A Book in Review

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‘ Fordlandia: ’ A Dream Deferred

By Kenichiro Treglazov


‘Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City’

by Greg Grandin

Metropolitan Books, 2009


Hubris is a shoeshine moralist's Shinola. Dilettantes decry the pitfalls of ambition, urging would-be visionaries not to overstep. Their morals do not teach but reproach.

Greg Grandin hints at these overtures in “Fordlandia”. His book is a history, almost a biography, of Ford's attempt to build a utopia along the Tapajos tributary in the Amazon. The pre-eminent manufacturer founded his colony as a rubber plantation. Over time, the site became a social experiment that should serve as prelude to a better venture, not a warning sign against noble risks.

“Fordlandia” documents the mogul’s successes well. His assembly line method of manufacturing gave every worker a place. Along with stable employment came shelter, healthcare, and a handsome day's wage. He hated unions with good cause; his company could provide their benefits without the violence and confusion of external political control. Ford sought to improve his world.

Grandin pairs these successes with social goals that seem more dubious in our culture of postmodern free choice. When Ford gave families homes, he expected cleanliness and inspected for it. When he gave them land, he urged them to garden. He offered a program of health, and he expected cooperation by regulating workers' diets, sleeping hours, hobbies, and sexual habits. For Ford, such controls were part of his effort to manifest a lost golden past, an American ideal.

Such mistakes are often made. Nostalgia is unhistorical, but its vision is not necessarily untrue. An idealized past is actually a vision for a right future.

While Ford appears not to have understood nostalgia as an illusion, he responded to it like a true visioniary. He did not rot in sentiment. He built what he dreamed: a society regulated for everyone's good health.

The project collapsed, of course. Ford distrusted experts and preferred the myth of homegrown expertise over education. Incompetence was Fordlandia's norm, so pests and leaf blight destroyed the rubber crops. He sent a foreman who knew nothing about the product or management, a fool who buried four of his children in the jungle creeper roots before slouching back to Michigan. Ford could not enforce American Prohibition because his land was under Brazilian jurisdiction, hampering his power to enforce order. And, most fatally, despite worshipful appeals from the town's residents, he never went to Fordlandia himself.

Such simple failures are easily remedied. Professionals loyal to the company should steer the project's particulars. Seasoned disciplinarians free from family entanglements should act as on-site lieutenants. The company should have complete sovereignty over its resources, without relying upon the permission of a shortsighted governing body. And, most crucially, Ford should have been physically present as an ideological overseer.

Perhaps Fordlandia was Ford's attempt to atone for his sins. He romanticized the America that his industrial process decisively destroyed, not unlike how innovators of the Internet now advise governmental panels on controlling its use. We should expect Grandin's moralizing tone in these matters. Postmodern pundits love historical irony; it supplies their writing with a theme where their imaginations find none.

“Fordlandia's” true value is not as a freak show marvel to trot into conversation at cocktail parties. The work serves as a foundation for fixing what went wrong.

Some dreams are prelude to waking realities.

- Kenichiro Treglazov


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