Ahhh, August. The month of repose, the carefree month when our workaday world stops, or at least drags its feet in the beach sand. In your dreams. Americans get fewer days off than any other workers in the industrialized world, and we often don’t even use up all of those. Even when we are on holiday, we may sneak looks at the office email, or read memos, or write them, while the world frolics around us. We hate the idea of slacking off and yet we have a sneaking admiration for the stylish slackers who do so little, and do it so well.
Tom Lutz — author, critic and founder of the Los Angeles Review of Books — wrote a book called “Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America” and bestirred himself to talk about our national paradox.
Here we get down to cases: As you write, “If the self-made man pulling himself up by his own bootstraps is the typical American, the slacker is his necessary twin, a figure without whom American history is equally unthinkable.” We've been sold this mythology, though, of nose-to-the-grindstone, of the bootstraps story. These seem like two halves of our American selves.
Yes, and of course we are a country that's formed mostly around the Industrial Revolution, and so we have an Industrial Revolution idea about work. Nobody in [ancient] Greece talked about the ennobling value of work. There was no work ethic in ancient Rome.
They had a slave class.
They had a slave class. If you were unlucky you worked. If you were born lucky you didn't work. You did other things, maybe you even did some philosophy, but you didn't work.
And so the idea that work is valuable and important and the essence of what we're supposed to be doing with our lives — all of that is an Industrial Revolution phenomenon. And almost immediately, the slacker figure shows up as a country goes through an Industrial Revolution.
The idea of the slacker as a political hero, as a counterculture hero, is still a frustrating one for people who do the work and who see this fellow — this sponger, this slacker, whatever you want to call him — getting away with it, in fact being admired for it.
This book actually started completely accidentally. I was going to write a book about anger because my son had moved into my house. The first chapter was called “Cody on the Couch,” and he proceeded to lie on the couch and do nothing. And it drove me nutty, which, as I talk about it, makes no sense. I was a slacker as a kid, too. I did a lot of nothing myself. I should have understood that he was just in the kind of momentary moratorium figuring out what he's going to do with his life.
But it made me really angry. And I was trying to figure that out. It turned into a book about work and the work ethic, because so many people are angry. Online, you can find people screaming about lazy people everywhere.
Jack Kerouac represents himself as a guy who loves to lounge around and drink wine and do nothing else, but he actually would like to drink wine and type.
It’s part of the complex, although surprisingly, the people who claim to be the champions of the work ethic like Benjamin Franklin, who is the main avatar of the work ethic in early America.
He was a bit of a slacker. [President] John Adams, when he comes to Paris, says, You have to fire Franklin. He does nothing. He lies around all day. The only thing he's not late for is lunch.
But if you look at what he accomplished, you can hardly grudge him his time off.
There are famous slackers who were workaholics, a lot of them. Jack Kerouac, an early hero of mine, represents himself as a guy who loves to lounge around and drink wine and do nothing else, but he actually would like to drink wine and type.
Is it because this country was forged bang in the middle of the Industrial Revolution that we bring this work ethic as part of American culture to ourselves and our lives?
I think it's partly because of the Industrial Revolution, and undoubtedly maybe most importantly the Protestant work ethic, a kind of Calvinist idea of works getting you into heaven, doing the right stuff.
So you’re punching the divine clock?
Exactly. You're working for eternity.
These slackers that we resent and admire at the same time — you go back to Rip Van Winkle as one of them, and as modern as Ferris Bueller and the
We do, although we don't always like them as co-workers.
Exactly. There are lots of things that we like in our entertainments that represent the values that we both feel beholden to and oppressed by. We'd love to see them made fun of in our entertainments. But that's a very different thing than real life.
And as you say, in modern films, we have characters like Ferris Bueller. In a way, he earns his sloth because he's been a good kid. He's gotten good grades, he's going to go to a good school. So there's just that one day he's going to take.
And you know he's a very enterprising slacker, right? He builds a whole lot of machinery to get himself to make it look like he's asleep in bed. He puts a lot of effort into his day off.
Did working on this book change your sense of this country and how it regards itself?
It gave me a sense of my own neuroses. I am a workaholic. I do work all the time. I work way too much, in the sense that everybody talks about Americans working more hours than in any other country in the world; I’m part of that statistic.
I guess I already knew that there was something funny and funky about our apparent love of work. And part of part of what's wrong with it is that we hate work as well.
August is the month of vacation. All over the world people are going on holiday guilt free. In France there is no singular for the word “vacation.” It's plural — les vacances — always plural. So we feel very ambivalent. We don’t even take the pathetic number of vacation days that we are allotted in this country. And when we do go on vacation, we feel guilty at not being at work, afraid that we're going to lose our jobs because we're not working — even though we're taking time we're entitled to.
And a lot of people on vacation decide that they need to bicycle a thousand miles across New Zealand, or do something so that it's productive somehow. And now that our offices can fit in our pocket, people are working on vacation all the time. I try to get the folks at Los Angeles Review of Books to take actual vacations and they're constantly on their phones.
There are a lot of calls for Americans to be less driven in their work and be a little bit more relaxed. There's clear health benefits to taking vacations. There is a push to get us to relax a bit. I think it would be probably great if we could be a little bit Frencher.
Frencher — I like that.
Or at least … Japanese, who work still considerably less than Americans do.
This gets to the question of class in work, because there’s still a lot of work that is punch-clock work, that is 9 to 5 or 8 to 4 or the midnight shift; when people come home, they don’t keep checking their work email.
I think that, yes, the difference between the kind of professional work that we do and 9 to 5 factory work or construction work or any kind of physically demanding work is — I think it's overstated.
I did spend 10 years in the working class. I worked as a cook. I worked as a carpenter. I did a lot of different jobs. And my sense of what my work life was then was very similar to what it is now — that is, I took a certain satisfaction out of doing the job well.
Felix Frankfurter, before he was on the Supreme Court, was working with the head of U.S. Steel on the eight-hour day, in court over an eight-hour day union requirement. And the head of U.S. Steel said, Look at us. It's 10 o’clock at night and we're still talking to each other. We're still working. Why should these people in the factory work less than we do?
The answer would seem obvious to me — that they're only getting paid for the time they're working there, and not very much, at that.
Yes, that's one that's part of the answer. The other part of the answer on Frankfurter’s part was, well look how interesting our work is. We kind of want to keep doing this. And so, if you don't want to keep hammering steel with a sledgehammer, you should be able to stop after eight hours.
So you can define work by saying it's something you don't want to do?
Well, that is that is one way to define it. Yeah. It doesn't feel like work means, I really like what I'm doing.
There's one aspect of this we haven't mentioned, which is that all of this sloth, all of the slackers, the flaneurs, the do-nothings — their lives are made possible by women who are not slackers.
There have been a lot of women who are slackers over the years as well — not as many, because women's work was not considered work in the same way that the industrial work was, right? So it didn't get picked up in the culture in the same way. It was just stuff that you had to do, in the same way that brushing your teeth if you're a man is not considered work. Cleaning things, that was not considered part of the work life. We understand [now] that it is work, but it was not picked up by the culture in that way at the period in which this complex was being formed in industrial culture.
These guys pretty much couldn't do what they did without somebody there, you know, washing their clothes and putting food on their plate.
Yes, although I do think it's interesting to wonder to what extent the kind of claiming daily activity as work. Why do we want to say that changing a baby's diaper is work rather than —
Because you have to do it whether you like to or not.
Yes, you do. But you have to eat whether you like it or not.
You’re going to get pushback on that, starting with me!
I know, I know, I understand that. But we I think that we're a culture which kind of feels compelled to identify what is work and what is not work. And it's the claims about women's work which we all have accepted since the ’70s at least.
And that’s a subculture in art, literature, film, too, where you see the role-flipping movies like “Mr. Mom,” where he thinks she does nothing, she thinks he does nothing but go to lunch all day and they try each other's shoes on for size.
What are you doing for vacation?
I'm on my way to Ethiopia. But, see it's work; I'm going to write about it. I do understand that I'm completely lying to myself all of the time. Whenever I'm trying to relax, I'm lying to myself. When I’m working, I'm lying to myself. So I don't know what the alternative would be. I only do it this one way, which is a bizarre combination of slacker and workaholic that has defined my life from the beginnings.
And much of America’s!
Patt Morrison’s new book is “Don’t Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice and the American Newspaper.”
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