With His Blue-Collar Pandering, Oren Cass Exposes Himself As Well Out of Touch
"Come in this place, you don’t know if you’re coming out. And if you do you might be missing an arm or eye or leg. Do something for yourself.” – Wes Dorsett, on Aliquippa, PA’s steel mills. (source: Playing Through the Whistle, p. 232)
Frank Marocco came of age in 1950s Aliquippa. At the time J & L Steel continued to employ much of the town’s citizenry, including numerous members of Marocco’s very large family.
Notable here is that Marocco’s older brothers were desperate to ensure that Frank wouldn’t follow them into J & L’s mills. To aid their cause, brother Dominic secured for him a miserable job one summer during high school sealing oven caps at a J & L tin mill. Apparently the message didn’t quite sink in despite Frank earning a football scholarship to North Carolina State in 1955. Unhappy with being asked to red shirt, and similarly unhappy with the girls at NC State, S.L. Price writes in his fabulous book Playing Through the Whistle that Frank “bummed enough money to buy a one-way plane ticket home.” Interesting is what happened once he walked off the plane in Pittsburgh.
According to Price, all thirteen of Frank’s brothers and sisters were waiting for him, including Dominic. Dominic handed Frank a return plane ticket, only to tell his younger brother to “Get back on the goddamned plane at five o’clock and go back down to school. If you don’t, you ain’t got a family.” Frank did as he was told.
Marocco’s story and Price's book came to mind while reading a recent opinion piece by conservatism's policy theorist du jour, Oren Cass. How things have changed. While the right used to be aspirational, and talked optimistically about limiting government so that individuals could realize their varied talents, Cass is channeling Karl Marx’s labor theory of value in his naïve attempts to elevate the work of the past. Cass plainly never met Frank Marocco, and it’s apparent he’s unfamiliar with factories, mills and the people who work in them. That Cass just doesn’t know is itself a sign of economic progress, but clearly not a sign the policy theorist has picked up on. Cass instead panders.
He laments that the Best Comedy Emmy awards of the 1970s regularly went to shows about people in blue collar jobs, but that “From 1992 to 2017, the Emmy went almost every year to a show about white-collar adults working in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, New York, or Washington, few of whom were raising children.” Cass’s point is that Hollywood is conducting a “culture war” on dignified work of the steel-mill variety. Oh dear…
What Cass misses, of course, is that those who most turn their noses up to the jobs Cass so deeply admires are the very people who actually did (and do) those jobs. Lest he forget, it was Hollywood’s cultural elite who were elevating the blue collar work that Cass perhaps only knows from watching television, and those elites were putting it on a pedestal at the same time that those working in the factories were begging their children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters to find something else to do. Anything.
Cass is troubled that television of the present no longer cheers blue-collar work, but the scholar yet again misses the point. Culture is to a high degree a reflection of where society has been, and where it’s going. That shows used to be about blue-collar workers is merely a sign of how much work has changed – often for the better – in the U.S. Figure that as late as the 1960s, manufacturing could still be found in Manhattan. Television reflected this truth. New York thrives today precisely because the factories have left. It’s where the factories lingered (think Detroit, Flint, and yes, Aliquippa) that the people who lift up towns and cities long ago departed.
So while a betting man would wager that Cass grew up far from the factories and mills that he so innocently lionizes, even if he grew up in Pontiac, MI it’s apparent the scholar long ago left it, literally and figuratively. Indeed, no one intimately familiar with mill and factory work would so childishly clamor for its return and/or its acclamation. Those who truly knew the mills told those they loved to avoid them at all costs, even if this meant moving elsewhere. And so Flint, Detroit, and Aliquippa experienced an outflow of their best and brightest; the ongoing existence of the blue-collar work so revered by Cass a big driver of the out-migration. As Jerry Bowyer has often pointed out, there are Pittsburgh Steelers bars far from Pittsburgh in which the departed sons and daughters of western PA cheer their favorite football team. Capitalism’s plenty, plenty which included jobs not requiring hard hats or working underground, was the source of this out-migration.
Fast forward to the present, and it’s increasingly hard to find the mills and factories of the past. Important here is that the primary nostalgists for the jobs of the past are politicians and scholars who’ve almost certainly never done the kind of work they clamor for. Those who did beg their kids to do something else as previously mentioned. Hollywood elites to their credit reflected this truth too. There are lots of examples, but 1983 movie All the Right Moves (Tom Cruise played the lead) was about high school football players in a fictional Pennsylvania town (Ampipe) desperate to trade their skills on the field for a ticket out of Ampipe and its horrid mills.
It’s all a reminder that at least in a cultural sense, Hollywood has been very respectful of blue-collar work, but also respectful of the yearnings of those same workers to help their offstpring achieve something better. Cass is certainly right that “work is inherently deserving of respect,” but reveals himself as John V. Lindsay (look him up…) tone deaf when he contends “something is amiss” because blue-collar work is “cause for embarrassment.” Sorry, but it’s those who did the work that Cass would never be caught dead doing who looked down on it the most.
Rather than understand this basic truth, Cass once again panders. He takes a shot at Wall Street with his juvenile suggestion that work of the waitress/truck driver/retail variety “compare[s] favorably” to that of the derivatives trader; derivatives trader merely a symbol for all the work done in finance. Of course missed by Cass is that absent investment, there quite simply are no jobs. If it’s true that work is very dignified, and it is, Wall Street is the hero in any discussion of work; the problem being that the previous truth doesn’t fit Cass’s obnoxious pose as a man of the people. But that’s what Cass aims to be. At one point he laughably argues that “people who do harder jobs for lower wages deserve the greatest admiration.” Oh please. Naturally Cass isn’t suggesting that he would accept lower wages and dirty work in return for admiration, but the greater truth is that the scholar is revealing yet again just how out of touch he is. As the outflow from dying factory towns reminds us, those closest to the work that Cass will never have to do wholly disagree with his Marxian assertion about what is real work.
The good news is that Cass can be wistful about the work of the past because it once again doesn’t exist. Progress has in many ways erased what was never that great, and Hollywood reflects this truth as the nature of work increasingly evolves for the better. Just don’t expect to find this good news in the new book Cass is doing his best to sell. Apparently the scholar sees pessimism as a marketing tool. Maybe it will work. But if readers really want to know the truth about the blue-collar work Cass thinks so wonderful, they should skip the former Romney advisor’s unwitting acknowledgement of how distant he is from blue-collar workers in favor of Price’s Playing Through the Whistle.