Tuesday, August 14, 2007

TimesSelect Truck Stop Confidential

By DAVID BROOKS

Published: August 14, 2007


He talked about the time two young women rear-ended him doing 110 miles per hour in a Camaro (they survived), about the dangers of marrying your secretary, about the introduction of power steering and about the two stints in the Army that interrupted his life on the road.

Karl Marx once observed that “Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature.” Here was a guy who had found in trucking the activity of his essential nature.

I don’t know what came first, the mystique of trucking or the country music songs that defined the mystique, but this trucker had been captured by the ethos early on and had never let it go. He wore the right boots and clothes. He had a flat, never-surprised way of talking. He didn’t smile or try to ingratiate.

He has one of those hard jobs, like mining and steel-working, that comes with its own masculine mythology and way of being in the world. Jobs performed in front of a keyboard don’t supply a code of dignity, which explains the spiritual anxiety that plagues the service economy.

As the trucker spoke, I was reminded of a book that came out a few years ago called “The Dignity of Working Men,” by the sociologist, Michèle Lamont, who is now at Harvard. Lamont interviewed working-class men, and described what she calls “the moral centrality of work.”

Her subjects placed tremendous emphasis on working hard, struggling against adversity and mastering their craft. Her book is an antidote to simplistic notions of class structure, because it makes clear that these men define who is above and below them in the pecking order primarily in moral, not economic terms.

People in other classes may define the social structure by educational attainment, income levels and job prestige, but these men are more likely to understand the social hierarchy on the basis of who can look out for themselves, who has the courage to be a fireman, a soldier or a cop, who has the discipline to put bread on the table every night despite difficulties.

When Lamont’s subjects looked at professionals and managers, they didn’t necessarily see their social superiors. They saw manipulators. They defined themselves as straight-talking, shoot-from-the-hip guys. People who worked in offices, who worked by persuasion, were dismissed for being insincere, for playing games.

This is why class resentment in the U.S. is so complicated, despite inequality and lagging wages. When it comes to how people see the world, social and moral categories generally trump economic ones.

This is why successful populist movements always play on moral and social conditions first, and economic ones only later. This is why they appeal to the self-esteem of the working class, not on any supposed sense of victimization. This is why their protests are directed not against the rich, but against the word manipulators — the lawyers, consultants and the news media.

The trucker I met Saturday in Virginia not only believed in the American Dream, he believed he had achieved it. He owned his own truck. He owned a nice house in Texas on a lake near the Louisiana border. His brother owned five trucks.

He probably drew certain conclusions from the way I dress and talk. But if he was at all curious about what I did, he didn’t show it, or didn’t want to veer off into topics where he wasn’t in control. Instead, he talked about the things any guy would want to put at the center of his life: highways, engines, hauling, dogs and food.

I didn’t ask about the wives.


7 comments:

visitor said...

But won't Brooks be the first one screaming that American kids are not becoming scientists or engineers and the lack of parenting is to blame? Can a truck driver make a good parent, or one that can raise a scientist?

Anonymous said...

my old man breaks concrete for a living. my brother and i also did the same to save for college. he is an exec for a Fortune 500 company and i have a professional architecture degree and a masters in construction. the professional world didnt cut it for me so i went back to construciton.

you missed the point.

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