Happy Labor Day 2022!

Labor Day weekend snuck up on me.

So I was thinking about Labor Day, my favorite holiday ever (no family gatherings, no war celebrating, no religious component), and realized, D'OH! I have been shamefully neglecting the labor of updating Citizen Reader. So I thought, I need to put up my annual list of my favorite nonfiction books about work for the holiday, and then I paused. It literally seems like I JUST did that. I don't know where the time is going any more. 

But, without further ado, my favorite nonfiction books about work from the past year:

Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti. From my Citizen Reader review: "Here's the neat trick, though: the essays are not so much about the fire as they are about how the fire affected its survivors, victims' families, and countless labor activists since 1911."

I also reviewed this book at The Progressive. I liked it a lot, and I enjoyed speaking with its editors.

The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm, by Sarah Vogel. This book blew my mind. Almost my entire review: "a totally fascinating memoir and history of farm economics in the twentieth century, and most particularly of Ronald Reagan's (and his minions') shameful role in foreclosing on every single farmer they could possibly do it to in the 1980s."

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis (a re-read). About the financial crisis of 2008, which seems almost quaint now but which is still fucking us over in various ways. Just go read it or see the movie or both.

Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic, by Marianna Crane. Written by a nurse practitioner, this one's a bit rough around the edges but still an engrossing memoir about Crane's experiences helping (primarily) elderly, very sick, and very poor people in Chicago.

Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, by Robert Jackall. Can you believe I've not made it through this book yet? AND YET I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

Here's its opening paragraph: "Corporate leaders often tell their charges that hard work will lead to success. Indeed, this theory of reward being commensurate with effort has been an enduring belief and a moral imperative in our society, one central to our self-image as a people, where the main chance is available to anyone of ability who has the gumption and persistence to seize it. Hard work, it is also frequently asserted, builds character. This notion carries less conviction because business people, and our society as a whole, have little patience with those who, even though they work hard, make a habit of finishing out of the money."

Fucking Amen, Robert Jackall.

This year is the year I am finally going to make it through this whole book. I swear it.

American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman. A good book, but if you're going to read a work on manufacturing and what happens when you devalue the people who do it, you should read Brian Alexander's Glass House. But there were interesting things here too.

From my review: "Stockman followed three workers over the course of several years, in Indiana. One was a white woman named Shannon, one was a black man named, and one was a white man named John. She interviewed and got to know them and learned about their work at the Rexnord plant (a plant that made industrial and ball bearings)."

They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption, by Michael Armstrong. Read this one after you read Serpico, by Peter Maas. And if you don't know who Serpico is, go learn.

The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown, by Michael Patrick F. Smith. Smith went to a North Dakota oil town to see if he could make some money as a skilled laborer in the oil fields. It's kind of a tough book to read--it drops you in a masculine world I may not have been ready for (and I live with three guys)--but I think it's important to read it for that reason.

From my review: "Let me just tell you right now, I don't know how people live and work in oil boom towns. I mean, I do, because I've now read Smith's book on the subject. But I don't know how (mostly) men move to North Dakota, live in close quarters with one another in tiny apartments and squalid houses (because there's not enough housing for all the men trying to find jobs), and then work ten to twelve hour days in North Dakota weather while moving around huge and dangerous machinery."

Those are the books about work that I read last year, and that is also the list of books that I blogged about, meaning that when I read nonfiction, it was almost exclusively nonfiction about jobs and work. I adore labor books, and I adore Labor Day. I wish you a very happy one.

And here, in case you want to see them, are our Labor Day lists from previous years:  2021, 2020, 2019 part 1 and part 2. 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.


Citizen Reader on YouTube: My Year In Gardening Books

First off, many thanks to Ann and the McFarland Public Library for hosting my talk titled "How to Read True Crime and Still Sleep at Night"! It wasn't hugely attended, but we had a lot of fun and we talked over a lot of books, so that makes for a very successful evening in my opinion.

That said, if you'd like to share any great True Crime titles you've been reading or have read, please share them in the comments!

In other news, I also taped a YouTube segment for the library, about the different gardening books that I read in a year. This was my first experience recording anything for YouTube,* and it was a lot of fun! Please be aware that Ann has made a ton of these awesome book talks for the McFarland Library, called "Browse the Stacks."* Do check them out when you need something new for your TBR list.

*It should be noted that before I taped this I drove to the library with my windows down and yes, I probably should have run a brush through my hair when I got there. If it rarely occurs to me to actually garden (rather than just reading about gardening), it even more rarely ever occurs to me to run a brush through my hair.

**Librarian Ann is AWESOME and seriously knows her books and reading. My very favorite kind of person!!


How to Read True Crime and Sleep at Night

Good morning!

If anybody who reads this blog is anywhere near McFarland, Wisconsin, you are cordially invited to attend my presentation there, titled "How to Read True Crime and Still Sleep at Night."*

Mr. CR thinks it is totally weird how much True Crime I read, but I gotta tell you, I like True Crime because it is honest. I don't think we will ever conquer our cultural love of violence until we look at it more often and much more analytically. I firmly believe the first way to make a problem bigger is to ignore the problem. Reading True Crime is one way I feel I am trying to look at one of society's biggest problems.

There are also some phenomenal True Crime books out there to read, among them Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep and Sarah Perry's After the Eclipse and Debora Harding's Dancing with the Octopus.

The program will be at 6 p.m. at the E.D. Locke Public Library in McFarland, on Thursday, June 23rd. Hope to see you there!!

In case you can't make it, here's the website to go with the talk: How to Read True Crime website

Here is a bibliography of True Crime titles to read: True Crime Bibliography

and

Here's something I wrote a while back to try and explain why I read a lot in this nonfiction genre: Why I Read True Crime.

*I actually make no guarantees that you will be able to sleep after the talk or after reading any True Crime titles. So much for truth in advertising.


An Essay a Day...

...won't keep the doctor away, or anything, but I still say a daily essay can make your life better.

How handy there is a website called "Essay Daily" to help you get your fix!

Over at Essay Daily, they periodically run a feature called "The Midwessay," featuring essays set in the Midwest, and I am extremely excited to say that they published an essay of mine last week: You Can't Go Home Again.

I've read a lot of the other Midwessays there, and they all provide a slightly different look at a region that doesn't often get a lot of love. The entire site is highly recommended!


New book about the Triangle Fire.

Talking to the girls"On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at 4:40 p.m., as the workers prepared to leave with their pay in hand, an alarm bell sounded at the Triangle Waist Company...The factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the modern Asch Building (now the Brown Buildings). Workers produced shirtwaists, an iconic item of clothing for the 'new' American woman inspired by the Gibson Girl, created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson..."

This is a fairly sedate introduction to the Triangle Fire in 1911 New York City that wound up killing 146 workers, the vast majority of them women, and a lot of them teenagers. This, however, might come nearer the mark of what the terrible fire was actually like:

"...the Triangle fire was impossible to ignore. It assaulted the senses of middle- and upper-class New Yorkers. People saw smoke, bodies plunging out the windows, to be smashed on the ground below, firemen standing around helplessly with broken nets. They heard fire bells, screams from the victims, gasps from the gathering crowd, and the awful sound of bodies hitting the pavement, recorded with stunning clarity by [William Gunn] Shepherd: 'THUD-DEAD, THUD-DEAD, THUD-DEAD.'" (pp. 5 and 7.)

Both of these descriptions of this workplace disaster come from the introduction to a new anthology of essays titled Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti (and published by New Village Press). Here's the neat trick, though: the essays are not so much about the fire as they are about how the fire affected its survivors, victims' families, and countless labor activists since 1911. At first glance (especially if you're not fascinated by the Triangle Fire, as I always have been) that sounds like it might not be real exciting--but it is. Giunta and Trasciatti have both referred to this collection as a "labor of love" that they've been working on for years, and it shows. There's a wide variety of stories here--from artists who have written about and agitated for the Triangle Fire to not be forgotten and who themselves are now being gentrified out of their New York homes (which used to be tenements), to labor activists who worked with Chinatown's striking garment workers in the 1980s, to Frances Perkins's grandson, to a wide variety of people who either remember elderly relatives' stories about surviving the fire or who find out much later in their lives that their elderly family members were somehow touched by the fire or worked for the Triangle Shirtwaist company but then never, ever talked about it.

I've written a much fuller review of the book over at The Progressive, but I thought it was a really neat book and you should know about it. Also, if you've not read much about the fire to begin with, I can highly recommend both David von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire That Changed American and Leon Stein's The Triangle Fire.


So Many Great Nonfiction Books, Such a Lazy Nonfiction Books Blogger

It has been a wonderful spring for reading. (Not so much for doing anything outside; we're expecting another rain/snow mix tonight. That's okay. All I really like doing outside is reading, too, and I can do that just as easily inside!)

I've been in a bit of a mood, and when I'm like that I sometimes enjoy re-reading things I've enjoyed. So I re-read Peter Manseau's disturbing but very, very thoughtful and interesting memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, and if that title alone doesn't make you want to read it, I give up. (If you're more of a fiction reader, Manseau also just published the The Maiden of All Our Desires, a historical novel about a nun in the fourteenth century. I really like Manseau and want to support him as an author, so I bought a copy of that at Bookshop, but haven't read it yet. Also thinking I need to give some money to one of the numerous groups trying to prod the Catholic Church into allowing women and married clergy. Talk about a lost cause, but traditionally I am a huge supporter of lost causes, so that seems about right.

Farmers lawyerI also revisited Michael Lewis's The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, after watching and LOVING the movie of the same name. (Also: You need to go watch the movie right away; it explains a lot about how money is made--and lost--in this country.) Re-reading the book after the movie was fun; I thought they did a fantastic job of adapting the movie from the book, so it was fun to look at them together and look at what they changed. One of the few instances I've ever seen where the book and the movie are equally fantastic, for different reasons. (Another example of that is Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. Great book, great movie, for entirely different reasons.)

When I was done re-reading, I picked up a few new titles, namely Matthew Stewart's The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture and Sarah Vogel's The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm. The Farmer's Lawyer is a totally fascinating memoir and history of farm economics in the twentieth century, and most particularly of Ronald Reagan's (and his minions') shameful role in foreclosing on every single farmer they could possibly do it to in the 1980s. I grew up on a farm in the 1980s, so that subject was near and dear to my heart.

Spring has been a bit of a wash (literally; it won't stop raining or snowing or rain-snowing here) otherwise, but I'm at the point in my life where, you throw a few good books at me, that's about all it takes to keep me happy. Happy Spring to all of you as well.


Do you know what's going on at your favorite tech company?

Take your pick: Tesla, Meta, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Microsoft, and especially Apple. What do those companies have in common? There's a lot of sexual and racial harassment and discrimination going on at all of them.

I got to speak with Apple whistleblower Cher Scarlett, and I am grateful she is out there advocating for such companies to be more transparent, and also to allow workers the rights they already have under current law. To read about what she has to say, please read my latest at The Progressive magazine:*

Blowing the Whistle on Big Tech

*And yes, I am always aware of the irony of complaining about big tech while using big tech products seemingly every minute of my life. Their very ubiquity in our lives is just one of the reasons we should be watching them a lot more closely.


What it takes to care for the human body: Marianna Crane's "Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic."

CraneI took a break from reading about the horrors of management and bureaucracy to read a nurse practitioner's memoir about managing a senior health clinic in a Chicago subsidized housing building.

Mr. CR says I just don't know how to relax but the joke's on him, reading depressing nonfiction IS how I relax!

Oddly, although there are many depressing things in Marianna Crane's memoir, Stories From the Tenth-Floor Clinic, it is not really a depressing book. It is exactly what its title promises, a very straightforward memoir of Crane's experiences helping (primarily) elderly, very sick, and very poor people in Chicago.

Consider:

"My mind drifted back to the day I had first met Stella. I had been alone in the clinic when she rolled her wheelchair off the elevator and stopped in front of the open door. She peered inside, saw me, turned around, and careened down the hallway. Where the hell was she going? I took off after her. She braked at the end of the corridor. Trapped in a dead end, she sat in her chair, silent.

I bent down so I could see her face. 'I'm Marianna Crane, the nurse practitioner. What can I do for you?' I said.

Stella concentrated on her hands gripped in her lap.

'Is something wrong?' I asked.

A dirty blond wig sat askew on her head. Only one leg, which was covered with a wrinkled cotton stocking, extended past the skirt of her housedress, and her foot was encased in a heavy black orthopedic shoe. She reeked of a sharp ammonia smell. Urine?

I remained crouched, determined to wait her out. Finally she raised her head, and said, 'I don't feel good.'...

I later found out that Stella had been a diabetic for many years. Because she didn't keep her blood sugar under control, she had developed peripheral neuropathy, a loss of sensation, in her legs and feet. She didn't realize she had stepped on a dirty tack while walking barefoot until her foot turned black. After she lost her leg, she was fitted for the prosthesis and then participated in just enough rehabilitation to be able to get around on her own." (pp. 144-155.)

There are a lot of stories like that in this book, which really is quite a fascinating read.

It's not quite as polished a memoir as I might like, it just kind of moves from one chapter to another without developing a real story arc, but it's very sincerely and well-written. I read the whole thing and I'm glad I did.

 


Moral Mazes: Chapter 1 (continued).

Yup, I'm still working on the first chapter of Robert Jackall's business classic Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.

Last time, I shared some quotes from the book in which Jackall very briefly explored the history and psychology of the Protestant work ethic, and its place in our American system of business and bureaucracies.

Basically, the Protestant work ethic combined religion and business. The religious work ethic gave workers the idea that you could glorify by God by working really hard, and, further, by living simply and denying yourself, you could also save up resources and capital to have for your family. Jackall also shared the enlightening thought that, over time, the accumulation of capital led to conspicuous consumption and the assumption that "good people did good"--if you worked hard and invested wisely, you could not only do well financially, that also made you a smart and good person.

Enter: Bureaucracy. Specialization. The increasing organization of business and society along hierarchical lines.

It was kind of a lot to take in, and Jackall covered all of that in (literally) three pages.

No wonder this book is exhausting. But wow, is it good.

So here we are, still in chapter one, now up to the twentieth century. Or, as Jackall explains, our recent history (and by recent I mean the early 1900s through now) in which:

"Mass distribution required greater administrative coordination for its success, and mass production demanded the centralization of operations to achieve efficiency..."

Think big corporations and big schools. Big complicated supply chains. All in the name of efficiency.

And this didn't just happen in business. Here's a Jackall quote from this chapter to strike terror into your soul (or at least it should):

"The tide of bureaucratization spilled over from the private to the public sector, and government bureaucracies came to rival those of industry. The chief forces here have been the erection of the massive apparatus of the welfare state during the New Deal, the militarization of American society during World War II and the subsequent importance to key economic sectors of administered military spending..." (p. 9)

I maintain that kids in high school should be allowed to skip at least one year of American history classes if they just promise to read this book. If that paragraph doesn't sum up what military spending does to a society and your entire economic system, I don't know what does.

So: If we were smart, we've all gotten specialized and found our places in the bureaucracy.

But what is the special character of American bureaucracy? This is what Jackall has to say on the subject:

"But bureaucratic impersonality in its pure form lacks affinity with the American character. Our frontier experience emphasized individualistic solutions to problems, even if they were illegal; in any event, the law was often remote...Moreover, big city bosses based their quasi-feudal regimes on personal loyalty and on the delivery of personal services. By the time American corporations began to bureaucratize they instituted as a matter of course many of the features of personal loyalty, favoritism, informality, and nonlegality that marked crucial aspects of the American historical experience. The kind of bureaucracy that developed in America, especially in the corporations but even in the higher reaches of government, was a hybrid; it incorporated many structural features of the pure form of bureaucracy but it also resembled patrimonial bureaucracy.

Patrimonial bureaucracy was the organizational form of the courts of kings and princes. There, personal loyalty was the norm...Of course, in America, kings and princes were unavailable as objects of personal attachment. But the hierarchies of bureaucratic milieux allow the hankerings for attachment generated by the intense personalism of our historical experience to be focused on chief executive officers of corporations, as well as on certain high elected and appointed officials." (p. 11.)

Basically, we replaced our need to suck up to kings and princes with a need to suck up to CEOs, and in America, we also combined that with a weird frontier belief in avoiding the law and believing that we were all rugged individualists.

Yikes.

Here's why I believe this book. Here's why it's freaking me out. It was published more than thirty years ago, right? So think about that paragraph: a cultural belief that laws were made to be broken, and also a desire to be ordered around by strong leaders. And then look at headlines from this past week:

"Tesla recalls autos over software that allows them to roll through stop signs"

and

"New York is a corporation. I'm the CEO of New York City." (Said by new NYC mayor Eric Adams.)

Yeah, we've really come a long way, baby.

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go:


A Walk On the Lighter Side: Charlie Berens's "The Midwest Survival Guide."

MidwestLest you think all I do is read lighthearted sociological works on the workings of bureaucracy, I'm taking a small break to tell you that my whole household has been enjoying Charlie Berens's new book The Midwest Survival Guide: How We Talk, Love, Work, Drink, and Eat...Everything with Ranch.

I was trying not to like Charlie Berens, because, let's face it, I was a little bit jealous that he's making his Wisconsin/Midwest shtick pay. I have been talking like a 60-year-old Wisconsin farm lady since I was 18 (or, as a former college roommate said upon seeing me again, after it had been a few years: "Oh...there's that accent!") and it has never made me a dime.

But, fine, I give in. I like Charlie Berens. My kids like him too; we've all enjoyed his videos like this one: Midwest Voice Translator. (And also: Midwest Meets East Coast.)

So when I saw he had a new book out, I thought I'd take a look through it. And now that I've brought it home, everyone is reading it and enjoying it, right down to the 8-year-old CRjrjr, which I didn't really expect.

Berens is funny. Here's some of the stuff from his section on driving in Wisconsin, and I'm here to tell you, it's right on.

"Long Drives. There's not a whole lot of walking to the store, school, or job when living out here--there's just so much space. It'd take most folks six hours to walk to work...A Midwesterner is prepared to drive an hour to get to the closest Olive Garden. And this isn't a sixty-minutes-sitting-in-traffic kinda thing. This is driving 70 mph for 45 minutes. East Coast in-laws will stare in wide-eyed amazement when you pass the thirty-minute mark when driving to a nice dinner out and will eventually break out with, 'Where in the heck are we going?'...

Rule 2 [of Driving in the Midwest]: Landmarks = GPS. Ask how to get somewhere, don't expect street names and route numbers. We don't really know how to use those. We can visit family or a best friend once a week for a decade and have zero idea what street they live on. Instead, Midwesterners depend almost entirely on landmarks. 'Over there by the railroad tracks, right off the main drag' or 'Go ten minutes that way and take a right just past the second Dairy Queen. If you pass the three bars by the church you went too far.' Street names are usually just some goofy name a developer added to the universe. It's kinda illusory. But that railroad track is a real and permanent thing." [pp. 75-79.]

It's good stuff. And I'm not just saying that because I'm "Midwest Nice."


Moral Mazes: Chapter 1 ("Moral Probations, Old and New")

I'll be the first to admit that old Robert Jackall has really got to jazz up his chapter titles. I'm not even sure what "Moral Probations, Old and New," means. For one thing, when I hear the word "probation," I think people who have committed a crime and have to complete a period during which they are supervised. But "probation," of course, also means this: "the process or period of testing or observing the character or abilities of a person in a certain role."

And that makes sense. This first chapter in Moral Mazes is largely the story of how Jackall found some corporations that would let him do observational field work at their locations and among their managers. You may not be surprised to learn that finding such corporations, who would allow their bureaucratic processes (and the effect of those processes on the morality of their managers) to be observed, was extremely difficult.

But in the beginning of the chapter, Jackall first draws your attention to the history of bureaucracy (generally) and to the Protestant work ethic (specifically).

My whole life I've been hearing about the Puritan and Protestant ethic and work ethic, and I've never really known much about it. (Not least because I'm Catholic and the family culture I grew up in was a weird mix of feeling discriminated against by Protestants, and also feeling superior to Protestants. I also never paid much attention to American history in school because I was an indifferent student and was quite bored by American history.)

Jackall starts the chapter by saying that before we can understand the connections between managerial work and bureaucracy and morals, you must first understand the original Protestant ethic ("Protestant ethic" being the term used by Max Weber to "describe the comprehensive worldview of the rising middle class that spearheaded the emergence of capitalism.")

Basically, the Protestant ethic refers, Jackall says, to the "set of beliefs, and, more particularly, to the set of binding social rules that counseled 'secular asceticism'--the methodical, rational subjection of human impulse and desire to God's will through 'restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling.'" (p. 6.)

We're barely a paragraph in to this first chapter and I feel like I have to take a break. Jackall packs a lot of information (and history) into a few pages here. But, basically? You are familiar with the Protestant ethic, particularly if you live and work in the United States." That Protestant ethic humming along in the background is what leads to sensational news headlines like these:

"It's Time for Americans to Get Back to Work" and "In Biden's America, It's Better Not To Be Employed."

This all led, in American history, to what Jackall calls the enduring significance of the Protestant ethic; it linked proving one's self, work, and eternal salvation together. As Jackall says:

"This rational and methodical pursuit of a worldly vocation, when it was crowned with economic success, proved a person before others." (p. 7.)

Personally I find it kind of funny that something that started out as a way to please God turned into a way to "prove" yourself before other people. Anyone else?

At first, Jackall goes on to explain, hard work was also linked with self-denial and an emphasis on saving to help future generations build capital. Eventually, however, individuals with money began to engage in conspicuous consumption.

So here's the paragraph(s) I'm going to leave you with today. I would suggest reading it a couple of times, and then think about whether it seems like an accurate description of the United States in the late 20th century. I think it does, but maybe that's just me. Do feel free to offer your opinion in the comments!

"With the shaping of the mass consumer society later in this [20th] century, accompanied by the commercialization of leisure, the sanctification of consumption fueled by consumer debt became widespread, indeed crucial to the maintenance of the economic order.

Affluence and the emergence of the consumer society were responsible, however, for the demise of only some aspects of the old ethic--namely, the imperatives for saving and investment. The core of the ethic, even in its later, secularized form--self-reliance, unremitting devotion to work, and a morality that postulated just rewards for work well done--was undermined by the complete transformation of the organizational form of work itself. The hallmarks of the emerging modern production and distribution system were administrative hierarchies, standardized work procedures, regularized timetables, uniform policies, specialized expertise, and above all, centralized control--in a word, the bureaucratization of the economy." (p. 8.)

Today's takeaways?

Ask yourself if the above is what it feels like to live in the United States today. To me the above reads like 1. our economy demands constant growth to remain stable (never mind if that's good for the earth), 2. at one point, even when it lost its attachment to religious belief, the Protestant work ethic promised that if you did good work you'd do good; and 3. this all led to a system where everything was systematically controlled through hierarchies.

I have to ask myself, upon reading this book, how is that system controlled by hierarchies holding up for us currently? I would argue it's working well for managerial types (see Jamie Dimon, who now makes $34.5 million a year) to make a lot of money, not so well for those of us wondering why you can't find and buy N95 masks or COVID home tests even if you have the means.

Next time? More of Chapter 1, including how America combined the worst parts of rugged individualism with a love for authority.

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go:

 


Moral Mazes: On "bureaucratic ethics" (Introduction, part 2).

Day 3 of our read-along of Robert Jackall's classic work Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.

So last time I was reading just the introduction of this book and it was knocking me over. Never more so than when I read Jackall's explanation of what bureaucratic work, such as that often found among the managerial class in corporations and organizations, does to people.

Consider:

"Bureaucratic work shapes people's consciousness in decisive ways. Among other things, it regularizes people's experiences of time and indeed routinizes their lives by engaging them on a daily basis in rational, socially approved, purposive action; it brings them into daily proximity with and subordination to authority, creating in the process upward-looking stances that have decisive social and psychological consequences...it creates subtle measures of prestige and an elaborate status hierarchy that, in addition to fostering an intense competition for status, also makes the rules, procedures, social contexts, and protocol of an organization paramount psychological and behavioral guides." (p. 4.)

Basically, if you want the status, you fall in line. This is how you end up with people in corporations telling Jackall things like "What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you."

Does this gross anyone out besides me? And you can tell me "Well, CR, that's just how the system works" all you like. I don't get any less grossed out.

I think this book is blowing my mind because it doesn't seem like Jackall is just describing corporations. It feels like Jackall is describing all of America (and the world too).

So here's the end of the Introduction, and gives you an idea of what is yet to come in this book:

"This book, then, examines business as a social and moral terrain. I offer no programs for reform, should one think that reform is necessary. Nor, I am afraid, do I offer tips on how to find one's way onto the 'fast track' to managerial success. This is, rather, an interpretive sociological account of how managers think the world works." (p. 5.)

And, psst...don't let the boring sound of that "interpretive sociological account" bit deter you. Nothing about this book is boring. Next? On to Chapter 1: "Moral Probations, Old and New."

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go:


Citizen Reader Elsewhere: "Tesla's Long History of Silencing Whistleblowers."

Excuse this slight break from our regularly scheduled "Moral Mazes" read-along. I just wanted to let you know that I published another article about whistleblowers at The Progressive magazine last week.

The whistleblower in question is named Cristina Balan, and she has been in arbitration and litigation with Tesla for nearly eight years now. Imagine, with everything else you've got to do, trying to prevail in arbitration and lawsuits against a monster corporation that has all the money and power. For nearly a decade.

Please do read the story if you have a moment and remember to listen to and support whistleblowers whenever you can.

A peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. Day to you. To celebrate, protest something nonviolently. Here's one super-easy way to start: Don't buy a Tesla. 


Moral Mazes: Introduction (1)

So here we are, reading Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, and I have no idea how to do this "share a whole book with you" thing.

So, like I do everything, let's just jump right in.

As noted in the prior post, Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes is about organizational behavior and what passes for morality in organizations.

When I first picked up this book over the summer, I was immediately sucked into its Introduction by the first line:

"Corporate leaders often tell their charges that hard work will lead to success."

I read that, and I thought, I like this book already.

Here's how it continues on from there:

"Indeed, this theory of reward being commensurate with effort has been an enduring belief and a moral imperative in our society, one central to our self-image as a people, where the main chance is available to anyone of ability who has the gumption and persistence to seize it. Hard work, it is also frequently asserted, builds character. This notion carries less conviction because business people, and our society as a whole, have little patience with those who, even though they work hard, make a habit of finishing out of the money."

And after I read that, I thought, Jesus Christ, I LOVE this book, and I'm only one paragraph in.

Go back and read it again. It's beautifully written and straightforward but the first thing we're all going to have to do is get used, once again, to reading something slightly meatier than the latest viral Twitter post or illiterate texts from our children.

Did you read it again?

Good.

Now, I'm not going to type the whole book into this blog, although I'm tempted, because of what I've read so far, I've underlined a lot of it. Because almost everything I read here--written in 1988 and then updated in 2010, so basically ancient--has the ring of perpetual truth about it.

Now that you've read that paragraph a couple of times, look around you in 2022. Does our society still have disdain for those who finish out of the money, even though they work hard?

Yes. Yes, it does.

So. What else does Jackall tell us in this introduction to his work? Here are the high points:

  1. (Well, this is actually from the Acknowledgments, before the Introduction.) Jackall explains that he is a sociological researcher who does his "field work" in corporations. In his research, he "examines managers' work, the intricate social contexts of their organizations, their striving for success, the habits of mind they develop, and especially the occupational ethics that they construct to survive and flourish in their world." That basically explains what the book is about.
  2. See above. Americans believe (still, to some extent) that if you work hard, you will succeed. And if you succeed, you will make money. And if you don't, you don't matter.
  3. Within corporations and organizations, however, people may no longer "see success as necessarily connected to hard work." What then, Jackall wants to know, "becomes of the social morality of the corporation"--rules of everyday behavior--when people perceive that "adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats"?

Jackall further points out that, by going into and observing managers in corporations, he learned about their "bureaucratic ethics," or the moral guide they followed within their workplaces.

Tune in next time for an awesome summary by Jackall of why "bureaucratic ethics" are important to all of our lives.

(Also: Please note I don't want this read-along to just be me reciting the book to you. Please get the book yourself if you can! Chime in with questions and opinions! Ask questions! Make the comment section your playground on which to discuss bureaucratic ethics!)


Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, by Robert Jackall

Moral mazesOkay, kids, I know we're all busy and the world is crazed and the last thing we want to do is cozy down in front of the fire with a 300-page treatise on business ethics. I know you don't really have the time to read Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, first published in 1988 and reissued in 2010.

So I'm going to read it for and with you!

Starting today, I'll try and post more regularly than usual with whatever daily gems I get out of Jackall's classic sociological book.

Why am I doing this?

Well, I gotta tell you, for at least 45 years of my life I didn't give "organizational behavior" much thought. I also never gave much thought to organizations in general, or corporations, or how people who work in corporations and organizations get along with each other. This is for one simple reason.

I am allergic to organizations.

If you saw my work area, you'd know I'm allergic to any kind of "organization," full stop. This shocks Mr. CR, because he knows I went to library school and at various parts of my career have been responsible for making sure library shelves and systems are in order (as well as individual books, when I indexed them, because creating back-of-the book indexes is all about bringing order to a text and breaking out its individual subjects so readers can find them in the index and therefore find them in the book).

What can I say? I can understand and follow the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal classifications. I like reading nonfiction and breaking it down into littler parts that readers can use. But organizing my own mind, home, workspace, life? I'm helpless.

In the greater picture, I mostly dislike organizations and institutions. I don't like their hierarchical structures and their rules and their dress codes and their norms of behavior. I recognize that to some extent we need them, but I do not prosper within them. The only thought I had when touring my son's middle school at Back to School Night was OH MY GOD IT'S A PRISON LOOK AT THE GUN-METAL GRAY WALLS I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW.

Nearly six months later, whenever I look at the CRjr's school, I still break out in a cold sweat. Not least because the other day, CRjr wore his boots and therefore had to pack his tennis shoes--and forgot one shoe. (Yup, that's my boy. Genetics are brutal.) So I drove his shoe over to school because if the elder CRjr cannot run off some of his nervous energy during gym and recess, life is not worth living around here when he gets home. I had to wait half an hour while the office staff called his room and then tried to find him because it was the opening advisory period and some kids were still eating breakfast in the cafeteria. They wanted me to just leave his shoe with them, and they would eventually call him to the office and he could find his shoe on the table of "parent drop-off" items, but I couldn't do that, because I do not trust his office staff. Earlier this year, on the coldest day of the fall, they had set him outside for half an hour on the WRONG DAY for a doctor appointment I'd signed him out for--using their software--so I was not confident they would do their job correctly. I could also not assume that my son would be able to find his shoe on the table, because he often can't find the milk in the refrigerator. (Sigh.) They also won't let any parents into the school, ever.*

That's all more than you needed to know, but you start to see why I dislike large institutions and organizations and companies. And now that I know that, I want to read about why that might be.

And that's why I'm reading Moral Mazes and telling you about it. More to come, but here's a teaser for what the book's about:

"What sort of everyday rules-in-use do people play by when there are no fixed standards to explain why some succeed and others fail? In the words of one corporate manager, those rules boil down to this maxim: 'What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'"

*Please note I waited in the entryway of the school and about a million eighth-graders who are taller than me streamed through the doors where I was. If I hadn't chosen to obey school policy and stop at the office, I could have strolled in with the kids and nobody would have been any the wiser.


Wherever You Go, Just Take Enough Books.

Last weekend I spent a night at my mom's house, as she is getting older and sometimes needs a little additional help.

It actually turned out to be kind of a nice night without the Internet (she doesn't have it at her house) and TV (which I didn't want to watch because I didn't want to be too noisy). Luckily I had planned accordingly and taken enough books. What was in my travel bag?

Edward Snowden's memoir Permanent Record, which I have read before but wanted to read again because, hello, Edward Snowden, I could read about Edward Snowden for a thousand hours and still not get bored.

Terry Brooks's The Elfstones of Shannara, because even us nonfiction kids need a little fantasy every now and then, and it's a good nostalgia read, since I haven't read any Terry Brooks since I was about twelve.

Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, because I'm reading it for background info for a novel project I'm working on, and might I just say, goddamn, Jane Jacobs even makes sociological writing interesting.

Kathy Aarons's Truffled to Death: A Chocolate Covered Mystery, because sometimes lately I just need a cozy mystery.

The essay collection Table Talk from The Threepenny Review, because I just subscribed to The Threepenny Review in print and have really been enjoying the short essays I find there. (And, let's face it, I am trying to learn how to write essays because I had a lot of essay rejections this year and I'm desperate to know what I'm doing wrong.)

Daniel Berrigan's Essential Writings, because the actor John Cusack responded to me at Twitter and suggested I read Berrigan and also Noam Chomsky. And when Lloyd Dobler talks, friends, I LISTEN.

Last but not least: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, because I want to live blog reading this bad boy next year. I'm ten pages in and it has basically explained America to me.

I also wrote in my journal and did some other work and a few hours after she first went to bed my mom woke up and had kind of a surreal conversation with me, in which I learned a few details about my own birth.

Wild times in CR Land. My hope for you this holiday season is that, wherever you are, you have enough books.*

*In other news, title links now go to my affiliate store at Bookshop.org; anything you buy there after entering the site through these links sends a small percentage of the purchase price my way. Thank you!


Bingeworthy British Television, now part of the Willow and Thatch holiday giveaway!

Willow and thatchMorning all, and happy St. Nick's feast day to you. When I was little, St. Nick's was one of my favorite days of the holiday season. On the eve of the day, December 5, my siblings and I got a bag of candies and little treats, always left out on the lawn or a snowbank, and we never, ever saw St. Nick leave it there. Our bag always included a big stick, that then stood in the corner of the living room for a while, just to scare us (although I don't remember anyone ever actually getting hit with it). Mercifully my parents were very nonviolent but they weren't above governing through fear, that's for sure.

Stick notwithstanding, I loved St. Nick's day, and we've continued the tradition with the CRjrs (minus the stick, but with the addition of notes from St. Nick, suggesting "areas for improvement" over the coming year). This year the elder CRjr said to us, "How does St. Nick keep getting that bag on the steps without us ever hearing or seeing him? Does he hide under the hedge?" We laughed and gave thanks for the eldest, who is adorable and also extremely gullible, and we also laughed and gave thanks for our youngest CRjr, who has started to watch us very closely around St. Nick/Santa times and who we think is going to figure out the whole game before his older brother does.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

SPEAKING OF GIFTS! Have you visited the fantastic period drama site Willow and Thatch lately? If not, head over there. They are doing their annual holiday giveaway, and they are offering a copy of my book, Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can't Stop Watching, as one of the prizes (along with some awesome British telly mugs, all of which I want). Entering the contest for any of the prizes is very easy, please do go check it out!!

Thanks for entering and good luck--I hope St. Nick brings you one of the prizes!


Buying books as presents this holiday season?

I am very, very excited about a new development here at Citizen Reader even though, yes, it is a mercenary development.

I am now a Bookshop.org affiliate, meaning that if you want to buy books from Bookshop.org (and you should--they are NOT Amazon, which is my favorite thing about them), if you buy them through my affiliate link, I will get a percentage of the sale (as will independent bookstores--that's one of the things that makes Bookshop.org so great*).

I haven't made any yet, but Bookshop.org also lets me organize booklists that you can shop from if you're looking for reading ideas, and that I've got to admit that my geeky book soul is very excited about compiling some new booklists there.

So, just in case you are buying any books for anyone (or yourself!) this holiday season, might I humbly request you visit here first and click on the link over in the right sidebar? If you click that, you'll go to Bookshop.org, but you will also see the name "Citizen Reader" at the upper left. That means I will get a percentage of any books you buy while you see my name there.

Thank you so much for considering doing that. And do let me know what books you're thinking of getting for people this year, I love talking books as gifts.

*FULL DISCLOSURE: I enjoy Bookshop.org and have been shopping there for my books for a year now. I have to admit, you will pay more there than you will pay at Amazon. It's true. And I know every little bit counts, and little bits can add up to big bits, so I wanted to be honest with you about that.


American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman.

There's a lot to like about Farah Stockman's book American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears.

(Okay, except the subject matter. The loss of good-paying blue-collar jobs, and the difficult lives of the people who lose such jobs, is not a fun one. I admit it.)

American madeStockman followed three workers over the course of several years, in Indiana. One was a white woman named Shannon, one was a black man named Wally, and one was a white man named John. She interviewed and got to know them and learned about their work at the Rexnord plant (a plant that made industrial and ball bearings).

Stockman first began researching the plant and its workers in 2017, and decided to focus on the three workers to show not only what happens to people when they lose their jobs, but what those jobs meant to them during their whole lives:

"The more time I spent with Shannon, Wally, and John, the better I understood what the job at the bearing plant had meant to them. It had rescued Shannon from an abusive man, thrown Wally a lifeline out of a dangerous world, and handed John a chance to regain what he'd lost. The machines there might have been old and cranky. The floors might have been coated in grime. The roof might have leaked brown water when it rained. But for the lucky few who'd managed to get jobs there, it had been a place of identity, belonging, and redemption." (p. 14.)

It's a good book, but for me, if you're going to read only one of these types of books (American economy vs. American workers), then that book has to be Brian Alexander's Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. BUT...there is a place for this book too. It's heavier on the human stories, and definitely lighter on the complex financial shenanigans that go on in American business, although there's some of that also.

Where I got a little annoyed was in the middle, when Stockman admits, basically, that she's a college-educated person who never dreamed globalization could be bad for anyone. Maybe I've read too many of these types of books, but I'm like, really? I'm college-educated and it never occurred to me that globalization would be GOOD for anyone. What must it be like to believe what the economic "experts" tell you? Well, here's how Stockman explains it:

"Then I went to Indiana and started interviewing steelworkers. After I heard Tim the machinist describe NAFTA as a 'sellout job' down at the union hall, I drove back to my hotel room and sat down at my computer, certain that I'd quickly find evidence to prove him wrong.

Every economist I had ever interviewed on the subject of free trade had assured me that it was a boon for the country. Sure, a few people would lose their jobs, they'd said. But on the whole, the nation would be better off. That's what I'd learned in college: if every country specializes in what it's good at--its comparative advantage--things will be made more efficiently, more wealth will be created, and everyone will win. In that narrative, the steelworkers were the unlucky few whose jobs had been sacrificed for the greater good." (p. 186.)

And she goes on like that for a while. It's deeply painful to read. How could someone so smart be so clueless? At least at some point she gets around to saying this:

"There was something deeply disturbing about the way that free trade was being championed by people whose own jobs were not on the line. The more I probed, the more I began to see what the steelworkers saw when they heard fancy people on the news talk about the future of the U.S. economy. 'Our comparative advantage is our knowledge and capital,' declared the men with the money and the college degrees.'" (p. 192.)

Well, no shit, Sherlock. During this entire chapter, I remembered reading Jessa Crispin's book Why I Am Not a Feminist, and how in that book she stated she really just wanted men to figure out their own shit without women having to teach them. That's how I felt here. Come on, "educated" people--figure out your own shit and catch up with the rest of us in the real world, would you?

But overall, I still give the book points for its overall readability and Stockman's obvious time investment in getting to know the people she was writing about.


Happy Anniversary, Knapp Commission Hearings.

On October 18, 1971, hearings began before the Knapp Commission in New York City.

What were the Knapp Commission hearings, you might ask? I'm so glad you did! I just published a whole article about them at The Progressive.

They wishedBasically, the Knapp Commission was formed in 1970 after police officers Frank Serpico and David Durk tried for years to get anybody in the New York Police Department (NYPD) to pay attention to the fact that the majority of its police officers were accepting pay-offs to look the other way on gambling, prostitution, theft, and a bunch of other crimes. The Commission helped bring national attention to the massive problem of police corruption. It focused specifically on the NYPD, but if you read its report, you'll find that a lot of what it suggests as problems and possible solutions would still hold up and provide helpful guidelines for any institution that wants to be less corrupt.

Assuming, that is, any of our remaining American institutions have any interest in not being corrupt.

There's a lot of good nonfiction out there to read about this event and time in history: consider starting with Peter Maas's bestseller Serpico (which, nearly fifty years after it was first published, is still a spectacular read). If you're interested in what all goes on when a "commission" and "hearings" are formed to investigate problems, you might also want to read Michael Armstrong's history: They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption. It's a very personal history; Armstrong served as the lead counsel during the Commission hearings.