Sunday, December 07, 2014

`A Real Day's Work'

Prejudice is natural and best worn lightly, like a scarf rather than a coat. We are all prejudiced – some things irk us, others do not -- but that simple fact reveals little of importance about us. The imposition of our prejudices on others is another matter. No virtue is so easily and meaninglessly proclaimed as announcing oneself free of prejudice. Theodore Dalrymple writes in In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas (Encounter Books, 2007): “All virtues carried to excess turn into vice, and become manifestations of spiritual pride; so it is with prejudices, even the best ones, and so it is with open-mindedness.” 

Perhaps chief among my prejudices is a feeling of distrust of people who haven’t, as we say, “done an honest day’s work.” I don’t mean just the chronically lazy and those with an aggrieved sense of entitlement. I mean an aversion to true labor. This is rooted in childhood, as most things are. My father was an ironworker and, on the side, a welder who made wrought-iron railings. He was eight years old when the Great Depression hit, and it formed his worldview, if that’s not too high-falutin’ a term, and indirectly formed mine. People, especially men, worked. It formed you and you took pride in it. The other great influence on my father’s life was World War II, which also translated into a species of work. For four years he worked for the U.S. Army Air Corps, and in 1946 he went to work for the City of Cleveland. “Lazy” was probably my father’s supreme term of contempt and dismissal. I’ve made a living as a writer for almost forty years and sometimes think I have never worked. 

In 1974, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a letter to Eric Hoffer, author of The True Believer (1951) and by then a retired longshoreman. Hoffer had worked hard all his life, on the docks of San Francisco and as a migrant farm laborer when younger. He was self-educated, a distillation of the “self-made man,” a designation usually more bluster than truth. Moynihan writes: 

“So much of what you have written has about it the quality of revelation. Nothing has meant more to me than the passage in your article in The New York Times Magazine of October 20 in which you write `Marx never did a day’s work in his life….’ How can it be that in all these years of wondering what was wrong with that man, this one elemental fact never occurred to me. I shall never think of him in the same way again. And it is about time.” 

Hoffer and Moynihan demystify and handily dismiss the Official Spokesperson of the Working Class, along with most of the self-anointed intellectuals who never helped unload a cargo ship or perform any other exhausting and useful act of labor. Moynihan digresses into revealing autobiography: 

“I was raised, rough you might say, on the West Side of New York. After the usual run of kid jobs, at age 16 I went to work on the North River piers. It was the middle of the war and a person my age could get work—something unheard of in the years before. I spent a year at it: eleven hours a day, six days a week on Pier 48; ten hours on Sunday at Pier 50. Most of us were delirious with that much overtime. Again something unheard of through the years that preceded. About ¾’s of the way through, with the number of gangs doubled and tripled, they ran short of checkers and, being able to read, they made me one. Whereupon I found myself with a pencil in my hand and whatever else may be said of my life since, I have never let go. I joined the Navy when I was 17 and that was the end of the piers. But I have more than once said to myself that I haven’t really done a day’s work since. Not a real day’s work. This I think has been one of the sources of my immense regard for all you have written. You know what it means, and almost none of the others do.”

As a newspaper reporter I met and interviewed Moynihan twice during his years a U.S. Senator from New York. He remains the only politician I know who possessed an interesting mind and impressed me as honest, precise and eloquent when he spoke. He seemed to possess an extraordinary prejudice against bullshit. 

[The letter to Hoffer can be found on p. 359 of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (PublicAffairs, 2010).]


Dave Lull said...

Dear Eric Hoffer

Dave Lull said...

Populist Professor
by Bill Kauffman

Ben Compaine said...

In the 1980s Shoshana Zuboff, then a professor at Harvard Business School, followed the impact of automation on workers at a paper making plant. (Zuboff expanded that initial study into a book in 1988, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power). Paper manufacturing is a hot and noisy endeavor. Burly men spent their work day amid the machinery, manually turning wheels and thrusting levers to adjust the water/pulp mix and the rollers that the mixture passed through. At the end of the work day she found the laborers were dirty and tired. You may expect they would be delighted when the plant she was studying automated. Sensors replaced the judgment of the men on the line. Now, they worked in a quiet room where they monitored video displays. If a change to the heating or the mixture needed to be made, it required only the press of a button. They ended the day neither exhausted nor sweaty. But what Zuboff discovered in extensive interviews with these men (all men) was that they did not feel that they were working. Work to them—as it was to Hoffer and Moynihan and, it seems, to Mr. Kurp—must be physical labor, getting dirty and sweaty and deserving a beer at the end of the day. Pushing buttoms ina quiet room took away much of their self worth.

However, I think many readers here would differ with this as the sole notion of a hard labor. Doesn’t a teacher who spends her day on her feet working with 100 or more students, then grading papers and preparing lessons puts in a hard day’s labor? Or a journalist tracking down a story with multiple phone calls, online research, on site visits, then honing the words into a respectable article? Not a hard day’s (or night’s) work?

I agree that there are pockets of pervasive laziness, there are paid employees in almost any field who do the least they can to keep their job and—whenever possible—try to avoid work. But I can’t accept that only manual labor is hard work. It’s just one kind of hard work.

terryteachout said...

The trick, as I learned during my tenure on the editorial page of the New York Daily News, was to catch Moynihan in the morning. Once he started drinking, he was still charming but not nearly so interesting.