Whither the Oregon Trail

One of the self-inflicted wounds of anti-immigrant sentiment for the unfashionable working class (i.e. native working class) is the lowering in status of immigrant, or pioneer, narratives. Discussing his book, The Complacent Class, with Russ Roberts, Tyler Cowen describes the immigrant mentality (and its decline) as follows (h/t Kling for the transcription):

In a lot of the late 19th century it’s not even clear according to the numbers that our rate of productivity growth was always so high. Yet American society was not complacent. We had a frontier mentality, an immigrant mentality; we were very likely to move across state lines; we were willing to accept a lot of risk. And that in turn helped us later on, get the rate of productivity growth up higher. But I see today it’s a culture where younger people are more willing to keep on living with their parents, less interested in buying a car, more likely to aspire to being on Disability as a kind of future . . .

Cowen is obviously troubled by contemporary complacency and I agree with him.

Of course, one way to cultivate a more pioneering esprit de corps is to venerate the stories of pioneers: folks who leave discomfort behind to forge a new future in the great unknown, relying on hard work, perseverance, ingenuity and gumption. Some of the best contemporary (and historical) examples of this ethos are, of course, immigrants. However, to the extent immigrants become politically toxic (for reasons unrelated to the pioneering ethos) their stories become toxic, as well. In other words, no matter how much one might admire the rags-to-riches moxie of Yousef the grocer, it’s impossible to provide an account of Yousef’s journey without triggering outrage at “globalization” (and some of Yousef’s other defining features).

Now, neither anti-immigrant sentiment nor the native working class are solely to blame for the diminished stature of a pioneer mentality. What’s really problematic, I think, is that all the various iterations of the pioneer story have taken a beating from one political tribe or another. Call it, pioneering for me, but not for thee. The net result is very few pioneers to cheer for and that’s not good.

Let me explain.

The Blue Collar Frontier?

Consider the 20th century domestic working class pioneer. Nope. You can’t because there isn’t one. For years, the native working class (with the help of the Progressive elite) have relied on symbols and statistics like empty factories and fired workers to make it clear that pioneering is not an option. In this mythology, the greatest virtue is “saving” jobs — keeping the local widget factory open and protecting it from the evil corporate conglomerate.

Naturally, what is invariably missing from these dreary pictures of industrial ghost towns is an account of what happens to everyone when they leave. Heaven forbid a G.M. plant worker loses her job in Detroit for a better one in Toyota Tennessee. Perhaps one ghost town was replaced by an even better boom town in a neighboring state? The Progressive narrator never follows the working man to the end of his story (because the story is, after all, not about the working man, but about his Progressive champion).

For example, Tommy Boy is heroic for keeping his family-run, break pad factory both in the family and local — not for leading his employees, like Joseph Smith, Feivel the Mouse or Anne Hutchinson, to greener pastures. Quite the contrary, even suggesting as much makes one a villain and a traitor. Y’know, like scabs and private equity firms and other change agents. [Later, when the better, more urban and multicultural working class enters the picture, closed factories (which make no sense in coastal enclaves) are replaced by discrimination and “hostile” work environments as the salient evils (and the interventions shift accordingly).]

I don’t mean to trivialize the cost and the trauma of losing one’s job and having to move. It’s really not a great position to be in. That being said, it remains the case that sometimes it’s better to move than to stay. If, for example, housing becomes too expensive, people should move to cheaper neighborhoods. If jobs dry up because of innovation or other changed economics, people should seek out new opportunities elsewhere. If old skills become obsolete, people should endeavor to learn new ones. You’re fooling yourself if you think price controls make a thing less scarce. (They, in fact, do precisely the opposite).

If, however, you suggest that people ought to move if they lose their job or if their housing becomes too expensive, the cultural elite look at you like a heartless monster. Which is weird, because the same cultural elite pride themselves on their mobility and cosmopolitan flair, but I suppose the unwashed masses are too delicate to have new experiences or move to the suburbs.

To be fair, all of that dynamism is harder for the working class, but it’s partly their own fault. It’s what happens when policy makers put a premium on stasis, i.e. keeping one’s job (and staying in one place) above all else. It should be obvious, but if workers are harder to fire, then they become riskier to hire. Anti-discrimination law, disability law, and labor cartel protections (to name just a few interventions) all function to freeze workers in place, including unemployed workers. Likewise, policies like employer-based healthcare and union seniority rules put an even greater premium on the bird-in-hand (relative to the two in the bush). The same goes for rent-control and tenant “protections” — these are lock-in mechanisms that lock-in the haves and lock-out the have-nots. [Again, keeping future workers out of the workforce was the stated intention of the early Progressives; now their stated intention is to replace past workers.]

The point is that the working class pioneer story is culturally toast, done in jointly by the Progressive elite and the native working class (e.g. Unions! Roar!), and then later by the Progressive elite and the new and improved working class (e.g. Discrimination! Wah!). It never really existed in the first place and it’s not likely to start now because policies have made the tale of woe (e.g., losing one’s home/job) something of a self-fulfilled prophesy. Plus, the cultural elite is unlikely to revisit their narrative as “defenders” of the working class any time soon. Tinkerers, builders and homesteaders might have some cultural purchase, but by and large, pioneer inspiration won’t come from the working class.

Immigrants, Settlers and . . . Colonialists?

What about the immigrant pioneer story?

Well, as noted above, the native working class doesn’t care for it much at this point. In theory, the Progressive elite ought to be championing immigrant stories, but while they like immigrants, they don’t care much for pioneering, i.e. success by hard work, perseverance, ingenuity and gumption. If you think that stuff is important, you’re a racist. I’m not exaggerating. According to the Washington Post, you’re racist if you believe that “racial inequalities today are a result of . . . personal lack of effort and irresponsibility” as opposed to “social bias.” Similarly, according to university administrators, it’s a microagression to say that “everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.” Progressive immigrant stories are books like Americanah, which is actually about how terrible it is to be an immigrant — spoiler alert: the protagonists find happiness in their native Nigeria.

Neo-liberals, which I understand to be ideologically confused members of the governing class who really just want to be friends with both Team Hard Work (liberals) and Team Unfair (Progressives), used to have a version of the immigrant pioneer story, but they’ve taken a cultural and political hit lately and are being forced to choose sides. In the Age of Obama, they swooned for Progressives and they’re finding it hard to say “well, on second thought, maybe hard work is a virtue.”

What about the actual pioneers, like Davey Crockett, and Cowboys and Indians, and the Colonial Americans?

That still has some purchase in flyover country, but the Progressive elite really hate that stuff. Again, hard work and perseverance don’t mean shit because discrimination is everything. Everyone knows that the founding fathers, the pioneers and the greatest generation built their wealth on the backs of slaves, indigenous peoples and redlining. Progressives have worked really hard to rewrite America’s pioneer founding myth; or rather, delete it entirely, including its symbols and its heroes. It is rather more culturally chic to be ashamed of America’s founding than anything else. As the New York Review of Books notes:

Indeed, for decades now, much of the historiography of the founding has presented a complex story, exploring the many ways in which the Revolution, and the people who made it, fell far short of sharing with all people the Spirit of 1776’s indictment of tyranny and calls for liberty and equality.

As with immigrant virtue, on the founding myth front, Progressives were able to drag the Neo-liberals with them (because the long arch of history favors the governing class). In general, stories with white heroes (which describes the majority of American founding stories) are culturally verboten. And if you deign to tell a story about Fredrick Douglass, it better not be how he loved the 2nd Amendment. Same goes with Booker T. Washington and his whole “self reliance” and entrepreneurship thing.

Even modern day urban pioneers get the heel. They’re called gentrifiers and they’re bad for bringing growth to poorly developed areas (which is strange, because they were also bad for perpetrating “white flight” just a few decades ago). Like the native working class tale of woe, when it comes to gentrification, the only image we see are the people displaced and priced out of their homes and shops. Where do they go? No one knows or cares because the important thing is that no one should be allowed to leave or move or go anywhere or change anything! Native citizens have rights to freeze time (so their governing elite can rule in perpetuity)! (Unless you’re a white native citizen, in which case, go to hell, you xenophobic racist asshole.) And urban bourgeois have those same rights too, but y’know, this is really about the PoC!

What about in other parts of the West, like, Israel for example?

Like the U.S., pioneering has (or had) an important place in Israeli culture and the Israeli founding myth. Now, thanks to Progressive reeducation, “settlers” is an epithet and Israel’s founding myth is literally just a myth to cover up exploitation and cruelty. Israelis ought to be ashamed for interfering with the indigenous Arabs’ dream for a homogeneous ethno-religious patrimonial enclave. The start-up nation hangs on to its mythology ever so slightly, literally, with its start ups, but it won’t be long before those get the “capitalist exploitation” treatment from the people’s champs.

Stasis You Can Believe In

So what’s left? Not much.

The 20th century native working class never really had a pioneer story to lose.

Tech entrepreneurship still has some clout, but even the embittered urban bourgeoisie are starting to turn on tech as they realize it’s hard to become a billionaire. It’s easy, by contrast, to say tech bros are being mean to you and treated you so unfairly and isn’t Uber just the worst?! “Whistleblowing” is rapidly gaining more cultural purchase than actually building a company.

Immigration stood a chance insofar as it was the one pioneer story that the Progressive cultural elite could get behind, but now that’s ruined.

Similarly, the American founding myth, including the founding fathers, the greatest generation, and even the first wave 20th century European immigrants (e.g. Feivels) used to be relatively safe territory, but that’s no longer the case either. It’s gotten to the point where elevating the stature of hard work and perseverance is itself racist, regardless of who the hero happens to be.

Finding inspiration abroad isn’t possible because that fight is now just colonialists v. indigenous peoples. I mean, can you imagine if one were to suggest (as I do frequently) that the American native working class start setting up shop in North Africa, the Middle East or India (the way North Africans, Middle Easterners and Indians are encouraged to set up shop in the West)? Yes, the native working class talked themselves out of that years ago, but even if they tried, they would be run out of town and Progressives would cheer every step of the way. There is no high cultural dais for Westerners going East to find their fortune. Quite the contrary, that is extremely low status stuff that is left exclusively to oil companies and the Blackwaters of the world.

To my eyes, the pioneer story has lost nearly all of its cultural purchase, which means people are much less likely to be pioneers. That’s bad. Even worse, it’s been replaced by nativism for me, but not for thee. Nativism, unfortunately, isn’t particularly good for anyone.




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