Our Founders imagined they would suffer so their descendants would not
“We are soldiers so that our sons can be farmers and their sons can be poets” is a quote often attributed to John Adams. He likely never uttered those words, but he did write something similar in a letter to a friend. While the sentiments he expressed -- the hope that our children will have better lives than we -- is understandable and something we all share, it loses sight of how a civilization is created and, more importantly, how it is maintained.
Adams’s hope was that, by launching the revolutionary war, through suffering and sacrifice, he and his colleagues could secure a better future for their progeny. In this hope, history has smiled on his aspirations. But Adams was, and many of us are, wrong in the fundamental belief that the goal is an easy life of reflection and repose for our heirs.
In contemporary terms, the analogous quote might be “Our fathers were farmers, (ironworkers, miners, etc.) so that we can be managers, and our children can be video gamers, Youtubers, TikTokers, etc.” Our fathers built, we manage, and our children express themselves.
There were many currents and shifts in our culture that led us to this place, but the two most important changes are how we view work and how we view art.
The number of Americans involved in actually building and creating things has diminished to a small fraction of what it was in the middle of the twentieth century. There are still factories producing cars, trucks, appliances, and other consumer goods, but the people employed in these industries, as a percentage of the population, are a small fraction of what they were after WWII. In the construction industry, a large and growing percentage of the work is not done by Americans, but rather by workers insourced from other countries, primarily Latin America.
Instead of a nation of workers who build and create, we have become a nation of managers -- people who maintain the spreadsheets and protect the margins, and who project sales figures and limit exposure. We are HR managers, IT managers, sales managers, general managers, assistant managers, warehouse managers, and logistics managers. A small and diminishing number of us are creators, builders, workers.
To some extent, this has happened because of economic forces, but a large influence has been how we view work and workers. Our culture looks at the people who do the work of building and creating as necessary, but disposable. “It is nice that they could build my house, my car, my office building, but I don’t want my son to do work like that.” So, we buy a car made overseas and we hire workers imported for our wants and needs. The people who do the work don’t belong to our churches, lacrosse leagues, country clubs; we have no association or obligation because they don’t belong to our community. They are not part of the managerial class.
How we view art has changed because we have confused entertainment with art. Some art is entertainment, but almost no entertainment is art. The movies we watch, the books we read, the countless hours of video on social network platforms entertain us, but they don’t challenge us or deepen our understanding of creation. Very little of what we consider art is an expression of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
And yet actors, singers, dancers, and content creators are considered “artists.” Why do we consider neurotic narcissists who assault our senses and sensibilities with vulgarity artists? Read the lyrics of popular music or sample a dozen videos on YouTube and ask yourself if you are a better person for the experience? Think of your favorite actor or singer and ask yourself what insight have you gained from their performance?
Healthy, thriving cultures are not built or maintained by men and women with supple hands and smooth complexions. They are created and sustained by men and women who are not managers, but rather workers. We need parents who do not protect their children from hard work, but rather who teach their children that there is no shame in doing hard work, that it is honorable to earn a living through building and creating, and that blood and sweat are the price for becoming more than managers.
Healthy, thriving cultures do not confuse art with entertainment. A society with a future does not venerate fictional characters from the endless Star Wars series or worship comic book heroes of the Marvel Universe. A healthy culture honors and esteems real men and women who work and sacrifice for their families, their communities, and their country. The fact that we cannot see them and do not honor them speaks volumes as to who we have become.
One wonders if John Adams would be impressed with our country of managers and “artists.”
Chris Boland can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: Teenage boys. Rawpixel license.
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