Has there ever been a people that speechifies more about the joys and satisfactions of work and the work ethic, yet is so enamored of labor-saving devices?
American efficiency, organization, and prosperity has been an example around the world--at least since Henry Ford, half-genius, half-crank and all-American revolutionary, put the world on wheels. And was savvy enough to raise his workers' pay to unheard-of levels so they could buy the Model Ts they were cranking out on the assembly line, another American innovation.
A few kinks have developed in the American image since then, like the Great Depression. And occasional lapses in that once vaunted made-in-USA craftsmanship. Still, no other system seems to have responded so flexibly to the challenge, mystery and psychological thriller known as the science of economics.
Much like economics, the American attitude toward labor can be a curious paradox: simultaneous admiration and distaste. Surely no other civilization--if that's the right word for this American experiment--has labored so hard to make labor obsolete.
Americans long have sought to avoid labor that demeans: dull, rote, repetitive, unthinking work. The kind of brutish labor that will follow orders right out the window.
But we never tire of the labor that elevates and expands the human consciousness, that approaches a craft or art. Whether it was the Shakers in neat little colonies full of music and workmanship or Jefferson at Monticello, Americans have been fascinated with labor-saving devices. Inventing and perfecting them remains our favorite form of labor.
To equate labor with drudgery is a positively un-American habit of thought. The labor celebrated on this holiday is the opposite of drudgery. It is intended to set us free, give us self-respect, and is not to be confused with mere work.
Naturally, a day of rest has been set aside to honor labor. If we really loved work, we'd be working, not picnicking and taking that last dip in the lake. "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do," Mark Twain explained in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. "Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."
Whitewashing a fence can be either, depending on the psychology involved, as Tom knew. He and the Finn boy were American to Mark Twain's Missouri core. The hard kind of labor that requires muscle and bone may command our respect, but it is the inventive, imaginative kind that attracts our admiration, from Silicon Valley to the Research Triangle.
The assembly line and the efficiency expert are American inventions too, but they represent the dark side of our relationship with labor, the reduction of man to machine. For Americans, labor tends to be an activity rather than an identity, what we do rather than what we are.
Unlike Europeans, we tend to view labor as a means to an end, a phase that one passes through on the way to becoming another anonymous millionaire, certainly not "our station in life." This is too fluid a society for anybody to be assigned a permanent station in it.
Everybody's got something else going: The investment on the side, the private startup after business hours, the extra shift at the plant, the new invention or rock band that we're putting together out in the garage.
Class exists in this country much as it does in any other, but we don't like to acknowledge it, which may explain our remarkable social mobility. For myths shape reality more than the other way around. Our myth is called the American dream, with its goal of equal opportunity for all. If we don't believe in that dream, it'll never become a reality.
Maybe that's why, though ours is not a classless society, it also is not a class-bound one. Happy Labor Day.
Paul Greenberg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A version of this column ran on Aug. 31, 2014.
Editorial on 09/02/2018
Print Headline: A labor of love