Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 13 of 14)

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter of Part Six (2013) of Janesville (Chapter 54, A Glass More Than Half Full).

Goldstein’s 54th chapter describes a 2013 dinner of Forward Janesville (a local “business alliance hell-bent on reviving the city’s economy”). Someone at Forward Janesville, it turns out, must have read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and thought he or she were reading scripture, so sure do they seem to be in their boosterism:

Each table is covered with a heavy sand-colored tablecloth, and at each place setting is prime rib with hollandaise and, as a party favor, a clear tumbler with green printing that says, “We See the Glass More than Half Full.”

While some in town scoffed at the slogan that [banker] Mary [Willmer] came up with early in Janesville’s economic crisis—that everyone needs to become ambassadors of optimism—Forward Janesville embraced it. Exuding optimism has become central to Forward Janesville’s credo and its strategy. The organization now has a cadre of volunteer “good-will ambassadors,” who attend ribbon cuttings and visit every Forward Janesville member at work at least once a year.

John Beckord, leader of Forward Janesville, shows a video during the dinner, so very precious that it’s delightful:

To begin this evening’s program, before Paul [Ryan] speaks, John Beckord, Forward Janesville’s president, takes the stage and introduces a video. The video was made for this occasion, and its purpose is to deride what John calls “um, a pervasive, negative attitude in the community, especially anonymous online commentators.”

“The Crabby Bloggers” is the video’s title. It juxtaposes upbeat statistics about Janesville’s economy with a cartoon that features furious typing and grumbling by blogging nay-sayers. It celebrates “a resurgence in employment opportunities,” showing that 1,924 jobs have been created in Rock County by forty-one companies since the start of 2010.

Goldstein quickly sets the record straight: “neither the video nor John mentions that the county still has 4,500 fewer jobs than when GM announced it was closing the plant. And when the video highlights the opening this month of the Janesville Innovation Center, built with a federal grant and city money to provide office and manufacturing space to nurture start-ups, it gives no hint of the scant interest so far among fledgling companies in renting space in the center.”

Imagine someone so dense that he would think that the video would be persuasive to anyone not already committed; indeed, imagine those already committed who would be so dense to remain committed after seeing the video.

Voltaire is credited with once contending that he prayed to God that his enemies should be ridiculous, and God granted the request. (“I always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: ‘O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!’ God granted it.”)

(I’d not describe Beckord as the enemy of bloggers or blogging, but one sees the point. Beckord’s just perfect for the role of not-quite-up-to-it adversary. It’s almost as though a blogger in Janesville secretly picked Forward Janesville’s president for the role.)

Goldstein explains:

If John and the “Crabby Bloggers” video and Mary herself attest to certain headway in Janesville since the depths of the Great Recession, they attest to something else, too: an optimism gap that divides these crusaders for economic development with the experiences of many other people in town….

And here is another glimpse at the gap between Mary and her fellow optimists versus the rest of town: a survey has shown that nearly six in ten people think that Rock County will never again be a place in which workers feel secure in their jobs, or in which good jobs at good pay are available for people who want to work. Most of the rest think that returning to such a place will take many years. Just one in fifty believes that Rock County has returned to the job security—or to the good jobs at good pay—that it used to provide.

Overall, just over half say that their household’s financial situation is worse than when the recession began. Yet among people who lost a job—or live with someone who did—nearly three fourths now say that they are worse off.

As it turns out, even the matter-of-fact style Goldstein uses to great effect seems polemical when the truth is so plain:

Tonight, the job losers and the pay losers are not in the banquet room, tucking into tulip glasses of strawberry and chocolate mousse for dessert as Mary is onstage, saying that, since the dark, stunning days right after the plant closed, sales tax receipts have been rising and industrial vacancy rates falling. The progress this community has made, she says, is phenomenal….

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78, 9, 10 11, and 12.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 14 of 14).