10-4, Good Buddy

  Jerome Shea       September 8, 2007      Weekend Wonk

I had to laugh.

David Brooks, University of Chicago B.A. (History, ’83) and conservative pundit, was hunkered down with an over-the-road trucker in a diner in Virginia,* which got me fantasizing George Will jawing about porkbelly futures at the feed store or Thomas Sowell…but I find it too painful to fantasize Thomas Sowell.

Let me say right off the bat that I like David Brooks’s stuff. He’s neither a ranter nor a knee-jerk ideologue and I often find in his columns a shiny intellectual bauble that I can play with for hours on end. He’s not George Will or Thomas Sowell.

But in talking about the “mystique of trucking,” he was, more subtly than Will or Sowell or Charles Krauthammer or Paul Greenberg, pushing the popular conservative notion that there are the good, honest, hard-working people—from George Bush of Crawford, Texas,** on down to the trucker, the farmer, the construction worker, the waitress—who are a saving antidote to…well, to John Kerry the windsurfer, and other liberals of his sorry, effete ilk. And that notion, that image, has served the conservatives very well for too many years. This is something that few liberals—er, progressives—seem to realize, and it is why so many people who are hurting socially and economically continue to vote against their own interests.

It so happens that I know an over-the-road trucker—Steve Shea, my older brother, who is probably pretty similar to the guy in the column. They are both 68, for openers, and they probably think pretty much alike. He works harder than I ever did, if you can even compare the work of a truck driver with that of a college professor. He would give me, or just about anybody else, the shirt off his back. Some of his virtues shame mine. There is honest love between us, but also, I know, deep philosophical and political differences. That’s ok. We agree to disagree, and the two thousand miles between us make a nice buffer zone.

Brooks sounds like a trucker groupie. Listen:

I don’t know which came first, the mystique of trucking or the country music songs which defined the mystique, but this trucker had been captured by the ethos early on and had never let it go. He wore the right boots and clothes. He had a flat, never-surprised way of talking. He didn’t smile or try to ingratiate.

“He wore the right boots and clothes.” Those would be, I’ll bet the rent, cowboy boots and other cowboy attire.*** I will also bet that those boots–ostrich or ‘gator or whatever—are way beyond what a real cowboy could afford. It’s not a style, it’s a fetish. Long distance truckers are mythic figures in our popular culture, and they know it and revel in it. The cowboy get-up, the laconic demeanor…

Think “John Wayne,” pilgrim. There’s Right and there’s Wrong, and only a dude or a dandy would question that.

Brooks cites Michele Lamont’s The Dignity of Working Men, which posits that it is moral rather than economic differences which separate us, at least in the view of the man (women don’t seem to count; we can scratch the waitress) who can “look out for himself, who has the courage to be a firefighter, a soldier or a cop, who has the discipline to put bread on the table every night despite difficulties.”

Hey, I have “put bread on the table every night” for my family for the last forty years, dammit! But evidently that doesn’t cut it. In the truckers’ view, as filtered through Lamont and Brooks, I am part of a shifty and shiftless class of “professionals and managers [and] manipulators.” “People who worked in offices, who worked by persuasion,” Brooks reports, “were dismissed for being insincere, for playing games.”

This is anti-intellectualism and, boy, do we have a long history of it. This is where thoughtful nuance is seen as weaseling, where the word “rhetoric” has a bad odor, where revising your opinion is seen as inconsistency or even inconstancy (and where someone who can relish the difference between “inconsistency” and “inconstancy” is definitely beyond the pale). Conservatives have been riding this hobbyhorse since Tricky Dick Nixon’s administration.

Well, so be it. But it pleases me to point out that David Brooks is himself part of that same manipulative, rhetorical crowd, stringing us along with trucker romance and, by implication, the demonizing that whole other leeching (read “effete liberal”) camp. Irony is sometimes its own reward.

I wonder if I’ll hear from Steve.

*Albuquerque Tribune, 8/22/07, “Trucker lays rubber on social strata.”

**I hope George got a good deal on that Texas ranch, because it must have really gone to seed. By all accounts, the poor man has to clear brush from sunup to sundown.

***Yes, I’m calling the kettle black. See “I See By My Outfit.” And there will be no more footnotes, because I’ve run out of asterisks.

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