Global | Local | Middle

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

GM Strike and the Globalized Heartland

On Strike
Originally uploaded by lincolnblues.
This week 73,000 hourly workers at General Motors (GM) walked off the job in the first nation-wide strike against GM since 1970. In that strike 37 years ago, some 400,000 workers shut down a company that was the largest automaker--and one of the largest corporations--in the world.

Thirty-three years before that big strike, autoworkers in Flint, Michigan, had a very different kind of "walk out": after occupying GM factories for more than a month, they won recognition of their union and walked out in celebration. Their victory made the UAW's reputation as a militant union, and was symbolic of a rising tide of worker activism under the new National Labor Relations Act.

Turn back the clock another thirty years: a nascent auto industry selling mostly to the wealthy, the founding of GM in 1908, the assembly line still a few years off. An automobilized world yet to come.

In that cycle of decades we can find a significant strand of American and global history. To paraphrase Frederick Jackson Turner's famous claim about the frontier, and with all due respect to partisans of other varieties of history: the rise and fall of mass production industries, the communities they created, and the unions that represented their workers IS the story of the U.S. in the 20th century.

The current strike that is igniting a lot of fear and loathing in Michigan, the home state of the UAW and the Big Three automakers. GM and Ford are toying with bankruptcy and Chrysler was recently dropped like a hot potato by German owners Daimler-Benz into the hands of speculative investment company. The UAW is a shadow of its former self, and is perhaps fighting now for its very survival.

To get a sense of the way the strike has created a forum for the deep antiworker and antiunion sentiment in southeastern Michigan you need only to read the reader comments posted on the Detroit Free Press's online edition. At the same time, you have readers posting lengthly and well-reasoned critiques of the UAW leadership for not mobilizing a more militant response. It's a rhetorical battle over history, and by the looks of it, many union members and supporters are well-versed.

Narrowly, the strike is about "job security" provisions in the contract. The union has already agreed to a benefit trust for retiree health care costs. This was GM's major demand, and they have trumpeted the fact that health care costs for current and former workers add more than $1,000 to the cost of their US-made cars. Now they are likely resisting giving the union guarantees that they will continue certain levels of production in the US.

GM has also proposed a lower wage for new hires. If the company achieves this, Ford and Chrysler will follow suit. They will have essentially broken the union, and they will be on par with Toyota in terms of wages. Shortly after that, the UAW will merge with the USW (Steelworkers), which is already pursuing a global-union strategy in steel and other sectors. That'll be the end of the UAW as an independent union. It will also prompt the media to call an official end of the "American" auto industry, more an acknowledgment of current reality than a true change of conditions.

Photo uploaded by lincolnblues on 24 Sep 07, 9.34AM PDT, with Creative Commons Share and Share Alike license.

Monday, April 30, 2007

A Heartland Amidst Globalization

Last week I had to make a drive over to Peoria to give a presentation to the Laborers Union. I took the long way home, through Decatur, so I could get some pictures of Tate and Lyle, ADM, and Caterpillar. It was a rainy day, so I didn't get a lot of great pictures. But it was certainly worth the trip to discover the Heartland Community Church and its Grand Palace convention center.

Decatur is a town that has had some hard times of late. It was, and in some ways still is, a union town. But the biggest and boldest of the unions have been crushed or put in their place. In the mid-1990s, there were major lockouts and strikes at A.E. Staley (owned by British multinational Tate & Lyle), Caterpillar (still US-owned but globally oriented market-wise), and Bridgestone-Firestone (owned by Japanese investors), each of which resulted in various styles of defeat (Steve Franklin chronicles these events in his book Three Strikes). Globalized capital rules Decatur, not without a fight, but it rules anyway.

You could easily spend weeks photographing Decatur. The industrial landscape is like a little piece of Chicago's Southside. A massive rail yard cuts through the middle of town, connecting the Tate and Lyle (formerly A.E. Staley) corn processing mill and two ADM facilities. ADM has always run nonunion. Staley has been union since the 1940s. During the Staley lockout, ADM built a pipeline to the two companies to keep them supplied with raw material.

I was on my way out of town when the Heartland Community Church caught my eye. It's just up the road from the big Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Mill, across from the community college, and its sign advertised an upcoming water baptism. Behind the church are two buildings that look like they are right out of a Hollywood Western film: they look like a very clean version of the town in Little House on the Prairie. This is the "Grand Palace," apparently operated by the church as a wedding and business-meeting space.

This is a very sophisticated church operation with a professional website, a cappuccino bar, good music, video and audio downloads of sermons, and other trappings of modern evangelical churches. There are "ministries" that designed for youth, families, drama, music, etc. In a town with a significant African American community, the church's website projects a multiracial membership, although most of the images look like stock. The elders are all white men. Decatur's Heartland Church appears to be independent. But it's interesting that there are more than 15,000 hits for the phrase "Heartland Community Church" on Google, most seem to be in the Midwest.

And then there's the Grand Palace. The downloadable brochure refers to the building's "circa 1800s style interior" and suggests that clients can "Step back in time and experience mid-western hospitality at its finest." When I was there in the parking lot I actually thought, no, this can't be run by the church, it's too obvious. But it is part of the church.

For me this is just a great example of how "heartland" is deployed as a cultural and business symbol. With a few spare words, and the loud-and-clear message of architecture, the church can evoke what is believed to be the sincerity and simplicity of the nineteenth century smalltown midwestern experience to win souls and to make money. In a way it makes sense that this cozy collection of nostalgia and modernity sits within sight of ADM and Caterpillar, on the edge of a city that has been devastated by this processes we call globalization. The property is figured as a site of refuge, a safe haven from which members go out to evangelize (locally and globally according to the staff list). But with its cappuccino bar and banquet hall, it is a haven with all the trappings of a mall. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the church's members or leaders. They have cleverly drawn upon a powerful current of our culture. Heartland: the warm feeling of home, carefully packaged for retail.

Here are a few other shots from my trip, and you can see others here.

ADM Mill Grand Palace
A close up of the ADM mill down the road from Heartland ChurchThe Grand Palace situated behind the Heartland Community Church.
Hod Carriers Local 165 Banner Home Manufacturing Co, Decatur
Historic banner at LIUNA Local 165, PeoriaHome Manufacturing Co., Eldorado Street, Decatur. Site of a major 1935 garment workers strike that brought in the ILGWU.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Globes in the Heartland

Globe in the Heartland 2
Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie.
As I mentioned in the comments to my last post, I have been planning to snap a picture of this veteran's memorial since I first saw it on a bright sunny day last fall. Unfortunately, by the time I got back down to Arcola, it was a miserable rainy day. No picture could quite do this thing justice, in part because it is the town and the countryside beyond that make it so...strange.

Like every little town, Arcola has a few claims to fame. The creator of Raggedy Ann lived here, and the area was once the biggest producer of brooms in the US. The first settlement in the area was named, I kid you not, Bagdad. Currently, tourism is based heavily on the Amish community living in the surrounding countryside. The commercialization of Amishness is well worth a post in itself. But not today.

The memorial sits on the edge of the parking lot of the Arcola Center, at Main Street and Route 45 for those of you looking for a road trip. Across Main Street is a Casey's (the small town equivalent of 7-11), across Route 45, the Illinois Central tracks and beyond that the old downtown area.

There are many ways to honor veterans. The black marble here certainly reminds me of the Vietnam Memorial in DC. But this is the first one I've seen that uses a globe as the central symbol. If there are others out there, I'd be interested to know.

I would also be interested to know what folks in Arcola think about it. I'm reluctant to subject it to the obvious critique because, well, people from these parts are currently dying on a regular basis in Iraq. I suspect that if I used the word "empire," Arcolans would object. They might say, no it simply says that our people have died all over the world.

Yes, the monument definitely looks like a grave stone. If it is a symbol of empire, it is not a triumphant symbol at all. The globe weighs us down with responsibilities, and it demands the lives of our young. It also seems uneasily balanced atop the American flag. The hierarchy of place is at once accurate (from top to bottom: Earth, United States, Arcola), and chilling because the place we inhabit (the town's mailing address) is buried at the bottom. Hometown America is ultimately just the place they ship the coffins.

What say you, dear readers? How is your town memorializing the war dead in our global campaign against terrorism? Is there a seed of rejection in these monuments that progressives might embrace, or just isolationism and xenophobia?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Local Symbols of Globalization

Found this on a Sunday drive in the country: Bement, Illinois, population 350. The "O" in "Topflight" is a globe with North and South America showing, and bean and corn stalks growing out the North Pole. As I listen to the local agricultural radio report telling me about the weather in the growing areas of southern Brazil (where more than a few big Illinois farmers have land, apparently), I wonder if this logo is a symbol of globalization or empire? Both? Discuss.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Professor Encounters Wikipedians

Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie.
My apologies to my loyal cadre of readers (all three of you) for the long delay since my last post. I got bogged down in research and teaching; typed too much and had a return of a long dormant case of tendinitis/carpal tunnel. Occupational hazard.

During my hiatus, I made my plunge into the role of "Wikipedian," that is, I edited entries--and was edited--on that knowledge-zeitgeist known as the Wikipedia. My foray into the Wiki world was interesting and instructive, and I offer this self-ethnography as a jumping off point for some thoughts on the shifting terrain of knowledge and power online and beyond.

My students are union officers, activists, and representatives. I strongly believe that they ought to understand and engage new media like the Wikipedia, blogs, Flickr, and YouTube. So I asked students to write a Wikipedia entry as a course assignment. I explained the them that there is a group of Wikipedia editors who are working collectively to improve the representation of labor unions within the encyclopedia, the Wiki Organized Labor Project. But knowing that the idea of editing the Wikipedia would be daunting to my students, I simply required them to turn in text that I would later input. This, as you will see, was my first mistake.

So after much delay, I got around to trying my hand at editing the Wikipedia. One of my students, Tim Denardo, is a UAW rep. at the Bloomington, Illinois, Mitsubishi plant. The Wikipedia article for Mitsubishi (Diamond Star Motors) was short, and contained not a word about the union. It also said of the factory: "1,900 people are employed as well as 1,000 robots," which to my reading is offensive in that it tends to equate people and robots. In short, a perfect opportunity to add labor perspective to an otherwise nonlabor entry.

I pared down Tim's 2 page text to four paragraphs, logged in and clicked the "edit this page" tab. After puzzling through the code, I added a new section on UAW Local 2488 and dropped in my student's text, and added a link at the bottom of the entry to the Local 2488 web site. I clicked save, and marveled at my power to instantaneously edit the most popular reference source in the world!

Whoops, don't get too excited, Professor. Within two minutes, my additions disappeared. Confusion and mild anger followed. Maybe I didn't do it right? Check the "history" tab, which lists all page edits. No, I did it right. One of the watchdogs of Wikiland was monitoring the page and deemed my addition irrelevant: "information on every single little union group isn't necessary. It constitutes 'cruft'."

I clicked around for a few minutes, discovering that my editor is an expert in math and gaming, speaks French at the intermediate level, and is a member of a national honor society for high school and junior college mathematicians. He is also the recipient of several Wiki awards for battling spam/vandalism. Although he laments that it is a thankless task, and that people sometimes think he's a jerk, he feels good about doing a job that needs doing.

I also learn that I've been dissed by my editor. The term "cruft" is wiki jargon for information that "is of importance only to a small population of enthusiastic fans of the subject in question.... Thus, use of this term may be regarded as pejorative, and when used in discussion about another editor's contributions, it can sometimes be regarded as uncivil and an assumption of bad faith." On the other hand, some editors like to use it as a motivational tool to get writers to craft their text more appropriately for the Wikipedia.

One way or the other, my contribution was disappeared at the hands of someone who, while an expert in math and Wikipedia editing, probably has no understanding of the role of labor unions in modern automobile factories. I immediately re-edited the entry, inserting two or three sentences stating the fact that the workers are represented by the UAW, and replacing the link to the union's website. Just as quickly the editor deletes the link because it does not "provide more information about [the company] as a whole (just the union)." Well okay, but the union represents the workers at the company's only US plant, and most of the entry is about the plant, and the cars produced there. It's not just robots working there for heaven's sake!

Frustrated, I click over to the "Discussion" tab and appeal to the "community": I'm new here, but it seems like I'm being unfairly edited. My original editor never replies, but a new Wikipedian, apparently the original author of the entry, affirms that I've been very bad and he would have cut my text too. He likes my shorter additions, but the link is not appropriate. A third Wikipedian, a self-identified "blue collar worker with pro-labor tendencies" and a member of the Organized Labour project, posts a pleasant welcome note to my "Talk Page" with helpful links to various policies. Bruised but now feeling a little less hostile, I make another edit, creating a separate section on the union, no one messes with it and so it stands today. Success, sort of.

My experience taught me two very important things. First, despite the hype about the wide open nature of Wikipedia, there are gatekeepers who perform functions that resemble processes in the traditional publishing world. Certain "editors" oversee parts of the resource and simply say "no." The goal is to drive off troublemakers and the less worthy contributers (although they would probably say their goal is to police vandalism). If you persist, someone else comes along to explain the process. There is, in other words, a kind of hierarchy of editorial work, and functional differences between types of editors (whether this is something they have developed consciously, I do not know. More likely it reflects the personalities of various editors).

My second realization is that you really have to try editing this beast yourself to understand how it works. From a pedagogical standpoint, it is the process of paring down your addition to the bare minimum that helps you understand what the wider community thinks is important about your subject. The overt reason for my slap down was that I added text out of proportion to the rest of the article. Underlying that reason also was the assumption (typical for many Americans) that the union, and the workers, were ancillary to the story of the company. The speed of my slap down was most likely due to the fact that this is a corporate entry, and these entries are often vandalized. A few days later I re-wrote large sections of the entry on "graduate student unionization," and no one bothered me. If I was starting this process over, I would be able to craft a better addition to the Mitsubishi entry, and then defend my contribution.

My adventure with Wikipedia happened about the same time as my academic colleagues on H-Labor (a listserv for labor historians) were having a conversation about the value of the online encyclopedia, its use among their students, and the wisdom of various university and departmental policies that seek to ban or regulate student use.

Like other academics, the H-Labor readers were divided on the wisdom of student use, although there weren't too many hardcore anti-wiki voices. The consensus: like any source, use Wikipedia with caution, and use it appropriate to its nature as a first line reference tool. But more interesting was the way the discussion of Wikipedia's alleged "unreliability" raised issues of academic authority and the corporatization of university education.

Several posters noted that student reliance on Wikipedia to the exclusion of deeper research reflected contradictory aspects of contemporary student experience. On the one hand, the creeping credentialization of liberal arts education: students are customers paying for degrees so they can improve their future incomes. On the other hand (and I cannot confirm or refute this), students today are assigned much more reading than was the case 30 years ago. Pressed for time by the jobs they take to pay for their education, loaded down with seemingly pointless reading assigned by professors who are disconnected from reality, so the argument goes, naturally the students turn to Wikipedia.

What struck me most about the H-Labor conversation was just how out of touch we are with these emerging resources. I consider myself moderately web savvy, and I use the Wikipedia several times a week as a general resource. But editing the Wikipedia was, frankly, a little scary: a new set of rules, a new and unknown set of editors, and worst of all, a total lack of respect for my expertise!

Why should they respect my expertise? I had none, in their world, and in fact I acted like a fool. I was heckled. And I deserved it. Welcome to the world of democratic information. Not perfect, not always right. But different, very different, from the authoritarian world in which we operate every day. Refreshing.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Tale of Two Projects

Over the past few months--on and off as time permits--I have been working on the revisions for the Newberry's Global Heartland project. Among the tasks at hand is to recast the content from another of my Newberry projects into GH. That second project, Outspoken: Chicago's Free Speech Tradition, was a physical exhibition of documents and objects from the Newberry and the Chicago Historical Society. I co-curated it with Peter Alter from CHS, and it was funded largely by the IMLS.

There are two main problems with integrating the two projects. The first is structural, the second thematic. In terms of structure, the exhibit text is fairly straight forward. However, it was a collaborative exhibit which means that about 40 percent of the objects were from CHS. Bringing the old content into the context of a new project is well beyond the agreement between the two institutions that governed the exhibit, and in any case raises all sorts of copyright issues with the more recent material. Simply put we don't have the financial or human resources to sort of this out. And in any case, we don't have the time.

One of the interesting, and vexing, aspects of the original exhibit was that tried to encompass the entire sweep of Chicago's modern history. We began with artifacts of antislavery activism and ended with artifacts from protests that happened only a few months before the exhibit opened in September 2004. There were plenty of topics that dropped out--often because there wasn't the right artifact. And none of the topics were treated in depth. This was a bit of a departure for the Newberry, which tends to focus in on, and deeply contextualize, particular topics. But many visitors to the exhibit commented that the breadth of coverage was a strength. They were familiar with this or that conflict or free speech struggle. The exhibit introduced new topics, and impressed them with the connection between different free speech conflicts over time.

In this we were aided by a lucky coincidence. As we finalized the exhibit script in the spring of 2004, Chicago was alive with street protest. It was the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq (the year previous thousands had spontaneously taken over Lake Shore Drive), and the country was in the midst of a debate about gay marriage. We sent two staff members (Ginger Shulick and Jen Koslow) out of take pictures of the protests with instructions to get shots of "both sides". And we displayed the best of these pictures in the exhibit. Because the historical aspect of the exhibit (90% of the whole) had frequently touched on issues of gender discrimination, homosexuality, and opposition to American foreign policy, the images of contemporary conflicts were very resonant.

Just this week, the Newberry graciously agreed to let me post these images to Flickr, and to use them on this blog. There was discussion about licensing the images with Creative Commons attribution non-commercial, but in the end they decided to reserve all rights. So technically, you'll have to ask permission to reprint or blog the images. I rather doubt they would object to noncommercial uses. But if you want a high-quality print, you should contact the library and pay for it, if for no other reason than to support a good institution.

My hope has been that getting these images into the photostream on a high-traffic system like Flickr, and associating them with the Newberry project, will serve as a kind of advertisement. And in fact, these images are being viewed much more intensively than anything I've put up before (which isn't saying a lot, but is a good step).

It would be interesting to see what would happen if we put up a batch of historical images, and set them free online. For an interesting example of this see the "American Image" gallery of the photos of John Collier, Jr., and the Flickr account in Collier's name. The project was created by Ideum using a Flickr mashup. It's a bit odd to see a Flickr profile for someone who has been dead in 1992. But then yesterday I ran into MySpace accounts for Charles Darwin and other 19th century British intellectuals, so we should get used to it. So far, examples of these Flickr mashup galleries are either based on contemporary, purpose-taken, photos or on photos that are public-domain. I would love to see the day when a the GH project actually encourages visitors to share and blog images of historical documents and artifacts. This is a step for the future, maybe, but not for today.

What are the thematic/content issues with integrating Outspoken and Global Heartland? I'll talk about it in another post.

Friday, February 09, 2007

High Tech Hogs...from the Heartland!

Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie.
I shot this photo at the new hog processing plant about 15 miles north of Champaign. Katie Dorsey at the ILIR library alerted me to its existence and hooked me up with this industry report. Seems that most of the product from this plant finds its way to Europe and Japan where consumers are, shall we say, more discerning about how their food is prepared. There are two other pics in the GH Flickr pool, but there isn't much to see from the outside of a modern slaughterhouse, and it was 5 degrees so I was not going to explore on foot.

Two things really caught my eye in the industry report. First, they use cutting edge information technology to track each hog carcass.
The tracking system incorporates electronic tag smart cards placed on each meathook. These electronic tags contain information about what farm the hog came from, how it was raised, what it was fed and what medications it received, information that is particularly sensitive to customers from Japan and Europe.
Nevertheless, the logo for Meadowbrook Farms (formerly known as "American Heritage Farms") evokes "simpler times" with an image of a traditional midwestern barn and silo set amidst a furrowed field: high-tech, down-home. You CAN have it all! This reminds me of Ruth Ozeki's wonderful novel My Year of Meats, in which a Japanese American journalist is hired by the American Beef Exporters to produce a TV show for Japanese audience that will convince them to eat beef like Americans.

The second thing that caught my eye about this plant is that it is owned by a producers cooperative, and is branded as a "farmer coop." For each $900 share of the coop a member is entitled to have 50 hogs slaughtered per year. Sounds very egalitarian, but note that members range from 200 head slaughtered per year (4 shares or $3,600 investment) to 50,000 head per year (1,000 shares or $900,000 investment). Obviously, like many other agricultural enterprises (e.g., Sun Kist) this is a cooperative in name only. Don't get me wrong. I can see that this is likely a better deal for the farmers than selling to Cargill or Swift. And I have no reason to doubt that the product is high quality. But when you are sending 50,000 hogs to slaughter each year are you really a "farmer"?

I was on the road again this week, out in the western suburbs of Chicago for the Sheetmetal Workers Industrial Association apprenticeship program. This was a 100% male group, with fewer of the older "second-career workers" we see in the IBEW. More like high school seniors than early college. The Transnational Capital Auction worked like a charm, but we really could have used more time to break through their youthful resistance to authority. We made an impact on a about a third of the class, I would guess based on the number of students who hung around asking questions afterward. And given the setup, I guess we can be happy with that.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Everyday Artifacts of Globalization: Riverdale, Illinois

Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie.
Last week I was back up in Alsip for the IBEW apprenticeship program that I wrote about last month. We played the "Transnational Capital Auction Game" again with similar results on round one. But in the second round, during which students are play the representatives of workers in poor countries (rather than elites), I got a different outcome. The groups banded together to bid equally high living standards. "Solidarity" required a good deal of strong-arming and implied threats of violence, however, so if the game had gone on much longer I'm sure I could have broken their ranks. Because I only see these students once, it's hard to know what they make of it. Ideally, you would spend lots of time in follow up. But we just try to leave them with some basic concepts: downward leveling, the political nature of markets, how the "rules of the game" tend to structure outcomes. I'll be trying it again next month with the Sheet Metal Workers.

After my time with the apprentices, I drove east to take some pictures of the Mittal Steel facility in Riverdale, Illinois. Back in December I saw this from the City of New Orleans as I rode into Chicago, but couldn't get a good shot. At first, the giant U.S. flag painted on the side of the building caught my eye, and only after a moment did I notice the MITTAL logo on the other wall of the plant. It's hard to get a better pairing of "heartland" and "global" imagery.

Arcelor-Mittal is the largest steel manufacturer in the world, the result of a hostile take over of the Luxembourg-based Arcelor by UK-based, and family-owned, Mittal. The driving force behind Mittal steel is the Indian-born Lakshmi Mittal, the third richest man in the world behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. The company grew very quickly during the 1990s and early 2000s through buy-outs of former government-owned facilities thoughout the world, and bankrupt firms like Bethlehem in the US. Lots of background information and analysis is available at the Making Steel site.

The Riverdale mill was once part of Acme Steel, and you can still see the faint outline of the old company name on the facade of the office building near the plant.

Apparently, the Riverdale facility was part of the ISG steel group (along with most of the former Bethlehem steel), and went to Mittal with the ISG buyout. ISG and the United Steelworkers had revived some of these mills from the edge of extinction with an innovative agreement to scrap most of the union's traditional work rules (among other things). This is the subject of an interesting, if limited, documentary called "Rustbelt Phoenix." Workers at the Riverdale mill are still represented by the USW, but the industry that once employed more than half a million workers--almost all union--is now a shell of its former self.

I also recently went to visit the Nucor Scrap Mill in Kankakee. Although it is U.S.-owned, Nucor is also part of the story of the demise of Big Steel in the U.S.
There are a couple of pictures of Nucor, and more pictures of Mittal, in the Global Heartland photo pool on Flickr.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

"Heartland" as a Tag on

As a follow up to my post on the use of "heartland" in the Chicago Tribune and New York Times, I thought I would take a look what the contemporary internet user base thinks of the term. What better place to look than the link library of 1 million users of the social bookmarking program

As of 2:35 PM, Sunday, January 13th, 2007, there were only 27 links using the tag "heartland." You can see them here: .

The bookmarked sites included an investment fund based in Columbus, Ohio; a Dutch language site commenting on a youth book series called "Heartland" about a young girl who raises horses; the site of an Indianapolis based Christian group; an Indiana Christian seminary; Heartland World Ministries Church based in Texas; a post in blog written by Fulbright Scholars; a theater in Kansas City; two online shopping outlets; a Des Moines, Iowa, mortgage broker; Heartland Community College in illinois; a Canadian academic site on globalization with an article about Mackinder and the geopolitical "heartland;" a Vanity Fair blog post by James Wolcott that includes the sentiment that the "heartland" doesn't exist outside of contemporary cultural politics; a political blog post slamming the Heartland Institute for supporting big business; Iowa Governor Vilsack's politcal action committee; business news about an energy firm with "Heartland" in its name; a tourist site about haunted houses in Illinois; a Library of Congress online exhibit about France in the Americas; a San Diego nonprofit called Heartland Human Relations and Fair Housing Association; an academic paper on British Columbia; and a satiric blog post about nonconservative Americans moving to Canada, etc.

All in all, not too surprising in the range of uses for the tag.

And for my next trick, an analysis of the tag "history" on This will take much more time because "history" is used at a rate of 50-100 links per hour! That would make a great profile of what the internet-savvy public thinks is "history" online.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Six Themes

Borders | Environment | Community | Exchange | Power | Histories

As mentioned in a previous post, I have been working on various versions of the Global Heartland project for several years. The digital archive version based at the Newberry Library is now moving toward a major revision, and I plan to pilot some of the project text here.

The Newberry project is organized around six overlapping themes. You can use this post to link to draft text for the themes.

Borders | Environment | Community | Exchange | Power | Histories

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Many Meanings of "Heartland"

What was to be a quick post on my search for the use of "heartland" in the historical Chicago Tribune just goes on and on. One post has become two, and before it becomes three or four I will release my rough thoughts and notes, and move on. This may become an article some day, or at least a working paper.

My last post reported the numeric findings of my investigation of the association of "heartland" and "midwest." This post is about the meaning, or to be more accurate the several different meanings, of this association. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a "heartland" is "a (usually extensive) central region of homogeneous (geographical, political, industrial, etc.) character." To that generic definition, the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary adds a rather ideological layer: heartland is "the central geographical region of the United States in which mainstream or traditional values predominate." It is this addition--not just a central region, but a region of "mainstream or traditional values"--that is most interesting to me.

Up to the mid-20th century, the Midwest had been known as the Northwest, the West, the Great West, the Middle West, the Middle Border, and the Midwest. There was also some use of the term Midlands. In my search of the Tribune and NY Times, at least as early as the 1940s, the term heartland was linked with the Midwest once in a while, and without quotation marks that might indicate it was a new usage. But in the 1980s, the association became much more pervasive, perhaps to the point of being a cliche. Why? To answer that question we have to take several steps backward in time, sideways, and across the Atlantic Ocean, then back to the Chicago of the 1940s, and finally to political thinking of 1960s conservatives.

The Geopolitical "Heartland"
About four years ago I gave an informal presentation about this project at the Newberry. Afterwards a British researcher came up and wondered if I was aware of the European background to the term "heartland," and its Nazi connotations. I admitted that I was only vaguely aware, but I suggested that the American usage had, if not its own provenance, at least its own independent connotations. I'm sticking to that, but there are interesting if vague connections between the "heartland" or European geopolitics and the "heartland" of American politics.

The term "heartland" was coined by British geographer Halford Mackinder in a 1904 address about the geopolitical importance of Eurasia, and elaborated in his 1919 book "Democratic Ideals and Realities: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction." Mackinder was a British Liberal MP and former director of the London School of Economics, so his ideas were definitely meant to influence policymakers, and his 1919 book was a comment on the challenges facing the new League of Nations.

According to Mackinder's grand theory, whichever great power controlled the Eurasian land mass (putatively the "heartland" of the globe) would have a decisive advantage over all other world powers. There are several other sweeping generalizations, most importantly that the world's great civilizations have developed at the margins of the the "heartland" largely in response to the threat of attack across the open plains of the heartland.

Washed of its world-historical incantations, Mackinder's theory was an analysis of Great Britain's strategic interests on the European continent, and in particular its strategic conflict with Russia: The battle lines of World War I were a fluke. German militarism was a natural response to the threat of invasion from Eurasia going all the way back to the Atilla the Hun. Britain should naturally be on the side of Germany against the threat of "slavdom" (i.e., Russia). The new Central European states (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary) will act as a buffer between Western Europe and Russia--although they might also turn on western Europe and lead the attack.

The underlying antislavic racism of Mackinder's theory, naturally appealed to the Nazis. The propaganda of the Third Reich figured Central Europe as a region of natural German hegemony, and German power there as a defense of European civilization. As a result, the term "heartland" got a big boost in the 1930s, although not perhaps as Mackinder would have liked. American war propaganda explained German strategy using Mackinder's terms (according to the Wikipedia, Frank Capra's 1943 film "Nazis Strike" quoted Mackinder without attribution to the effect that "He who controls the Heartland controls the world").

American geographers definitely read and discussed Mackinder's ideas as early as the 1920s. But geopolitics may not have penetrated much beyond one corner of academia. Where it may have gotten out early is to the map and geography textbook publishers and globe manufacturers. Chicago was a center for map and globe production. So I'll have to check into this.

After the German surrender in World War II, the geopolitical concept of heartland shifted to the emerging Cold War conflict as the US and its allies feared Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and Asia. The work of Yale political scientist Nicholas Spykman had a role in spreading thinking about geopolitics to American policymakers. I suspect Winston Churchill also pushed this association along with his 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech, delivered in Fulton, Missouri (yes, in the American Heartland). The term "heartland" doesn't appear in the speech, but Churchill evokes the "shadow" of "tyranny" spreading out from Russia into Central Europe, the Mideast, and China. "Behind that line [the iron curtain] lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere...." Churchill's point here is that these "famous cities" by history and culture are part of Europe, not Russia. America, too, Churchill argues, is part of this shared civilization (with the emphasis on democracy and rule of law, rather than on imperialism and racism).

From my cursory search of the Tribune and the Times, I found several early articles using "heartland" in its geopolitical sense. Speaking in support of post-war aid to Germany in 1947, South Dakota's Senator noted that "Europe and its heartland, Germany, have been the cradle of western civilization, and unless we help them to regain it, our own civilization, our standard of living, cannot survive." (No doubt this went over well with the large number of South Dakotans of German descent). Suggesting the prevalence and novelty of the term, a two-paragraph review in 1949 of Hans Weigert's "New Compass of the World" noted that the book "dwells upon that mysterious entity, the heartland."

A paper delivered at the Association of American Geographers 1947 meeting by a US naval officer noted "Whether we like it or not we find ourselves on a World Island containing a heartland of industrial and economic resources not matched even by the old Asiatic World Island of Haushofer" [the German geographer whose ideas influenced Nazi strategies]. The danger of invasion would come over the North Pole, via the Arctic Ocean, and therefore the Navy should explore the arctic, and "impose our national policy within its environs."

In the 1950s, there were a number of articles about the Russian "industrial heartland," including one about the "Soviet's Pittsburgh," a newly developed coal and steel producing city in Central Asia. At the same time, the idea of heartland as a geographically, culturally, or strategically central region became generalized to other continents. One article in the Times, for instance, expressed concern that Communists were undermining the government of Bolivia, in the "heartland of South America." The advent of long-range bombers and ICBMs with atomic warheads stimulated a number of articles worrying that the "heartland" (i.e., the interior) was no longer safe from foreign attack.

The Midwestern "Heartland" and the Cultural Politics of Region
Although talk of the "heartland" as a strategic geopolitical concept was widespread in the US by the end of World War II, mention of the "American Heartland" was not necessarily, or even primarily, linked to geopolitics. Instead, it was part of a vaguer discourse on regional culture that emerged just as the Middle West was reaching the apex of its national influence. It may also have been stimulated by a number of institutional centennials.

The earliest direct reference in the Tribune is in a 1944 review of Harlan Hatcher's book "The Great Lakes" ("But he has sketched vividly a score of towns and the varied shores and the epic migration of European peoples to the heartland of America.") The next year there was an advertisement for an anthology of midwestern writing headlined "From out of America's Heartland comes a glorious anthology of the best in American writing." It's useful to note that most of the writers anthologized were not "conservatives" of their day--Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg--but were then becoming canonical as "real" American literature.

Other early uses of "heartland" for the Midwest were associated with business boosterism. An advertisement for American National Bank and Trust Co. (Tribune, 1946) with the headline "The World is Coming to the Midwest." The key image is of a globe with North America facing out. Airplanes circle the globe trailing flight lines in a way that seems to evoke the image of an atom. "More and more, the entire world needs the products of America's industrial and agricultural heartland. Direct air transportation now links the Midwest with the great countries of the world--Chicago has transformed from the hub of the nation to one of the major crossroads of the world." A full page add spread for Successful Farming Magazine (1948) speaks of the "heart states" as well as the "United States Heartland," and features an outline map of the US with a heart shape circling the Midwest.

At least two centennials in the 1949s provoked use of "heartland," suggesting that the term was part of a regional nostalgia. The book Granger Country, a history of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, prompted a reviewer to mention the "great American heartland serviced by the Burlington railroad from the time of the first pioneers entered the region to the present." (This book was produced out of the Newberry Library at a time that the library was positioning itself as a center for the study of regional culture and history). And striking a somewhat more conservative tone, a full page advertisement for centennial of the Des Moines Register (1949) closed with the sentence: "Into this second century the editors of the Register march with an abiding faith in the stability of the heartland and the promise of the long Iowa future."

Significantly, the heartland could be shorthand for a long-standing and very popular discourse about how the frontier allegedly forged a unified and truly "American" culture. The "West" that Frederick Jackson Turner wrote about was, after all, not so much the far West as the vast basin between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. By the 1930s, generations of Americans, including the children of immigrants, had been raised on the notion that the encounter between nature and culture on the frontier had molded a new culture that was "native" to America. So a 1951 review of the book "The Architecture of the Old Northwest Territory" is one of the earliest articles in J-Stor to use both "heartland" and "midwest." The viewer suggests an apt subtitle for the book would be "The Architecture of the America's Heartland." It was in the Midwest, that a "unified 'American' style" developed, and in the Midwest "that the various racial and nationality differences, regional variations due to climate and available material, and the variety of social and economic functions which the architecture served, were brought together into ... the 'abiding continuum' of a genuine and indigenous style."

This is, in effect, an American version of "indigenismo," that racial ideology of the Mexican Revolution that figured the Mestizo as the "Cosmic Race" because it blended European and American into something new. Conveniently, these national ideologies marginalized actual living Indian peoples. But they were (or could be) broadly pluralist, and were deployed by radicals as well as liberals, if not by "conservatives" of the era who remained overtly white supremacist.

Red States: The Strategic Myopia of the G.O.P. "Heartland"
Jump forward to the late 1960s, and the more proximate roots of the ascendancy of "heartland" talk in the 1980s. In 1969 the Tribune published an excerpt of Kevin Philip's book The Emerging Republican Majority. Featuring a mug-shot of Richard Nixon, the thrust of this article (titled "The Power of the Heartland") is a now-familiar analysis of the rise of conservatism. When the Democrats sided with Black Civil Rights, they broke the electoral legacy of the Civil War. No longer would the middle of the country be divided north and south. Now the "heartland" would vote together for Conservative (Republican) politicians--"the vast American interior is drawing together as the seat of a conservative majority."

Sound familiar? It's the Red-State, Blue-State argument so popular in the last few elections. It is a logic that makes sense only when we view the region via a map of the winner-take-all electoral college returns of presidential elections. These maps propound a strategic myopia that somehow misses places like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland--not to mention the majority Black counties of Mississippi and Alabama--and literally white-washes the region as a small-town and racially white.

"Broken Heartland": Sentimentality and Decline
The "Leave It To Beaver" (or maybe "Happy Days" is more to the point) vision of the midwestern life--a sanitized and suburbanized 1950s with the long echo of TV syndication--helped to pave the way for the 1980s emergence of "heartland." Midwesterners have long been said to be--and described themselves as--sincere, honest, and without guile. For proof that this thinking is alive an well, check into the recent eulogies for Michigan's only president Gerald Ford.

Signs that the "heartland" would be back in style soon were apparent in the late 1970s as Americans wearied of "issues" and longed for "simpler times." A 1979 a Tribune film and stage review and comment was titled "America rediscovers its enduring heartland," and on the flip page, "Values reappear, America rediscovers its heartland." It reported that a spate of popular films and stage plays "have in common a small-town setting, a crisis in a family unit, and an intimate involvement with people living their lives and working out their problems outside of or divorced from current political upheavals." Among these was "Breaking Away," an Academy Award-winning coming-of-age comedy/drama about a working class kid in Bloomington, Indiana, who so longs to race with the Italian cycling team that he speaks Italian all the time--much to the good natured annoyance of his parents. As I recall, a major subplot of this film relates to the specter of life-long factory work and the class conflict with frat boys at the university. The review concludes that "after all these years of being offered counterfeit emotions," audiences are "coming back to the heartland, hoping and believing that the heart is still true." Just chokes you up, doesn't it?

Interestingly, it seems like the New York Times was ahead of the curve in using "heartland" extensively during the 1960s and 70s. The term must have struck a special cord with New Yorkers--gathering up in one word all the useful generalizations they could make about folks beyond the Hudson. When the heartland reporting was not stereotypical it was usually along the lines of: the Midwest is not as (choose one) agricultural/conservative/insulated as you might expect. Or they were playing off the idea of the region as the "balance wheel of the Republic." By the late 1970s, there were also interesting signals of the imminent political shift.

One article I find absolutely fascinating details the writing of the screenplay for the1978 film "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" based on the Beatles song. The screenplay author Henry Edwards writes that "Old-fashioned sentiment and melody were in, and it seemed to me that a contemporary pop movie should reflect this return to romance. So I decided to cast "Sgt. Pepper" in the tradition of those American films that presented a vision of an unspoiled small town whose innocence was threatened by villainy from the slick mean city." What would he call this town? Of course, "Heartland, whose motto is 'Kindness above all else." Now this is a movie I recall seeing in the theater as a teenager, but I had forgotten the plot--that is if you can call this a plot. I did remember that Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees were the good guys and Aerosmith the bad. Appropriately, this packaged heartland was filmed on a refurbished Andy Hardy set in the MGM studio lot.

In the 1980s, a less happy line of heartland reporting followed the economic woes of the region's industry and agriculture (the phrase "nation's breadbasket" was often used along with "industrial heartland"). The Tribune ran an occasional series called "America's troubled heartland," and many articles on plant closures and farm foreclosures invoked the region as a heartland in order to heighten the drama and pathos of the situation. One in this series quoted a UI agriculture professor to the effect that the farm crisis was brining "a lot of the same emotional stresses [to] the country that traditionally are thought to belong to the city," and "The bucolic way of life has disappeared."

I could go on, and I may in a different venue. Amazing how much time you can waste digging into a simple question: when did the Midwest become the Heartland? I'm satisfied that my rough-and-ready hypothesis is more-or-less correct. Although the association of heartland with the Midwest existed as far back as the 1940s (and maybe before, I'll keep looking), it became much more popular as the region went into economic decline during the most recent period of globalization. There are many meanings and usages of "heartland," but I do believe that in most, if not all, cases it is a trope that obscures a complex history and present reality in favor of a sentimental myth of small town racial, political, and cultural homogeneity.


Correction: I watched "Breaking Away." No one works in a factory. Instead the issue is the shut down of quarry work, and the generational conflict between fathers who were "cutters" and sons who get called "cutters" by frat boys at IU, but can't even claim that identity. It's a postindustrial landscape in which class division remains salient, but lacks the easy referents of mass and elite.