In the late 1980s-early 1990s, I spent many Saturdays rehabbing an apartment building above an old, fire-gutted bank at 292-98 South Orange Avenue, Newark, New Jersey with Habitat for Humanity. The red brick structure was three stories tall and a half-block wide, with boarded-up windows. Working on the upper floors, we walked across tattered sheets of plywood lightly fastened to the remaining floor joists that spanned the inner shell of the building. Watch your step.
The project manager was a sturdy, brusque, coarse-blonde-haired, construction-experienced recovering alcoholic named Dave who, on cold mornings, wore a khaki-shelled Carhartt work suit. Dave had replaced a slim urban fellow named Johnny, who was a recovering heroin addict suspected of stealing power tools from the site and selling these to buy drugs. We kept the tools in the basement vault that withstood the fire and only Johnny had the keys. So they fired him. And changed the locks.
Dave was a blue-collar philosopher. The Twelve-Step process seems to make those who go through it reflect deeply on their own, and others,’ lives. Or maybe Twelve-Step just makes them more likely to share with others their impressions of the human condition. As we worked alongside each other, Dave would sometimes tell a short story about something that had happened and then add, with conviction, a larger life lesson like “Everybody’s suffering is real to them.”
We often made batches of concrete for footings. Because we lacked a cement mixer, we mixed the concrete on top of old plywood, using shovels. On the first day we did this, Dave began the process by declaring, “You’ve got to have some hate in you to mix concrete by hand.”
I’ve done harder work—for example, I’ve been a garbageman and roofed during the summer—but mixing concrete by hand is kind of unpleasant. You have to haul multiple bags of sand and cement mix and five-gallon buckets of cold water, which splashes on your pants in chilly weather. When you tear open and pour out the bags, cement dust gets in your eyes and hair and on your clothes. The dust would wreck your lungs if you mixed concrete often. I tied a bandanna over my mouth and nose; it seemed more effective than a Covid mask later seemed.
After you blend the dry sand and cement, you shape the pile into a wide volcano and pour water into the depression on top. Then, shovelful-by-shovelful, you scrape the dry mix from the plywood at the volcanic base into the ponded water in the crater, circling the crater on foot to preserve the pile’s symmetry. You work quickly so that the weighty gray sludge doesn’t harden before you sling it into its final resting place. Multiple batches are typically required.
Mixing concrete is grunt work. It doesn’t create something that looks good, or finished, as does hanging drywall, painting, refinishing floors or building bookshelves. But you have to do this task. If you don’t, there’s no foundation for the more satisfying, visible building elements that follow.
Before I heard it from Dave, I had known and seen that anger could be channeled into a constructive response. But Dave’s concrete-mixing metaphor and his use of the word “hate” stuck with me. In life, as when mixing concrete, people need to show some grit and push through unpleasant tasks or life phases.
Americans used to better understand this link between hate, perseverance and getting stuff done. Over the centuries, countless people in the US and abroad have done plenty of very hard work to sustain themselves and their families. In order to do so, they needed to internalize some risk and bring some toughness to bear.
For example, my grandfather and countless others of his generation deep-mined coal. Many were killed in mine accidents. Many more, like my grandfather, at 47, died from black lung disease. Other men worked in steel mills. In the first half of the 1900s, 9% of steelworkers died on the job from, e.g., having heavy beams land, or molten steel poured, on them. Similarly, millions have planted, cultivated or harvested crops all day in scorching hot fields. Before those fields were used to grow crops, they needed to be cleared. Imagine cutting thick, massive trees with two-man handsaws all day in very hot summers. Many humans did such work for years, for little or no pay.
Despite being subjected to much greater threats than people were from Coronavirus exposure, coal, steel and agricultural laborers pressed on because they needed income and because everyone needed coal, steel, lumber and food and fiber to build and heat houses, schools and businesses, to eat and wear clothes and to travel. Those who provided these commodities were the original “essential workers.” On balance, far more lives were lengthened and improved—not shortened and worsened—because laborers tolerated serious risk and did exhausting and dangerous work.
In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, workplaces were made safer and hard work was increasingly done by machines and/or outsourced abroad. But as this occurred, many Americans lost their mental toughness and sense of history. As a society, we overshot the safety mark. This was never clearer than in the past three years of Coronamania, during which bizarre, ineffective public safety measures were substituted for sane risk/reward analysis and the general welfare.
Many contemporary people have never done physically challenging labor. Over the past fifty-plus years, increasing numbers of workers sit in front of screens and do some oddly-titled job, the process or purpose of which can be hard to explain or understand. Modernity, occupational and otherwise, has pacified people and lessened their ability to recognize true adversity, or to assess risk. Additionally, excessive exposure to the media and academia have fostered the false, yet prevailing belief that the world is always in crisis and that only “Science(!)” and the government can save us.
Having been disconnected from hard physical work, and having become dependent upon smartphones, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and abundant “recreational” herb, many Twenty-First Century Americans have become emotionally soft, psychologically frail and cognitively challenged. Even though 7,600 Americans died daily before Coronamania, during the past three years, many thought, or at least pretended, that no one should get sick or die, no matter how old or overweight. They feared things, like coronaviruses, that aren’t fearsome.
Manifesting extreme safety-ism, they staunchly but naively supported ridiculous measures that they thought might “just save one life.” In so doing, they ignored the obvious, major downsides to such plainly unhelpful interventions.
The important thing in present-day America is to be nice, or to act like you are. Mostly, neo-niceness means favoring politically correct groups of people, hating the politically incorrect, studiously using PC buzzwords, hewing to PC narratives, up-talking to connote deference to others and uncertainty about even the plainest facts, and giving pedestrians the right of way while driving a Prius. Such symbolic steps require no serious effort but allow the neo-nice to feel good about themselves.
Obeying, and demanding that others obey, the Covid “mitigation” measures exacted little or no cost from the laptop class. Their incomes were undiminished. They got to “work from home” or were paid not to work at all. Many laptoppers even profited from Coronamania via various CARES Act subsidies, running various Covid-boosted businesses or Med/Pharma shareholding. The nice laptoppers’ support for Covid mitigation was passive, performative “kindness” run amok.
Yet, isolating people from each other wasn’t kind or nice, or helpful. Nor was stealing irreplaceable time from those, especially kids, who need human interaction. Nor was making others wear silly masks or take harmful, lethal shots. It also wasn’t nice to widen the gap between the rich and the working poor; the government caused major inflation by giving away trillions of contrived CovidBucks for nothing of value.
Our culture’s debilitating shift toward neo-niceness began several decades ago. From young ages, kids have increasingly been given many unnecessary toys, clothes and experiences. Young people have also been shielded from physical challenges. For example, most boys have given up football for soccer. They don’t even wrestle in gym class; it’s considered too rough. Sitting alone in front of screens—on social media—and playing video games is far more common. Few young Americans have done hard work even in their teens or twenties. Instead, they get corporate or non-profit internships, often unpaid, as their parents subsidize them.
During Coronamania, politicians, the media and laptop-class liberals opportunistically feigned outrage over the passing of already ill septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians, or the obese. Our forebearers would have dismissed those who deemed such deaths unexpected or tragic. They had faced much bigger risks and challenges. And there were far fewer old or obese people then.
Our ancestors wouldn’t have sacrificed normal life, an economy and a young generation so that they could work in sweatpants and their party could win elections. Instead, they would have seen the costs of extreme safety-ism, scoffed at the idea of locking down a society over a respiratory virus and understood that the human toll of doing so far exceeded any insincerely-proffered, and ultimately unrealized, benefits.
Thanks for reading Dispatches from a Scamdemic! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
American men have become pussified.
Hard work and fresh air needed.
Scouting, gritty parents and chores will go a long way to wean these kids from screens and immaturity.
Thanks for another prosaic gem, Mark.
I was just thinking along the same lines for the past few days. We've lost the manliness of the men in our Country and in the world. It is considered wrong now to be strong as men b/c that may offend somebody somewhere. I'm hoping I taught my kids better. My second son wanted a moped but we told him he needed to find a job so he could buy one himself. We wouldn't buy it for him. So, he went out and he found himself a job on a horseradish root farm. This work is dirty, hard, and hot even in the Swedish "summers". He perservered though and was able to buy himself the moped that he wanted (that made our lives easier, actually, but he needed to learn to earn something on his own).
That job of his led to another job that the other 2 oldest helped out with on another horseradish root farm. I still have pics I took of them coming home looking like they'd been underground all day! This job led to my two youngest (girls) getting a job on a vegetable farm planting potatoes, harvesting carrots and onions and other veggies and then washing prepping and packaging them. My youngest, especially, did NOT like the job. I told her that was fine but she wasn't allowed to leave it till she found another. She never did find another and now, one of the youngest workers there since she started when she was 14, she has one of the highest salaries for the teens that work there and she is trusted by the boss to take care of things when he isn't around. Amazingly, this sense of responsibility and higher pay has made her like the job a little more each year.
My kids knew from day one that we, as parents, weren't going to be giving them anything that they could buy for themselves with a little elbow grease and hard work. They all knew from the beginning that I started my first job when I was in kindergarten. I delivered newspapers in my neighborhood and at 5 years old I had to collect the quarter for those papers every month. That was my pay. If I didn't collect it, I didn't get paid. By the time I was in high school, I was paying for everything for myself besides room and board. I told them and continue to tell them, the crap jobs help to teach you what you don't want to do the rest of your life. Use that to inspire you to be better at whatever it is you do want to do or what you need to do to be able to do what you do want to do and you will go far in life and you won't end up flipping burgers for a living...
I hope we as a country find our way soon though or it won't matter that my kids are hard workers b/c there won't be a country for them to be working for left worth working for...