Unlike Michael Moore, my dad didn’t work for GM, and my uncle wasn’t a founding member of the UAW. And I grew up in Lansing, not Flint—another car town, but also the state capital. Flint is far enough away that our sports teams didn’t even play each other. By the time Roger & Me came out, I was in graduate school in Philadelphia, and I’d already lived a couple of years in France as well.
But then you never really leave home, do you? Though my grad school chums in Philly loved the film, at times they still needed a translator. For the infamous “Pets or Meat” sign, for instance, the one that Rhonda Britton, the Bunny Lady, put up. Moore’s Brechtian caption for the bloody scene that followed. “Don’t you get it?” I remember telling them: “It’s Jonathan Swift... he’s offering us a modest f*#!king proposal!” In the eighties, auto workers didn’t have choices, they had categories. Collective bargaining or barbarism. Bludgeoning, skinning, and gutting would at least have been quicker.
More recently, I made another quick trip home when I stumbled across the brilliant short story “Wonderlic” by Jim Walke. By then the wasteland sported a deeper shade of demonic. Have you ever asked yourself why they’re called “plants”? Here’s Walke:
"Sections of chain link fence topped with barbed wire ran alongside. The factory grew in the distance, swelling up alongside the road. A mile long, with a roof covering more than fifty acres, it had been the largest building in the world when it was built to make B-24 bombers. They would roll along the assembly line, straight out the end of the building onto a runway and fly off to the fight. After the war GM had turned it into a transmission plant and sealed the giant door where the planes escaped.
Jake steered them off onto the shoulder with one hand on the wheel and slalomed the truck over the gravel, through an open gate into the Wake—a parking lot, one of a dozen surrounding the factory, out of sight of the main road and miles from any inhabited houses. Pile had never heard where the name originated. It was simply the Wake, and had been since the factory closed three years ago and unemployed most of the people in town.
The truck nosed into the circle of vehicles and kids around a haphazard bonfire of wooden pallets. Fishstick had his dad’s Chevelle backed up almost to the flames, the dented trunk propped open with a piece of re-bar. Torn cartons spilled cans of beer over the spare tire. Chemicals lined the rest of the space: drain cleaner, acetone, boxes of cold medicine. Pile reached in and pulled out three cans of beer with one hand. Fishstick appeared at the edge of the circle, the 2-liter bottle in his hands rocking methodically as he mixed a batch of crank. A girl with stringy hair followed him, rocking her own bottle like a baby."
The day before New Year’s Eve in 1936, Uncle LaVerne and his fellow union members occupied the GM plant in Flint; on February 11, an agreement was signed that recognized the UAW as the union members’ legal representative. I exaggerate, I know, but I still can’t help feeling that what flowered in the plant that day was this nation’s middle class—and the Michigan my family called home. Today, in contrast, reading the headlines from Lansing, it’s hard not to be haunted by the Michigan of Moore and Walke.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Right-wing “right-to-work” ideology isn’t all-powerful, a mysterious veil of Maya perpetrating some kind of myth on us all. According to Slavoj Žižek, we don’t even necessarily believe all that crap. So what is the matter with Kansas . . . or Kenosha and Kalamazoo, for that matter? Maybe some of our citizens simply can’t imagine doing anything else.
So that’s where we come in—we, the unacknowledged legislators, the poets. Our Winter issue, due out in days, does contain its seasonful of discontent. Mike Magnuson, for example, contributes a glorious little tale of both solidarity and defeat. He follows the recent Wisconsin uprising against a labor-busting bureaucrat, and we know what happened there. As we know what is happening in Lansing now.
And yet, as Magnuson also teaches, history has never been a short story. Whatever we face today, our poetry still dreams of tomorrow. And at least one thing I do remember from my years over there in Paris: Sous les pavés, la plage!