Gordon Gekko may have said that greed was good, but even more people attest to the fact that hard work is good. In fact, hang around any of those right wingers and you will certainly hear all about hard work, and how they did and not enough others are.
There is of course the requisite smugness. Right up there with “I trudged six miles to school every day through snow and rain” heard from the lips of our grandparents, we now have become accustomed to “my husband worked two jobs and I worked one, and took care of the house and raised four kids, just so they could have a better life.”
This is all to suggest that today’s whatever’s who are forced to ask for food stamps, Medicaid, housing allowances, unemployment insurance, and so forth are lacking in the moral fiber that “real” Americans like themselves were raised with and have taught their children.
Everyone knows of a cousin, or a neighbor’s daughter and son-in-law, or “those people who live down the block” who stand around waiting to be given things because they are too lazy to work. Anecdotal stories abound to “prove” that a whole lot of folks are just takers. In fact, the GOP these days makes no apologies for suggesting that when you give people stuff they just want more, and it creates a “culture” of expecting others to take care of you.
The whispers about the Affordable Health Care Law were loud in fact. “We have to stop this before people actually get it, because when they do, they will like it, and we’ll never get them to give it up.” This is a strange way indeed to argue that a law is so patently awful that people hate it. In fact Republicans know it’s just the opposite. Its rough start (not a bit different from the prescription law under Bush) aside, once it all got rolling people are thrilled. Nearly ten million more have health care, college kids stay on their parents policies, you can’t be rejected for a pre-existing condition, premiums are affordable. What’s not to like? Less than 3% can really claim that their premiums went up, and by and large (a) they could afford it, and (b) they had no real coverage in the first place, just an illusion of having insurance.
The real issue with most right wingers is not economic policies in general, but their unrelenting hatred of “those” people that they feel they are carrying. People like themselves (their tribe) work hard, and if times are tough they work harder. They feel those “other” people weren’t brought up that way, and why should they take care of them?
So work is a matter of pride, and you don’t have to go far to hear Republicans say that very thing.
But what is there about work that we should be proud of?
Where did all this come from?
A couple of places.
Once upon a time, there was the Catholic Church. It did a lot of things wrong as any group of humans likely will. One of them was to tie salvation to staying connected to the rituals of Mother church, such as attendance, confession, and the sacraments. Along came Luther and things changed. Work no longer became the means to salvation, but rather was an expression of the grace already given. It doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it was.
To Catholics, one expresses one’s faith by doing good work. To a Protestant, one is saved “elected” by grace, and working hard, being diligent, being frugal, being successful is a way to pick out those who are predestined or chosen. So if you want to impress people that you are somebody worth hanging with, then work hard so they will think God chose you.
Work becomes not a thing to do for others, but rather to prove something about yourself.
First coined by Max Weber, it became the cornerstone of the industrial revolution, and can fairly be said to have contributed to the growth and power of Western Europe and America. Gordon Gekko would approve. I said contributed, because plenty of experts could point to a variety of other things that contributed as well.
The other place is rather unexpected, and should (but does not) make the average fundamentalist shudder.
That is the concept of “survival of the fittest”.
Of course this comes straight from Darwin and was applied by him in a very different context. Darwin suggested that it is a natural given that if all other things are equal, the “fittest” genetic creature will survive ones that are not as gifted. They will be healthier, find more mates, and create more of their own kind that weaker, sicklier members of the species. Simple enough.
Herbert Spencer picked up the phrase and created what is known as “social Darwinism” a phrase that today is so widely misunderstood that it means just about anything you want it to, including the excuse for cut-throat economic policies, robber baron activities, deregulation, and so forth. Creationists of course don’t agree with the concept that some people are more genetically fit than others, but it has warped into the idea that those who work harder prove themselves to be “more fit” and are entitled to the fruits of their labor.
In other words, it is used as a bat by those who succeed to smugly look down upon those that don’t.
This, I believe is the general background form which we get this rather silly notion that work is somehow noble in nature. It has become the proof that we are good ourselves, a rather idiotic notion when you pare away all that clap trap.
Work should be that which causes the heart and mind to soar in delight. It should be the pursuit of things that bring joy to our hearts and minds, not leaving us so exhausted that we can barely manage a meal before falling asleep. Every person should have the opportunity to discover their talent and then have the chance to pursue it. To do this, people need a foundational support. Certain countries in Europe are now discovering this, and are reaching or have reached the point where they support their population in at least a minimum standard of living. Education through university is now free in some places. An annual income is provided in others. Health care is almost universally provided by enlightened nations worldwide.
Once upon a time in my youth, we saw the birth of great wonders (each generation of course does), and we dreamed of space travel, flying cars, and all sorts of modern conveniences. We also were told that one day people would work only four-hour days, and perhaps only four days a week. We saw those as advances, and were thrilled to think of the things we might all be doing with all that extra free time.
If we are God created, as so many of us do believe, it can only be for the pursuit of knowing, knowing ourselves, our worlds and thus our God. People cannot do this when they are working two jobs, raising families, with nary a moment to themselves but a few scattered hours on a Sunday, often spent in front of the television to just “tune out”.
There is nothing noble in work. It is the thing we do to afford the things we need and want and to provide the tiny space each week to unwind so we can return to the drudgery of work again on Monday. Work is what is needed and always will be to some extent I suppose, but it is not noble and spiritual. The people who tell you that usually are sitting back and watching you do it for them.
It is a convenient lie meant to keep the wheels of industry moving, keep your nose to the grindstone and out of the business of thinking about what life is really all about and for. It is meant to keep you at odds with your brothers and sisters in bondage to the mill.
It is why we all look, at some point to retirement, for finally we can spend our time doing what we want, thinking for endless hours about things that need thinking about. Sadly for too many it becomes the time to justify one’s life as meaningful when in fact it really wasn’t. We tell ourselves that the production of another generation is our meaning, but I rather doubt that is true, and that might well be the biggest lie of all.
We each matter, and we each have a right to pursue that which thrills us. We will work tirelessly at that which excites us. We will produce more and better quality and faster miracles when we can’t wait to get back at it. When we realize that, work will cease and engaging in our joy will move the world. Just think how fast robotics will progress when we have a good reason to find someone else to build that widget because we are busy creating our dreams? Just imagine how brilliant generations will become when raised by people who don’t take parenting for granted but find pure joy in the nurturing of a new mind.
Work noble? Seriously? No. Not at all. Stop buying into the lie.