In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, plenty of fingers have been pointed, crying out that enough wasn’t done. On the far left, we have people saying FEMA didn’t respond quickly enough, blaming Bush cronyism for appointing unqualified friends to high positions. The far right has chimed in, insisting that the people of New Orleans didn’t do enough. More than one radio talk-show host has insisted our abysmal welfare state has created laziness, and people sat around waiting to be helped instead of taking matters into their own hands.
Regardless of which side of the debate one might fall on, both sides seem to agree, people should have been doing something. A key part of Americanism is the Protestant work tradition — the idea that people shouldn’t be idle, lazy, or couch potatoes. Mormons seem to have joined this tradition of hard work and take great pride in their industry. Whenever I tell people I’m working on a history degree, one of two inevitable questions immediately follows: “What are you going to do with that,” or “Are you going to teach?” We associate what people do with what job they have, and as a result, I think the Protestant work ethic sucks.
This need to always be busy, always doing something, has usually worked well for the privileged classes in America. At the turn of the twentieth-century, affluent men went to work in important business or political jobs, while women took up the cause of betterment leagues or other moral crusades. They had nannies or other help, saw their children when they wanted, and went to parties and social events. Church leaders like Joseph F. Smith and Anthon H. Lund are examples of this privileged class, spending time at bank meetings, overseeing the construction of the Hotel Utah, going to Salt Lake social gatherings, and seeing their children when it pleased them.
But for the majority of working class Americans, this work tradition has been less kind. Workers often spent 12 hours at work in a factory job; their entertainment was the local bar or the nickelodeon on a busy street, if they were lucky. They had little time for family, and much of their life and time was dictated by their jobs.
This was hard on immigrants, especially since many European immigrants led very different lives in the Old World. Italian Catholics, or Greek Orthodox immigrants, for example, didn’t have this kind of work tradition. They worked just hard enough to buy a bottle of wine, get food together and spend time with family celebrating anything that came their way. In America, they lost a great deal of their freedom to maintain control over their lives and work to support their families, but have enough time to spend with them. It was the men and fathers of families who had the hardest time adjusting to the New World as they struggled to maintain some kind of control over their lives, fighting against a system that took them from their close-knit family and ethnic group.
Even though today we have labor laws that make life significantly better, I have to say, I sympathize. I struggle each and every day when I have to leave my family and travel to work. I’ve often found it ironic that Mormonism, for all its focus on family, seems to embrace a tradition that keeps people from their families, whether it’s through wage-paid work, volunteer work, Church work, etc. Folks who just sit around are not looked upon with great favor, yet there’s nothing I love more than playing with my kids, sitting and chatting with my wife, watching a movie with her, going out to eat as a family, or otherwise just acting like a lazy lay-about. I miss them every single day, and feel like I’m watching their young lives go by and I’m not there to enjoy it with them.
While I have a job that keeps me away from 1-10PM, while going to school in the morning, it’s hard not to feel the same lack of control that European immigrants felt. The goal of course, is to finish school and then perhaps I too can join the privileged class, gain the control I’m looking for, and be one of the few that gets to direct the many. But even if that happens, I can’t help but feel like I’d be happier following a different path, though the options are few, if any.