Thursday, June 12, 2014

Labor priests, Walmart moms, shell-shocked pols, and Charlie LeDuff's "Detroit: An American Autopsy"

(An abandoned building in Detroit)

Labor priests gathering in Atlanta, Walmart moms protesting at head honcho Rob Walton’s home in Phoenix, political firestorms in Virginia and Mississippi—they’re all developments that point to the central issue of jobs and working conditions in the nation and to the fact that the South’s role is pivotal in that issue.

This latest Labor South posting features a quick peek at some of the events unfolding across the region plus a review/feature about a recent book that shines a light on one of the darkest spots on the dark underbelly of American society, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Country Club Republican gets a shellacking in Virginia

It’s fun to watch the Inside-the-Beltway world of Big Money, overpaid pundits, and bought-and-paid-for politicians scramble to make sense of what happened this week in Virginia’s 7th congressional district. The fall of Republican U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to a political unknown sent shockwaves across the nation’s capital. Cantor had a $5 million campaign kitty at his disposal, compared to Tea Party victor Dave Brat’s $200,000.

On red alert now is U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., another establishment Republican who faces Tea Partyer Chris McDaniel in a runoff June 24. McDaniel actually edged the veteran Cochran in the primary but failed to get the 50 percent-plus to avoid a runoff.

The Virginia election showed the clear divide between Country Club Republicans and Tea Party Republicans on issues such as immigration reform, where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Big Business interests want reform to mean a continuous flow of cheap migrant labor into their factories and onto their farms. Tea Partyers see that flow as a threat to blue-collar workers and yet another example of the government-business partnership that only helps itself and does nothing to help the “fly-over” America it views with contempt.

Priests and protesters

Tea Partyers have no idea that they actually share with labor priests and Walmart protesters some of the same outrage against the neo-liberal economics that drives the world’s economy today. They’re so focused on brown-skinned neighbors, federal spending, guns, and their own narrow view of God they fail to see the bigger picture that motivates many on the Left.

In the grand tradition of Monsignor George Higgins and other champions of the social teachings of the Catholic Church, the Priest-Labor Initiative founded by Father Clete Kiley two years ago met recently in Atlanta to push an agenda articulated by none other than Pope Francis himself in his attacks on virulent, uncontrolled capitalism that serves only the rich and punishes the poor. A couple dozen priests came to the event.

No corporation more embodies the evils of that capitalism than Arkansas-based Walmart, and more than a hundred Walmart “moms” and other struggling workers gathered outside company chair Rob Walton’s home in Phoenix recently to continue an ongoing protest against the retail giant’s treatment of its workers, its lousy wages and benefits, its dependence on the slave-like conditions imposed by its Third World suppliers.

Charlie LeDuff’s autopsy of the city of Detroit  

(Detroit's Renaissance Center--General Motors World  Headquarters)

I knew I was going to like this book the minute I saw it at Square Books here in Oxford, Miss. On the cover was reporter Charlie LeDuff, whom the Wall Street Journal describes as “a little gonzo, a little gumshoe, some gawker, some good Samaritan.”

LeDuff is my kind of guy. The Detroit native was a “cannery hand, a carpenter, a drifter” before he found his way to the newsroom. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter quit a job with the New York Times to return to his hometown and find out from the inside what happened.

Bankrupt Detroit has been offered up as the textbook example of race politics-gone-wild, government-gone-wild, labor-gone-wild. LeDuff shows the elements of truth in a lot of the gone-wild accusations but also a much bigger picture that says something, maybe a lot, about America.

I was five, maybe six years old the last time I was in the city of Detroit. Like so many (what LeDuff calls) “Southern hillbillies” mid-20th century, my World War II veteran father piled his wife and two boys into the family car in the early 1950s and headed out of Pilot Mountain, N.C., and toward Motor City in search of a job. My German war bride mother had a relative there, Tante Fanni, who put us up while Dad looked for a job.

My memory of Detroit is vague but I do recall tall buildings and playing in a front yard with a little German kid who spoke no English. My little brother John’s pneumonia—it was winter and I remember snow was on the ground—and my Munich-bred mother’s still-too-fresh memories of trying to outrun bombs and fires on city streets (maybe this was a premonition, too) eventually sent us back down South.

Detroit is also fascinating to me because I live part-time in another struggling, benighted, threatened city, Memphis, Tennessee, where, as in Detroit, state officials have waved a threatening forefinger because of shriveled municipal coffers and unpaid bills.

(To the right is an alley in Memphis' Pinch District)

“The mosque was located on Clairmont Street near Linwood, not far from the epicenter of the 1967 riot, not far from the apartment where my grandmother died alone a half century ago,” LeDuff writes. “The neighborhood looked like a photo from postwar Dresden. Row upon row of burnt-out houses, boarded storefronts, weedy and vacant lots peppered with shattered glass, sparkling like quartz tailings.”

“Wow,” I thought to myself as I read those words. “He even mentions Dresden.”

That’s how pro-basketball coach Phil Jackson once described pre-revitalized downtown Memphis: “Dresden after the war.”

(Court Square in downtown Memphis)

Memphis had Stax Records--raw, just-off-the-farm “soul music” from Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, and Sam and Dave. Detroit’s soul music was “Motown”, the smooth, urban sound of the Temptations, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.    

Detroit was almost down for the count after the 1967 riot. Memphis is still recovering from the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. there in 1968.

LeDuff’s account of Detroit is a reporter’s journey across an urban moonscape where a sprinkling of people still try to make sense of life and cling to a sense of order, a belief that “a newspaper reporter and a cop and a judge can deliver some justice” despite political corruption, crime lords, the all-American affliction of greed. Firefighters come closest to being the book’s heroes, working as they do in a city where arson is a way of life.

Like all good stories, LeDuff’s journey is a personal one, too. His return to Detroit is also a search to understand his streetwalker sister’s death. In the process, he learns even more about himself, the secrets of his family’s past and how those secrets link him to the Deep South in ways he would have never expected.

It’s a brilliant, sad book that offers up no pat solutions to Detroit’s problems or to urban malaise in general in post-industrial America--that is, other than the enduring humanity that still somehow rises out of those ashes and the hope that rises with it. 

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