Daily Archives: June 19th, 2011

Ribbon-clerks and Soldiers

Lewis Lapham is always a good Sunday read and this one is particularly good. He wanders around through the annals of servitude and debt to find “the lost battalion of America’s unemployed”. It’s a tough choice, but two quotes stand out as he shapes an American dilemma:

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing” ~Teddy Roosevelt

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” ~Woodrow Wilson

At this point, ‘putting’ Americans back to work may be a more dynamic issue than our national obsession with terror. I think it is. And drawing from the history in this piece, Lapham’s forte – the options being considered for America’s jobless may come to mind. Just the word ‘putting’ in “putting to work” tends to shift control from the workers to Woodrow Wilson’s “small class of persons deserving of a liberal education” which is called to question in practice and theory. Is the work of the middle class really mindless? Is the kind of work regular Americans do “a substitution of what is animal for what is human”? Those are pretty chilling thoughts. Cutting back on corporate domination of the workforce and helping, ‘allowing’ the American people viable choices for independence, reasonable ways to create their own businesses and hire their own employees again, might be a healthy option – and one we should find ways to support. Because, frankly, in the middle class we are not chopped liver. We ARE America; we are the tax base and we are the dollar. Everybody else is still technically a side dish.

What’s lingering for me, is that unemployed Americans are not being politically framed as “a body of fellow citizens” wanting to work to provide themselves with a decent living. They are a statistical noose tightening around our necks, 25 million invisible lazy people who are failing to contribute to the consumption and borrowing that have brought us to where we are now. Where policy dictates, attitudes shape policy.

I think as progressives engage in public policy around the country, people are finding they have more choices, more power, and they’re expanding past the old black and white offerings … it’s contagious. So, who knows? Maybe America’s children will end up having employment choices other than to be a Walmart ribbon-clerk … or a soldier.

The Servant Problem by Lewis H. Lapham