In his acerbic comedy-of-errors novel Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis wastes no time in heaping contempt upon the book’s namesake – in fact, during the very first description of his capitalist protagonist:
His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.
Sad thing is: ol’ George might have been a sad pathetic middleman – a Gentile variation on our beloved Merchant of modern memery – but at least his finagling and paper-shuffling was still within the bounds of an actual, y’know…..industry. That’s far more than can be said for the time-wasting makework that constitutes ‘jobs’ in our present-day marketplace. And it’s far, far more than can be said for the nattering nabobs of neoliberalism (to paraphrase Spiro Agnew) whose job it is to convince the rest of us denuded ants that everything is perfect and likely to get better, so let’s put on our work boots and thinking caps, take the bull by the horns, and win one for the Gipper, yaaaaayyyyy team!!!!
On that happy note, let’s meet Mike Rowe.
Ever since the cracker-barrel aphorisms of Ben Franklin and Mark Twain found widespread acclaim in an America that even then was trending ever more towards mass urbanization, there has always existed a niche market for one or two ‘homespun philosophers’ of national reputation – Will Rogers, Andy Griffith, Minnie Pearl, Larry the Cable Guy, and what have you. Theirs has always been a folksy mission: to convince frazzled rat racers that all them highfalutin’ gimcracks they git hankerings for ain’t worth a spackle of warm spit, and you gotta stop and smell them roses, and the like. Manipulatively maudlin as many of these figures turn out to be (as memorably depicted by Andy Griffith himself in A Face in the Crowd), they did fuel a legitimate craving: to remind a wistful niche about what once was and is no more. For all their sunny dispositions and barnyard wisecracks, there has always been a distinctive air of melancholia about them, just the same.
Rowe follows in that proud tradition – a guy who shows up dressed in the garb of a blue-collar average joe from the late 70s/early 80s (often with a red ballcap – MAGA!!!) as a piquant reminder to his baby boomer fan base of times that seemed tough back in the day but in retrospect weren’t all that bad. He first cut his teeth on the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs series, where he tried to convince us that a prerecorded hour of him futzing around on the peripheries of some of the less savory career options out there qualified him as a bonafide roustabout. Apparently he succeeded (viewers of reality tee vee not being the most discerning skeptics out there), for he was able to move his performance art over to that citadel of everything non-fake, CNN, for Somebody’s Gotta Do It, a followup series embracing the same basic format. This gig also gave him the opportunity to appear on the Counterfeit News Network as a regular correspondent on labor issues, adding greatly to his already overweening credibility.
And more to the point of our story, his new job as pundit (somebody’s gotta do it!) gave him a lectern to preach his own variant of the prosperity gospel, one tailored to the makeup of a man who is both a professed Presbyterian and who cites Paul Harvey as a major influence on his career: that Millennials are pursuing a dead-end in life by going the college route, that they have to get over their aversion to getting their hands dirty, that the skilled trades offer them their best chance at attaining a good life, and that there is a plethora of unfilled high-paying trade positions just itching to be filled by can-do types. This broadening of his message has allowed him to ditch the rapidly-dying CNN for semi-regular appearances on Fox News and CNBC, and for Somebody’s Gotta Do It to air on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (!!!). He got his payday, I guess.
On the surface, of course, it’s all but impossible to argue with his fundamental position. I certainly don’t. A steady stint as a welder or a plumber, with all the overtaxed income earned via sweat and stitches accruing in a bank account thereof, has a remarkable way of nipping a snowflake mentality in the bud so that it withers and dies, never to rise again. Alas, though, as the boomers age and the memories of their own working days increasingly are tinged with a nostalgic rosy hue, it is safe to say that their recommendations as to economic idealization have to be taken with a big grain of salt. Rowe, though a late boomer himself, is no exception. Typical of his Pollyannaish outlook is this musing from his blog (November 12, 2015):
I know for a fact that employers are clamoring for welders. And I also know with certainty that a talented welder who is willing to go where the work is has an excellent chance to earn a six-figure salary. I have no idea if the same is true for a philosophy major, but I can assure you of this: an excellent welding program will cost a lot less than a Philosophy Degree from an excellent university. I can also tell you that the classified section of today’s paper is conspicuously void of openings for “Experienced Philosophers.” “Experienced Welders” on the other hand, appear to be in high demand everywhere.
An ‘excellent chance’ to earn a six-figure salary. That could be true if….
a.) you stick with it for twenty years or so,
b.) you set up your own welding business, and
c.) you do as much work under the table as you can – because not to worry: the tax rates are never going to favor the fellow who’s amassing a small to midsize nest egg and stands a good chance of escaping perpetual penury.
You will search in vain for many, if any, reality checks such as these on the part of Rowe, though. If he wishes to break through the Millennial mentality, he has to be aware of their bent towards instant gratification, adulation received for the most mundane of tasks, participation-trophy collecting, etc. Otherwise, it matters not if an employee is loosening up a pipe wrench or firing up the MiG welder rather than sending out action texts on his iPhone to the HR department – he’s still going to expect that first hundred thousand dollar check the first time he walks in the door on Monday morning. No such hint of that from the cheery optimism that Rowe is hawking, however. Another point to ponder: welding is a craft industry that largely prospers on the basis of local or regional reputation. No internationally franchised conglomerates in this sector. Thus, as there is no community that can survive long without metal, why would Rowe advocate ‘going where the work is’ to build one’s fortune, rather than to cultivate a working relationship close to home, where everyone knows your name to begin with? When did economic vagabondage become an end unto itself, rather than a last-resort means unto one desired end? Around the same time the whole concept of ‘kinism’ started falling out of favor, I reckon.
A far more likely scenario is that a welder – even an experienced one – is going to find himself a position that pays minimum wage (or lower) and be stuck in such a dead-end position for the foreseeable future, assuming he’s fortunate enough not to have his job ‘phased out’ altogether. But hey, there are lots of those to choose from in the local papers, so he shouldn’t want for an eked-out subsistence-level wage that he’ll consume in getting to and from work, at least! And that isn’t a theoretical situation either, as a cursory glance at the postings on trade pages on Facebook makes clear. You’ll never hear such a discouraging word from Rowe, though, as that might undercut one of his other major liabilities: his (sigh) support for immigrants coming in to snag up the ‘dirty jobs’ that whites ‘won’t do’ that Murika might be great again. He has pushed this mantra for years. From his blogpost of February 6, 2009:
Like so many other “problems,” the immigration issue is really a symptom of something else. In this case, a national identity crisis, and the creeping belief that Hard Work and Dirt are things we have earned the right to avoid. I wonder sometimes if the real “threat” of immigration has less to do with the “legality” of some workers, and more to do with the fact that so many are willing to sacrifice in a way that we are not?
The Hungarian grocer around the corner from my home in Baltimore worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for 25 years. Mr. Kovac came here legally. Then, he brought his entire family over, and most of his old neighborhood. He took responsibility for them. Made sure they learned the language. And he eventually prospered. How many Americans are willing to work like that today? How many parents today would see Mr. Kovac as a role model, and hold him up to their kids as an example of what they should aim for? The hard truth is this – our collective Work Ethic has been trumped by people who dream of a standard of living lower than that to which we aspire. Immigration, legal or otherwise, puts that reality right smack in our face. And we don’t like it. In fact, we resent it. We don’t like to be reminded that the world is full of people who are willing to work harder than us, in exchange for much less. What to do? Build a fence? Ship ’em back?
I admit, my sense of justice is offended by cheaters who fly under the radar and break the rules, especially when so many others have done it right. It sickens me, and if I could flick my fingers and end illegal immigration ended tomorrow, I would. But that wouldn’t change our insatiable desire to get paid as much as possible to work a cushy job in a safe environment that guarantees a good pension, decent health benefits, and enough money to buy whatever we desire for as little as possible. That is our standard. That is our expectation. That is our dream.
A nice little bit of subterfuge at play here – which shouldn’t come as a surprise from a chap who holds a degree in communications studies. (But go to trade school, kids!) Rowe, y’see, does not offer an unqualified defence of limitless immigration – not for him is the meatheaded zealotry of the Bojidar Marinovs of this world. Instead, he adopts a rather elegiac tone as he reminisces about that magical time when self-sacrifice reigned supreme and we didn’t have to import unwashed masses by the truckload to teach us poor slothful rubes all about the value of a dollar. A nice bit of pathos is added with the heartwarming example of Mr. Kovac – who I have no doubt was as admirable a figure as Rowe presents, but whose situation in no wise resembles the influx of mongrelized Latino gangbanging drug mules we are now obligated to give refuge to (except, perhaps, in his bringing over his entire village as a gesture of sanctuary, which quite frankly is no less repellent than the denizens of Mexico City slums doing the same). Most risible of all, though, is his calling the immigration imbroglio a ‘symptom’ of a nationalist identity that apparently ought to be crafted entirely around toil. I would agree that it is indeed a symptom – but of our people’s forsaking God’s ways for the materialist ways Rowe seems to be offering as a solution for our malaise. For a Presbyterian, he sure seems to have a fond regard for the salvific quality of works. Hey Mikey, you might wanna take another gander at Proverbs 5:15 – ‘Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well’.
Advocating white career dispossession if they can’t ‘keep up’ with the Gomezes is not all that marks Rowe as a fraudulent cohenservative, though. His ‘work makes you free’ ethos is entirely in accordance with a Progressive-era presumption that moral perfection is entirely within the capabilities of man himself to master – provided we ‘get back to our priorities’ and go back to cleaning out the barn stall with a pitchfork, jes’ like Gran’Pappy did! By that reckoning, the builders of Babel had no need of Christ, because I am well assured they worked their posteriors off. Nimrod was a demanding boss. Indeed, with his constant perky boosterism wrapped in a mantle of masculinity to satiate the cravings of those few males remaining who are still allergic to all forms of societal feminization, Rowe seems to be channelling the spectre of Teddy Roosevelt (and did I mention Rowe is a Republican in good standing with the party brass?) Sure, he isn’t a consistent progressive. For one thing, he does not promulgate the gospel of efficiency as interpreted by ‘expert’ busybodies in high places that was so prevalent in the era. In his counter-zeal for what passes as effectiveness in his book, though, he manages to display all the ‘zip’ and ‘zowie’ that the aforementioned George Babbitt – from the same era – also displayed towards his economic Shambala. Thus, Rowe functions as an amalgamation of the worst tendencies of two equally flawed economic theorems of a century past. I can’t think of a more apt descriptor of the modern right than that.
For all his seemingly unpretentious demeanor, liberally peppered with earthy Lincolnesque one-liners and a wardrobe that suggests rural Nebraska, Mike Rowe serves as the equivalent of a jovial Stalin-era propaganda poster encouraging happy peasants to complete the White Sea canal on time. Ultimately, his morale-boosting role will come to produce exactly the same amount of fruit as these posters did. You can bet he’s being paid quite a bit more than fifteen bucks an hour to deliver his learned spiels on how we all have to work ten times as hard for half the pay we got ten years ago, and that tends to leave a bitter coppery taste in one’s mouth.
And lest there be any further doubt as to who butters Rowe’s bread, a recent Facebook post of his, wherein he thanks the donors to his ‘work ethic scholarship’ program to send worthy apprentices to trade schools, tells all:
I want to thank a few corporations for their generous support of mikeroweWORKS. At the top of this list is Charles G. Koch, the Charles Koch Institute, and Koch Industries. All have been consistently supportive of our efforts to close the skills gap in a variety of ways. Currently, Charles Koch is helping me bring the S.W.E.A.T Pledge to life on video – the results of which I look forward to sharing later this year. It’s gonna be great.
That’s a heapin’ helpin’ of homespun there all right, Ballcap Bob.