Trouble in Paradise: What’s Work Got To Do With It?

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Trouble in paradise

In 1965-66, I was a high school senior in Paradise, California, a small town roughly ninety minutes northeast of Sacramento. My family had moved there in the summer of 1964, so I was still a newcomer, but I knew that one of my teachers, Virginia Franklin, had been the subject of a story in Life magazine entitled “Hell Breaks Loose in Paradise” (April 26, 1963). Paradise had many charms, but it was fertile territory for the John Birch Society.

Prompted by his father, a student had smuggled a tape recorder (concealed in a book) into one of Mrs. Franklin’s social studies classes. The plan was to trap her into revealing her alleged anti-religious bias. She was a communist, her critics charged, bent on subverting her students’ convictions. But the ruse was exposed, and the anti-Franklin slate lost at the fiercely contested school board election that soon followed.

Triumph for the American Way

Reporting on this outcome, the story in Life framed it as a triumph for the American way. Mrs. Franklin, the article said, believed that America “is served best by training children to make up their own minds.” The reality was more complicated. Mrs. Franklin, who was more intellectually sophisticated (and more stylish) than the average high school teacher, was very much a woman of the left. She was the only high school teacher I had (in Paradise or elsewhere) who, quite apart from classroom assignments, loaned books to me and talked with me about them. Her intention was to open my mind (she might have said) or convert me (others might have called it) to a critique of Things as They Were in the United States.

The attention was welcome (what 17-year-old doesn’t like to be noticed?), and the intellectual stimulation was exhilarating. I wasn’t converted, but I learned a great deal from Mrs. Franklin—especially about how American history and society looked from a perspective quite different from both the prevailing consensus liberalism (as represented in popular form by Life magazine) and the more conservative background of my family.

Freedom from the Protestant Work Ethic

During that year, Mrs. Franklin took me and a fellow student to Berkeley to hear a lecture by the black journalist and activist Louis Lomax. Though he often spoke about Malcolm X and other black leaders and was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War, that night in Berkeley, he talked about “cybernetics,” automation, and the urgent need for Americans to free themselves from the shackles of the Protestant work ethic. As a result of automation, Lomax said, vast numbers of Americans would—in the near future—find themselves with a 30-hour work week or a 20-hour work week. This trend, he said, would accelerate as more and more work was turned over to computers and other machines. How would Americans cope with their newfound leisure? How would they adjust to a new order in which they could no longer define themselves by their work?

As you might expect, Lomax’s Berkeley audience was pretty enthusiastic. You had the feeling that many of his listeners needed no persuasion to trash the dreary “work ethic” bequeathed to us, so the story went, by uptight, life-denying Protestants. I didn’t know what to think. From science fiction, I’d gotten the word that change was coming, though it wasn’t clear when or exactly what it would look like. What Lomax called “automation” was imagined in countless different forms by sci-fi writers, ranging from benign to humdrum to horrific.

Lomax died in a car accident in 1970 when his brakes failed. (Some people were sure it wasn’t coincidental that at the time he was researching the purported role of the FBI in the assassination of Malcolm X.) In the decades following that speech, his thesis seemed increasingly quaint. Americans were working more, not less. And “automation,” though making inroads here and there, hadn’t advanced as rapidly as many forecasters in the 1960s had foreseen. Today, though, we’re hearing a lot that resonates with Lomax’s speech.

Working for the Weekend

Much of the commentary on the Occupy Movement has focused on income inequality: the “1 percent” vs. the “99 percent.” But inequality isn’t the only issue. Tune into conversations on public forums such as Twitter and you’ll find countless comments on the nature of work. Here is a typical example, posted on Twitter by @SickBillionaire: “When the wage-slavery becomes a heavy burden, just think of the weekend, think of the happy mindless drunkenness.”

In our society as seen by @SickBillionaire and countless others, we’re a bunch of dupes. It’s bad enough that we have to work at mindless jobs while most of the profit of our labor goes to the Bosses. What’s worse is that we have been brainwashed to such an extent that we don’t even recognize our misery and desperation. We drink beer or smoke pot, watch football or Dancing with the Stars, spend money we can’t afford on the latest gizmos, all to keep us from focusing on the reality of our situation.

Lomax thought that most Americans had been brainwashed with the Protestant work ethic. (In the ghetto, he suggested, a lot of folks knew better.) His kindred spirits in the Occupy Movement aren’t worried about the problem of a shrinking work week, but their view of the average American is strikingly similar.

Are they right? Wrong? Partly right and partly wrong? What do think? And how might we go about deciding?

Post by John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture.