Monday, May 24, 2010

Will the Real Postville Please Stand Up?

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.


Stephen G. Bloom said...

While it may be bad form for an author to respond to a negative review, T. Hatch's silly “analysis” of my book Postville is mean, vindictive, and — most telling — inaccurate.

Some points:

Even after 17 years here, I still maintain that road rage doesn't exist in rural Iowa. Does anyone think it does?

And I invite T. Hatch to come with me to the local Hy-Vee. I will personally hand him a dried pig's ear in the pet food aisle.

Further, I never wrote that all Hasidic Jews are lousy drivers. It is true, though, that many Hasidim in Postville never drove a day in their lives before arriving in Iowa, and behind a wheel, they weren't the best drivers in the world.

Similarly, many of the Hasidim from Brooklyn weren't used to grassy front and back yards (as with cars, they had never operated a lawn mower), and when I was in Postville from 1996-2000, ANY local would explain that the way to tell a Hasidic home was by how high the grass in front and back was.

But these are trifling issues in T. Hatch’s nasty review.

To write that the book "is not a work of analysis and explains almost nothing" is downright vicious. It also flies in the face of more than 70,000 readers, many of whom have written about how dead-on the characterizations in the book, in fact, are. These readers include Postville residents, Iowans, former Iowans, Jews (including a plethora of rabbis), current and former workers at the plant, vendors who did business with Agriprocessors, government prosecutors, defense attorneys, ministers, priests, environmentalists, and animal-rights activists.

What irks most, though, about T. Hatch’s quasi-review is that it fails to place into context the impact the book has had on Postville, on Iowa, national immigration reform, working conditions in U.S. slaughterhouses, the treatment of women in menial jobs, environmental regulations at meatpacking plants, not to mention the illegal business and employment practices of the owners of Agriprocessors – which a full decade after the book was published, finally were brought to federal and state courts with guilty verdicts. Former Governor Tom Vilsack called Postville one of the most important books in Iowa history.

T. Hatch said...

Whether it is poor form or not to respond to a negative review is not the most telling question for Professor Bloom. The more telling question is why ten years after the book's publication, on a blog with few readers, the day of the post, in the wake of finals week, his fragile narcissism was such that he felt the absolute need to respond? It reminded me of reading about the late Warren Zevon who spent hours every day arguing with people on the internet who had criticized his music. No stone unturned Professor.

My original thought when I read the book was how much chapter one reminded me of Professor Harold Hill's arrival in River City. The Music Man was a fictionalized treatment of circa 1910 Iowa. I wondered what Bloom's excuse was? I thought that in fairness to the Lubavitchers of Postville (whom I would categorize as religious fanatics) if Bloom demonstrated the same proclivity to caricature as he did with the indigenous Iowans then Aaron Goldsmith might have a point.

As to the specifics. What Iowa roads is Bloom driving on? I've had a a gun pulled on me on I-235 in Des Moines, last January a fellow motorist threw objects from his car at mine on Interstate 80 near Mitchellville, and I've had another driver cut me off and jump from his car threatening me with a wardrobe bar that he took from his backseat? Road rage in Iowa? Perish the thought.

In the book Bloom did not mention that dried pig's ears being in the pet food isle. Be that as it may I have never seen dried pigs ears in any Iowa grocery store (I've lived here since 1958 with three years away in the army in the late 1970s). By the way I accept the professor's invitation to go to his favorite Hy Vee; I'll be in Iowa City sometime in the next two weeks and would be happy to give him a call. While Bloom may be able to hand me the pigs ears it does not change much. The impression that the non-Iowan reader is left with is that pigs ears are readily available and their consumption by native Iowans (and not their pets) is a generalized condition.

While Bloom did not say that all Lubavitchers were lousy drivers he uncritically reported that the Postville locals thought so. Since when do we take an historical actors at their word and simply leave it at that?

While is was "nasty" of me to say that Bloom's book was better at description than analysis Richard Bernstein in the New York Times said much the same thing. "In the end, Mr. Bloom is better at describing the fascinating situation in Postville than at analyzing it or placing it in moral or historic context." Ah, that Bernstein is a vicious bastard.

For writing that Bloom's book propagates stereotypes and is less than satisfying when it comes to a serious analysis makes me "silly, mean, vindictive, and vicious." Am I leaving anything out of professor's ad hominem list of fallacy-insults?

As to the last two paragraphs of Bloom's post to say that he is an expert at blowing his own horn is an understatement. What "impact" has Postville: Clash of the Cultures had on national immigration reform? In the first instance, what national immigration reform? Bloom taking credit for influencing any of the events in Postville over the last ten years is like a thermometer taking credit for what the temperature is. It is probably more accurate to say that the professor cashed in with his book deal.

The crowning glory of the Bloom's post has to be the fallacy of an appeal to authority using Tom Vilsack as an expert on Iowa historiography.

In conclusion, to indulge in a little ad hominem of my own, Stephen G. Bloom is an intellectual lightweight with a glass jaw.