Mark Twain worked on Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven for
forty years. He never finished it, but in 1909 published it as an
Extract anyway, figuring death was near and he'd never get
around to wrapping it up.
The afterword notes that even had he finished decades earlier, it
probably wouldn't have seen print until around 1909 anyway, due to its
sacrilegious nature. I dunno. It's very mild. Yes, it pokes fun at
the wings-and-haloes version of heaven, but while I suppose that even
today there are millions of people who take that very seriously, to me
it feels a bit like scoring points off flat-earthers.
Twain's version of heaven is hardly much deeper, though. It is a
larger-scale version of Earth, with all the same countries, only
they're a million miles wide. Wishes come true, unless they involve
other people, because even in heaven if you want to hug someone the
other person might not be too fond of the idea. People still have
bodies, and even though they can look however their owners want,
they're mostly elderly, because hey, who wants to hang around with
a bunch of kids. It goes on in that vein for a while. There were
only two moments in Stormfield that made me take note:
"The shoemaker on earth that had the soul of a poet in him won't have
to make shoes here." Here Twain takes on the basic problem of human
existence: you only get a few years to live. Usually it's well short
of a hundred. And even in developed countries, most people spend the
bulk of their precious waking hours doing stuff they don't want to do.
This dovetails with an interesting thread that came out of the third
debate between George Bush and John Kerry:
MODERATOR: Mr. President, what do you say to someone in this country
who has lost his job to someone overseas who's being paid a fraction of
what that job paid here in the United States?
BUSH: I'd say, Bob, I've got policies to continue to grow our economy
and create the jobs of the 21st century. And here's some help for you to
go get an education. Here's some help for you to go to a community college.
You know, there's a lot of talk about how to keep the economy growing.
We talk about fiscal matters. But perhaps the best way to keep jobs here
in America and to keep this economy growing is to make sure our education
system works. I went to Washington to solve problems. And I saw a problem
in the public education system in America. They were just shuffling too
many kids through the system, year after year, grade after grade, without
learning the basics.
Let's put aside for a moment the fact that for some reason Bush decided
to name the hypothetical unemployed person "Bob." Bush's response touched
off an indignant response from the left-leaning political web journals:
Bush: everyone is stupid except the well-off
Anyone notice how Bush's answer to everything was "education"? So if you are
unemployed, it's because you're uneducated.
Let's outline this. Bush said you lost your job because you're stupid. Then
he said you're stupid because elementary and secondary schools failed you.
Bush: There Is Outsourcing Because We Are Dumb
Now, sure, the left is supposed to be on the side of the proletariat and
everything, but we're also supposed to be part of the "reality-based
community," remember? Let's look at the sort of jobs we're talking about.
There've been plenty of stories about the loss of manufacturing jobs in
"swing states" like Ohio. Poking around online I see stories about people
losing their jobs working in factories making ball bearings, rubber gloves,
industrial pressure washers. Now let me ask you: who takes these jobs
because they want to? Who says, "Well, I went ahead and got the MD, but
y'know, what I really want to do is make industrial pressure washers"?
True, an associate's degree is not going to be the difference between
a factory job and a seat in the Google commissary. Fortunately, I have
no obligation to defend the specifics of what Bush said. (And if I did,
I could always fall back on his strategy of denying he'd made the comments
even knowing full well they were on tape.) But the general point, I think,
still stands. In the end, it does come down to education.
Why do factory workers lose their jobs? The main reason is that corporations
chase cheaper labor, occasionally in poorer states but usually in the
Third World. To stop them, you can either let labor here get cheaper (the
much-discussed "race to the bottom" that would bring to America the sort
of poverty found in India and Brazil) or you can try to stop the practice,
which would at least in the short term torpedo the economy. If manufacturers
had to pay workers more than a few cents a day, cheap products like the Chinese
goods at Wal-Mart would cost more, people would buy less stuff, demand would go
down, and so you'd lose the jobs anyway. A case can be made that the economy
needs to be remade from the ground up and that short-term pain is the only way
to avoid long-term disaster... but be that as it may, it's not going to happen.
John Kerry has said he would knock down laws that actively encourage the
practice of moving operations overseas, and that's about as far as US policy
is going to go in that direction even in the best-case scenario for labor.
Throw in automation and increased productivity and such, and it looks a lot
like the American factory job is soon to be a thing of the past.
And really, shouldn't that be a good thing? I mean, which is the bigger
problem: losing your job making rubber gloves, or having had to take the
job in the first place? Having spent eight hours of your life, five days
a week, fifty weeks a year, for however many years, on an assembly line?
The universe began, eighteen billion years passed, you were born, you
spend most of your days making ball bearings, and then you die? That's
Sure, it beats starvation. And as the question was phrased —
what do you say to someone who's lost a job — talking big-picture
about education is a good way to get punched in the face. It doesn't do
Bob any good to say that his fate was pretty much sealed when he was
sixteen and flunked algebra for the third time. Except, well... it
was. I've had students in my test prep classes whose reading
comp scores are dismal and who want to know how they can get them up
really fast, and the most truthful answer is, go back in time to
kindergarten or so, and this time as you're growing up spend several
hours a week reading for fun, because now you lack the skills and
you can't develop them in four weeks. The retraining programs Bush
was talking about are designed to address the desperate lament that
crops up in just about every one of these factory stories: "I don't
know how to do anything else!" But the success of these programs is
limited by what the people enrolled in them are capable of being
retrained to be. And that's largely a function of education.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I'm in a fairly unusual
situation. As far as my balance sheet is concerned, I'm poor. I juuuuust
make it out of the bottom fifth — economically, Aldous Huxley would
call me a Delta Minus. I live in a town full of shuttered mills and
crumbling factories. It's the poorest city in Massachusetts. There are
areas of town, I've heard the local police say, where the adults are so
far gone with the crack and whatnot that the children are basically feral.
My particular street is not that bad — it's still a working-class
area, but the people who live here have steady blue-collar jobs. Some
of them work twelve hours a day six days a week to make ends meet. But
not me. I could hardly be less like them. Why am I here? Because I
don't want to be a shoemaker with the soul of a poet. I figure, y'know,
I only get the one life, and I want to spend most of my time writing,
reading, programming, working on various projects. I don't want to spend
a lot of time doing something I hate to make ends meet. So I don't. I've
never had a full-time job. I have a part-time job that's actually
pretty fun, engages my intellect, and pays well enough that I can sleep
in most days and still pay my bills. And what's more...
...because I am well-educated, I have the security of knowing that if
ever I abruptly feel the need to change this state of affairs, I can.
I'm like the girl in Pulp's song "Common People": the day I tire of
the slacker life, I can bust out a 180 on the LSAT, go to law school,
get myself a JD, and get a job that'd put me comfortably in the top
fifth. But Bob can't. Why not? Maybe through no fault of his own
— maybe, as Atrios put it, he grew up in an area like, well,
Holyoke, and his elementary and secondary schools failed him. Or
maybe he grew up somewhere with perfectly good schools and he just
blew them off. As a teacher, I have seen innumerable cases of this:
kids who are relatively privileged but who will nevertheless be spending
the next thirty years at the Stop & Shop because they couldn't be
bothered to pay attention in class.
Which brings me to the second bit of Stormfield I found
worthy of note. Not only will heaven allow people to spend their
time doing what they find fulfilling, Twain writes, but they will
be celebrated according to their merits. Shakespeare and Homer have
to sprinkle a path of rose petals before a tailor from Tennessee who
dabbled in poetry. Acclaimed as the greatest military genius in
history is a Boston bricklayer: "everybody knows that if he had had
a chance he would have shown the world some generalship that would
have made all generalship before look like child's play and 'prentice
work." In short, Twain later puts it, in heaven a man gets rewarded
for "what he would have been" had not circumstance intervened.
But this seems to me to contradict Twain's point in
What Is Man? that people can't take credit for what they
are. Innate ability is just a gift; hard work is merely the outgrowth
of happening to have a predisposition to work hard. In either case,
says What Is Man?, environment has the bulk of the say in how
one's life will turn out — but it therefore seems to me that
trying to set things right by taking environment out of the equation
is absurd, because there's no such thing as what you would have been
without being in an environment. There IS no being outside an
environment — no Sein without Dasein.
This second point does make for an interesting angle on Bob's
plight, though. In the debate, Kerry responded to Bush's answer
by saying, "I want you to notice how the president switched away from
jobs and started talking about education principally" — suggesting
that Bush was just dodging the question and jumping on what seemed
like the nearest talking point. Which, of course, he was, but I
couldn't help but notice that Bush's rhetorical flailings had led
him straight to my top issue. In a speech a couple of days later,
Bush said, "In the final debate I talked about the vital link between
education and jobs. The senator didn't seem to get it." I agree
there's a vital link. If we didn't live in a country where people
regularly vote down tax increases to keep public schools afloat, if
we didn't live in a country where education is widely despised and
the president mocks people for understanding math and speaking
foreign languages, then maybe Bob would have gone to a decent school,
and maybe he would have been motivated to actually learn stuff while
there. And perhaps he wouldn't have lost his job because he wouldn't
have had a job assembling industrial pressure washers in the first
place. Maybe he would have cured cancer instead.
Even so, no matter what Twain says, when back in our world Bob does
get laid off from the factory job, and then dies of a preventable
illness because he didn't have any health insurance... we shouldn't
greet him in heaven by thanking him for curing cancer.
Photographer Jock Sturges has a new book out called
Notes, and whereas the trend up
through his 2000 book was toward larger and
larger volumes, this one's quite small. It's also mostly limited to
works of the past three years or so, meaning that the narrative aspect
of flipping from page to page and watching Sturges's subjects grow up
is largely absent. In its place are the titular notes in which Sturges
describes his process and short essays by people whom he has photographed
over the years.
These will probably be very interesting to most people who pick up this
book. But I found myself in the same fix with Notes as with the
Nirvana box set. Just as I'm such a Nirvana
fanboy that I already owned most of the obscure B-sides and outtakes
that make up the box set, I have followed Sturges's work avidly enough,
chasing down every interview and article I could find, that I was already
familiar with most of the material about his background, motivation and
process. I'd even encountered several of the photographs before, having
seen them posted on the web sites of various galleries in the years before
Notes was published. So I'm really in no position to say what
someone new to this stuff might make of it — like the Shakespeare
professor who knows every play backwards and forwards and can recite it
from memory but no longer has any idea what it'd be like to see it for
the first time.
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