Dig your hands into the dirt. Run them along a smooth board. Reach down into the engine, through the grease and wiring. Use your hands stiffly in the cold, or damply in the sun, or dry in the dust. Use your hands with steadiness on the wheel, with certainty on the brush, with a slight tremor that disappears as you focus on the finer work. Use them with care, and strength, and intent, and work something you can touch and own.
This is common ground.
I wrote that we need common ground, that we have to find it and till it and protect it. That we cannot occupy it, and do not need to. That the only way through is to find places we have drawn lines and erase them. I think this is one of those places.
For many Americans, working with your hands is a point of pride. It is tactile, and real, and does not require you to be articulate, to know the right words, or to believe the right things. It is craft—it requires only skill. And, when it is done well, it leaves you tired and satisfied and feeling like you have done good work.
Conservatives and liberals both believe this. Yet, we look down on each other for believing it.
When we on the left hear conservatives talking about good blue collar jobs, we scoff too often and say they are not coming back. There will be less mining, less manufacturing, less construction. The jobs are gone, we say, move on. And yes, we offer to retrain people, but what American who spent half their life working with their hands now wants to go learn to work in a service industry, or behind a computer, or answering a phone? The kind of work we do is often part of our identities, and saying we’re going to open new industries doesn’t do much if we’re telling people they have to give up who they are along the way.
So, on the left, we look at people who want good manufacturing jobs or who have a family tradition of being a coal miner and we say “Those people are behind. They should get with the times. Those jobs are going away.” And we don’t stop to think that by saying that, we are telling those people they are going away.
Meanwhile, the same ethic exists on the left. You can’t buy anything lately without tripping over artisan this and craft that. Liberals are all about small farming, CSAs, local food, local products, and making things by hand. The people who want to till their own soil and grow their own food are heroes, and the people who want to start small farms and feed their communities are even more so.
As they should be, but the ethic is the same. So many of us want to do good physical work. Why look down on people who want to do that work on a large farm instead of a small one?
The prejudice cuts both ways, too. For conservatives, the liberals wanting small farms and CSAs, too often, is regarded as ignorant condescension. Conservatives are altogether too self-satisfied in dismissing the left as elitists dabbling in the work of the middle class. Craft anything is wasteful nostalgia.
The line is drawn, but the ethic is still there. The eye-rolling of the left and right both is just a way of claiming this ethic, claiming this ground, and excluding the people we disagree with broadly.
And of course it sounds stupid, because it is—we agree on this. We agree on working with our hands, doing good physical labor, and contributing, somehow, to our community with that labor. It’s held in common, and it doesn’t need a fence down the middle.
It’s time to start tearing down these fences.
Image Credit: Julia Aviles