Politics & Policy

The Lotus Eaters

"We will return no more."

One of the more thoughtful takes on the Dick Cheney “Quailgate” incident was offered by The Economist. They looked at hunting from the class angle:

The proportion of the population that goes hunting has been shrinking for the past 20 years. The number of hunters fell by 7% in the decade ending in 2001; the number of small-game hunters fell by 29% …. The biggest decline in hunters is taking place among the working class–among the “Deer Hunter” crowd in the small towns of the north-east, the rednecks of the South, and the cowboys of the West.

Well, we all know what the cowboys of the West are up to nowadays, thanks to Brokeback Mountain and Willie Nelson. To judge from some recent public grumbling by Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR… well, let the man say it himself: “We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence.” Northeastern deer hunters can still be found, but as The Economist’s numbers show, they are slowly fading away.

As an English small-town boy, I feel no surprise at hearing that hunting has a class aspect to it. I am old enough to recall seeing adult males from my street, railroad and brewery workers mostly, walking along in the direction of the local rookery with shotguns under their arms, with the intent to get some free game-pie fillings for their families. Meanwhile the local gentry would be gathering outside a nearby village pub, mounted and liveried, to enjoy a stirrup cup before setting out across the fields after some unlucky Reynard.

It all seems long ago and far away now. Those shotgun-bearing neighbors would not make it out of their front gates today before being clubbed to the ground by Tony Blair’s Compassion Police. The scarlet-clad upholders of England’s ancient fox-hunting tradition can similarly expect to be dragged from their mounts and kicked senseless by enforcers of Tony’s caring, classless society. (Supposing said enforcers can spare the time from more urgent crime-fighting tasks–handcuffing and booking perpetrators of anti-Muslim “hate speech,” for example.)

Here in the USA, the decline of hunting, or rather the transformation of hunting from a thing that working-class guys do in their spare time to one that fat old millionaires do to network and assert their status, has not been imposed from above by parliamentary virtuecrats, as in England, but has seeped up from beneath, driven by changes in habits, attitudes, and opinions about what constitutes a good life. It is in fact just one aspect of a much larger phenomenon, one that has yet to be properly documented: the decline of the American working class.

That is also the context for this recent story out of eastern Kentucky:

Citing a declining work ethic and drug problems among Eastern Kentucky workers, a Pike County coal company has asked the state mining board to help make it possible to hire non-English speaking miners. … A document distributed at a late December board meeting by Sidney Coal Co. president Charlie Bearse struck a raw nerve in some quarters for the degrading terms it used regarding Kentucky miners. “It’s common knowledge that the work ethic of the Eastern Kentucky worker has declined from where it once was,” said the document.

“Non-English-speaking miners” is of course a euphemism for illegal immigrants from Mexico:

[UMWA official Steve] Earles said his first question for Hispanic mining applicants would be whether they are in the country legally. Probably not, said Marta Miranda, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University. About 80 percent of the Hispanics in Kentucky are undocumented, she said; exactly the type of worker desperate enough to work in the mines.

Is coal mining another job that, as our president says, Americans don’t want to do? Or just a job that American employers, seduced and corrupted by the federal government’s disinclination to enforce the nation’s immigration laws, don’t want to pay decently American wage rates for? Something of both, would be my guess.

When you start looking around, in fact, the number of different kinds of work that Americans no longer wish to do is quite remarkable. I am using “work” there in the broadest sense, to include not only paid employment, but unpaid activities that help to keep the world going round. Housework, for instance. One development I have noticed in the last few years of suburban living has been the rise of house-cleaning firms to service my modestly middle-class neighbors. It does not need superhuman powers of observation to deduce that most of the workers involved are from points south of El Paso; nor is it any terrific hypothetical stretch to suppose that the proportion of “undocumented” persons among them is similar to that quoted above for the Hispanics of Kentucky.

Somerset Maugham once boasted that he never did anything for himself if he could pay someone to do it for him. There is something in that we can all respond to–heck, I don’t care much for housework, either. Given sufficient money, though, and/or a sufficient supply of dirt-cheap human labor, the Maugham principle leaves very few activities for human beings to occupy themselves with. It reduces us, in fact, to lotus eaters. Life of necessity involves a certain amount of grunt work. Much of that work is physical, some of it unpleasant and even dangerous. Life lived without that component, though, is lacking something important. If you tackle the grunt work in the right spirit, you will find strange rewards and satisfactions in it.

Coal-mining and housework are not the best advertisements for this argument, though I do believe they fall under its scope. A better one, perhaps, is child-bearing. Here is another job Americans (and, as obsessively documented by my colleague Mark Steyn, the people of the postindustrial West in general) do not any longer much want to do. It’s messy, painful, slightly dangerous, and injurious to our looks. As a culture of fastidious, cowardly, security-conscious narcissists, this is unpleasing to us. Hence the population crash afflicting prosperous and sophisticated nations.

Or take DIY. Four or five years ago I noticed that the standard home-improvement textbook on sale at my local Home Depot had a Spanish-language edition stacked alongside it. I have watched with interest as, over the years, the English-language edition’s pile got shorter and the Spanish-language one’s longer. I expect that Home Depot will eventually discontinue the English-language edition. Who will need it, when the English-speaking home-makers of America have all sunk into lotus dreams?

Well, a few old farts like me will need it. I have just finished a modest home-improvement project of my own, that has occupied me for many months. During those months, though I couldn’t give the project much time, it was never far from the front of my mind. Writing tasks (including a book), family issues, summer-travel plans, problems with the kids, financial matters–all took their turns; yet my default thinking all through that period, my ground state, as it were, to thoughts of which I always returned with eager pleasure, was my project. Carpentry, plasterwork, painting, the hanging of doors and framing of windows; I find all this grunt work immensely satisfying, and wouldn’t mind doing it for a living, if I were more efficient and knowledgeable about it.

This, however, is an old fart attitude. My son, a lively and intelligent boy, with all the energy and imagination a ten-year-old should have, displays no interest in my handiwork. He and his sister will grow up expecting to have someone do that kind of thing for them. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about this. It’s in the air, part of the deep tidal changes that move a human society from being like this to being like that.

I remember being a ten-year-old myself, spending hours watching my next-door neighbor, a butcher by trade but an amateur cabinet-maker by inclination, manipulating his saws, planes, chisels, and spokeshaves. My kids won’t even know what a spokeshave is, and won’t care. My neighbor was a keen gardener, too, and also a war veteran. There was nothing much unusual in 1955 about an ordinary working man of little education knowing the arts of soldiering, gardening, butchering, and cabinet-making. I suppose this man’s grandchildren occupy themselves with watching TV, day trading on their computers, and working out their income taxes. I suppose my kids will do likewise. Perhaps they will be happy, but it looks to me like lotus eating–a flight from humanity, from the basics of human existence.

An economist would of course pooh-pooh my doubts. Look (he would say), here’s how it goes. Once upon a time we were farmers. We ploughed fields, made wagons, shod horses, tended livestock, and had five or six kids per family. Then we were factory workers, putting things together, making and using machines, figuring out electrical circuits, having two or three kids. Now the world runs on information, so we’re all “symbol manipulators”, trading commodity futures, parsing laws, persuading each other to buy things made abroad, and having zero to one kids per family. That’s how it is. The world changes. Get over it.

Probably the economists have a point. Probably there are ineluctable forces at work here. Perhaps, as proponents of the “singularity” hypothesis, argue, human nature is about to be transformed by us human beings ourselves on a scale vastly greater than anything that stumbling, bumbling old Ma Nature has been able to accomplish this past 50,000 years, so that worries about us losing touch with our humanity will soon come to seem quaint, or perhaps just incomprehensible. Probably all that one can say about these developments is that one likes them, or not. All right. Put me down as a “not.”


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