Colonial Horrors

King Leopold's GhostKing Leopold’s Ghost is a work of popular history about the horrors of Belgian colonization in the Congo. Written by Adam Hochschild,  it was a surprise best seller when first published in 1999. It has it since been reprinted many times, made into a movie, and reached a broad audience across the world. It has legs, traction, and intellectual and moral heft. But it was not a book on my shelf. I recently addressed its absence.

Reading it was well worth the time. It recounts a humbling history of greed, intrigue, and the evils of colonial imperialism, tempered with real courage in African and from a growing human rights movement. I should have read it earlier. Ignorance is no excuse for continued ignorance.

Hochschild’s book is based mostly on the work of other historians. What makes his account special is that he weaves them together into a compelling narrative. It is well-paced, historically accurate (Hochschild is professional and generous in acknowledging others’ efforts), and deeply distressing. While the latter part of the nineteenth century in Europe can be romanticized as a period of growing urbanization and sophistication, much of the economy was driven by forced labor and wanton cruelty. Tens of millions of African people were caught in an exploitative system that killed at least ten million and tortured more. It was, in many ways, a training ground for the wide scale horrors of the twentieth century.

Textbooks often describe the rush of economically developed countries in Europe and North America to find natural resources around the world as a rational expression of market demand. If a growing industry needs rubber, then rubber must be found, harvested and transported. Missing is an understanding of the impact on people and cultures. King Leopold’s Ghost makes clear that Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo region was not about market forces. It was driven by the machinations of an evil and rapacious leader, King Leopold, who bribed, lied, and politicked to gain personal wealth and power. He built an hypocritical propaganda machine, selling the world a story of development and protection while actually doing the exact opposite.

A few recognized what was happening and tried to stop it. Hochschild puts Edmund Morel, who led the global human rights campaign to end Leopold’s rule, in a place of prominence. Roger Casement, later embroiled in the Irish independence movement, was his partner. An African-American historian, soldier, lawyer and activist, George Washington Williams, was in the Congo earlier and tried to warn the world. William Henry Sheppard, a missionary, documented the atrocities and was one of the few to record the testimony of the indigenous people. Joseph Conrad, of course, is also part of the story. He traveled the Congo River and as it turns out, A Heart of Darkness was not as much a work of imagination than a reflection or a terribly reality. Many others are part of the broader narrative, from the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley, to Mark Twain. Twain wrote a scathing satirical pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which helped bring global attention to the evils of Belgium’s King and colony.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a sobering book. It is and will remain a vital reminder to engage, question, and work for human rights.

David Potash

Naturalization and the Global Citizen

Immigrate into a country, have your papers approved, and you are “naturalized.” If you lack a passport or the right documents, you are considered “stateless” and your state of being is “unnatural.” Words often underscore complicated truths. We live in a world that demands allegiance to a nation-state. Those that lack it – refugees, undocumented, trans-nationals – live at the mercy of bureaucracies, courts, and an increasingly xenophobic public. Cosmopolites

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian examines the stateless from an unusual perspective – the selling of citizenship – in The Comsopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. A journalist, opinion editor at Al Jazeera America (recently shuttered), and current resident of Brooklyn (where else?), Abrahamian’s primary focus is on the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Comora, and the rearranging of citizenship and passports for a price. At issue, though, are much broader questions. A more ambitious book lies beyond this work, and Abrahamian wrestles with keeping it in check. She is smart, curious, and as much interested in stories and histories as she is in policy.

The bedoon (not the Bedouin) are the stateless people living in the UAE and Kuwait. Legal status and the accompanying paperwork did not matter much thirty or forty years ago in the Arabian peninsula. The Gulf War, changing economics and global politics, shifted the government’s priorities as Kuwait’s independence became a bureaucratic reality. Those who resided in Kuwait and UAE but originally hailed from Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia were caught in a legal and geographic limbo. Their families were enshared, too. Unwilling to grant these people citizenship, governments had no clear way to deal with them. The state wanted security, ways to take advantage of the stateless’s labor and resources, but without a long-term commitment. A significant percentage of the Kuwaiti army is bidoon. What sort of rights should they have?

One of the poorest countries in the world, Comoro are a series of islands in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. Comoro’s political leadership was enticed into trading citizenship for money, first with the Emirates and then Kuwait. Abrahamian uses her journalistic skills to tell a story of wheeling-and-dealing figures, scrambling to make deals and profits. It reads like an espionage movie with a thread of farce: undercover deals, private jets, and all-expense covered shopping trips.

The story of the bidoon introduces the larger issue of purchased citizenship. It is not a theoretical question. Many countries have provisions for it. The very wealthy, or “ultra high net worth individuals” as they are called in the trade, often possess multiple citizenships for convenience and tax purposes. The Caribbean island of St. Kitts, for example, was well-known for offering citizenship for a significant investment in the local economy. Abrahamian talks with some of the citizenship/passport brokers about their business and the competitive market.

Stepping back, then, the two groups that are representatives of a new global citizenship are the very wealthy and the dispossessed. The size of the latter group has swelled tremendously as wars like the conflict in Syria have driven millions from their homes. Recent estimates put the number of refugees around the world at more than 60 million. If the world’s refugees were to claim a country of their own, it would be ranked in the top 25 in the world in terms of population, holding about as many people as France. The Cosmopolites does not look at the refugee crisis but it lurks at the narrative’s door.

Driving Abrahamian’s book is a sense of justice. She emphasizes that we live in a globally interconnected world that enables the freely flow of capital but prohibits the same freedom of movement to people. It is a good argument. She explores alternatives: a few of history’s characters who have challenged the idea of belonging to one nation and early policy attempts to help the dispossessed. She sees the issue of statelessness as something that could be resolved with the right bureaucratic commitment. The Nansen passport, a brilliant product of international agreement following the Russian Civil War, gave the stateless a means to travel safely. It helped thousands and thousands of refugees. We have evidence that when there is political will, reforms are possible.

It is a tall order. If we look at the questions Abrahamian raises through different lenses: immigration patterns, refugee histories, border-free zones such as in the European Union, and the persistence of nationalism, it is difficult to be optimistic in the near future. The past few centuries have not been kind to people who have lacked the political organization of the state. The power of nationalism to strengthen shared identity and to shape policy and practice cannot be underestimated. Even the universal citizens of the cosmos need passports.

David Potash

A Radical Interior

Some books are enjoyed, some savored, and those that we cannot finish are rejected out of hand. It is a rare novel that gets under your skin, challenges, frustrates and enlightens. Eimear McBride‘s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, is just such a work of art. It is a difficult, at times painful read. The story is at times, unremittingly sad. It is also lyrical, lovely and enlightening. Girl is a Half formed thing

The novel is written as a stream of consciousness. McBride plays with spelling, grammar and syntax, creating an interior dialogue that reflects the subjective and objective world of our narrator. Never fully her own agent yet not without power or influence, the “girl” is a unreliably reliable narrator. We are inside her head, fully awash in her experiences.

Authoring a first person stream of consciousness narration is no easy task. It can feel gimmicky and cheap, a trick from a creative writing program. On the other hand, when successful -and I am thinking of James Joyce (who must have influenced McBride), Faulkner, or Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting), it can be very powerful. Central to the work’s effectiveness is an integrity of voice. It has to ring true. While there is no objective truth in McBride’s novel, it carries with it great authenticity, an aura of truth.

It can also be damn difficult to follow. Many times in the book I had to read sentences aloud to understand – and even then, I am not sure that I fully understood. No matter. In McBride’s handling, I had the sense that my confusion was mirroring the narrator’s own lack of clarity. And that is how life is often experienced.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has won numerous awards and received critical acclaim. It is the sort of novel that is studied in literature courses. I hope that many readers overcome its challenges and give it their time.

David Potash

Second City Hometown Associations

Making sense of Chicago is no easy task. The city is an amazing jumble of neighborhoods and histories that are easy to misunderstand or miss. Chicago has the second largest population of Mexican immigrants in the US. However, the structure and social fabric of this community is not well-studied or well-known. Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan

Xochitl Bada, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, opens an important window into this world in her book, Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan: From Local to Transnational Civic Engagement. The title may be imposing but the read is informative. Grounded in scholarship and the product of Bada’s graduate studies, it is a thoughtful and carefully crafted work. It is also a correction on assumptions one might make about civic engagement and the Mexican immigrant community.

Drawn to the topic because of her interest immigrant rights and activism, Bada volunteered with the Federation of Michoacan Clubs in Illinois (FEDECMI). The Federation’s scope and history gave her a unique view to examine the HTAs and the people they affected. She saw the growing organizational prowess of the HTAs, in Mexico and across the Caribbean, and also the impact of a change in Mexican law that gave those living abroad the right to vote in state elections. All of this occurred against a backdrop of anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant laws and action in the United States.

Bada sketches out the broad conditions and history of Mexican immigration to Chicago. She focuses on the experiences of those who hailed from Michoacan, a state in western Mexico. Mostly driven be labor opportunities in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, Michoacan immigrants journeyed to the US and were supported by mutual aid societies. In 1964, the bracero program ended, meaning that laborers to the US were no longer “guests.” Consequently, the mutual aid societies became less relevant. For Mexican immigrants to Chicago, that spelled an increase in the importance and relevance of hometowns and hometown associations for the immigrant community. The HTAs range from social clubs to sporting groups to active political groups.

Using history, journalism, and first person interviews, Bada explores the Chicago – Michoacan HTAs. She maps their internal networks, the connections with church and state, and examines how they both recreate and challenge traditional social structures. Undergirding their importance to Mexico over the years are the consistent flow of remittances from Chicago. The HTAs are more than local Chicago organizations – they also have a powerful impact in their home towns and region.

By the 2000s, Mexican politicians would regularly visit Chicago HTAs to connect with the community and drum up support. Many members of the HTAs held dual citizenship and the organizations fostered a special kind of dual civic engagement. Bada digs deep into theory and practice to explain how. The HTA’s clout led to joint funding opportunities for economic development in Michoacan. While the projects did not meet financial expectations, the HTAs have maintained an active voice in local Mexican politics. When those living away from Mexico were granted voting rights in 2007, the importance of the HTAs increased significantly. They consistently press a democratic counter narrative to the plans of large-scale development as pushed by international organizations and states.

Pulling the pieces of these organizations and their history together, Bada explores what they mean in terms of identity, geography, and community. Organizations whose membership and focus spans countries face particular challenges just in terms of basic logistics, which also mean difficulties in terms of communication, trust and agency. Technology has been a powerful enabler. Bada does not write about this, but it clearly has an impact.

Bada does explore the consequences of transnational organization and advocacy. She rightly identifies the city as a key context for communication and interaction. Cities facilitate collaboration much more than nations. The democratic tendencies of the HTAs, which emerged in rural Mexico, have found support and meaning in Chicago’s urban environment. What happens in one area can resonate in the other, and the exchange is often mediated by the HTA.

The very nature of the book raises provocative questions. In an era of global travel, multiple identifies and instant communication, what does citizenship look like? How does one understand community? It is interesting work, indeed.

David Potash

Fighting For Justice

Just MercyReading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is no easy task. I found it so enraging and disheartening, I had to take breaks from reading. It lays bare inequity, injustice, and straightforward cruelty. Stevenson writes with passion and facts, highlighting multiple assaults on our conception of a just society.

At the same time, the book is the story of hope. It is not tragedy or jeremiad. Stevenson believes that we can and must do better. In fact, the overall message is deeply positive and humanist: there is worth in every human being.

Stevenson was raised in rural Delaware. He was touched by the horror of random crime when his grandfather was murdered by teen robbers. He did not become bitter, however. His focus was education and fighting for a better world. He earned a JD from Harvard, sought a career making a difference, and eventually created the Equal Justice Initiative. Located in Alabama, its aim is providing legal help to those who have been denied justice. In the past decades Stevenson has become a national figure, advocating against the death penalty, racism in the criminal justice system, and other issues of inequity.

Just Mercy is about some of the cases Stevenson has taken on. Anchoring the book is the story of Walter McMillian, a black man sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of a white woman. We learn about McMillian the person, the victim, Ronda Morrison, and the structures of race and power in the community where the crime took place, Monroeville. It is also the home of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The parallels are stunning but there was no Atticus Finch in McMillian’s trial. It is also reminder that in the novel, Tom Robinson, the black man who is unjustly accused of rape, dies.

The police were under great pressure to find Morrison’s killer. They pressured an informer, Ralph Myers, who was being investigated for a different murder, into naming McMillian. Myers’ stories did not add up, but that did not stop the district attorney from charging McMillian. Myers was relocated on death row to scare him. When he finally agreed to name McMillian, the trial was moved to a nearby county that would most likely give an all-white jury. Fed information from other informants, the the jury convicted McMillian of murder and requested a life sentence. The elected judge overrode the jury and sentenced McMillian to death. Ignored were eye witnesses giving McMillian an alibi, a lack of any physical evidence connecting McMillian to the crime, and multiple conflicting accounts from Myers. It was injustice of the first order.

When Stevenson agreed to pick up the case, he was inappropriately challenged by the presiding judge and much of the local law enforcement system. Stevenson refused to be deterred and he filed challenge after challenge. He learned that information was illegally withheld from the defense team. With no relief in offing and the state pressuring to put McMillian to death, Stevenson turned to Sixty Minutes for outside attention. It worked. The prosecutor bowed to pressure and agreed to an external investigation. It concluded – as is clear from anyone looking at the case as a whole – that McMillian could not have committed the murder. An appeals court overturned the conviction and McMillian was released. He was traumatized from the ordeal, however, and never regained his health or well-being.

Had not Stevenson intervened, Alabama would have executed an innocent man.

Stevenson shares other examples in the book. He writes of teens who have been unjustly treated by the system as adults. These people, all convicted of murder and other crimes, suffer tremendously in the criminal justice system. For example, a young man named Charlie killed his mother’s boyfriend after the boyfriend beat the woman into unconsciousness. Arrested and with no protection, Charlie was repeatedly sexually abused in an adult jail. It was only after Stevenson’s intervention that Charlie’s case went back to juvenile court.

Our criminal justice system depends upon advocacy to decide both truth and justice. Situations like these make it obvious that many defendant never receive the legal support or advocacy necessary to keep the system honest. There are other structural inequities that work against mercy or tolerance. For example, judges in Alabama are elected. This is common in most states. The result, of course, is that there is an electoral arms race to “prove” to voters that the candidates are tough on crime.

Despite Stevenson’s optimism in the human spirit, what I took away from Just Mercy is that long-standing issues of racism, poverty, fear and ignorance undermine the pursuit of justice to such a degree that greater change is needed if we are to approach real justice. We cannot hope for individuals as talented and committed as Stevenson to make things work.

David Potash

The Appeal of Personal Hygiene

When I was in my early 20s, I read that the advertising industry created the demand for people to shampoo. Furry animals don’t need to shampoo. Why should everyone in the twentieth century spend a fortune on shampoos and conditioners? I learned that initially my hair would feel oily, but it would then become softer, shiny and healthier. I decided to give it a try, helping my head and my wallet. Stronger Than Dirt

I bathed regularly and used soap – but avoided shampoos and conditioners. My hair performed as predicted. Initially gross, it became nicer as the weeks turned into months. It looked healthy but it did not smell particularly nice. I lasted about three months and have been shampooing and conditioning ever since. Every time that I do, a small voice in my head asks whether I am doing so because of personal choice, societal pressure, or manipulation by the advertising industry.

That voice grew a tad louder as I worked my way through Juliann Sivulka’s engaging book, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875 to 1940. Sivulka, now a professor of American Studies at a Japanese university, is a rarity among academicians. She has practical hands-on experience as a marketer and consultant as well as formal training as a scholar. Those dual perspectives help her immensely in laying out a fascinating story of how Americans became convinced that they need to buy and use soap.

Over the centuries different cultures have dealt with hygiene – personal and for their clothes – a variety of ways. Those without resources rarely washed. In classical Greece and Rome, those with funds scraped themselves, anointed themselves with oils, and had their clothes washed in urine. Soap was homemade until the 1800s and only affordable after mass manufacturing. In the United States, the push for hygiene was aided by the Union Army in the Civil War.

Sivulka’s book provides a helpful periodization to the rise of soap in the home and the social importance of cleanliness. From 1875 – 1900, the development of mass marketing and mass consumption is the main story. The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a proliferation of arguments made to women consumers about the importance of personal cleanliness. Women were targeted to buy and use soap for sex appeal and for health. Then, as today, women make most household purchases.  Soap companies’ appeals became more sophisticated and increasingly tied to the mass communication from 1920 – 1940. It was, and remains, very big business. By the start of World War II, American society as defined by the middle class had high expectations for soap, for regular washing, and for clean clothes. Rounding out Sivulka’s narrative is a chapter highlighting the differences in the African-American market.

Stronger Than Dirt is solid cultural history. The narrative is grounded in primary sources with a focus on advertisements. Sivulka avoids theoretical claims and instead zeroes in on behavior, impact, and what the evidence looks like. She is not particularly interested in questions of morality. What excites her are effective campaigns and tangible signs of change. The growth of personal hygiene and soap took place, she argues, because of effective products and advertising, and because American consumers wanted it to happen.

Stronger Than Dirt is the kind of history book that is fun to teach. Evidence is easy to understand and discuss. It is clearly written and memorable. Most of all, students would find it relevant with clear connections to our world today. My hunch is that it would raise many questions – but that they would still use soap.

David Potash

First Bite – Food, Family & More

First BiteI have always liked eating. As I child, my mother channeled my interest in food into cooking. “If you want to eat well, learn to cook.” The years, happily, have been good to my palate. I’ve often been able to cook and eat well. I greatly enjoy restaurants, and that, with a little travel, makes for enjoyable and adventurous eating.

My thinking about food changed when I became a parent. “What should the children eat?” and how much of it quickly became an ongoing topic of discussion and inquiry. Pediatricians recommend more of this and less of that. Books make things harder as warnings abound. Too much sugar! More vegetables! Watch out for genetically modified foods, chemicals, and certain kinds of fats. My wife and talked with other parents and no one ever seemed to have it sorted out.

Adding stress to it all, what parent doesn’t encounter family eating as a high stakes endeavor? One would hope for a family meal with love, great conversation and nutrition. Instead, it is often power politics at its worse: negotiation, ultimatums, and a seesaw bouncing from indulgence to punishment simply through the addition of a wrong side dish to the table. Or maybe the wrong foods touch each other. We cook, we serve, plead, argue, and hope for the best.

What happened? What’s so difficult about figuring out what to feed one’s family?

There are a slew of books and studies about the changing nature of the food industry. We now know a lot about how things are raised, grown, processed, packaged and marketed. We have learned much on the scientific front, too, from what is a healthy diet to how lead a more healthy lifestyle. All is to the good. What remains, though, are difficult questions about why we eat what we do.

Bee Wilson, a well-known food writer, tackles these questions in First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. It’s a rigorously researched study into how humans learn to eat, something I had never given much consideration. I thought that each of us is born with individual preferences. Some like salty foods, for example, and others have a “sweet tooth.” Turns out it that taste and diet do not work that way at all. Yes, biology does matter and for some people, it plays a large role in what one likes and eats. For most humans, however, tastes are learned.

We start to develop tastes while still in the womb. A pregnant woman’s diet has an impact on her child. From our first foods as babies – breast milk or formula – our brains and bodies create complicated rules and relationships with our food. That dynamic continues through childhood. Wilson explains how this works. Food is hard-wired into emotions, memories, understanding and preferences. What makes First Bite special is that Wilson expands this to show how we can teach ourselves and others how to eat differently. We are much more in charge of our palate than I ever thought.

Wilson is neither scold nor food dictator. She has strong opinions, but even her advice is offered as “not advice.” Wilson knows that our relationship with what we eat and how we eat is personal and powerful. She cares and gives stories of adults who are held hostage by their food likes and dislikes, fussy eaters who have been unable or unwilling to graduate to a broader and healthier diet. She is eminently reasonable and moderate. Birthday cake is a lovely treat and for most children, will create with its sweetness happy associations. But we do not have to eat birthday cake everyday. Nor do we necessarily birthday cake flavored ice cream or frozen yogurt.

The example is telling. Food companies are effective at promoting the strong tastes of childhood and marketing them to adults. The consequence is that many adults today eat as a spoiled child might. They simply have never developed mature tastes for wide range of healthy foods. If we are to have a healthy society, they tastes and diet will have to grow up. Counselors and therapists are helping adults and children make this important transition.

First Bite is a considerate and thoughtful book. It has made me reconsider my own food likes and dislikes, as well as what we regularly serve at the family table. Now if only she had written it when the kids were toddlers . . . .

David Potash

Steel Barrio – Labor, Immigration, and Chicago

Getting a better understanding of Chicago – an endlessly fascinating city that never fails to engage, challenge, and surprise – is an ongoing project of mine. It’s also a project without an end. Chicago presents itself many different ways. As I have listened and learned more from many Chicagoans, I have increasingly turned to the past to try to get a better feel for the present. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Chicago is the second largest site of Mexican immigrants in the United States. (Los Angeles area is first and Houston is second). Why Chicago? How and when did this happen? Who were the first Mexican immigrants to Chicago? And what has life been for those who have journeyed from Mexico to Chicago over the years?Steel Barrio

Great insight into these and other questions are found in Michael Innis-Jimenez’s Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940. The book is thoroughly researched and carefully argued labor and immigration history of the best kind. Innis-Jimenez is a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. A study of the first-wave of immigrants to Chicago, Steel Barrio goes far in explaining the foundation of the Mexican community in the windy city. It adds much to the puzzle that is Chicago.

The pull for Mexican labor came from the steel mills of South Chicago. First recruited in large numbers to break the 1919 strike, Mexican workers found themselves in a cauldron of labor and racial strife. For these early immigrant workers, their hopes and experiences were different from many other groups who moved to Chicago for economic opportunity. History, geography and citizenship laws were part of the difference. Most Mexican laborers did not express a desire to make America their long-term home. Special immigration rules and status created a mobile network for Mexican labors, who could move from job to job in the United States. Even if they remained in Chicago for years, their overall tendency – as reported by Innis-Jimenez – was to see the arrangement as temporary. They had what Innis-Jimenez calls a “sojourner” attitude, engaging in civic and cultural life differently from immigrants who believed America would be their new home.

Innis-Jimenez explains how racism and power structures limited opportunities to Mexican immigrants. Chicago was less a melting pot for immigrant groups than a city where groups competed for resources. Racism ran in many directions and life was tough. Without governmental protection and support, Mexican immigrants had to help each other. They formed mutual aid associations and other systems, formal and informal. Innis-Jimenez highlights their efforts and how the contributed to a vibrant culture and shared identity.

Sports figures prominently in the community and in Steel Barrio. Neighborhoods took great pride in their athletes and teams. Baseball was very popular. Through baseball games and Mexican inspired fairs and events, the Mexican community made claims on public space.

Innis-Jimenez provides thoughtful analysis of how gender roles and expectations shaped daily life. The immigrant community reflected very traditional Mexican gender roles. Women tended to stay home and focus on the family. Men worked and were more active in public life, but only in certain arenas. The workers tended to stay away from unions. Language was both a community bond and a barrier. Overall, Innis-Jimenez effectively helps the reader understand the community’s path to activism and achieving a greater voice in economic, political, and cultural matters.

While the history covered in Steel Barrio ends with WWII, the legacy of these early immigrants remains. It is a very good book, one that I hope is regularly taught in college classrooms. It has a pride of place in my growing library of Chicago studies.

David Potash

Work spaces and Workplaces

CubedThe “office” is a cultural construct made real in three dimensions: a special place for certain kinds of labor. Just as much a work space as a foundry, mine or factory, the labor that takes place in offices is decidedly less physically active and much harder to categorize. I think that elusiveness is one of the reasons Nikil Saval gave his book Cubed an odd subtitle: “A Secret History of the Workplace.” Millions of us toil in offices, cubicles, and work stations. There is nothing secretive about them. The book reveals no secrets. Saval writes about offices how we have end up working in these spaces.

Over the long-term, historians have explained much of this already. Saval leans heavily on focused economic, labor and business histories to document the rise of the clerks and administration. It is a rich body of scholarship that has increasingly taken a sharp eye at power, gender and race. Defining the political and economic tendencies of white-collar workers is an ongoing site of inquiry. However, this is no academic study.

Saval brings architecture, design, anthropology and popular culture to the task. He writes from a journalist’s perspective, illustrating key points with anecdotes and personal stories. Robert Probst, the idiosyncratic designer of the “Action Office” and many other inventions, is featured. So, too, are the architects who designed the seminal office buildings of the twentieth century. Saval travels to the Googleplex and TBWA\Chiat\Day, too, to look at trends in future office design. Large corporations are the norm in Cubed. The home office and the small business are not part of the narrative.

Cubicles, surprisingly, are not front and center. They clearly matter to Saval, who has an underlying political and cultural argument that he struggles to lift out of the larger book. He is concerned about the consequences of the depersonalized anodyne office and its impact on human agency, decision-making and creativity. Others have written about this as well – most famously William Whyte in the Organizational Man. Saval never really wrestles with this is in clear way. Further, he seems to understand technology and its impact on office work. I would have expected him to fold that into his analysis, but instead, it lurks in the background.

Cubed is an interesting book. Saval writes well. He has a good sense of what will pique curiosity about work spaces. Anecdotes and small-bore linkages, though, do not necessarily add up. The whole of the book is less than the sum of its parts. It would have been more successful if Saval had focused more effort on what he thought important and less on what he found interesting.

David Potash

Manufacturing Matters

Made in the USAMy maternal grandfather worked metal and wood. A talented craftsman, metalworking got him through the Great Depression, helped further his education (correspondence courses), allowed him to open a metal shop, and gave him a path to move up the economic ladder. By the end of his career he was an executive at a large company. Making it possible were the skills he gained from working in manufacturing.

As I child, I was fascinated with his basement workshop. He showed me how to use tools and explained their function. There’s something immediate and magical about fixing things and making something useful. Early on, I connected making things with making money. Later on I learned through history that manufacturing is at the very core of America’s economic development.

Examining what American manufacture makes today is complicated. The US economy is enormous. Many companies and industries make things in the United States. On the other hand, we regularly read about the loss of industry, loss of jobs, loss of factories, and loss of know-how. Globalization and free trade can drive manufacturing to other countries. These are real changes with significant consequences. Some experts sound caution and others describe the US as a “post-industrial” country.

Getting a better handle on this issue drew me to Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing by Vaclav Smil, one of Bill Gates’s favorite authors. Smil is a clear communicator who hits the reader like a drop forge. He writes of facts and data, giving the reader a ton of information – almost like a textbook or a briefing. Smil’s argument is clear, compelling and supported by facts: a prosperous economy needs a vibrant manufacturing sector and its jobs.

He explains that manufacturing has been and remains a significant component of the US economy. One statistic makes this clear. In 2010, the US manufacturing sector on its own was the seventh largest economy in the world, just behind Brazil. Smil also explains the many ways that manufacturing has a multiplier effect on other parts of the economy. It creates jobs, wealth, organizations, and “useful knowledge.” In other words, manufacturing matters a great deal.

Smil provides an excellent history of US manufacturing. His focus is mostly on business statistics and less of governmental macroeconomic policy until he reaches the 1970s. That chapter is titled “The Retreat” and it describes how multiple factors, from innovations in transportation to foreign policy to politics to technology combined to weaken US manufacturing. Smil believes that specific choices had a real impact on the vibrancy of American manufacturing. We are living today with the results of those decisions.

The last chapter of the book outlines opportunities and challenges for the future of US manufacturing. Smil is no idealist. Nor is he nostalgic for an earlier time. His perspective is about the bottom line: what decisions will maximize profit and what political and economic environments will lead to what choices? He is not optimistic about the return of mass manufacturing in America. He takes pains to draw distinctions between more manufacturing and more jobs. Nonetheless, he argues that if we want to keep the American economy strong, we have to find ways to support manufacturing.

It is an informative, thought-provoking book. And even though it is filled with facts, it leaves the reader with many questions.

David Potash