All Points

Thank You for Your Service

By William Deresiewicz | December 11, 2011


I continue to think about the cult of the uniform. I wrote, a few weeks ago, about the way our worship of the military, our sentimentalization of the people who serve in it, distorts our understanding of who they are and what they do. But it is also part of a larger distortion. If we overvalue military service, we undervalue almost every other occupation. (Only “job creators” also win our cultural approval now.) Think of nurses and teachers, two groups of people who deserve a lot more recognition than they get: who put up with long hours, tough conditions, and mediocre pay to do the vital work of our society, often caring for people whom the rest of us would rather not even know about.

Think of nurses and teachers: but we always think of nurses and teachers, when we remember to remember the people we don’t think about enough. At least we are sufficiently aware of them to recognize they rarely get the thanks that they deserve. What about the people we never remember—the ones who clean our office buildings, stock the shelves in our department stores, work as orderlies in hospitals and nursing homes, take our abuse at call centers, wait on us at fast food joints? People who work for the minimum wage, who have no job security, who are actively prevented from unionizing—who have no presence, no recourse, no power, no voice. I was staying at a hotel the other month, and as I passed the maid on the way to the elevator, I felt like stopping her and saying, “Thank you for your service.”

According to Jerry Lembcke, a sociologist who studies the military (he was also the source of some of the claims I made in my previous post on this topic), one of the reasons people join the service is to find the sense of meaning that we no longer invest in other work. We used to talk about the dignity of labor. We can begin to recover the concept—and rebalance our system of values—by acknowledging the presence of labor. It is worth noting in this connection that there is a striking disparity between the way Americans identify themselves in terms of socioeconomic status and the way they are alleged to. Everybody knows that 90 percent of people in this country regard themselves as middle-class. Except they don’t. Yes, given a ternary choice—lower, middle, upper—about 90 percent choose middle. But add a fourth term, and the middle-class monolith cracks in two. Offer people the option to identify themselves as working-class, and about half of those 90 percent do so. I wrote some years ago, in this magazine, about the disappearance of the working class from our cultural consciousness. Here’s hoping that they find a way to remind the rest of us of their existence.

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