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Mass Murder and the Square Deal
 

A story in The Washington Post last week suggested that America’s recent bout of mass murder might be, in part, a by-product of the severe economic anxiety and dislocation brought on by recession. Of course, if economic hardship led inexorably to mass murder, then Michigan and the Carolinas, home to the carcasses of the automobile and textile industries, respectively, would be depopulated by now.

Even so, it’s hard to ignore the timing—57 people have been killed in gun massacres in the past month—and there is a pattern of unemployment among the killers. I was particularly struck by the case of Jiverly Wong, the Vietnamese immigrant who gunned down 13 innocents and then himself in Binghamton, New York.

First, Wong had lost his job after the Shop-Vac factory where he worked, in Endicott, N.Y., closed down.

Second, Wong had been a resident of nearby Johnson City.

There was a time when jobs in Johnson City were as certain as a rising sun, and immigrants claimed a huge share of them. In the 20th century, Johnson City was the self-professed “square deal” town, its civic life flowing from the paternal bosom of shoe manufacturer Endicott-Johnson.

The company built rows of decent housing and made it possible for employees to buy their homes. It built parks and pools and a golf course for the recreation enabled by an eight-hour workday. It built a half-dozen lovely carousels for workers’ children to ride free of charge. It organized concerts, clambakes, and picnics. It provided health care and a profit-sharing plan to employees, one of whom grew so accustomed to sharing the wealth that he wrote an open letter to the boss wondering why workers had to share surplus profits with common stockholders.

In return for this bounty, workers were paid on the basis of productivity and were pointedly relied on to keep unions at bay.

At the top, as at the bottom, E-J was an affirmation of hard work, opportunity, and the calloused authenticity of the American dream. George F. Johnson, the company patriarch, had risen from the factory floor. After his employer, the struggling Lester Brothers Boot and Shoe Company, was taken over by Henry B. Endicott, a wealthy Boston manufacturer, Endicott elevated Johnson from foreman to full partner. Johnson, practically penniless but shrewd and industrious, paid for his ownership stake out of future profits.

And what profits! Endicott-Johnson wasn’t just a model of “industrial democracy,” it was a massive generator of wealth. Endicott’s investment reaped a windfall and Johnson became a multimillionaire. The company produced shoes at a ferocious pace during the two world wars, when it supplied the U.S. military with footwear. But even in 1936, in the throes of depression, Endicott-Johnson employed 19,000 people in factories around the “triple cities” of Johnson City, Endicott, and Binghamton, producing 175,000 pairs of shoes a day.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the decline known by countless industrial towns took hold, and the square deal came undone. American shoemakers found it increasingly difficult to compete with foreign competition. E-J succumbed to low-wage competitors in other hemispheres and was eventually sold. A few years ago, Endicott-Johnson disappeared altogether, leaving behind the ghosts of “industrial democracy” to haunt the streets of Johnson City and its environs.

More than five million jobs have been lost since December 2007; like the E-J jobs in Johnson City, many of those jobs are doubtless gone for good. For Jiverly Wong, 41 years old, unemployed, with limited command of English and a dearth of valuable skills, the fading towns along the Susquehanna River, like broken towns throughout the post-industrial Midwest, offered no obvious recourse.

“He was a nice boy,” a local woman said. “He had bad luck, he went everywhere but no good job for him.”

Wong was a mass-murderer and suicide. His type tend not to establish a string of causation that can be traced to the source of their madness. By way of explaining himself, Wong seems to have left behind little but incoherence. But it seems safe to assume that this resident of Johnson City believed he had never known the personal security or social equilibrium of a square deal. And he seemed confident he never would.

 

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