Monday, August 1, 2011

Invisible Romans & Invisible North Americans

A couple weeks ago, as I was driving to an appointment, I was half listening to an NPR interview with an economist. I didn’t catch his name but he sounded like one of those right-wing think tank types whose ideology swims in a warm bath of soothing, reasonable verbiage. The David Brooks approach.

He was asked about the idea of raising the retirement age as a way to reduce so-called entitlement spending. He told the interviewer that this was a great idea, because- and I confess that I paraphrase but this was the gist- “most people today have jobs like we do, sitting in an office, talking into a microphone. People don’t work as hard as they used to, like in factories.” Thus, workers should be obliged to carry on with this leisurely pace to age 68 or 70.

What was this man talking about? How could someone brought on to NPR as an authority be so utterly clueless about the actual working world? It almost sounded like a joke, but he was dead serious.

Let’s stipulate that, in one sense, he’s correct: fewer people are “working hard” because fewer people are working period. Particularly in factories. But as I traveled across the Canadian prairies last week, and spend a couple days in Milwaukee and Chicago this week, I see people working their butts off everywhere I look, even in offices.

The invisible working class is not a new phenomenon. And in contemporary North America, “invisible” is the wrong word anyway. It’s more precisely a willful refusal to see lives as lived by the vast majority.

Our media and culture are completely synched to the corporate fairy tale which controls our politics. Labor, when mentioned at all, is a parasite, a greedy extortionist or a union boss. We almost never get to see images of the actual people who keep the social and physical infrastructure standing and the economy running.

I’m reminded of Invisible Romans, one of my favorite books on the fall 2011 Harvard list. In it, Classics scholar Robert Knapp makes the surprising observation that everything we think of as “ancient Roman history” comes from the doings of the Roman elite- .01% of the population. How the ordinary laboring classes, housewives, slaves, soldiers and others lived, and the kind of cultural artifacts they created, has been lost or all but ignored. He does a wonderful job in this book of re-imagining real daily life in Rome, as opposed to the well-documented stories of Romans with microphones.

How will the history of the 21st century read a millennium hence? Will it include the taxi drivers, the hotel maids, the Tim Horton’s servers, the baggage handlers, the road repair workers, the bus drivers, the postal workers, the teachers, the ordinary North American workers plying thousands of trades?

If we are to avoid the narrative fate of the invisible Romans, we need more books about these people. It’s been a long time since Studs Terkel’s path-breaking Working, the quintessential oral history, though that book can always bear a re-reading.

And we need fiction that celebrates workers. We need a social democratic version of Ayn Rand, where wealth is created by the people who work, not the people who own.

I’m actually pretty optimistic that this sort of literary revival is already quietly underway. This summer I’ve been reading lots of Canadian fiction, and I just finished an extraordinary short story collection- Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod. Son of Alistair MacLeod, one of Canada’s premier writers, the stories are intelligent, gripping, and funny. They feature people and kids who haul bricks, make bike deliveries, build cars.

These are not didactic, socialist realist cardboard characters created to argue a position. On the contrary, they are sweetly intimate snapshots of lives we all know and recognize. Bonus: it's published by Biblioasis, one of the most interesting literary publishers around.

As they have so often in the past, books can lead the way out of this depressing ideological corner we’ve been backed into. If we have our eyes, our hearts, and our minds open, the millions of ordinary people who are keeping the whole show going will prove to be not so invisible after all.


  1. Any economist who claims people don't work hard is really saying more about what he or she does in life than about anything connected to reality. The fact that this guy was not aware of that is what really indicates that his thinking cap is up his ass. It's like the repeated argument that teachers only work the hours that they're standing in front of a classroom: totally asinine.

  2. Nice post, by the by. I will be checking out Invisible Romans.

  3. Agreed that NPR, WSJ and NYT have a tenuous grip on how the world works. Yes, school teachers work hard, but they don't work as hard, long or in as crappy conditions as pipeline welders, ship's pilots, or riggers, and of those three all have comparable training and apprenticeship periods to teachers yet only one is as well paid.

    I do think that the popularity of Mike Rowe's "Dirty Jobs" program on TV suggests that the people know the Three TLAs aren't speaking the whole truth.