At the end of Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells a story about a hero, Er, who dies in battle and is now facing the afterlife. Because of his moral character, Er is able to navigate the treacheries of the netherworld better than most. A wise walk through hell and a subsequent reincarnation assures Er that his attention to moral character in one life will reward him in the next. The Myth of Er introduces us to the idea that morality pays off in the long run, and immorality will eventually be punished.
Even though I’m by no means an expert on myths I’ve found them interesting for many years. The Myth of the Yellow Emperor tells of the heroic place of the Chinese people in history. The mythology of Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers does much the same for Americans. The Myth of John Henry reassures a people facing the industrial revolution that a machine is no match for the character and determination of a man. One truth that modern research in psychology teaches us is that we all seek to connect our lives to stories, to find where we fit in in this complicated world. Myths help that understanding. Myths make us happy.
But myths have consequences, and not all of them are good. Consider the uproar over Joe the Plumber. It makes little difference if Joe has a plumber’s license or not, or what Joe thinks of Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama. He has become an archetype for the “hard working American” who struggles against powers greater than himself to find his place in the world. All four of the current presidential/vice-presidential candidates buy into this imagery —- a class of people that work hard all day and get less than what they deserve. But John Henry is facing the new incarnation of the steam engine this time, global capitalism. And as the engine of global capitalism comes chugging down the tracks we look to a hero to stop its destruction [Insert your favorite Presidential candidate here].
Like most myths, there is some truth to it. There is a real struggle now in America, real confusion of the kind I’ve never seen in my lifetime. But, there is a potent lie in this myth as well. The lie is that one class of Americans (that is “hard working Americans”) work hard and another class that doesn’t. This non-hard-working class makes their living exploiting those who work hard. They wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.
No they don’t.
Americans are collectively one of the hardest working nations in the world. Almost all of us work hard, whether we are bankers, lawyers, engineers, electricians, teachers….or, oh yes, plumbers. In fact, on average wealthier Americans work longer hours than their non-wealthy conterparts. People who wear ties to work aren’t living off of those who wear jeans. People who wear jeans to work aren’t living off of those who wear ties. You can create great political language from this myth. You can conjure the ghosts of the industrial revolution, a time when such a myth would have had more validity, but we live in a more complicated world now. It is a world in which there is far less of a difference between the day-to-day difficulties faced by a manager and a plumber. It’s tough for both of them.
Sloppy language is the the precursor of sloppy thinking and ultimately of bad policy. The Myth of Joe the Plumber is wrong in ways that are destructive to careful thinking about constructive public policy. If we are to believe the polls, Mr. Obama will soon be the next president of the United States. While he is certainly not the only one invoking this kind of mythology on the campaign trail, let’s hope he leads the effort to remove it from the American psyche.