Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Divining American pieties

I'm don't know everything there is to know about that region of the country, but here's what I heard from some people in the know about northwest Washington. On a plot of land where once there were fifteen farms, now there are four. You know the narrative: agriculture has become big business, and only the big businesspeople are in it anymore. Fewer farms mean fewer people on the land.

So, I asked my hosts up there, now that berries have become so big in the region and berrying doesn't require huge plots of land (as grain farming or raising cattle does here in Siouxland), why aren't there more farms instead of fewer? Why aren't more traditional (read Dutch Reformed) families staying on the land? Good night, they've owned the territory for a century already.

The answer I was told--again, I'm no expert--is that East Indians are buying the land when it becomes available. The highest bidders wear turbins, not wooden shoes.

Q. And how can they afford it when the locals can't? That makes no sense.

A. Because they work ALL THE TIME. They pack multiple families in single houses. They live frugally and get rich. In that region of the country, it's the East Indians who are most fully energized by "the American dream."

One can see the same dream in my neighbors, Mexicans, lots of them illegal, I'm sure. One woman told me her first job in Sioux Center was sticking her fingers into the skull of a just-slaughtered hog and jerking out the brain. I have no idea how much a packing house would have to pay some white guy to do that job, someone other than an immigrant.

I say all of that because Peggy Noonan's last column in the Wall Street Journal (August 7--"America is at Risk of Boiling Over") gets really serious about America's problems. "The biggest political change in my lifetime," she writes, "is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us."

I think Peggy Noonan is one of our culture's finest columnists quite frankly, but I think her fears arise from a half-truth. She's right about "our" no longer assuming our children will have it better than we did. I'm the son of a man who worked a factory job he tolerated but never once wanted for me; I had to go to college so I could have a better life.

Yesterday, my father-in-law told me that his grandfather, a Dutch immigrant at the turn of the 20th century, came to this country because he wanted farmland. If you have land, he used to tell his son, at least you can eat. He came to America to get land so his family would have food. He wanted more for his children than he had in the old country.

Peggy Noonan isn't wrong; I am different. I want the best for my children, but I never once thought about working my duff off just so that they would live a better life than I have. Nor did she, I'd guess. Never. If I've worked hard--and I hope forty years of classroom teaching is nothing to sneeze at--I've done so because I liked the job, even loved it, not because I was investing in a better life for my children. The only thing I've wanted for them is a good life, not necessarily a better life. I've got a good life.

Noonan is right. Things have changed.

But she's wrong in assuming that somehow the change is always destructive: "inner pessimisim and powerlessness," she says, "is a dangerous combination." Sure it is, but I don't find myself in that equation and neither do my Mexican neighbors, nor the East Indians buying berry land up in Washington. None of us are either pessimistic or powerless, quite frankly.

I'll certainly grant her this much: there are people who are pessimistic and powerless, and there are lots of them. She's not wrong here either--that fact makes things feel dangerous, as if this country is at risk of boiling over.

Just who does she mean by we? When she uses the collective noun "American," as in "Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did," who exactly is she talking about, because it's not my neighbors or the East Asians in northwest Washington. And it's not me either.

I'll dare to bet she's talking about lower-middle class white folks, the people raising hell at tea parties, the people who devour anything Glenn Beck drudges up, and ditto heads. Real Americans, Sarah Palin might say. They're angry because they think they're powerless and that makes them pessimistic.

Forty years ago already, Daniel Bell, in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism argued that the old 19th century, "American dream" paradigm--with its emphasis on the self-discipline, delayed gratification, and restraint--is very much alive as a doctrine of American life. However, amazingly, the old way of seeing things crashes head-on into a popular culture where such values as hard work and self-discipline are totally rejected (think Lady Gaga, the SuperBowl, Dancing with the Stars). That makes sense to me.

And things get even more thorny, according to Bell, because we're in the shape we're in because capitalism has worked. Seriously, in a global sense, it's made us all rich. Hard work created prosperity and prosperity killed off hard work.

Forty years ago in northwest Washington, come berry season, kids would be out in those strawberry fields forever, picking strawberries, little kids. Lots and lots of tuition money for Christian schools was earned, essentially, by child labor. In my own life, I worked harder baling hay than I did at any other job I ever had. I was a seventh grader.

Here's the story of white America--or so it seems to me: we've worked very hard for a better life, so hard we may have forgotten to work hard (think about those East Indians). But we have definitely got a better life. That's for sure. Nobody wants to give that up--me either.

Here's where I couldn't agree with Noonan more: maybe it's not going to get any better for all of us, for our children. Maybe so.

She thinks that's awful. I say, maybe living with something less than a dream isn't all bad.


Anonymous said...

Not to be too nit-picky, but Lady GaGa is not a great example of the rejection of hard work and discipline. In interviews, she is constantly talking about the years of hard work that went into building her brand, and the level of detail that goes into her productions is pretty astounding, especially for the pop world. Google "Lady GaGa hard work" and you'll see what I mean.

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