Saturday, May 31, 2008

Of Skilled Labor, Technology, and America's Drive Towards a White-Collar Oblivion

And you tell me, over and over and over again my friend -
Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

- From the protest song "Eve of Destruction,"
As sung by Barry McGuire (Dunhill Records, 1965)
Words and music written by P.F. Sloan

HAMILTON, Ohio (ZP) -- His hands have witnessed their share of pain, of toil and labor.

Those hands of his have scrubbed brushes down to nothing more than a few stubbled bristles. They've painted homes and painted churches, I'm certain, mixed glossy coats for bathrooms in fine restaurants and applied satin finishes to schoolhouse ceilings. And each one of his fingers has pushed putty into nail holes, has been rubbed raw by sandpaper and then bleached by turpentine and mineral spirits.

I can't help but look at my own hands, the blisters and callouses of hard labor beneath a skin-killing sun long gone. I sit myself down on the curb, directly across the street from the bricks-and-sticks canvas upon which the painter works. Maybe it's just the midday sun, or the angles and intersecting lines of his scaffolding, or maybe simply the starched white coveralls, but for some reason I feel as if I'm witnessing the arcane magic that was once called The American Way.

And up on that scaffolding, he is the epitome of the American Man, the Workingman of Lady Liberty's precious womb, builder of the Great Republic's imperial palace ...

It is a grand sight, watching those hands move rollers across brick, witnessing those fingers working fresh paint into an old building, watching the rebirth of something ugly into something alive and glorious.

* * * *

It's what made this country of mine what it is, you know. That old American Way. It's almost extinct now.

All that toil, the hard work, through war and peacetime, through evils like slavery and indigenous genocide, through miraculous things like the drafting of the first great Bill of Rights, through universal suffrage, even the invention of the light bulb. It's how a nation of farmers and trappers, of pulpit-shaking preachers and warrior frontiersmen and gunslinging cowboys, rose up from our fields and factories to harness the power of the atom, to put men on the moon.

Ah, the last dinosaur of a simpler world. Who needs labor when it can be outsourced, imported, or simply invented by a reality TV producer? Survival is no longer a skill; it's a prime-time game show.

For a brief period, in the 20th century, the people of these United States were able to call themselves, as arrogant as it sounds, the Leaders of the so-called Free World. Now, well, we've become nothing more than followers of our own self-importance, trapped in a vicious loop of consumption and glut and greed.

That last dinosaur is all that remains of the hope of a nation. And when the value of a hard day's work finally dies on this continent, in this culture, our children and grandchildren will inherit nothing more than a Land of the Fat, Lazy, and Vain.

* * * *

That old American Way. It's almost extinct now.

Shed no tears, friends, for it was our so-called progress that killed our drive as a nation. We grew fat off of fast food and video game consoles from China. We liberated Europe from Nazi hegemony and Soviet communism and then came home to build our suburbs of conformity, our own race-baiting, class-divisive political machines, our own reflection in a pool of nation-hating terrorists and third-world enemies.

We did it to ourselves, in less than a century, unraveled the fabric of an entire nation's drive and respun it into nothing more than a security blanket of products and pop culture references. We tied capitalism to freedom, married that bastard called the Status Quo to individualistic expression, stitched the ownership of things into concepts like success, happiness, even love ...

It's a marvel that there are still men, in a world of digital workflow and corporate, cubicle-filled bread-and-circuses, who can do such things as simply apply paint to a dillapidated brick facade in the middle of a bustling downtown city.

* * * *

I smoke my cigarette, silent, look back up as my painter, this Laborous, Liberated God amongst the office-bound masses, my tanned reflection of a nation almost gone, directs his crew with those marvelously weathered hands.

"No! You get wrong paint! Go now get me... right color... out... truck."

His English is poor; his swearing, in Mexican Spanish, is perfect. And such a wondrous sound, the profanity of a tongue other than one's own! It's been a while since I've heard the word Gabacho (n., Spanish slang - dirty foreigner) used to refer to my own countrymen by a foreigner, in my own country.

He shakes his head and returns to trimming out windows. His apprentices, his very American laborforce, mumble to themselves as they climb back down the scaffolding. I'm not sure, so far away, if their bitching and moaning has to do with their error, or if these white boys are merely upset that a man with brown skin...

If it weren't for the trickle of immigrants we still allow into this country, we'd be dead by now. If it weren't for those who bring their skin tones and cultures and skills, their brains and reasoning and religion, with them when they come, hell, we'd still be a nation of fur traders, pilgrims, and prostitutes...

... And those scrawny peckerwoods would be flipping burgers for some clown in a suit, instead of learning a trade from a Chicano painter, too.

* * * *

I crush out my Marlboro, stand up and dust myself off. My jeans, I notice, don't get as beat up as they used to when I was a kid, my back doesn't ache as much as it did, and the dust, well, the dust on my jeans almost bothers me.

I was a stonemason's teenage apprentice once, and a carpenter, too. I learned to frame up load-bearing walls with my father and his crews, roasted beneath a molten Virgina sun in red-clay fields where homes were being built, family dwellings created, lives and landscape changed by the very hands of men and women.

But now...

I continue down the sidewalk I hear two middle-aged men, dressed in matching polos, khaki shorts, arguing over some season finale of some network television drama. I pass a woman yelling into a cell phone about how her laptop crashed, home she hasn't been able to check her MySpace page in days. I overhear a young boy begging some distant parent, again via cell phone, for money to buy some new video game.

Ah, the new, supposedly improved American Way.

Labor is to be done by migrant laborers, by those from trailer parks and impoverished rural areas, school districts almost intentionally left behind in the Information Age to allow for a whole class of people, separate from the rest of us and beneath our computerized abilities, to become our redneck slaves, our Mestizo scapegoats, and our broadcast media punchlines.

I was once a stonemason's apprentice, a carpenter-in-training. And if I hadn't gone to college, hadn't been one of the lucky ones with an escape route and a gift for passing the required courses in a bullshit college curricula...

* * * *

I will spend a minimum of forty hours next week, I tell myself, staring into an LCD screen and pretending that data I put into a little black box, that the information I transmit across fiber-optic lines and servers, really means something, that my hands are contributing to the world in the same way as the painters of buildings.

And I know, instantly, that I'm lying to myself. I'm just another dirty, lazy gabacho these days. My hands are as soft as a young woman's cheek, my body weakened by librarian's meetings and the World Wide Web, my soul tainted by the lack of manual labor's intellectual sunburn.

What world is this that we're making for ourselves, anyway?

- # # # -


Anonymous said...

"cubicle-filled bread-and-circuses"
... Nicely done.

America is definitely on the downward side of the slope. But I'm not entirely convinced that we can't turn that around. First, however we have to stop turning ourselves into Paris Hilton... We consume without producing anything of real value.

As librarians, you and I help people. We contribute to society by providing vital information to people who need it and often have no other recourse. Sadly, all bits aren't created equal and the bits that make people lots of coin aren't usually the bits that contribute to a better World, or enhance the lives of our fellow man.

It's madness! I know many highly educated people, professors and non-profit gurus who do good work yet they get paid a pittance... And I know ad execs who get paid like crazy for convincing people they need something that they don't.

... No Tears For Caesar.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

This is definitely one of your top pieces. I would not go so far as to label you as a lazy gabacho. I think what librarianwoes points out about librarians is certainly very applicable.

Best, and keep on blogging.

Anonymous said...

Jason, you write about very thoughtful things. I read your blog religiously, even if I don't comment... And this post is extremely relevant. We're at a crossroads in this Country. I hope that we have the courage to see what could be.

When I was growing up I thought that 1968 was THE year to come of age. I've since reconsidered. We are living in a time at least as important as that pivotal year.

America lies at the apex of realistic political thought. Sure, Thomas Moore was idealistic, but Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were realistic. Their experiment is a work in progress. At times, it's ugly. Other times it's a wonder to behold. What lies next?

It's a wild ride right now (thank you GWB - Not), but I haven't lost hope. I truly believe in America... believe that We are greater than the sum of our parts and that We will persevere. Perhaps not in the same fashion that we have, but We will evolve and ultimately for the better.

I wonder what Jefferson would think of you and me? LOL...

Anonymous said...

this is a freaky post.

Anonymous said...

There is something more. In my area, there are far more people who work with their hands than sit in an office shuffling paper that is destined to be ignored by the next higher up. And even those take their turns under the sun. I'm a college prof, but every summer I have the joy of being attacked by cattle, digging fence-posts, building, destroying . . . but I digress.

There isn't just a lack of labor; there is a distinct lack of critical thought. Those morons arguing over the latest TV drama probably have no idea what is going on in the world. They'll take their spoon-fed celebritisms and forget about the rest. Those few that pretend an interest get their talking points from red-faced mouth breathers on talk-radio and CNN, and never once question if their little hero is right or not.

That more than anything, that blind acceptance of the what few tidbits without making the slightest effort to find out for themselves, to say "hey, wait a second, that doesn't sound right."

But you're right . . . we've been killed by the American dream of a cubicle for every ass and two ulcers in every stomach.

EsotericWombat said...

From what I've been able to see, you never shy away from getting your hands dirty, and I mean, aren't the schools and libraries the last bastions of free speech? Surely as a school librarian...

But you make a point. If we've been the target of terror for being a "beacon of freedom and hope" or whatever it was that was said so long ago, then maybe there's a good reason we haven't been attacked since. Good read.

The ZenFo Pro said...

We consume without producing anything of real value.

That, my friend, hits the nail on the head.

Well, I think librarians would like to think that we're helping.

But I think at times some end up just going through the motions, paying for subscriptions and database access just because it looks neat, just add a proprietary search engine add-on to our online catalogues and sites rather than develop and adopt open-source products, etc.

Hey, thanks chica! Yeah, I'm kinda proud of this one, too.

Trust me. I tried to make it as unfreaky as possible, given the thoughts that were going through my head at the time (lol, I was on my way to a date when I left).

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