Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I guess I should be thoroughly appalled at David Brooks's latest column (read it free here), in which he bonds (or thinks he bonds) with a trucker at a Virginia diner. The column does get icky -- Brooks sees the trucker as Elemental Man, all boots and country music and straight talk, but, well, my father was a trucker and, like Brooks's trucker, he really did enjoy a busman's holiday-- when he wasn't driving, you could usually find him in the driveway with his head under the hood of a car he'd just bought. I'm not sure my father "found in trucking the activity of his essential nature," but he sure liked internal-combustion engines. (He didn't wear cowboy boots or listen to country music, however -- he was from Revere, Massachusetts, after all -- and, he didn't have "a flat, never-surprised way of talking," for the simple reason that he was Italian-American, and Italian-Americans don't hide their emotions.)

I'm only somewhat appalled by Brooks's column because I'm interested in the sociology that fills out the second half of it. He cites a book called The Dignity of Working Men by Michele Lamont, who's now at Harvard: according to Brooks, Lamont says the working men she studied

are more likely to understand the social hierarchy on the basis of who can look out for themselves, who has the courage to be a fireman, a soldier or a cop, who has the discipline to put bread on the table every night despite difficulties.

Which means they don't like people who work at desks:

When Lamont's [blue-collar] subjects looked at professionals and managers, they didn't necessarily see their social superiors. They saw manipulators. They defined themselves as straight-talking, shoot-from-the-hip guys. People who worked in offices, who worked by persuasion, were dismissed for being insincere, for playing games.

This is why class resentment in the U.S. is so complicated, despite inequality and lagging wages. When it comes to how people see the world, social and moral categories generally trump economic ones.

This is why successful populist movements always play on moral and social conditions first, and economic ones only later. This is why they appeal to the self-esteem of the working class, not on any supposed sense of victimization. This is why their protests are directed not against the rich, but against the word manipulators -- the lawyers, consultants and the news media.

Brooks says, "[S]uccessful populist movements ... appeal to the self-esteem of the working class, not on any supposed sense of victimization." Really? I don't see how the two are separated. Did the labor movement avoid talk of being screwed by Capital? For that matter, did George Wallace avoid talk of being screwed by pointy-headed intellectuals? And I won't even get into Hitler.

But maybe Brooks is right (and Lamont is right) about the fact that blue-collar workers see us white-collar workers as insincere manipulators; maybe that's why it's easy to turn lawyers, consultants, and journalists into villains.

But why aren't the tycoons also seen as insincere manipulators? That's what they are, after all; the rest of us are mostly acting sincere and manipulative on their account.

I'd say it's because the rich and powerful are simply invisible, or at least aren't seen as they really are; truckers and other blue-collar workers may deal with a middle manager now and again, but the boss is a remote, mythical figure, seen mostly through the filter of PR. We're told our way of life depends on capitalists because they "generate wealth"; we're immersed in the myth of tycoons and CEOs as benevolent providers of jobs, and as risk-takers. If you're blue-collar and you hear that enough, I suppose you begin to think of the rich as men "who can look out for themselves, who [have] ... courage ..., who [have] the discipline to put bread on the table every night despite difficulties."

In fact, of course, capitalists are rarely if ever risk-takers, in the sense of putting everything in their lives on the line -- once you get to a certain level, you can't possibly go broke the way an ordinary person can, even if, on paper, you're millions of dollars in debt. Yet risk is what we associate with them.

And why aren't mid-level paper-pushers seen as people with "the discipline to put bread on the table every night despite difficulties"? By the way, it isn't just the guys Lamont studied who believe that white-collar workers are lesser moral beings -- so does Brooks. He says of his trucker:

He has one of those hard jobs, like mining and steel-working, that comes with its own masculine mythology and way of being in the world. Jobs performed in front of a keyboard don’t supply a code of dignity, which explains the spiritual anxiety that plagues the service economy.

If I'm reading Brooks right, he's saying we don't get our hands dirty, so our work is meaningless and we know it. He's trying to be more blue-collar than the blue-collar guys -- he's just dismissing out of hand the possibility that anything we do matters, or that any of us could possibly care about what we do or how we do it.

Brooks has been known to sing the praises of CEOs (at least the ones who don't live in big coastal cities) as exemplars of old-fashioned virtues. Their white-collar underlings, by contrast, apparently are just all worthless, no matter where we work.

If that's what Brooks thinks, I guess he's bonded with blue-collar workers more than you'd imagine possible. The problem is, he should know better.

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