Friday, October 21, 2005

American Prospect Online - ViewWeb

There was a time when a "liberal" was something most people -- even some conservatives -- wanted to be. On the stump in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower said "we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress." Eight years later, Richard Nixon quoted FDR's definition of a liberal as "a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life," and said, "It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him."

But when Republicans began to go after liberalism, Democrats cowered in fear, not only trying to distance themselves from the term but embracing the idea that a "conservative" is a great thing to be...As part of a solution, many on the left have decided to start with a clean slate, ditching "liberal" in favor of "progressive." As a strategic move, this has much to commend it. Recent American political history has made it hard to argue that the root of "liberal" -- liberty -- belongs more to the left than to the right.

It depends what you mean by "liberty"--or perhaps what kind of liberty matters. The kind of liberty that matters to most writers who concern themselves with these issues, whether on the left or right, makes no difference at all to most people. Freedom of the press? How many journalists are there--and how many people who have any interest in serious news or opinion? Freedom of speech? How many people care about anything beyond gossip, shoptalk and the minutia of daily life? Business owners balk at the constraints imposed by the state--the rules and regulations about workplace safety and fair hiring practices and the burden of paperwork that undermines their liberty to do business as they please. But how many people own businesses?

People who construe liberty in these terms are highly privileged: they don't realize the real constraints on most people's freedom--poverty and drudgery. In the most fundamental sense liberty is just the absence of physical constraint. Most people don't have that privilege: work for most means being physically constrained, being confined to a small space--at a desk, behind a counter, at a check-out stand, at best, in a room. You punch in in the morning and there you stay--every day like a long plane flight--until you punch out. Most people have little choice about the work they do. They're also mentally constrained, doing repetitious tasks that make it impossible to think about anything else--inputting data, dealing with customers, answering phones.

Outside of the privileged few who have, by dint of dumb luck, managed to avoid "real work"--like me--this is life and there is no way out. I know this because, having been a bad girl in high school I ended up working for half a year as a clerk-typist at a bus company, until my mother bought me into an expensive college for rich underachievers. I was 17--some of the girls who worked with me were not much older, but they were dead. They were married, trying desperately to get pregnant--their ticket out. I listened to their conversation day by day (they wouldn't talk to me because I'd gotten into a political argument about the war in Vietnam early on). They had no aspirations because there were no options for them--the only career ladder lead to Office Manager, the position of Miss McCauley, an elderly spinster, occupied. Who wanted that? They didn't even want to travel. They just wanted out. There was nothing to learn, nothing to accomplish, nothing to make, no way to improve or achieve. Even going fast made no difference: when I finished my work and asked for more they laughed at me: "sort paper clips and look busy." That is what real work is.

My mother plonked down her money for tuition so I got out. But that is the only reason I got out--I was no different from any of them apart from simply being richer. When I got to Lake Forest College I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I didn't have to spend my entire day at a desk in one room. I didn't have to spend my entire day filing cards, stamping tapes and trying to look busy when I was done. And the only reason I didn't was because my mother had money--I took that to heart and it made my politics.

The whole aim of liberalism is to see it that people have options--that no one is stuck doing the drudge work I did permanently because they don't come from rich families. The market won't make that happen--that is simply an empirical fact. If my mother hadn't bailed me out I couldn't have worked my way though school as a clerk-typist for Intercity Trans. Co., Inc. I couldn't have afforded the tuition making, as I did, $60/week; I wouldn't have had the time to go to classes, much less study. I wouldn't have had the energy to do anything besides work--when I came home, I just went to bed and cried myself to sleep.

Liberalism is about liberty--real liberty: the provision of real options for people so that they don't have to do jobs like this if they're prepared to make the effort to get education and training.


pdf23ds said...

One of the best lessons my father taught me was an appreciation of my privelege in this matter. He sent me to work at McDonald's for three months, three of the most draining and boring and even depressing months of my life. Now I work in the computer industry, something I can only do because I was raised in a good environment.

I think technology has the potential to eliminate the need for a lot of these more plebian jobs, but we do need to be aware that as long as there's easily exploitable labor available, business aren't going to choose the tech route until it's cheaper than a human.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the poor have far fewer options than the rich, and that this is an injustice, but it's more complicated than this.

Some of the best jobs on this planet involve sitting at a desk in a room. The key thing is what you're doing there. A friend of mine who is a genetics researcher tries to advise people interested in science not to take druge jobs in labs, because he says that if you don't understand what's going on you're going to find it no more interesting than being a clerk in a warehouse. But the physical conditions of the work is the same. Digging fossils in a desert or a jungle gave is probably as physically unpleasant as construction work -- but it's fascinating.

And as for being turned off, lots of people in law school and medical school hate it -- they're just there because their families want them to be.

bottom line is: you have to choose you own life. It's the education that makes the real liberty, not the fact you spend all day in the same room or digging in the hot sun.

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