Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

As physical jobs decline, something is lost

Op-Ed

By Victor Davis Hanson // Los Angeles Times

As jobs that require physical work decline thanks to technological advances, life superficially appears to get better. Cheap cellphones, video games, the Internet, social media and labor-saving appliances all make things easier and suggest that even more and better benefits are on the horizon. Formerly backbreaking industries, from the growing of almonds to the building of cars, are increasingly mechanized, using fewer but more skilled operators.

Anyone who has spot-welded or harvested almonds with a mallet and canvas has no regrets in seeing the disappearance of such rote drudgery. Consumers benefit in the from of cheaper prices. But as we continue on this trajectory, initiated in the Industrial Revolution, is something lost? Something only poorly approximated by greater leisure time, non-muscular jobs and contrived physical exercise in air-conditioned gyms?

Talk long enough to the most accomplished academics, lawyers and CEOs — who also tend to be the most conscientious about biking, jogging and weightlifting (obesity being an epidemic of the poor and lower middle classes) — and more often than not, they will brag about a long-ago college summer job waiting tables or repairing hiking trails. They might praise the granite-counter installer who redid their kitchen, or offer an anecdote about the time they helped the tree-trimmer haul limbs from the backyard out to the trailer at the curb. There seems a human instinct to want to do physical work.

The proliferation of hard-work reality-television programming reflects this apparent need, if only vicariously. Indeed, the more we have become immobile and urbanized, the more we tune in to watch reality television’s assorted truckers, loggers, farmers, fishermen, drillers and rail engineers. In a society that supposedly despises menial jobs, the television ratings for such programs suggest that lots of Americans enjoy watching people of action who work with their hands.

Before any of us can teach, write or speculate, we must first have food, shelter and safety. And for a bit longer, at least, that will require some people to cut grapes and nail two-by-sixes. No apps or 3-D printers exist to produce brown rice for the tables of Silver Lake and the Upper West Side. The almond farmer outside my window uses a computerized machine for seemingly every task — irrigating, cultivating and harvesting. But this morning, two men are cutting out diseased limbs in the orchard, selecting their cuts with the help of an Echo chainsaw, whose basic tenets of portability, gasoline power source, and chain running on a guided frame have a 100-year pedigree.

It is astonishing, the degree to which a high-tech, post-modern society still depends on low-tech, pre-modern labor, whether that is a teen in constant motion for eight hours as a barista at Starbucks or a mechanic on his back underneath a Lexus, searching to find a short that popped up in a computerized code on his tablet.

Physical work, moreover, has an intrinsic satisfaction in that it is real, in the primordial sense that nonphysical work is not. The head of the Federal Reserve may be more important to our general welfare than the city road crew patching asphalt roads, but there remains something wondrous in transforming material conditions through the hands, an act that can be seen and felt rather than just spoken or written about. Changing the physical landscape, either by building or destroying something previously constructed or altering it, lends a sense of confidence that the human body can still manifest one’s ideas by concrete action.

In that context, physical labor can provide independence, at least in a limited sense of not being entirely reliant on a host of hired workers. By the same token, working with one’s hands, however temporarily, gives some approximation of what physical labor is and what those who do it might be like.

Especially valuable in muscular work is some appreciation of the tragic view of the world. For the last four decades, I have split my time between teaching classics and writing, and working on a farm. I cannot say that either world is nobler than the other. But I did learn that farm laborers complained much less about their own often-unenviable lots than did academics about their comparatively enviable compensation and generous time off. Working outdoors, often alone, with one’s hands encourages a tragic acceptance of nature and its limitations. Talking and writing indoors with like kind promote a more therapeutic sense that life can be changed through discourse and argument.

It follows logically that I learned more from teaching undergraduates at Cal State Fresno than from students at Stanford — not because they knew Greek and Latin better (most did not) but because they often worked 20 hours or more per week at minimum-wage jobs and thus had a far wider range of experience with (and empathy for) characters and events found in Aristophanes, Euripides and Hesiod in the pre-modern world of the Greeks.

In his final play, “Bacchae,” the Athenian playwright Euripides explored the nature of wisdom and who possesses it. After a frenzy of killing and destruction, he seems to conclude that neither the rational and conventional King Pentheus (“You’ve got a quick tongue and seem intelligent, but your words don’t make any sense at all”) nor the ecstatic emotion of the divine Dionysus and his bacchants (“Angry gods should not act just like humans”) were models for emulation. Best, instead, is the day-by-day life without pretense: “The hopes of countless men are infinite in number. Some make men rich; some come to nothing. So I consider that man blessed who lives a happy existence day by day.”

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hanson-physical-labor-20170709-story.html

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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