaval. Our foundation stands outside history, true for all ages, and cannot change.

I don’t dispute this premise. Though it feels incomplete (where does America’s first misguided constitution, the Articles of Confederation, fit in Arnn’s continuum?), it is at least useful. The problem arises in how Arnn applies it, making strange, baseless claims about how those who disagree with him try to consign one document or the other to history’s wastepaper bin.

Arnn claims this divide began with Franklin Roosevelt, who “divorced” the documents. He doesn’t say how FDR did this, or justify the claim in any way, or provide any source notes, except on one ancillary quote. I presume he means something regarding the New Deal, which conservatives for decades have decried as unconstitutional. Bur rather than explain his claim, Arnn simply asserts it, and walks away.

He extends this to contemporary politics, reducing Constitutional arguments for universal health care to a single infantile outburst from Nancy Pelosi. Arnn addresses few contemporary issues, but those he does address come almost exclusively from the Obama administration, suggesting (without saying) that Obama’s agenda is manifestly unconstitutional. But he approaches this claim only obliquely.

Most of Arnn’s argument consists of carefully unpacking these two documents, which non-lawyers often study only fleetingly. I enjoyed Arnn’s explication, because he places the documents, and their dated language, in a firm context. I remember Eighth Grade Civics, when I learned these documents as high-minded principles. Not so, says Arnn: these are practical truths that provide both force and boundaries to our body politic.

The problem is not Arnn’s scholarship, which is robust, but his application. Arnn attributes much recent governmental confusion to diminishing respect for our documents. This diminishment, in turn, he blames on “academics,” “modern thinkers,” and “the extensively educated.” Arnn is president of Hillsdale College. One wonders what education students receive at a school whose president disparages “academics.”

Arnn also sees the past, in important ways, as different from the present. He concedes that the Constitution is rife with “compromises,” naming specifically its tapdancing around slavery. But these compromises, in his mind, are now resolved. All meaningful problems have been excised from the Constitution, and we should stop fighting.

Were I staging a counterclaim, I would acknowledge that Arnn’s historical explication is mostly spot-on. It is both concise (less than 125 pages) and detailed, without expounding in tedious legalese. His inclusion of the full Declaration, Constitution, five Federalist Papers, and a Madison essay make testing his veracity both easy and edifying.

But then I would say that universal health and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, two contemporary developments Arnn calls unconstitutional, have secure constitutional footing. Consider Article I, Section 8: “Congress shall have the Power To... pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” Or the Declaration, which demands “Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

No, the Constitution does not call for universal health care. But the Framers wrote in 1789, when “medicine” mainly meant bloodletting and amputation. They also don’t call for NASA, the Interstate Highway System, or the Manhattan Project. But they built a foundation sophisticated enough to encompass our constantly changing world.

Arnn’s arguments probably make sense to readers who already agree with his claims. But in terms of advancing current debate, it’s a non-starter. It uses claims that were wheezy when I started following politics in 1989. It’s half of a good argument, and half talk-radio-style innuendo. I just don’t see it making much of a difference.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Why Forbes, Capitalism, and Journalism Still Matter

At times, Stewart Pinkerton’s The Fall of the House of Forbes reads like a modern parable. As the third generation inherits a mighty dynasty, founding principles become dilute, and some sons love the family principles while others love the family money. At other times, Pinkerton’s tell-all resembles the “kiss of death” journalism that draws the very lurid audiences the author decries. It’s up to the committed reader to separate one from the other.

Scottish expat Bertie Charles “BC” Forbes founded his eponymous magazine in 1917 as a mix of stock tip sheet and fawning profile rag. BC’s son Malcolm made it a showcase for America’s glittering postwar aspirations, and Forbes set the tone of economic debate for a decade after Malcolm’s death. But in the new century, Forbes has foundered, becoming an in-joke and pale shadow of itself. It exists now as yet another tawdry blog platform and “content farm.”

Pinkerton, who clawed his way to managing editor, produced his book mere months after Forbes unceremoniously “retired” him in 2009. This explains the bitter edge to Pinkerton’s voice. But that edge gives his narrative a punch that rises above mass-manufactured crisis memoirs to make this book really work, when it does. Though he applies journalistic acumen, he also tells the story he lived.

BC Forbes left his media empire to his sons, but only Malcolm had balls enough to leverage his influence and seize control. The Forbes name rose alongside its flamboyant owner-editor. But none of Malcolm’s four sons captains the ship, though Steve inherited a controlling share. Pinkerton compares the resulting split vision among relatives to “having to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner every day.”

Malcolm Forbes
Pinkerton identifies only two specific missteps: Steve Forbes’ two tragicomic Presidential bids, and the failure to integrate with the print Forbes. Rather than one Sophoclean downfall, Pinkerton describes a pattern of mismanagement. Good writers and editors got squeezed, the heyday vigor fell prey to timidity, and the Forbes brothers’ compromises proved worse than the problems they solved.

My problem arises not with Pinkerton’s facts, which are robust, but with his storytelling. Pinkerton narrates the decline from 1990 to 2010 with no sense of the rise. BC and Malcolm Forbes are mere ciphers. BC alienated his wife through high-handed dicta that exiled most of his sons. Malcolm was personally, politically, and sexually ambiguous.

Both drove their company with their larger-than life personalities. And that’s all she wrote. Pinkerton spins transgressive anecdotes about Malcolm, whom he admits he never met, but never explains how that personality translated into media success. Rather than savvy, Malcolm appears merely squicky. Forbes, for Pinkerton, simply exists to decline.

Pinkerton introduces a cast of thousands with little regard for clarity. Keep notes on the endpaper. He has trouble keeping all the names in play. Lewis D’Vorkin, the villain of Pinkerton’s final chapters, disappears from the narrative for 140 pages, then again for another thirty. With such long gaps, Pinkerton has to introduce characters multiple times. Eventually, he should ask if every personality really advances the story.

Considering that Pinkerton blames Forbes’ decline partly on diminished editing and fact checking, he could use some of both. For instance, if the magazine hit its revenue peak in 2001, after Steve’s costly campaigns, after the worst of the print/digital feud, and over a decade after Malcolm’s 1990 death, I need an explanation of the gap into decline. An editor like Jim Michaels, whom Pinkerton lionizes, would catch that.

Likewise, his grammar, usually solid, occasionally turns haphazard. A few hours with a copy checker could save Pinkerton from some embarrassing moments. For instance, Pinkerton admits cribbing one-liners from David Letterman, billed in the bibliography as “David Le Herman.” Such a crude mistake suggests Pinkerton’s iPad can’t read his handwriting.

Reading what I’ve written, it sounds like I dislike this book. Not so. Pinkerton spins an interesting, if rocky, yarn about the pitfalls of capitalistic journalism. He shows why media enterprises need a solid defining vision unifying diverse parts. In an era of digital decentralization, he persuades me that journalism remains important: “Most people need an expert to filter, prioritize, and context [sic] information. A firehose of information without that is useless.”

But Pinkerton doesn’t connect the dots. He does what he accuses Forbes of descending into, if on a more professional scale. He cries out for someone to ask the question behind the question. Because if nobody does, Forbes will not be the last journalistic titan to crumble under its own weight.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Working Class Values, Part Three


5. RELIGIOSITY. Working class people wear religious affiliation on their sleeves—even though they never, ever talk religion publicly. Having worked at two factories, I have never heard one worker discuss God aloud, and the only book in my hands I’ve ever seen my colleagues look squeamish at was by Billy Graham. They “do” religion, but never discuss it.

Instead, closely related to sloganeering, the working class literally wear their religious affiliations. T-shirt slogans make the most common forms of public witness. One folksy colleague favors an image of a cowboy and horse drinking from a stream, captioned “Rivers of living water will flow from within them. John 7:38.” Another wears an image of Jesus as a video game character, captioned “John 3:16—Hii Saved Me.”

Mixing and matching pop culture images lets workers convey both faith and personality. Those wanting to look hip mash-up rock band logos or brand trademarks. Others go for more nostalgic references, like the cowboy or a Thomas Kinkade painting. Though the faith expressed is uniformly Christian, religiosity, like sloganeering, separates in-group members from outsiders.

Note that religiosity does not translate into church attendance. Many in the working class feel uncomfortable in ordinary church services. This is amplified for second and third shift workers. Scanning a recent newsletter from my own church, besides services, a midday stay-at-home moms’ book group, and a sunrise bible study, all church activities occur in evenings and weekends—what church leadership, overwhelmingly middle class, mistakenly consider “after work.”

Church is just one more area where the working class are constantly reminded they don’t belong.

6. EGALITARIANISM. The working class is a collage of people who have limited means, limited opportunity, hard luck, or diminished expectations. What they all have in common is that they’re in this mess together. Unlike the middle classes, who divide themselves up (remember what I said about cubicles), the working class stay in close proximity for a prolonged time.

Breaktime exemplifies this. Everyone flocks to one of two places: either the indoor breakroom or the outdoor smoking shelter. No matter where one goes, conversation is the norm. Everyone, even new hires, is addressed as a friend and equal. And anyone who, like me, chooses neither location (I don’t smoke and dislike the breakroom’s continuous Fox News) endures the isolation of not being spoken to.

Some of this attitude is enforced by management. We’re assigned name badges, highlighting our first names in large letters, but our last names in vanishingly tiny type. This results in an unearned level of informality and enforced cheerfulness, but it also means everyone, from bosses to line managers to the lowliest new hires, speaks to one another on the same level.

This equality can be abused. Because everyone helps everyone else, some newbies rush in to lend a hand where it’s unneeded, even unwanted, and wind up underfoot. Those who last learn when to ease up on the open-handedness. Just because everyone is equal doesn’t mean everyone wants a piece of everyone else. We have sharing for that (q.v.).

Obery Hendricks defines hegemony as “the process by which the lines between the interests of an oppressed group and those of the class that dominates it become blurred by the systematic efforts of the oppressor to obscure or hide them.” By that standards, the well-heeled have gone to great lengths to force hegemony on the working class.

This doesn’t mean just the wealthy, who yoke top-tier tax breaks and international free trade to conventional morality. The middle class often deride the poor for their untidy homes, unkempt lawns, and disinterest in suburban convention. Carl Paladino, 2010 New York gubernatorial candidate, openly claimed that the poor remained poor, not because of systemic disadvantage or diminished opportunity, but because they lacked basic hygiene.

But consider it from the other angle. If some privileged class barged into your community, insisting that you could aspire to their level of prestige if you simply adapted your habits to mimic them, how would you react? We know it’s absurd. We would not all become Manhattan financial managers if we built more steel skyscrapers. We would resist such a colonial imposition by doubling down on our current mode of life.

Which is exactly what working class values permit. The group identity provided by these values, and others I still have yet to discover and explore, let America’s poor and struggling define their own identities, rather than having someone else’s identity imposed upon them. And I, for one, can’t blame them.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Working Class Values, Part Two


4. READING. In graduate school, one of my writing professors discused the large subset of the publishing industry dedicated to books for “people who don’t read very much.” She characterized romances, thrillers, and the kind of novels sold at drugstores as “books people can fall asleep under.” Though my professor surely meant no malice in describing unchallenging books, her description is not just wrong, it’s potentially harmful.

Of the many myths and caricatures that stick to the working class, none does more harm than the idea that they don’t read. Nothing could be further from the truth; many read committedly. Some read far more than the economic elites who would put them down. But they don’t read what literary scholars say they should read. And they don’t define their lives around which books they consider most worth their time.

English professors claim that “good” books challenge, unsettle, and expand their readers. “Mere” pop literature earns their disdain because it holds no such promise for its audience. Such professors openly mock the authors who sell the most books to the largest audiences, like Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Danielle Steele, and James Patterson. These assembly line authors crank out books to quickly and often to count as “real” literature.

If speed and repetition disqualify authors from the heights of Parnassus, then the converse should also be true, and Johnathan Franzen, who requires ten years to polish and publish just one book, would be the greatest living American author. Some literary critics seem eager to crown him as such. Yet many of my factory peers have no idea who Franzen is, and when told, look unimpressed at the paces he puts himself through.

Working class readers want to be entertained, uplifted, made to laugh, cry, scream. They do not want to feel confused by language, situations, and manners alien to their experience. Thus many books which scholars tell us we should read, whether acknowledged classics or cutting edge new releases, simply zoom by working class readers. Many blue collar workers can finesse a novel in one night, but get told it doesn’t really count.

This essentially colonial attitude toward working class reading habits results in marked anti-intellectualism. If brainy types devalue blue collar reading, then blue collar readers can’t be bothered with intellectualism. During my factory orientation, the HR representative indicated one suite of offices to which we had no admittance. A woman behind me sneered: “That’s where the people with college degrees work.”

I chose not to reply that I, too, have a college degree. It’s just as well I didn’t, since I now know about a quarter of my factory colleagues have at least one degree, and some, like me, have graduate degrees. Yet this disdain for intellectuals is not about me, or any individual, as people. Rather, many workers see intellectuals, rightly or wrongly, as the ones holding back their economic potential.

This results in reading as a compartmentalized activity for many in the working class. They read at home, and they work at work. Looking around the breakroom, you would not see so much as a magazine or newspaper. Breaktime is for talking, which is where real information transactions occur. I’ve seen peers completing crossword puzzles in their cars, but they leave the paper behind when they enter the factory.

Blue collar orality is famous among those who study such things. When trying new tasks, somebody like me might naturally reach for a book; but workers prefer to teach skills through oral explanation and mimicry. This apprenticeship arrangement, which may last minutes for simple tasks, or years for a body of knowledge, fills the role scholars and white collar professionals associate with school and book learning.

That said, nobody bothers me about bringing books to read on my own breaktime. Recently, two peers saw me reading the prerelease edition of a mystery due out later this month. Both became very excited, asking me questions and talking about books they’ve enjoyed recently. In other words, though they wouldn’t read on the job themselves, they were able to have a group bonding moment around my reading.

One last note on working class reading. I have never seen my factory peers with a Kindle or other reading device. Though I’ve seen at least two workers with tablet computers, they use these to store and play music or movies. My peers cannot be bothered to pay good money for a gee-whiz gadget to do what the public library lets them do for free.


Friday, February 3, 2012

Working Class Values, Part One

Anyone who deals with economics, ethics, or related fields hears the term “middle class values” spoken so often that it drops into our conversation almost casually. But, like the proverb about explaining water to a fish, many of us from middle class backgrounds, or with aspirations to better ourselves, don’t really know what this means. Even working class people who climb the social ladder quickly forget the difference between their station and their origin.

But, as Obery Hendricks observes, “individual and collective responses to actions, events, and pronouncements can be conditioned by and can also vary by class, culture, and certainly by social location.” As circumstances have forced me to temporarily move down the ladder, I’ve learned much about the working class roots I’d previously forgotten. And I’d like to share a few “working class values” I’ve had to rediscover working at the factory.

1. SHARING. Members of the working class present themselves as stalwart bastions of self-reliance. The expression “rugged individualism” dogs Western novels, John Birch broadsides, conservative economic principles, and even the rhetoric of trade unionists. Yet while working class people take self-reliance as a matter of pride, their speech often reveals how much they must share, just to stave off routine loneliness.

Any discussion with peers at the factory inevitably turns up intimate details. Saying “hello” to another worker can unleash a tide of personal revelations. And “How are you?,” a common greeting that requires no response but “fine” in the middle class, is taken literally. I’ve learned about fellow workers’ professional aspirations, marital discord, every cute thing their children have done, and even the details of one guy’s probation arrangement.

Middle class people wall themselves off, allowing only teasing glimpses into their private lives. This manifests physically in that emblem of middle class labor, the cubicle. Though water cooler conclaves and Facebook status updates permit brief insights, they come through a tit-for-tat economic exchange. Because laborers know their work is generally interchangeable, they can only make their mark on others through remarkable candor.

Closely related to this is:

2. BELLYACHING. Bosses, spouses, politicians, celebrities, and even co-workers out of earshot are all fair game. I’m under no illusions: I know my peers carp about me when I’m not there, though I don’t know what they say. Cultural critic Tex Sample says that workers regularly “argue, fuss, gripe, complain, moan, and gossip” as ways of asserting their autonomy.

Often, bellyaching is the only tool workers have to assert autonomy. We spend most of our working hours going where we’re told, doing what we’re told, when we’re told. Autonomy comes where we can get it. If that means mocking peers behind their backs, so be it. And, just as in the blues and country music that come from this same background, much working class discourse consists of running down the boss.

“Middle class values” call these spiteful and malicious actions, which we should stop at once. And these actions could have harmful consequences if misused. But without authority to grouse around, working class people have literally no power over their own lives. When a desk jockey who has time to noodle with a Rubik’s Cube tells us to stop the one area of working life we can control, surely resistance only makes sense.

3. SLOGANEERING. Women’s rights groups were rightly incensed recently when a department store chain briefly sold girls’ t-shirts emblazoned with “I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework.” But t-shirt and bumper sticker slogans permit workers to broadcast value statements that could get them in trouble if spoken aloud. Imagine if an assembly line worker shouted these on the factory floor:

  • A bad day fishing is better than a good day working
  • I put the “pro” in “procrastination”
  • You don’t have to be crazy to work here—we’ll train you
  • What has two thumbs and needs a beer? This guy
  • Take this job and shove it

Simple slogans permit workers to bond around their shared sense of alienation in the face of mind-numbing work. Note that favored slogans work as shibboleths to identify who’s in and who’s out. Work is no place for political slogans, which gin up sides; even my “Obama '08” bumper sticker earns some weird looks. Working class slogans are in-group references, not polarizing opinions.

4. READING. I can charitably describe workers’ relationships with books as complex and loaded. Because this dovetails so precisely with my own personal and educational background, I’d like to dedicate an entire entry to this topic. Please stay tuned.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Day I Dropped a Racial Term in Public

When we make a unit with extra components, the assembly line can get hairy. So Monday night, when Ray and I had to work about twelve inches apart, we knew minor setbacks would turn major in a hurry. Neither of us were surprised when a simple error sent us scrambling backward to make up for lost time, and, joking though my frustration, I growled: “What the hell are you trying to do to me, boy?”

Only several minutes later did I realize I’d said this to the only black worker on the line.

I’d certainly meant nothing racial. I was thinking more of a middle school gym teacher who’d called all of us “boy,” black or white. And my intent was entirely in fun. But considering the casual cruelty many African Americans continue to suffer—from diminished economic opportunity and disproportionate incarceration to bigots who use racial terms in daily conversation—my words’ intent matters less than their effect.

The “joke” inherent in my words meant race less than authority: my words conveyed that the recipient of my words stood lower on the hierarchy than me. This is of course not true, since Ray and I are both worker bees. But that’s the joke: I’m pretending to authority I don’t really have. I’m putting myself above Ray by pretending to steal his limited power and adding it to mine.

Real thigh-slapper, huh?

I can’t help but remember my dad in these moments. Though he disavowed racism, and taught me not to divide people by something as insignificant as skin color, he also, when not guarding his words, acted about as enlightened as Archie Bunker. He would defend himself by saying he didn’t really mean it, and besides, he’d never say it outside the family. But whether he meant it or not, those concepts certainly percolated in his mind.

Which means they percolate in my mind, too. They were part of the milieu I grew up in. And they were part of the milieu you grew up in, too, because our slaveholding and segregated past is, like it or not, part of America’s cultural heritage. This is why, despite some white liberals’ professed desires, America can never be a truly colorblind society. The past, even a shameful past, never truly goes away.

Building a respectful, productive present does not mean shutting off the past like a switch. It means coming to grips with the past, facing our own demons, and remaining conscious of the effects our words and actions have on others. We must recognize that we owe it to coming generations to redefine how black and white, women and men, poor and rich, rural and urban—in short, powerless and powerful—relate to one another.

Therefore I must make amends for my thoughtless words. Even in jest, my words’ effects do not reflect my Christian values. I believe good solid ethics mean bridging the gaps between people, trying to heal wounds, and looking out for one another. We really are in this together. And even pretending to superiority over another person widens gulfs. That’s completely unacceptable.

Ray is a good guy and a diligent worker. I’m proud to work next to him on the line because, quite apart from anything racial, he’s a dedicated colleague. And while I don’t make friends easily, he and I josh friendly, and I can imagine he and I getting to be pals. Come to that, even if we despised each other, I owed it to him to make peace when I’ve said something hurtful.

But I found myself in that awkward situation where I don’t know if he heard the wrong thing I said. Even if he did, not everybody is equally sensitive to implications. Apologizing may draw attention to what he considered a minor issue, but not apologizing could mean letting a serious problem fester. After vacillating for a few minutes, I finally spoke up.

“Hey, Ray.”


“When we were horsing around back there a few minutes ago, I didn’t think before I spoke, and I let slip with a racial term. I just wanted to say I’m sorry for that.”

“Oh? I didn’t even hear it.”

“Well, maybe not, but I still need to say it. Because I can’t let something like that stand.”

Ray turned from his work station long enough to take me in, then smiled slightly and nodded. I don’t know if that means I’m forgiven, but I hope it means at least that this won’t fester forever.