A brief reflection on society, peasants, and the “post-industrial” world
Occasionally I visit the poetry/literature site TheThePoetry, and this morning, while doing my early news read, came across this very well-written and passionate article by Joe Weil titled simply, “At National Tool.” Don’t be shocked by some of the language he uses–it might not past muster in Arizona, but it is entirely appropriate in the larger context of the point he making. At least, that’s my opinion (note, however, that I’m artificially sanitizing it in the quotes below…what that says about me, I don’t know, and at this hour don’t particularly care). Anyway, a lot of items resonated with me in his well-crafted rant on modern culture, among them this passage:
Americans expect jobs to be fulfilling. They think they have “careers.” They’ve forgotten it’s just a f***ing job and its meant to feed and clothe you–that’s it. It can’t kiss you. It can’t go to your father’s wake, and it sure as hell does not define character. Some of the worst scumbags I know are a success. I am Zen in this respect. We are corpses and success means very little if you remember first and last things and sleep soundly in the coffin of the truth. All jobs are good jobs if they keep you from starving to death and they don’t make you a murderer, a crook, or an overseer and contriver of someone else’s suffering and enslavement. Any job that contributes to the misery of the world is against God. It is also, and more importantly, against humanity.
Couldn’t agree more. And for the record, the fiction, promoted in some academic quarters, that in pre-industrial days happy peasants took pride in the work they did with their hands, is largely just that, a fiction. Ruskin, as I recall, was one such wishful thinker, and I’ve read some wide-of-the-mark Marxist analysis of Wuthering Heights that promotes the same nonsense regarding Heathcliff, of all characters. Funny how it’s usually the Marie Antoinettes of the world who create “peasant cottages” and dream of how idyllic it must have been to live in the country, or to live as “poor folk”, preferably in the days before industrialization. Forget the never-ending, back-breaking labor and lack of modern medicine and often sanitation (with all that these entail). And the myriad social injustices at every turn.
Ok, so Mark Twain is probably guilty of the same thing, in The Prince and the Pauper…You got me there. And I’d be the first to say that country life is healthier than city life. My friend Mike would say that all this is part of the “crisis of Modernity,” and I suppose he’s right in a sense. The problem, as I see it, is that in trying to pinpoint the symptoms, if not the cause, of this crisis, intellectuals created a past as mythic as any other past that has served as a cultural narrative. And Weil’s article is a great reminder that “we” have been sold some vision of labor and “jobs” that is at odds with the hard-lived experience of most laborers, and even more that our cultural health isn’t really any better than at the beginnings of industrialization.
We think we rid ourselves of the worst traits of the industrial revolution, but we really only did what a child might do if told to clean his room immediately: we swept all our mess under the bed, and hoped no one would notice. There is nothing clean or post-industrial about our new technological, post- mechanical world. We simply put the filthy aspects elsewhere and turn back the clock to a time before unions and pollution laws, and labor reform. Sadly, so sadly, William Blake’s chimney sweeper poem still makes sense:
And have gone off to worship their God and king
who make a heaven of our misery
From my sheltered grad-student world: Amen. Oh, and, while I don’t know to-the-minute what’s going on with that Arizona legislation mentioned above, a couple articles from InsideHigherEd and The Web of Language give an overview of that bizarre situation.
And for all that I just completely dissed the “idyllic pre-industrial country life” fiction, I do believe that living in the country is preferable to living in the city (as long as you’re within commuting distance of a city, that is!). Yes, I’m originally from suburban New Jersey; but, having lived for 5+ years, not just in the country, but in the wilderness, I’m not without experience in both worlds. In that spirit, I’ll conclude with this underrated Don McLean song that I’ve been hearing a lot lately: