New Yorker: Work Sucks. What Could Salvage It?

Harvard historian Erik Baker writes in The New Yorker, May 1, 2024:

New books examine the place of work in our lives—and how people throughout history have tried to change it.

There’s a line in one of my favorite songs that’s been tripping me up recently. “We Take Care of Our Own” kicks off Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 album, “Wrecking Ball,” a late-career masterpiece that sifts through the rubble of the Great Recession. After a few verses lamenting the American political system’s abandonment of the working class, “from Chicago to New Orleans,” Springsteen launches into the bridge. “Where’re the eyes, the eyes with the will to see?” he thunders. “Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy? / Where’s the love that has not forsaken me?” And then the stumbling block: “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?”

Do you expect that work will set you free? I don’t. I often love my work, and give it every spare minute, but I don’t look to work (or to sex or to love or to sports) to save me. This need for salvation through work is a peculiar concept within the liberal-left Enlightenment worldview that understands the individual as the center of all things, wielding the capacity to develop meaning, purpose and morality on his own through the guidance of his reason.

As Michael Medved says, follow your bliss is a liberal precept. Conservative believe in do your duty.

If you don’t believe that human nature is basically good, you don’t want to encourage people to follow their bliss. When the masses follow their bliss, they often become deranged.

Sociologist Liah Greenfeld wrote in the WSJ May 31, 2022:

The more a society is dedicated to the value of equality and the more choices it offers for individual self-determination, the higher its rates of functional mental illness. These rates increase in parallel with the increase in the available occupational, geographical, religious, gender and lifestyle-related choices. This explains why, since the 1970s, the U.S. leads the world as the country most affected by functional mental illness, though other prosperous liberal democracies aren’t far behind. Before the 1970s, first place belonged to the U.K., which lost that ranking together with its empire and the dramatic contraction in the number of choices the nation offered its members as a result. In contrast, rates of functional mental illness in societies that are insecure, poor, inegalitarian or authoritarian are remarkably low. For decades, the World Psychiatric Association has pondered the “perennial puzzle” of the relative immunity to such illnesses in Southeast Asian countries.

Equality inevitably makes self-definition a matter of one’s own choice, and the formation of personal identity—necessary for mental health—becomes personal responsibility, a burden some people can’t shoulder. A relatively high rate of functional mental illness, expressing itself centrally in dissatisfaction with self and, therefore, social maladjustment, thus must be expected in democracies. But while high rates of mental illness are an old problem, the soaring rates of the recent decades aren’t explained by equality alone. They are related, in addition, to what happened to Western values, especially in the U.S., since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The disappearance of the West’s common opponent rendered individual identities in the West more confusing and dissatisfying. Having lost sight of what they, as a society, were against, millions of Westerners lost the sense of what they represented, rejecting common reference points, such as personal responsibility, which previously constituted the core of the self in the West. Virtues and vices, Soviet-style, came to be seen as characteristics of groups, significant social groupings were defined genetically, all personal discomfort was attributed to society, and the burden of responsibility was shifted off individual shoulders.

In her 2013 book, Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience, Greenfeld wrote:

[F]inding oneself bombarded by contradictory cultural messages and overwhelmed with choices is an exceedingly and increasingly common modern experience. It is, therefore, not surprising that the period of adolescent moratorium among us often lasts into one’s early forties, that so many spend their youth in frequently futile searching for oneself, that what one finds is as likely to be unsatisfactory as gratifying, and that, when it is gratifying, one is rarely secure in that the self one has found is one’s to keep. Modern society is inherently anomic and problems with identity are endemic to it. We are all exposed to the “virus” of depression, the cultural agent that carries the disease, and are, probably, as likely to catch it in a mild form, as we are to get a runny nose or a headache due to the common cold. Certain environments, such as college, for instance, which render the multitude of identity choices we have salient, make the virus particularly active and let it affect more people, as do circumstances that actually offer more possibilities, such as upper class background. In the end, the great majority of us reconcile with the identities reflecting the choices we have made; acquire responsibilities which reinforce these identities and, thankfully, limit our freedom to choose again; and settle into a life livable enough even when not happy. But a significant and probably growing minority catches the virus and develops the severe form of depression.

The probable increase in the rates of the manic-depressive illness consistently reflected in the ever-improving statistical studies makes it unlikely that the reason the majority escapes and the minority succumbs to the disease is organic vulnerability or diathesis, since such vulnerability itself would have been spread in the population at a certain stable rate. The reason, rather, must be the increasing probability of triggering events—events that problematize one’s identity, specifically undermining one’s sense of social status in the lives of the minority and the absence of such events in the life of the majority. It is remarkable that obviously traumatic experiences (torture, rape, being witness to the murder, torture, rape of loved ones and similar acts of violence—that is, experiences capable of producing post-traumatic stress syndrome) do not trigger mdi… Events that trigger depression, rather, are of the kind that to most observers would appear trivial: moving to a new environment in which the kid that had been considered the smartest in the environment left is no longer considered the smartest, or, on the contrary, in which one is suddenly being considered the smartest, or in which norms of status ascription are generally different; being rejected in love, or not accepted to one’s preferred college during early admissions, or unexpectedly becoming the object of love of an exceptional or higher-status person; later in life, getting or not getting a particularly desired, responsible position, etc. These are events that trigger self-examination, undermine the unstable, vague, contradictory identity, actively disorient the potentially disoriented (because affected by the general anomic situation) person, and initiate the process of mental disintegration, to begin with impairing the will. They are non-obviously traumatic, and are, therefore, usually disregarded.

Trads of any stripe (Christian, Jewish, Japanese, etc) understand that people aren’t primarily individuals but rather members of extended families, aren’t inherently good, that their reason is weak when compared to the power of genes, imprinting and tribal incentives, that life isn’t easy, and that in the words of Genesis 3:19, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will.”

In her 1992 book, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Liah Greenfeld wrote:

[N]ationalism locates the source of individual identity within a “people,” which is seen as the bearer of sovereignty, the central object of loyalty, and the basis of collective solidarity. The “people” is… fundamentally homogeneous, and only superficially divided by the lines of status, class, locality, and in some cases even ethnicity… Membership in a nation defined him as a person of very high status, the impact of such definition on one’s self-perception could be permanent… while the general referent of the word “people” prior to its nationalization was the population of a region, specifically it applied to the lower classes and was most frequently used in the sense of “rabble” or “plebs.” The equation of the two concepts implied the elevation of the populace to the position of an (at first specifically political) elite. As a synonym of the “nation”-an elite-the “people” lost its derogatory connotation and, now denoting an eminently positive entity, acquired the meaning of the bearer of sovereignty, the basis of political solidarity, and the supreme object of loyalty… Every member of the “people”…partakes in its superior, elite quality…

The location of sovereignty within the people and the recognition of the fundamental equality among its various strata, which constitute the essence of the modern national idea, are at the same time the basic tenets of democracy. Democracy was born with the sense of nationality… Nationalism was the form in which democracy appeared in the world, contained in the idea of the nation as a butterfly in a cocoon… [D]emocracy may not be exportable. It may be an inherent predisposition in certain nations… yet entirely alien to others…

This New Yorker essay throbs with a secularized Christian yearning for redemption. Woke is the ultimate development of the ethereal religion of Protestantism. As a convert to Orthodox Judaism, by contrast, I believe in concrete commitments of action to a particular people with regard to sacred items, times, and places. My religion is physical. It doesn’t exist primarily in my heart.

I don’t yearn for salvation because I don’t see myself as sunk in sin. I regret some things I’ve done in the past and I am making amends through superior behavior in areas where I was once selfish. I see my good deeds as my ambassadors going on ahead of me to ease my way through life and removing the stains my careless self laid down in the past. I am not desperate for some baptism through work or sex or drugs or therapy or religion or yoga or some other dramatic gesture that liberals turn to these days to feel whole.

As a trad, I don’t think more about obligations than rights. One of the obligations of a man is to protect and to provide through accumulating resources via work. Only the rare man enjoys his labor. When it happens, it is awesome, but it strikes me as absurd to regard work as a sacred right to self-realization.

The best way for ordinary people to enjoy dignity is through their membership in a family, tribe, and nation. The normal person gets his meaning, purpose and morality from this bond, and not from government regulations of the workplace.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” said Friedrich Nietzsche. For the normal person, their “why” will come from the people they love such as family.

“Do it for Australia!” is a common saying down under. It’s a good way to live — to have commitments to people outside of yourself.

Most prayers in Judaism are for the people Israel and not for the individual. The focus of Protestantism, by contrast, is on individual salvation.

When you you love people, you subjugate your desires for the good of others.

If you feel no connection for the people you work for, you have a purely transactional relationship where employers try to extract as much from employees while paying as little as possible while employees try to get as much income as possible for doing as little work as possible. Employers and employees enter their relationship largely blind. Resumes lie. Job interviews have almost zero efficacy for figuring out what an employer or an employee will really be like. When your typical employee agrees to take a job, only then will he get an employee handbook legislating his work rules.

The more connection people feel, the more they have in common, the better their relationship. As America becomes more diverse, Americans have less in common with each other, and the opportunities for bonding diminish.

I have loved many of my bosses and coworkers and when that happens, my work life is transformed. On the other hand, I’ve felt no bond with many of my employers and coworkers and those jobs have lacked meaning for me, and I haven’t put much effort in. It’s hard for me to work for people I don’t like. On the other hand, if I had a family to support, this would matter less to me.

Neither hands nor soul were set free––and, come to think of it, wasn’t the idea of work setting people free a little, well, ominous?

Not ominous. Just silly. Trads don’t suffer from the Marxist delusion that one day we’ll all sit around writing poetry.

Intellectuals and activists on the left thought so, in increasing numbers. In 2015, the writer and art scholar Miya Tokumitsu debunked the notion in “Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness.” “No More Work,” the historian James Livingston demanded, in 2016, in a book explaining “Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea.” Perhaps most influentially, the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber fired off a best-selling salvo in 2018 against the “Bullshit Jobs” that, he argued, were ubiquitous in the twenty-first century. The concept that work was necessary to our flourishing had tricked us into
forswearing the increased leisure that nearly two centuries of mounting economic productivity made available to us, Graeber said. Instead, we acquiesced to the schemes of capital to stuff our hours full of pointless and often pernicious work. This view gained even more traction when covid struck, and millions of people found out firsthand just how “inessential” their jobs really were. The “anti-work” forum became one of the most active communities on Reddit; the New York Times announced an “Age of Anti-Ambition”; New York
Review Books reissued Paul Lafargue’s nineteenth-century pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy.” And I cringed when I got to the bridge on “We Take Care of Our Own.”

The left’s tendencies to alternately damn work or to seek redemption from it seems silly.

As a trad, I accept that we are all slaves. We are either subjugated by our desires or by our commitments. From a Jewish perspective, we are servants of God. When you go to work, you are a slave to your employer. When you bond with people, you develop obligations that override your wishes. If you love your spouse and your kids and a sick sibling who needs care, there’s no incentive to be lazy. How could anyone who loves people and subsequently feels obligations to them subscribe to an anti-work philosophy? If you have passions that don’t destroy your relationships, why would you hang out on anti-work online forums?

Some on the left still defend the idea that work is, or could be, an important site of self-realization. Leading the charge is Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Michigan and a leading scholar and critic of workplace politics. In her 2017 book, “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About
It)”—in my view, one of this century’s most important works of political philosophy—Anderson argued that Americans have essentially outsourced totalitarianism to the private sector. For all our talk about the sacrosanct values of freedom and democracy, she pointed out, most of us spend our days toiling in subordination to bosses who wield
control over many aspects of our lives.

The trad understands that our freedom consists in our willingness to live up to our obligations or to flee from them. You could complain about circumstances that rule our lives, or spouses who rule our lives, or children who rule our lives, or extended families who rule our lives, just as easily as you could complain about employers who rule our lives. For people who aren’t ruled by those they love, they are ruled by their addictions.

Work sometimes provides self-realization and self-actualization, but as trads we work to live up to our obligations.

As C.S. Lewis said, “The price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy is to be tied.”

People who aren’t tied down to others tend to abuse their freedom. Young disconnected men are the greatest source of violent crime.

When lonely people retire, they fall apart. By contrast, those who are connected to family and friends and community tend to make good choices with their free time.

To the extent that work spaces totalitarian it is due to that organizational structure working better than the alternatives. For all the elevated talk we hear about democracy, the world runs on hierarchy.

Different people have different gifts. Some people are better suited to working in some jobs than other people. For most people, they are best suited as employees not as entrepreneurs.

Nothing is intrinsically good for everyone (except for bonds). You can drink too much water. You can abuse work, exercise, religion, yoga, therapy, sports, Youtube. Everything. There’s no magic key to life (except for bonds). People (you love) are magic.

Yet Anderson believes that it’s possible to redeem work from managerial autocracy.

The good life for most people exists outside of work. It usually lies with family.

Work is usually a means, not an ends.

For some of my life, I’ve earned my living as a writer. In that precious case, my work was, at times, an end in itself.

The pitfall of optimists is to expect to earn a living by the pen. Intellectual production rarely pays for itself.

Almost everything we think is socially constructed. You see this when you travel. In America, thousands of women feel guilty about their abortions, but this is rare in Australia and Europe. Why? Because in America it is a widespread talking point that abortion is murder while that argument is rare in Australia and Europe.

During the 1970s, conservative political strategists saw the abortion issue as a strategy for creating a Republican coalition among evangelicals, Catholics, and trads, so they ramped up the argument that abortion was murder, and millions of people believed them.

I keep hearing from friends about various “side hustles” I should pursue. They think that working for yourself is the ideal. Why? It is a talking point they got from others.

In reality, most people are better suited as employees rather than employers.

…The case against the dictatorship of bosses is, in fact, so ironclad that some business leaders have adopted it as a talking point. Their solution, however, is not union power or collective worker ownership of the means of production but, rather, self-employment. Benjamin C. Waterhouse, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a deft chronicler of executive-class escapades, tells the history of this clever ideological maneuver in his new book, “One Day I’ll Work for Myself: The Dream and Delusion That Conquered America.” The rise of neoliberal policymaking in the U.S. channelled the conservative work ethic––preaching submission to higher-ups and the embrace of drudgery––and, as Waterhouse shows, it also channelled what I call the entrepreneurial work ethic, the idealization of the self-employed and self-actualizing job creator as a model for much of the workforce to emulate.

Contrary to popular belief, the aspiration to self-employment is not intrinsic to the American character—it has a history. In Waterhouse’s telling, it is a product of the late twentieth century, particularly the economic crises of the seventies and eighties. During the prosperous decades after the Second World War, Waterhouse states, working for oneself wasn’t particularly appealing. Large corporations could afford to be relatively generous, at least to those workers (mostly white, mostly male) who executives felt were entitled to a decent standard of living. Workers desired, above all, a piece of this pie, which meant they often dreamed about “working for someone else.” In the March on Washington, Waterhouse writes, poor Black workers demanded not only “freedom” but “jobs,” a slogan which he contrasts with Richard Nixon’s program, a few years later, for “minority business enterprise.” At the other end of the class hierarchy, the young élites featured by William Whyte in “The Organization Man” evinced little interest in going into business by themselves, focussing their energies instead on climbing the corporate ladder.

Then, in the seventies, things fell apart: stagflation, oil shocks, jobless recoveries, financial turmoil. “The big, hierarchical corporations that had bestrode the business landscape in the 1950s and 1960s looked like outdated relics,” Waterhouse writes. The nation began to hearken to a new generation of business gurus and management experts who claimed that “the road to renewed growth would be paved by those brave risk-takers who embraced change and started their own companies.” The M.I.T. economist David Birch produced widely cited statistics popularizing the idea that small businesses were responsible for the vast majority of job creation in the U.S.––as high as eighty per cent. Birch’s studies had major methodological issues, as critics soon pointed out, and his findings were difficult to replicate, but the basic idea still rang true for a lot of Americans. “When upward promotion at a traditional job became out of reach for so many people,” as Waterhouse explains, the American Dream seemed to require “building a business yourself (or buying one), and reaping the rewards.”

Major corporations in industries like fast food and direct selling adopted organizational schemes such as franchising and independent contracting to depict themselves as engines of small-business creation, even when they continued to exert significant control over the working conditions and decision-making of their ostensibly “entrepreneurial” workforce. (The parallels to today’s gig-economy platforms are impossible to miss.) People who actually gave self-employment a try often found more of the same toil and precarity from which they hoped business ownership would allow them to escape.

If your boss abuses you, or your spouse abuses you, that is on you if you stay in that abusive relationship. Many women seek out men who beat them just as many men seek out bosses who beat them down. There is no external solution to this internal problem of wanting to be abused. People either take their own side in life or they don’t. Government can’t do it for you.

For most of my life, working for an abusive boss felt normal to me (it returned me to familiar patterns from my childhood). Then in my forties, I realized that my high achieving friends would not put up with this behavior for a minute. And so I grew up, and in another sector of my life, I became a friend to myself.

A friend says:

Let’s just bring back workplaces that are patriarchal, hierarchical (yet fair and generous to subordinates who earn it), and homogenous. End free trade practices that screw industrial workers. I’m not a fan of unions anymore. They were good for industrial and mining jobs in the past, but they are largely obsolete now and incentivize workers to become lazy and brazenly entitled. That’s my anecdotal experience as an inspector. Also can’t stand hearing Marxist talking points from employees in my office. It just sounds like whiny Nietzschian slave morality.

Another friend reacts:

1. Quantity v. Quality. Satisfying work will involve some intellectual component and a manual component. Today’s computer work is head dominant and gives little satisfaction to the hands.
2. Mental v. Physical. Most modern work is mental and sedentary. Sedentary work saps that body and then the mind of health.
3. The modern office is an unhealthy petri dish of disease recirculated through air conditioning. The social environment is toxic and riddled with gossip and power games. And then there is HR.

From The New York Times May 7, 2024:

Your Neighbors Are Retiring in Their 30s. Why Can’t You?

Meet the schemers and savers obsessed with ending their careers as early as possible.

…Wong had heard of the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement before, but he didn’t think it really applied to him because of its focus on frugality. FIRE got its start in the early 2000s with a mantra of extreme saving — you may remember hearing about stoic ultraminimalists living off beans and friends’ couches — but it has since come to include all the people who would like to exit the work force on their own terms, at an age of their own choosing, rather than hustling for a paycheck all the way into their 60s. After Wong made a Reddit post sharing his story, it attracted such a flurry from FIRE adherents that he quickly became the quasi president of one of the group’s biggest online enclaves.

Some FIRE aspirants still get to early retirement by the traditional route of simply saving madly. Others, though, truffle-hunt for high-paying W-2s, tax loopholes, bold and risky market bets or big entrepreneurial ploys like Wong’s. The overarching credo of FIRE is that in today’s unpredictable financial landscape, 9-to-5s and decades-long careers have become bad investments: Old-school benefits like pensions and job security are a thing of the past, and wages aren’t even keeping up with the galloping pace of inflation. According to a 2023 survey, one-quarter of Americans would like to retire before age 50. After decades of tolerating workaholic culture as the norm, employees are tired, unafraid to show it and yearning to yank back control of their lives. To fed-up workers willing to do a little bit of math, FIRE offers a straightforward antidote: You can just leave it all behind.

Like Wong, and like so many other people who chase financial independence, I didn’t grow up with a lot of money — which might be why I became obsessed with it.

Long before “side hustle” became Merriam-Webster lingo, I was working Costco snack arbitrage on the elementary-school playground and hawking homemade bookmarks to my teachers. In adulthood, I moved on to online surveys, research studies, plasma donation, vintage resale, parts modeling and dog-sitting in other people’s homes in lieu of paying rent. I have left no income source unturned. I’ve trawled every page of NerdWallet and The Points Guy. I have made questionable margin calls. I have woken up at the crack of dawn to day-trade $NVDA, $TSLA, $TSM. I have “flipped”; I have “churned.” When I feel sad, I open my phone to check on the interest rates in the five-pronged CD ladder I’ve lovingly assembled in my Marcus account, like a tic, to feel better.

The original FIRE doctrine revolves around delay of gratification. Save your money — ideally as much as 50 to 75 percent of each paycheck — instead of spending it immediately, and when you’ve amassed enough of a nest egg, quit your job and take the rest of your life for yourself. “It’s simple, because the main principles fit on a Post-it note,” Jacob Lund Fisker, a Danish former astrophysicist who is often thought of as the father of the FIRE movement, told me. “However, it is not easy, because everything the typical middle-class consumer has been raised and trained to believe goes against these principles. People have grown up associating success with money and spending money with happiness. They’ve been trained to sit still and perform repetitive work, first by a teacher, then by a manager. They’ve been educated to be specialists in a narrow field and never think outside that box.”

Fisker’s 2010 book, “Early Retirement Extreme” — written mostly while he lived out of an R.V. on $7,000 a year — is one seminal text for early retirees. Two others are “Your Money or Your Life,” a 1992 personal-finance bible written by Joseph R. Dominguez and Vicki Robin, and the blog Mr. Money Mustache, started in 2011 by Peter Adeney, who retired from his software-engineering job in 2005 at age 30 and figured out how to shrink his family’s expenses down to just $24,000 a year. The tao of all three tomes is that minimalist spending and anti-consumption can offer the keys to better living. (Adeney has professed to be “really just trying to get rich people to stop destroying the planet,” but his tens of thousands of monthly visitors tend to be more fixated on his other mantra: “Make you rich so you can retire early.”)

Conventional FIRE adherents are not necessarily big earners or genius mathematicians with incredible impulse control. Their superpower is their expert planning; it’s the ability to see the finish line from miles away that has allowed even some minimum-wage workers to achieve early retirement. One simple FIRE rule of thumb is to first calculate your target “FI number” by multiplying anticipated annual retirement expenses by at least 25, and then squirrel away as much as possible into interest-accruing or tax-advantaged buckets like 401(k)s, low-fee index funds, certificates of deposit, HSAs and Roth IRAs until you hit that number. As an example, if you bring home $150,000 a year, can save half of that and plan to spend $50,000 per year in retirement, then it will take only 16.5 years before you can kiss your job goodbye. For those who earn less or spend more, it will take longer — but for still others who can endure greater sacrifices, FIRE can be possible as early as their 30s.

From these plain origins, many offshoots of FIRE have sprouted up — some much more brazen than others. It’s rare to find anyone these days who actually wants to get to early retirement by living off beans; those people, with their stringent penny-pinching, are largely known in the community as LeanFIRE. A lot more people aim for CoastFIRE (a more measured approach that involves front-loading your retirement savings and “coasting” on compound interest and working lightly until you’re ready to quit) or BaristaFIRE (quitting your job but buttressing your retirement with a side gig, such as that of a part-time barista, to receive health-insurance benefits) or FatFIRE (a luxurious, no-sacrifice approach to retirement, the polar opposite of LeanFIRE — and the subset to which Wong belongs).

In his forthcoming work Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression, philosopher Rony Guldmann writes:

* Whereas now eclipsed traditionalist hierarchies revolved around perceived differences in things like sexual purity, work ethic, religious affiliation, family pedigree, and ethnic bona fides, the new status hierarchy of liberalism is rooted in “cognitive elitism” and centers around a morally charged division between those who are “aware” and those who are not. The former have the psychic maturity to accede to liberalism. The latter lack it and must be reformed. This kind of identity politics will always take refuge in some pragmatic-sounding pretext—e.g., the dangers of firearms or the drawbacks of home schooling. But conservatives dismiss this pragmatism as an elaborate façade for a status hierarchy that liberals refuse to acknowledge. If this hierarchy goes overlooked by “thinking people,” by the “educated,” this is because liberals’ near-monopoly on the means of cultural reproduction allows their own kind of identity politics pass under the radar, camouflaged in an aura of thoughtfulness and education. Thoughtfulness and education have themselves become ideological tools of liberalism, mere badges of honor to be conferred on some and withheld from others.

* The conservative magazine Chronicles explains: “Once upon a time in America, you could say you loved your country, believed in God, and held your marriage sacred…and not be snickered at as a simple-minded simpleton. You could believe in honesty, hard work, and self-reliance; you could speak of human responsibilities in the same breath as human rights…and not be derided an as an insensitive fool.”

* The conservative is thus akin to the proverbial Latino immigrant or first-generation American, who is immersed in white/Anglo ways at work or school while also being anchored in a foreign language and culture that affords him a special perspective unavailable to monocultural natives. In a similar ethnicization of political difference, Goldberg compares conservatives to Blacks, Canadians, and Jews. These groups make for some of the best comedians because they are “each in their own way, insider-outsiders” who “share both a fascination with and alienation from mainstream American culture.” Conservatives are in much the same position because they must master their own culture while also learning to live in an alienating majority culture dominated by liberals. These formulations are no accident. Though some conservatives will dismiss talk of “latté liberals” as a distraction from more serious issues, conservatives are united in the conviction that liberals hide behind a façade of disingenuous rationalism that conceals their ethnocentric hostility toward ordinary Americans and their rude and crude folkways. “Latté liberals” is just a very glib articulation of this conviction.

* No less than its monopoly over the cause of racial equality, liberalism’s reputation as the selfless ally of ordinary workers against powerful business interests is seen by conservatives as a social illusion, which must be overthrown if they are to reestablish cultural and rhetorical equality with liberals. Conservative claims of cultural oppression pursue this end by casting liberals in the role of anti-democratic aristocrats, which conservatives will no longer accept for themselves. As we saw, conservative claims of cultural oppression attribute the rise of “ultra-liberalism” to the mass bohemianization of society.

* Robert Bork warns: “Persons capable of high achievement in one field or another may find meaning in work, may find community among colleagues, and may not particularly mind social and moral separation otherwise. Such people are unlikely to need the more sordid distractions that popular culture now offers. But very large segments of the population do not fall into that category. For them, the drives of liberalism are catastrophic.”

It is no coincidence that the liberal vision is advanced by those whose professional stature provides their lives with a meaning and coherence that the assault on traditional values undermines for the silent majority—which is consequently left susceptible to debilitating social ills that the elites are privileged to avoid. It may be of no great consequence when a tenured radical rails against the repressiveness of bourgeois norms from within the safe confines of the ivory tower. But it is of far greater moment when the less privileged, and especially the underclass, absorb these adversarial attitudes, in the process abandoning the only values that could save them from crime, drug addiction, illegitimacy, etc. If conservatives are critical of the underclass’s habits, this then reflects, not racism or any other prejudice, but the fact that liberalism has inflicted the greatest damage among the most vulnerable. Himmelfarb observes that a level of delinquency which a white suburban teenager can indulge with relative impunity may be “literally fatal to a black inner city teenager.” And Goldberg charges that, not content to just personally indulge in Dionysian excess, “today’s secular royalty” of Hollywood liberals “feel compelled to export values only the very rich and very admired can afford.” Madonna could urge her followers to cast off their bourgeois sexual hang-ups. But whereas she could simply settle down with a husband and kids once she outgrew her hedonism, the “lower-middle-class girls from Jersey City who took her advice” were not so lucky.

* Moral relativism and subjectivism are not the transcendence of ideology—as the liberal narrative would have it—but, on the contrary, ideological weapons through which to disguise the injuries which the people of fashion would inflict on the common people. The latter’s moral degradation augments the political and cultural capital of the Left no less than vast armies of low-wage workers augment the profits of industrialists.

What are your favorite poses for staying safe in a scary world? I like fair dinkum Aussie bloke from the outback trying to make his way in the big city by relying on the kindness of strangers.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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