Book Review: Voices From the Rust Belt – Edited by Anne Trubek

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Just what is the Rust Belt? In simple terms it stretches from Milwaukee to Buffalo with cities like Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh inbetween, cities that were once known as vibrant communities of manufacturing that have fallen on hard times but are trying to recapture their former glory. The Rust Belt is also a place I call home.

Sometimes romanticized,sometimes looked down upon, and often ignored, the Rust Belt is a place rich in history and tales so I was only to happy to find Voices from the Rust Belt, a collection of essays by people of all kinds who deftly write about what it is like to live in the Rust Belt.

After a brief introduction, which describes what is the Rust Belt and why it matters, Voices from the Rust Belt is divided into four parts.

1. Growing Up
2. Day to Day in the Rust Belt
3. Geography of the Heartland
4. Leaving and Staying

I pretty much loved all the essays written by talented women and men of all kinds. Some stories I could relate and others opened my eyes to experiences completely foreign to me. These stories are written by journalists, immigrants, students, artists, business owners, activists and working stiffs of all kinds who call the Rust Belt home. Nearly every one of theses writers impressed me and I was thrilled to find brief bios of the writers, which gave me further insight to these people beyond their written words. I also pondered what it would be like to see a well-made documentary on the Rust Belt – Ken Burns, I’m looking in your direction.

If I have any quibbles with Voices from the Rust Belt it is there is no voice from Milwaukee. Hmm, maybe in the sequel.

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Book Review: Listen Liberal-Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank

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Anybody familiar with my little corner of the Internet, knows I am a liberal. And I don’t feel any shame in that title. I’m very proud of it and it is one that I hold close to my heart…however…

I have been troubled by the ideas, opinions and actions by some of my fellow liberals for a few years now but never could I quite voice it in an articulate, yet simple way.

So thank goodness for Thomas Frank and his latest book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? In Listen, Liberal, Frank pretty much sums it up in a way I couldn’t without coming across like a blithering idiot.

Perhaps, you’re not familiar with the name Thomas Frank, but undoubtedly you’ve heard of his books. He wrote the classic What’s the Matter With Kansas, a book that should be on most political-minded folks reading list no matter what your views. I can also recommend two of his other books—The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, and Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.

This time out, instead of focusing on conservatives and the current state of the GOP, Frank focuses on his fellow liberals and the Democratic party, and his summary is not pretty.

In my life, I’ve always felt I straddled two worlds, not feeling entirely comfortable in either one. I was raised in a middle class home by two college educated parents. I graduated from an excellent college with the highest of honors. I have worked in the professional realm of media, high tech, consulting, finance, law and various creative endeavors. I have eaten brie and drink wine. I enjoy my city’s cultural landscape whether it be our local art galleries or our wonderful film fest.

However, I also grew up in a rural area.  My family history is mostly wooden spoons, not silver spoons (my maternal grandmother never attended high school). I drove to high school in a pick-up truck where guys wore John Deere hats and spit up their chewing tobacco into the drinking fountains. As an adult I lived in roach-infested apartments in really dodgy neighborhoods. My feet have walked on factory shop floors and the floors of several retail establishments. I have worked as a temp for longer than I care to admit. I’ve been poor, really poor, so poor I’ve eaten out of garbage cans and spent sleepless nights wondering if I’m going to end up homeless.

And in both of the worlds, I’ve felt marginalized and misunderstood. I am fully liberal, but today’s flavor of liberal (which favors the first world I noted) doesn’t quite understand the life I’ve lived in the second scenario I noted. And we’re worse off for not realizing this.

For the longest time, the Democratic base included many of those who work blue collar, pink collar and other assorted non-professional, managerial type of labor. Then something happened. This base of working class Jacks and Janes were cast aside for a more elitist class, which included those with college degrees (often post-undergrad) degrees, impressive job titles and even more impressive incomes. These elites are under the illusion that many of them earned their way to the top through mostly their merits. And though many of them had, a lot of them also had supportive families, good connections, went to the best schools, and were able to grab the brass ring of internships, and later great jobs. And a lot of their good fortune is due to just plain good luck.

Now many of these elitist liberals are socially liberal (which is wonderful). But they often ignore the plight of the working and service classes, the gulf between the haves and have nots, those living in rural areas, globalization, and the stagnation of wages (while CEO pay is through the roof).

As I mentioned, a lot of elitist liberals believe their success is due to merit, their talents, smarts, skills, and education. And sadly, many of these people look down at the “others.” Clearly they don’t have what it takes to succeed. It’s total snobbery.

What these liberals (and their “liberal gilt”) need to recognize is the great unwashed, the salt of the earth must be taken seriously. This includes their ideas, concerns, opinions, fears and aspirations. All of us have a stake in our country and its future. There is strength in numbers and those Democrats in power must listen to all of us (so far only Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and not to mention pundit Robert Reich seem to be open to doing this).

Sure, meritocracy is a nice concept. But so is a sense of empathy. Listen Liberal implores liberal elites to stop being such snobs, open their minds, hearts, and souls to those they think as “lesser” to make effective change that works for all of us.

Book Review: Under the Affluence-Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise

under the affluenceEvery once in while there comes a book that makes me want to shout from the roof tops, “Everybody, please read this book if you truly care about humanity and society!” Tim Wise’s book Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America, is one such book. And though it may sound melodramatic, I truly think Mr. Wise’s book is an excellent primer on exactly why our nation seems so skewed, confused and messed-up, especially during one of our most scary, yet important presidential election years ever.

Scholar, activist and writer, the aptly named Tim Wise, has focused on societal issues since college and one of his first jobs was working against former KKK grand wizard, David Duke’s presidential bid. Since then Wise has worked on behalf of many progressive causes and has written several books, Under the Affluence being his latest.

In 2016 Wise wonders why do we (as a nation and a society) shame the poor (and let’s face it, anyone who isn’t mega wealthy) while praising the super-rich? And what does that say about us and what impact is this having on society?

Wise calls this detestable movement “Scroogism,” and, yes, based on Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. And it is a theme that has shaped our thinking about the haves vs. the have-nots and have-lessers, much of it encouraged by big business, Wall Street, billionaires and millionaires, CEOs, the radical right political pundits, the current state of the GOP, conservative Christianity, mainstream media and often, ourselves. And yes, that includes the have-nots and have-lessers. And Wise offers evidence through nearly 40 pages of end notes to give gravitas to Under the Affluence.

Under the Affluence and its theme of Scroogism is divided into three well-researched, scholarly, yet audience friendly, maddening, heartbreaking and in the end, cautiously hopeful chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Pulling Apart-The State of Disunited America
  2. Resurrecting Scrooge-Rhetoric and Policy in a Culture of Cruelty
  3. Redeeming Scrooge-Fostering a Culture of CompassionIn Resurrecting Scrooge,

Wise carefully researches how in the 21st century the United States is a society that bashes the poor, blames victims, the unemployed and underemployed, embraces a serious lack of compassion and celebrates cruelty while putting the wealthy and the powerful on a pedestal. And Wise examines the origins of class and cruelty in the United States, the ideas of the Social Gospel and FDR’s New Deal, the myths and realities of the War on Poverty from its inception to Reaganism (and how liberals responded), and the concept how culture of cruelty affects who receives justice and who receives nothing at all except horrifically de-humanizing insults, both in rhetoric and reality. It is probably these two chapters that truly stirred my rage, and at times, I had to put Under the Affluence down and take a few deep breaths.But just as I was about to chuck Under the Affluence across the room and spend a week in the corner rocking back and forth, I read the final chapter, and felt a bit of hope. Perhaps, as nation things aren’t as bleak as they seem. In this chapter, Wise reminds us to look for possible roadblocks on the way of redemption. He also mentions that besides facts, use storytelling because behind every fact there is a very human face with a story that must be heard. He behooves us to create “a vision of a culture of a compassion” and how we can help communities to control their destiny.

Now, I am a realist. I know for the most part Under the Affluence is a book that preaches to the choir, especially in 2016. But maybe, just maybe, Under the Affluence will open minds, soften hearts and act an agent for, as Elvis Costello so aptly put it, “peace, love and understanding.” Under the Affluence is not only one of the most important books to come out in 2016; it is one of the most important books to come out in the 21st century.

Wise also takes a look at the world of the working poor and the non-working rich, the myth of meritocracy, horribly mean-spirited remarks, much of it coming from the radical right, including pundits and politicians, excessive CEO and big business pay, the devaluing of work that truly benefits all of society-nursing, teaching social work, protecting the public, improving our infrastructure, creating art, taking care of the elderly and disabled, and so on. And let’s not forget the very valuable work that doesn’t pay-parenting, eldercare, volunteering, etc.

In Pulling Apart, Wise takes a hardcore look at our current state of joblessness, wage stagnation, underemployment and how they affect us in this stage of “post-recession recovering” America. He investigates today’s realities and the long-term effects of income and wealth inequality. Wise contemplates who and what caused these problems and how race, class and economics are involved.

Brag Book

howie-makem2Last Saturday, after I posted my review of Ben Hamper’s book, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, I decided to email Mr. Hamper with a link to my review. I found Mr. Hamper’s email via his Facebook page. I wasn’t sure if his email was current because it was an AOL email address. Who uses AOL in 2014? Well, apparently Ben Hamper does, and in less than an hour of emailing Mr. Hamper he emailed me back thanking me for my review and my kind words. WOW! I think that is the quickest response I’ve ever gotten from an author. Thank you Ben Hamper for your quick response and your lovely email, and thank you even more for writing such an awesome book!

And thanks to Google Images for helping me find Ben Hamper’s description of Howie Makem. Hmm, for some reason I imagined good old Howie with stripes.

Retro Review: Rivethead-Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

49990303c7274_4619nYou’re at work. It doesn’t matter if you’re white collar, blue collar, pink collar or no collar at all. Now imagine a grown man walking around your workspace wearing a cat costume. The name of this creature just happens to be Howie Makem (How We Make’em, get it?). Are you imagining this? Are you shaking your head and thinking, “What the hell?”

Well, former GM factory worker and writer Ben Hamper doesn’t have to imagine Howie Makem; he experienced him. And he writes all about it (and other assorted hijinks) in his hilarious and yes, thought-provoking memoir, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line.”

Hamper grew up in Flint, Michigan and worked on the assembly line at the local GM plant. Working at GM was in Hamper’s blood. He was a third generation GM “shoprat.” His grandparents, various aunts and uncles, and his own father worked for GM. A tour of the GM factory where his father worked (when he wasn’t drinking and womanizing) made a young Ben Hamper want to avoid the factory as much as possible. Hamper wanted to be an ambulance driver and later a disc jockey, but with a less than stellar educational record and a family to support, Hamper reluctantly applied at the Flint GM plant where he ended up squeezing rivets (hence the name of the book).

At GM Hamper had a job, not a career. It was a place to earn a paycheck, a paycheck Hamper fully reveals he often used to pay for nights at his favorite bar and punk records. The assembly line was hot, repetitive, stifling, noisy, greasy and often mind-numbingly boring. To break up the monotony of their shifts, Hamper and his co-workers came up with all kinds of shenanigans—racing to the drinking fountains, feeding the factory mice Cheetos, skeet shooting Milk Duds. Hamper and his co-workers also indulged in an activity called “double-up.” To double-up, one worker would do two jobs at once while the other worker would do something else. During double-ups, Hamper would read, hole up at a bar, and often he would write.

Hamper would be the first to admit he and his co-workers didn’t always have the most amazing work ethic and he also knew he was making some great money for his so-called unskilled labor. Yet, there were hard times. Hamper dealt with several layoffs and the possibility of factory closings. And when actually at work, Hamper saw his co-workers do everything from overdosing and barfing their guts out to torching an innocent mouse.

To encourage workers, GM management tried inspire them through an electronic message board, which flashed such erudite quotes such as, “A Winner Never Quits & a Quitter Never Wins,” “Safety is Safe” and Hamper’s personal favorite “Squeezing Rivets is Fun!” But to really get the workers juices flowing, it took a factory floor roaming life-sized cat to make the best quality vehicles on the planet—Howie Makem. Of Howie Makem Hamper writes:

Howie Makem stood five feet nine. He had light brown fur, long synthetic whiskers and a head the size of a Datsun. He wore a long red cape emblazoned with the letter Q for Quality. A very magical cat, Howie walked everywhere on his hind paws. Cruelly, Howie was not entrusted with a dick.

Howie would make the rounds poking his floppy whiskers in and out of each department. A “Howie sighting” was always cause for great fanfare. The workers would scream and holler and jump up and down on their workbenches whenever Howie drifted by. Howie Makem may have begun as just another Company ploy to prod the tired legions, but most of us ran with the joke and soon Howie evolved into a crazy phenomenon.

Hmm, Howie Makem sure beats Successories.

To cope with his job (and Howie Makem), Hamper turned to writing, which had been a passion of his since he was a teenager. An unsolicited record review to a local alternative newspaper named the Flint Voice introduced Hamper to Michael Moore (yes, THAT Michael Moore). Moore likes Hamper’s writing style, and encouraged him to write about working for GM, which steered Hamper to writing his own column. Hamper’s column became one of the paper’s most popular reads.

Soon Moore got a job as editor of the notable Mother Jones magazine. He figured Hamper would be the perfect addition, and Moore’s inaugural issue of Mother Jones’ cover story was on Hamper. Hamper thusly became a minor celebrity. He was featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Today Show. Being an unpretentious guy, Hamper is humored by the idea of celebrity. But before he could become the Hunter S Thompson of the lunch pail crowd, Hamper had to deal with some more serious issues with both his health and his tenure with GM.

All of this led to Hamper writing Rivethead, probably one of the best memoirs I have ever read. I have never worked on an assembly line, but I totally related to Hamper’s tales of workday tedium, silly management decisions, threats of layoffs and restructuring, and oddball co-workers. And I’ve worked in fields that would be considered “creative” where stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen.

Hamper writes in way that is fearless and funny. He gives it to you straight, with no chaser, and dares you to drink it all in and stifle your laughter. Sure, Hamper acted like a goofball, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are reading this review while at work. Yet despite all the shenanigans Hamper describes, I don’t doubt for a moment that he also toiled very hard at a gritty, thankless job that probably wasn’t always appreciated.

Though Rivethead was released over twenty years ago, it is a book that is both timeless and timely, and one I think should be required reading. Sure, we can read memoirs and biographies of industry titans like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But perhaps it’s time to give a working class (anti) hero like Ben Hamper the attention he, and so many other faceless blue collar Joes and Josephines, deserve.