Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A stochastic, episodic nature

So it turns out David Brooks has been holding out on us: he really did run across a working class white guy in the course of his voyage into the heart of whiteness—at least one of them ("Dignity and Sadness in the Working Class"). He was dignified and sad.

A few weeks ago I met a guy in Kentucky who’d lived through every trend of deindustrializing America.
He grew up about 65 years ago on a tobacco and cattle farm, but he always liked engines, so even while in high school he worked 40 hours a week in a garage. Then he went to work in a series of factories — making airplane parts, car seats, sheet metal and casings for those big air-conditioning fans you see on the top of buildings.
Leaving the family farm to work in a factory was a trend of deindustrializing? (The original one—old Jefferson tried to warn everybody, but they wouldn't listen.)

He’s in semiretirement now, but he hasn’t been able to take a vacation for four years because he and his wife take care of her elderly mother, who has trouble swallowing. He’s saved her life 10 times so far with the Heimlich maneuver, and they have to be nearby, in case she needs it again.
No wait, you can't blame deindustrialization for that. I'm not saying it's not bad luck. Let's see, if he grew up around 1951 he'd be what, 80-something? And he has a mother-in-law whose life he's obliged to save two or three times a year in that energetic fashion? That's asking a lot of a man that age, and everybody deserves a vacation. (Most likely he was born around 65 years ago and grew up somewhat later—is there a copy editor in the house?)

The worst thing that's happened to this man, and I really don't mean to dismiss or belittle it, is when he got modernized out of a job as a plant supervisor, instead of getting retrained. He never again had the feeling of being headed upward, it sounds like. He'd get another job without much difficulty but it wouldn't be a better job. It wouldn't pay more than the previous one and might pay less. He'd have lost his sense of making personal progress, or as Brooks puts it, twice at the heads of two successive paragraphs,

There is often a sad, noncumulative pattern to working-class lives.
...there is a stochastic, episodic nature to many careers.
There is often a sad, noncumulative pattern in (not "to", I think) the way Brooks sets up a sequence of sentences or paragraph openings, where he wants to say the same thing several times in succession but can't be roused to think of a different structure to do it in. And who has ever used the word "stochastic" instead of the normal "random" to apply to a human life? (I'm thinking perhaps some avant-garde composer, maybe Xenakis.)

He almost seems as if he's lamenting the decline of unions for a minute there—

In some professions as you get older, you rise to more responsible positions. And that was true under the old seniority-based work rules in factories..... But now [a]s workers get older, potential employers become more suspicious of their skills, not more confident in them.
But no, he has no idea that has anything to do with unions. Or that the reasons older employees get dumped or not hired, especially in right-to-work states like Kentucky, is that the bosses don't want to pay them for their experience, just as during the industrial revolution for 100 years before unions won changes, and seniority was invented. I'll bet you ten dollars he thinks the real problem here is the lack of civic religiosity, where everybody used to sit around saying the Pledge of Allegiance and then going bowling in duly constituted leagues, and the factory bosses just lost their sense of engagement in the community because of those moral relativists running around making folks of faith feel dumb?

Sure enough,

There are older people who feel unneeded. There are younger people who feel lost. Somehow these longing souls never find each other. I often run across people who have gone back to menial work in their 60s and 70s because they just want to get out of the house. When you ask them more questions, you find that they are devoted to home and work, but that they often don’t have rich connections outside these spheres.
Menial work! Like nobodies! Using their hands! Brooks affects to believe in the dignity of labor, or knowing how to do things like fixing the plumbing or baking bread (which factory workers, sadly, no longer know how to do, though factory bread, in fact, goes back to the Republican administrations of the 1920s), but in fact he regards it as a terrible thing, a humiliation, a confession of defeat. That's presumably why he doesn't suggest older people might like to volunteer for something, which might mean using your hands, feeling inferior, taking orders from some mean lady like Dorothy Day (he worships her at a distance, but wouldn't be able to tolerate being around her any more than he could have tolerated sarcastic Dorothy Parker). It's all lament for the imaginary past and the unmade connection:

There are older people who feel unneeded. There are younger people who feel lost. Somehow these longing souls never find each other.
Just unadulterated deploration, with no redeeming hope.

Wonderful stuff from Driftglass, if you see hope in the ability to laugh at David F. Brooks, and you know I do. And another piece coming later from me.

Here's something pretty stochastic:

No comments:

Post a Comment