Views on politics and current events

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Robert Switzer's Opinion About David Brooks

David Brooks, Why Must You Be So Mean?
August 6, 2006

Rite-Lite New York Times columnist David Brooks recently punked a group of unemployed middle-aged men, giving them the full-bore Bobos In Paradise treatment.

David Brooks seems decent and likeable. Those Bourgeois Bohemians he wrote about in ‘Bobos In Paradise’ made great fodder for humor. That whole book was screamingly funny, though I’m not sure the people he lampooned actually exist.

Bobos are like Welfare Queens and Limousine Liberals, great rhetorical devices with little basis in reality. I’m a liberal. Most of my friends are liberals. We’re small businessmen, convenience store clerks, library directors and construction laborers. We’re not Volvo Liberals. We’re Piece-Of-Shit Used Car Liberals.

The unemployed middle-aged men were very real, however, and profiled in a New York Times article called ‘Men Not Working and Not Wanting Just Any Job’. The men profiled include a former steel industry union representative, and a six-figure electrical engineer, formerly employed by Xerox.

The steel industry guy, Alan Beggerow, now 53, fills his days playing the piano, reading histories and biographies, writing Western novels in the Louis L’Amour style, and writing book reviews on Amazon. Beggerow spent 30 years working for Northwestern Wire and Steel in Sterling, Ill., from 1971 until it closed in 2001. During the last three of those 30 years, Mr. Beggerow worked as a union representative on union-management teams that assessed every aspect of the plant’s operations.

There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that Beggerow will find another job in central Illinois even remotely comparable to the one he had with Northwestern Wire and Steel, a company to whom he gave the best years of his life. In return, Northwestern Wire and Steel discarded him a dozen or so years short of retirement.

When the best possible outcome of a job-search is casual labor, fast-food, or retail, I don’t think it should come as a shock that people will opt out and try something else, even if it’s a long-shot. Mr. Priga, the electrical engineer, calls it ‘looking for the home run’. Christopher Priga is an electrical engineer by training who worked in software engineering. A divorce in 1996 left him with custody of his three children. One of them had behavioral problems and to care for the boy he dropped out of steady work for a while, mortgaging his house to raise money and designing Web sites as a freelancer.

He re-entered the work force in 2000, joining Xerox at just over $100,000 a year as a systems designer for a new project, which did not last. In the aftermath of the dot-com bust, Xerox downsized and Mr. Priga was let go in January 2003.

At 54, it is extremely unlikely that Christopher Priga will land another six-figure software engineering job:
“I’ve been through a lot of layoffs over the years, and there is a certain procedure you follow,” he said. “You contact the headhunters. You go looking for other work. You do all of that, and this time around it didn’t work.”

A geek joke goes like this:
“What happens to engineers when they turn 40?”
“They’re taken outside and shot.”

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about the pitfalls of attempting to re-enter the white-collar workforce in late middle-age. Her book, Bait and Switch bluntly details the scams, humiliations, and disappointments that confront people over forty who find themselves back on the job market, usually against their will.

I don’t know the specifics of David Brooks’ background, but I’d be willing to bet that someone who grew up on Manhattan and attended the University Of Chicago knows little or nothing of what life is like for the working poor. For the working poor, the absence of job security and autonomy of any kind is absolute. You are literally out of control, buffeted by circumstance.

For Mr. Brooks, I recommend another book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, or if TV is his thing, the episode of 30 Days in which Morgan Spurlock and his girlfriend do the minimum wage shuffle for a month.

For Mr. Priga and Mr. Beggerow, life among the working poor is both the best and the worst that the job market can offer them. So who can blame them for looking for something else, another way out?

Meanwhile, Brooks is at his most tight-assed and nasty with this:

“Many readers no doubt observed that if today’s prostate-aged moochers wanted to loaf around all day reading books and tossing off their vacuous opinions into the ether, they should have had the foresight to become newspaper columnists.”

Or perhaps they should have had the foresight to grow up on Manhattan and attend the University of Chicago. Brooks, after all, managed to lift himself by his bootstraps all the way from Manhattan to The University Of Chicago.

And then there’s this:

“What I see is a migration of values. Once upon a time, middle-class men would have defined their dignity by their ability to work hard, provide for their family and live as self-reliant members of society. But these fellows, to judge by their quotations, define their dignity the same way the subjects of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory Of The Leisure Class defined theirs. They define their dignity by the loftiness of their thinking. They define their dignity not by their achievement, but by their personal enlightenment, their autonomy, by their distance from anything dishonorably menial or compulsory.”

From where I sit, Mr. Beggerow is taking some lemons and making lemonade. He’s working hard, has accomplished quite a bit, and he remains self-reliant. First and foremost, he’s survived 30 years in a steel mill, which, I’ll remind Mr. Brooks, involves surviving considerable physical risk. Second, he’s taught himself the piano as an adult. And third, he’s written two novels. Two more than Mr. Brooks.

Sure, it’s a long shot, but who knows, one of those two novels may sell. Or he may write another one that does. Piano lessons go for $45 an hour, and people look for piano lessons everywhere, even central Illinois. When the sure-thing and the worst-case are the same, why not go for the long-shot?

Mr. Priga may never earn a corporate salary again as a software engineer, but he is a man with considerable experience and intellectual resources. For him, the home-run he’s looking for may be a technology startup that would be lucky and thankful to have him.

The tone of Brooks’ column on the article tried for funny but came out nasty. The article itself is also puckered and acerbic. It’s almost like the authors are jealous of these middle-aged dudes, the techie and the blue-collar who had the stones to stand up and say, “Fuck it, hell no. I won’t go to work at WalMart. I’m better than that.” And then these old dudes had the further audacity to spend their days reading, writing and playing music.

These two guys remind me of Travis McGee, the John D. MacDonald character. McGee worked only when he needed the money. Once he accumulated a chunk of cash, he’d take a corresponding chunk of ‘retirement’. His theory was why wait and retire when you’re old and sick? Why not take an installment of that retirement now, when you’re still young enough to enjoy it?

The sad truth is that both Mr. Priga and Mr. Beggerow will probably find themselves at WalMart or worse eventually. But these two men, like most men over 50 may be only a colonoscopy or chest-xray away from a death sentence. They have worked hard and played by the rules all their lives and a brief respite has presented itself. They are truly alive now and living as men, probably for the first time in their lives. So I’m with them. I say go for it. And fuck David Brooks.

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