Stephen G. Bloom. Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 2000.
Burling 2nd Floor: F630.J5 B56 2000
Mark Grey, Michele Devlin, Aaron Goldsmith. Postville U.S.A.: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America. Boston: Gemma, 2009
Burling 2nd Floor: F629.P73x G74 2009
Reviewed by T. Hatch
The small northeastern Iowa town of Postville has a knack for drawing attention to itself. The kosher slaughterhouse operation that was raided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in May of 2008 is now reopening under new ownership while the former CEO of Agriprocessors, Sholom Rubashkin, awaits sentencing on eighty-six counts of fraud, mail and wire fraud, and money laundering. Issues of racism, religion, and rural reactionaries aside, Postville is yet one more example of how there are no “and they lived happily ever after” stories involving the meatpacking industry in Iowa towns and cities. Unfortunately, this point largely eluded the authors of both of these deeply flawed and disappointing books.
Stephen Bloom's book was chronologically first, widely read, and marketed by a well known publisher. Bloom was a recent arrival at the University of Iowa in the Journalism Department in the mid-1990s when he set out upon a journey of discovery. A secular liberal Jew he was intrigued by the tales of the community of a couple of hundred Lubavitcher Hasidim who had moved to Postville starting in 1987 when the closed former animal rendering plant was purchased by Aaron Rubashkin of Crown Heights, Brooklyn and reopened as a glatt kosher processing plant.
Bloom traveled repeatedly to Postville from his home in Iowa City and interviewed both Postville locals and members of the Orthodox Jewish community there. One of the charges of Bloom's critics is that he litters the countryside with ridiculous stereotypes. There is some validity to this accusation. In the first chapter of the book, Bloom provides the reader with some local color of how life is in Iowa. He avers that in Iowa “the concept of road rage didn't exist.” People “drove ...ever-so-slowly, almost never over the speed limit” (p.7). Further, I learned something about Iowa grocery stores from Bloom. “Here the local grocery store stocked pigs' ears that customers picked out of a big wooden crate”(p.15). I lived in Iowa City for almost thirty years and have absolutely no idea of where this grocery store with the pigs' ears might be. But, I heartily approve of perpetuating stereotypes of this nature. In fact whenever I travel out of state, and because I see the ideal population of Iowa as being no more than three million people, I regale all listeners with tales of livestock running wild in the streets.
While I lack standing and expertise in matters relative to Orthodox Judaism, Bloom serves up a number of stereotypes relating to the Hasidim of Postville that strain credulity. Are all Jews in Postville really lousy drivers? (p.47) Do the Lubavitchers all fail to mow their lawns and shovel the snow from their sidewalks? (p.48) Viewing an on line picture of Sholom Rubashkin's house it appears that the yard is up to acceptable standards of suburban lawn care.
The focus of Bloom's book is the political fight that the city council of Postville had with Agriprocessors over the issue of annexation. The proposed annexation would include the slaughter facility which had been outside city limits and therefore beyond the reach of local taxation. The annexation issue came to be viewed as a referendum of the presence of the Hasidim in Postville. Sholom Rubashkin had threatened that if the town's people were to vote in favor of annexation then Agriprocessors would pack up and leave. This turned out to be a bluff as annexation passed by a ten percent margin with only fifty-seven percent of all eligible voters taking part in the vote.
Bloom is up front in telling the reader that he sided with the Postville locals and hoped that annexation would pass. This brings us to the not so sub textual crux of the issue. The real clash of the cultures here was between a secular Jew and his Orthodox counterparts. While Bloom's book is entertainingly colorful in its descriptive splendor it is not a work of analysis and explains almost nothing. Yet it is the better of the two Postville books.
Postville U.S.A. By Mark Grey, Michele Devlin, and Aaron Goldsmith is a self-conscious and tendentious effort to stake a claim to “authenticity.” Two things immediately come to mind in reading this book. In the first instance “to err is human but to really f@#k up requires a committee.” And in the second instance, since it is unclear which author has written what, it is possible to establish a literary form of plausible deniability.
The second Postville book was written in the wake of the Immigration and Customs enforcement raid. As such, it left the reader flat. The authors contend that “In many respects, Agriprocessors revitalized Postville, bringing hundreds of new jobs and a sizeable payroll”(p.6). While this is one description of events, it is at least as accurate to say that Agriprocessors concentrated, and exploited, undocumented immigrant labor flouting a variety of labor laws daily. This environment of exploitation occurred in part because Agriprocessors made sure no union got near the place. The low wages paid the immigrants made those jobs less attractive than jobs at the local Walmart. While the authors recognized that Postville was emblematic of issues swirling around immigration, globalization, and migrant workers' rights, and they correctly placed the community with the rest of rural America riding the wave of demographic change, they spent little time explaining how this came to pass. It is almost as if the immigrant laborers were anonymous.
Not that I expected the authors to become Philip Foner, but their two page abstract description of the beatdown of labor in the 1980s during the Reagan counterrevolution was totally inadequate. How was it that hundreds (and, with turnover, thousands) of immigrant workers just happened to find their way to Postville? What a stroke of good luck for an employer paying minimum wage to workers to debone cows.
By far the most tiresome part of Postville U.S.A. was the endless prattle about the diversity industry. Lacking the sophistication to realize there was such a thing (at first glance I thought it might be what the guys in Human Resources of some corporation call themselves to sound cool) after reading the book I was totally indifferent to the hustle of the diversity specialists. The authors positioned themselves as running the gauntlet between the politically correct progressivism of the diversity industry on one side and ahistorical, ethnocentric conservatism of the racists and xenophobes on the other. They are the selfless ones who spoke for the gemeinschaft that is Postville; geist that can only be judged by itself and not by any “outsiders.”
I frankly expected that there would have been more space devoted to the day-to-day struggles of the townspeople after the government raid on Agriprocessors. Not only was the reader disappointed in this, the authors several times complained about members of immigrant families that were left behind and thus adding to the economic strain that the community already felt. Frankly another lesson that might have been derived is that a smaller community with a single dominant employer is at the mercy of the vagaries of a vicious postmodern capitalism.