Duke University Alumni Magazine

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory

By Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson. DoubleTake Books/W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 223 pages. $27.50.

or a hundred years, the family-owned White's Furniture Factory practically was Mebane, North Carolina. One in twenty residents worked there, not just as cheap, non-unionized labor, but as skilled artisans who handcrafted fine furniture for the likes of Asheville's tony Grove Park Inn. Indeed, White's was known throughout the country for its premium quality.

Full of greed and fear in a rapidly changing industry, the White family sold out to a larger company in 1985 after a couple of bad years. The new owners tried to turn this proud maker of premium furniture into a more production-oriented house. They increased benefits and upgraded machines, and in return demanded quantity, efficiency, consistency--the watchwords of many a successful manufacturing business. It didn't work.

During and after their painful closing in 1993, University of North Carolina photographer Bill Bamberger and the Southern Oral History Program collected a mass of material chronicling the works and days of a dying breed in a dying industry niche. Cathy Davidson, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English at Duke and well-known outside academe for her nonfiction, was invited to examine and write about that material in what she describes as "a book intended not for specialists in labor history, Southern history, or economic relations, but for anyone urgently interested in the human cost of postindustrialism." (Davidson is now Duke's vice provost for interdisciplinary studies.)

I spent my first hour with the book just poring over its eight-dozen photographs, and I cried over them before I had read a word of the text. They are mostly pictures of people. Two hundred and three employees were laid off when the factory closed; this record of their faces and their workplace aspires to be a microcosm for an industry, and even for an age.

Subdued anger, shock, disbelief, challenge, and thoughtfulness mark the faces of the workers in the black-and-white photo "Layoff meeting, cabinet room." Their hands are as expressive in their candor as Claire Bloom's ever were on the London stage: One woman holds her arms protectively in front of her, resting her right elbow on her left hand as her right hand partially covers her mouth in a gesture of worried stroking, as though she thought she might vomit. Her hands are sure, sinewy, capable, experienced. Another man looks directly into the eyes of the supervisor, whose back is to us, his arms hanging limply at his sides. We see the back of one strong, idle hand, the veins clearly visible as though the worker had been standing that way for some minutes, his powerful fingers curled up out of sight. A third man, taller, glowers from behind a wild black beard, his arms folded, his hands a study in checked aggression.

Davidson cultivates a sympathetic and balanced tone, though at times she veers toward a preachiness one associates with activists: "We are in an era of disposable work and disposable workers," or "It is all too easy to forget the human cost of one's rising dividends." There is deliberate exaggeration when she takes on Wall Street on behalf of the unemployed, the downsized, the re-engineered. But while we may tire of phrases such as "the devastation of postindustrial America" or the "tragedy of being deprived of work," there is ample inspiration, pride, and pathos here to reward our patience.

Some of the laborers are surprisingly articulate. "In the old system," as one explains, "the primary relationship was between a worker and an employer; in the new system, it is between a company's management and its shareholders."

The author argues that "the system" is careening out of control under the impulse of abstract economic forces--that "the entire corporate structure of global capital in postindustrial America" is to blame for this and indeed all layoffs; and for that matter, that blame ought to be assigned, that the system ought to be forced to change. The economy, she says, may seem senseless "from any point of view other than that of the very rich."

This is hard stuff. Davidson's work is most palatable when she focuses on the story in hand, on the lives of the people at White's. The facts are rich, compelling, and well-researched. We Southerners, whether born or transplanted, will recognize these working people, will be able to hear their laughter and sorrow in the accents of our region, and perhaps will feel their pain, anger, and gratitude more acutely for having met them at some crossroads of our own lives.

Layoff meeting: White's Furniture workers learn the news of the shutdown
Photo: Bill Bamberger

Altogether too much time is spent speculating by the employees and the author as to whether the buyer had intended to shut the plant from the start, and flirting with the idea that there must have been some cigar-smoking fat cat maliciously engineering it all from behind the scenes. But there are chapters with extended interviews of five of the employees, including the president at the time of the 1985 buyout. The details of their lives and opinions are touchingly revealing and at times almost poetic.

"You say goodbye and it hurts, and you do it over and over and over and over and over," said one former supervisor. "As they were tearing this place apart and selling it off, it was like they were tearing us apart inside and selling us off in pieces," mourns another. And, in what could have been a caption for the grim photo of a layoff meeting, "You know everybody's going to be told and everybody's going to go, oh, and their faces are going to drop, and they are going to wonder and think the same things: What am I going to do next? How am I going to support myself? Where am I going to live? How am I going to buy food?"

There's a heartbreaking chapter about a reunion in an abandoned store a year after the closing. "It was a wake," reports Davidson, "a wake for the community that had formed within the confines of that enormous building and for the relationships that had been sustained by work and, without the contingency of work, had disappeared, leaving an emptiness."

If there are executives out there who are facing the seemingly inexorable logic of plant closings, they could do worse than to spend a few hours with this book. Not that it would necessarily change minds, but that it might help them walk into it with their eyes open. And if they haven't got time to read it, just looking at the photos will do.

--Paul Baerman

Baerman M.B.A. '90 is a freelance writer and assistant director of finance for Auxiliary Services at Duke.

Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs From Alcohol to Ecstasy

By Cynthia Kuhn Ph.D. '76, Scott Swartzwelder, and Wilkie Wilson Ph.D. '71. W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 317 pages. $14.95, paper.

arly this year, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, retired General Barry McCaffrey, made the assertion that "The most dangerous person in the United States is a twelve-year-old smoking marijuana." This was the so-called drug czar's way of drawing attention to a billion-dollar media blitz intended to dissuade young people from illicit drug use. The Clinton administration big-budget answer to Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign of a decade ago, this new taxpayer-funded, public-relations program will spend roughly $195 million per year over a five-year period, mostly for anti-drug advertisements.

The three Duke Medical Center professors who co-wrote this reader-friendly sourcebook on legal and illegal drugs would no doubt take strong exception to McCaffey's hyperbolic sound-bite, since it represents precisely the kind of alarmist sloganeering that they caution against in the introduction. And they would probably raise serious questions about the value of the media campaign. Recounting grim horror stories about drugs and categorizing all illegal substances as "terribly dangerous," they argue, is a good way for would- be drug educators to lose credibility with the young people who stand to benefit most from accurate information on these subjects. Published about the time the new anti-drug initiative was getting off the ground, Buzzed provides a straightforward, scientifically grounded look at drugs in a dozen categories, reviewing the history of their use and examining their long- and short-term effects.

Even if one accepts the dubious proposition that a twelve-year-old could be the nation's "most dangerous person" as a result of his or her drug use, the book suggests that the unnamed youngster would have to be using something besides marijuana. Young people pose far greater dangers to themselves and others, according to the authors, when they use certain other mind-altering substances that are legal and relatively easy for them to obtain, such as alcohol and chemical solvents. "Automobile accidents and stupid mistakes are the largest risks of marijuana intoxication," they conclude, and "people do not die from marijuana overdoses (as they do from overdoses of alcohol)." As for gasoline, glue, paint, cleaning fluids, and other solvents whose fumes are sometimes inhaled for their intoxicating effects, the authors categorize these "among the most toxic substances used for drug recreation"--and, they note, the ones most often used for such purposes by children under fourteen. These substances, they unequivocally declare, "should never be used by anyone under any circumstances, especially children."

It's appropriate that the book's longest chapter is devoted to marijuana, the most widely used and hotly debated illegal drug in our society. While they offer some cautionary notes about the long-term consequences of smoking pot and the risks of combining it with other drugs--particularly cocaine--Kuhn, Schwartzwelder, and Wilson present a strong argument that it is relatively safe and possesses definite medical benefits. In their view, its continued criminalization and demonization have engendered a skeptical attitude toward all warnings about the dangers of drugs. By relentlessly promoting the notion that pot is a "gateway drug" that inevitably leads to the use of more harmful illegal substances--a claim that contradicts what millions of marijuana consumers know from personal experience--authority figures have seriously undermined their own credibility.

Other categories of drugs that the authors examine in depth are alcohol ("a powerful drug" that "must be treated accordingly"); caffeine (a fatal overdose of which is "extremely rare, butÉpossible"); enactogens (synthetic chemicals that promote energy, altertness, and empathic feelings but can be lethal in heavy doses); hallucinogens (whose effects demonstrate that "one person's enlightenment can be another person's hell"); herbal drugs (made from plant matter and usually marketed as nutritional supplements); inhalants (nitrites and the highly dangerous chemical solvents referred to above); nicotine (an addictive stimulant that "increases attention, concentration, and [possibly] memory"); opiates (opium derivatives such as heroin and morphine, and their synthetic equivalents); sedatives (for which "the safety window between the effective dose and the lethal dose may be rather small"); steroids (which can indirectly cause death due to body-function changes); and stimulants (the most powerfully addictive drugs). The book also includes useful scientific-background chapters on the brain, how drugs work, and the neurological mechanisms of addiction, as well as a chapter on pertinent legal issues, an extensive glossary of street terminology, and a list of recommendations for further reading.

As evidence of the authors' familiarity with those segments of popular culture in which recreational drug use is taken for granted, Buzzed includes quotations from William Burroughs' novels, references to recent movies in which illegal drugs play a prominent role (Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction), and a mention of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia's death (a result of diabetic complications rather than his addiction to heroin). To enhance further the book's credibility and its appeal to young people who aren't likely to be swayed by the federal government's new anti-drug propaganda campaign, the authors' introduction is followed by a prefatory essay, appropriately titled "Just Say Know," co-written by college students Leigh Heather Wilson (the daughter of one of the authors) and Jeremy Foster. Complaining that "we are all being sold a bill of goods when it comes to recreational drugs," Wilson and Foster commend this volume for its reliability, its avoidance of "scare tactics," and its refusal to "insult our intelligence."

The cost of the "War on Drugs" is staggering--$17 billion for this year alone--and the vast majority of the money is being used to pay for law enforcement rather than treatment for people with drug problems. That figure reflects national priorities that the authors of Buzzed suggest are overdue for re-examination. "It is important," they write, "to try to put aside the emotion of the debate and look closely at the issues from a broad perspective, which includes pharmacological, social, and economic viewpoints."

Because of its usefulness in providing such a perspective, this book should be required reading for McCaffrey and everyone else with a stake in the issues surrounding drug use in our society. Predicting that the terms of this debate will undergo further transformation before these issues are resolved, the authors encourage us to "recognize the two principal factors that change attitudes and laws about drugs: culture and time."

--Tom Patterson

Patterson is a freelance writer who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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