Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


Thoughts on Joe the Plumber and Who We Are

©2008, UrbisMedia

©2008, UrbisMedia

There is something downright anachronistic about “Joe, the Plumber.” The Republicans jumped on Joe and made him an icon for the troubled working (white) guy. Despite the fact Obama’s tax policies would benefit Joe, he was too dumb to figure that out—exactly the unintelligent, unreflective white guy they were looking for. Republicans like people who are too dumb to figure out what is in their own best interest.

Sarah Palin, speaking to her salivating mob of social bottom-feeders, has expanded the theme, calling out the likes of Ramon, the Fruit Picker, Lai Nguyen, the Manicurist, Chen, the Laundryman, Bobby Bob, the Klansman, Clyde, the Accountant, and Sherman, the Greedy Wall Street Trader. Everybody is not identified by what they do. It helps ground our stereotypes; allows us to become sound bites. And ever so subtly, it recognizes our secret class system. In the Republican world people “know their place”; Black people do not get the crazy idea in their heads that they can be president, Gays do not mess with the sacredness of American “marriage,” and the “lower classes” wait patiently and uncomplainingly for the fruits of their labors to “trickle down” over the skimmers in Wall Street and K Street.

Joe, the Plumber wears his occupational appellation proudly. He is working class cum lower middle class with aspirations, they say, to someday own a fleet of “Joe, the Plumber” service trucks riding around neighborhoods of foreclosed houses. That is, if his country music album flops, or McCain Palin never get to create a cabinet post of Secretary of Unclogging Republican Feculent Brains.

But let me desist in my partisan ramble, because I find the subject opened by the “Joe, the Plumber” phenomenon rather sociologically interesting in the questions it raises about occupation and personal identity. “Joe, the Plumber” actually brings up identity matters that one encounters at a picnic or a cocktail party. The first question you might be asked of a stranger is, “what’s your name? The second is likely to me “what do you do?”

Sometimes you are introduced to others with “This is Joe. Joe’s a plumber.”

Stranger: “Oh, how interesting. A plumber! A lot of people must see your, ah, you know . . .”.

Joe: “Yeah, butt crack. I get that a lot.”

In the beginning of human existence occupational identities were quite limited. Imagine the Classified Ads in the Paleolithic Times-Chronicle, July 27, 90,000B.C.:

Wanted: Hunter, Class I. Certified for mastodon, bears, and saber-toothed tigers. At least five years experience in individual hunting, and two in team hunting. Must bring own spear. Salary: first cuts of meat after hunting party leader. Benefits: you must be kidding.

Wanted: Experienced Gatherer. All fruits and vegetables, including tubers and insects. Must have at least 3 yrs. upper tree experience. Two- liter baskets supplied by employer. Salary commensurate with productivity. Benefits: poison berry burial. Must have Green Card.

Just imagine page after page of ads like this—for only two kinds of work, hunting, or gathering. That was the way of it for hundreds of thousands of years before the emergence of Neolithic villages, when “farmer” and “herdsman” were added to the classified pages. You can be assured there was yet to be a “Joe the Plumber” since people were still pooping in the woods and keeping a sharp eye while doing it; people were more prey than predator in those days and many a pre-historic person did not return from doing “their business” in the woods. Only with the emergence of cities (and chamber pots) did many different kinds of work come into being, and then not that many until the Industrial Revolution.

But one thing was common to all these ages—people were identified mostly by what they did. One’s work was one’s identity. In the old days you didn’t need to ask people their names and what kind of work they did because people were often named for what they did. Surnames like Sawyer, Cooper, Hunter, Fisher, Forrester, and Finstermacher (just though I’d toss that one in there as a little test) and many others, identified the person by what they did for work. People were just like then sign that one might see over a shop; if it showed a loaf of bread, it was a bakery, and owner might well be named “Joe, the Baker.”

That all changed, of course, as the city made more jobs available, guilds gave way to corporations, and children didn’t necessarily follow in te occupational footsteps of their parents. I used to ask students in my classes how many of them were studying for the same occupation as practiced by one of their parents. Rarely would a hand go up. So these days a Hunter might be an accountant, and a Farmer might be and engineer, and a Finstermacher might be a psychiatrist. Joe the Plumber’a name is actually Joe Wurzelbacher (German for “Turd Brain”). People no longer have surnames that tells us what they really do, so it is rather a throwback—and perhaps a wishful one—to long ago times to return to referring rto people by their occupations.

What we prefer to be called has a lot to do with our identity. In the neighborhood where I grew up I remember that people were referred to by my family by their ethnic identities if we did not know their occupations. There was the “Polish lady” who lived a couple doors away, the skinny “Irishman” who staggered home drunk every Saturday night, and the “Negro family” at the end of the street. Those who we didn’t know by ethnicity or race might be called “the Widow” or the “Limping man.” It was and urban neighborhood, but conducted itself quite like a small town in this respect, maybe because the Italians who dominated the neighborhood came mostly from small towns in Italy and Sicily.

If the sort of work that we do is so important to our identity, then a good society, one that would enhance the opportunity and access to the sorts of work that we choose, that are not dictated by constraints and circumstances not of our making, is the sort of society we should construct. The U.S. Army co-opted a slogan—“be all that you can be”—ironically, for an institution that appeals mostly to people who have no, or few, other occupational choices. But being all that we can be is an apt desideratum for a society that optimizes the opportunities for personal growth and development. “Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.” said Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle in the 18 th Century. He might have emphasized that he meant “chosen” work; for most of human history the work that most men and women have done was whatever needed, or could be done just to survive.

It should be obvious that the essential pre-condition for such a notion is the quality of the educational institution that a society creates. As the world has become more urbanized traditional “property” in the form of land, territory, herds, and other physical property have given way to “intellectual” property (degrees and training, typically for what is called “services”).

It has been the great good fortune of America that its emergence and history have coincided with the great expansion of occupations. That, and the Enlightenment ideals of equality that it has struggled to meet, have, with notable periods of national shame, resulted in a nation that, 146 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, has produced a man of mixed race, who has broken the bonds of America’s secret class system and could be called “Barack, the Community Organizer, Professor of Constitutional Law, U.S. Senator” and might become “President Obama.” What a shame—and what a perverse irony—it would be if some thoughtless fool who calls himself “Joe the Plumber” and his like keep this country from finding its true course.
© 2008, Jim the Professor (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.2.2008)