Over a decade ago I sat in a lecture hall and listened to a visiting scholar of English history talk about the end of Roman rule in Britain and the remarkable – it may be fair to say incomprehensible – speed and comprehensiveness with which a previously undistinguished group of people called the Saxons became the cultural hegemon of what is today the United Kingdom. As this is a topic about which I knew (and know) next to nothing I was an easy mark; impressing me was like sinking a half-inch putt. I'm forever indebted to that person whose name I have completely forgotten, though, for giving me one of my favorite examples / metaphors / anecdotes for explaining what is wrong, and I mean what is really, fundamentally wrong, with the way people in the United States view politics and their rights as citizens today: the Churl.

Aside from being the root of names like Charles and its Germanic cousin Carl, we know "churl" as the root of the regrettably rare adjective "churlish," or "rude in a surly, mean spirited way." This seems unnecessary until you realize that rudeness does not automatically imply the latter part, and in fact a good deal of rudeness is cloaked in politeness or ignorance. But I digress. The word "churl" as a noun is still used by some English speakers of a more antiquated bent to refer to a mean spirited person. Its archaic meaning, though, is for a person of low class. Specifically, in early Saxon England the churls were the lowest class of free people, which is to say they were not nobles nor royalty nor clergy, but nor were they serfs. They were essentially peasants; poor, but with the social and practical advantage of not being bound to a manor as serfs were.

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They were, in words used by the Mystery Lecturer that I will never forget, "possessing the freedom of the upper classes but without the economic means to take advantage of it." They could go wherever they wanted to and do whatever pleased them, in other words, if only they had any money. Alas, they didn't. So all that freedom was for naught, except inasmuch as it permitted them to look at serfs as their inferiors.
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This is such a perfect analogy for the state in which the majority – and I do mean the overwhelming majority – of Americans find themselves today that I can hardly believe I was lucky enough to stumble across it. The great masses of Americans cling so desperately to their own imagined versions of things like freedom of religion and right to bear arms because those are the only freedoms they can claim without deceiving themselves to have. If those are taken away they would be forced to recognize how truly un-free in any useful sense they are. If people are unable to find work that pays a sufficient amount to cover life's necessities and to live in a manner and place of their choosing, then all of their many intangible rights and freedoms guaranteed by law provide only a superficial – important, but superficial nonetheless – freedom. We are free, in short, to do whatever we can afford, which, in the majority of cases, is to say "Not much."

A few weeks ago I posted about one of the last major manufacturers – Mitsubishi Motors – in the area closing operations in Central Illinois. Last week the colossus of the non-Chicago part of the Illinois economy, Caterpillar, announced that it is laying off 10,000 workers. Ten thousand. The vast majority of those figure to be in Peoria, Caterpillar's already cripplingly depressed, moribund, and crumbling home base. Without going deep into the intricacies of local politics, Caterpillar, along with a few hospitals and one small university, is the only place one can work in this city and hope to make what has traditionally been considered middle class income. In Peoria one is either unemployed, in the low wage service industry, paid to care for the large, old, dying population, or working for Cat and its associated suppliers.
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There is nothing else here. The people laid off by Cat are not going to find comparable jobs here. Their choices will be to stay here and accept a job hovering precariously above the minimum wage, probably serving food, stocking store shelves, or manning a cash register, or to move to a state devoid of labor laws and accept manufacturing work at a vastly lower wage.

If those were my options, I would be working overtime mentally to conceive of some way I could define myself as free too. Without implying that the government owes everyone a job of their choosing in the exact location of their choosing, it's fair to say that if you can't find work that pays enough to live a life that gives you real choices and options then you are free only in the sense that you are not imprisoned (although there will be plenty of that as well) and nobody can tell you how many Jesus fish and Rush Limbaugh bumper stickers you can put on your car, nor how many expensive guns you can hoard in your meager home that you struggle to afford. Americans obsess over those largely symbolic freedoms, the threats to which exist only in their own imaginations, because even though we dare not admit it we understand that many of us lack anything better.

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Like denials of alcoholism are often directly proportional to the probability that one is indeed an alcoholic, the extent to which any people are truly free when they go to such comical excesses with such regularity to declare how free they are is to be evaluated with skepticism. By silent consensus this country has chosen "Fake it 'til you make it" as a coping mechanism in the face of stagnant or declining incomes and a constantly shrinking selection of choices and opportunities beyond at-will, low paid employment at The Company's pleasure. We have a country in which you can buy as many guns as you want but can't count on having a job beyond the end of business today. We can refuse to bake cakes for gay people but we can't decide where and how we want to live. Freedoms are not all created equal, and we content ourselves with the ones that do us the least good.

56 thoughts on “CHURLISH”

  • "Their choices will be to stay here and accept a job hovering precariously above the minimum wage, probably serving food, stocking store shelves, or manning a cash register…" I imagine that even these jobs are dependent on people working for CAT, so with 10K fewer CAT employees there will be no jobs to service their needs.

  • That is perhaps the most dead-on, concise analysis I have read anywhere. Paul Krugman has never even come close.

    I find myself feeling enslaved living in middle America and in my 50s and in a job that could go pfffft at any time for any number of reasons and I wrack my brain daily trying to figure out what would be my fallback position given that the job I've held for the last ten years was my fallback position when jobs in my former occupation dried up.

    But I don't cling to guns and God. For me they don't represent freedom but rather enslavement to magical thinking, which can only be a disadvantage when reality bites.

  • My FIL, deceased in the 1990s, lived his whole life in rural upstate NY. He never finished high school because he never saw the point of it. Despite that, he made an upper-middle-class living that supported a wife and four kids, always drove a newer car, and never worried about where his next paycheck was coming from. He was retired on a pension in the 1970s, by the time jobs started fleeing the area, and was always so confused why his kids didn't stay in the area. After all, he'd never had any trouble finding work…

    Those days are long gone for rural upstate NY and for the mid-west as well.

  • @Huntly; the dollar store in my spouse's hometown just closed down. When a town can't support a dollar store, you know the economy is in the pits.

  • and these people are so afraid that people with skins darker than their's will get something for nothing from the government that they support cutting programs that would help them. and they come out and vote.

    off topic, but i wonder why knowing how volkswagen programmed their car's computers to report false readings when being tested, how are we so sure that voting machines aren't programmed to report accurate counts when being tested and whatever you need to win when there's an actual election.

  • You nailed it so thoroughly and comprehensively you could pretty much just stop writing now. But please don't.

  • “You may be born poor but you don’t have to stay poor. You don’t have to live without power and without hope.

    “You don’t have to set limits on your talent and your ambition – or those of your children.

    "You don’t have to accept prejudice and discrimination, or sickness or poverty, or destruction and war.

    “You don’t have to be grateful to survive in a world made by others.

    "No, you set the terms for the people in power over you, and you dismiss them when they fail you.

    "That’s what democracy is about."

    – Jeremy Corbyn

  • Wealth at the most basic is the ability to allocate scarce resources (or where money is a tradeable good, the scarce resource itself).

    It is therefore impossible to discuss the concept of freedom without getting into economic systems and vice versa.

  • Two towns over from me, there was a derelict strip mall. All the stores were gapingly empty or had their windows papered over. Tucked into the corner of this ghost of a mall was the local Chamber of Commerce, the only store front still open.

    To paraphrase JH Kunstler, drive through the streets of Peoria or any analogous dying/dead community. Remind yourself that at the height of our wealth and power as an empire, this is what we built.

  • Dang. Just came here to say that this is one of your best posts in a long time. I'll be chewing on this one for a while.

    (And I was just having a conversation yesterday with a friend regarding Marcuse's concept of "surplus repression," in which people internalize the dictates of capital's disciplinary apparatus… Or maybe as Foucault wrote somewhere, "What was once the fortress of order has become the castle of our conscience…")

  • I'm well east and a bit north of you (so yeah, rural upstate New York h/t katydid) and everything you've written can apply to my town too. I actually like where I live and what I do (I too am an academic at a small relatively unknown college) but I drive around and wonder what all the local people who live here are going to do as the various employers, many of them retail and other service-oriented places, close and go away.

  • Dayum.

    I was actually in Peoria at Bradley during my ill-advised attempt to be an electrical engineer (why a history and English and culture nerd with no mathematical or mechanical skills or aptitude took up EE I cannot explain, but) in 1982, during the absolute nadir of the Reagan Depression and I remember well the grimness.

    It sounds like Peoria has not gotten much better :(

  • Like so many today, I'm just writing in to say "thanks." The concept of the churl is one that I knew way back when, but had dropped out of my head completely as part of an archaic past that didn't really relate much to today.

    The fact that it does, and so evidently, is kinda horrifying.

    It's curious to see where we are still encouraged to engage in our freedoms–when I think of American freedom, I think of the soda aisle in my local supermarket. (Though I suppose I could just well think of the supermarket itself, or the five churches I drive past to get there–and I don't live far from it at all.)

    But that soda aisle. (Again, think of that. A soda AISLE. Like, JUST soda. Not many aisles devoted to ONE thing. Cereal. Chips and slight variations. That's about it–even things like the dairy aisle are varied in their contents.) Every label in that aisle belonging to a company that has encouraged us to make drinking THAT one our identity. Making that the epitome of our freedom to "be ourselves," to "do whatever we want." I stand in that aisle and think "Fffffffffffuuuuuuuuuck."

    But if you're a churl, it must feel pretty good to know that Red Mountain Dew makes you better than that Dr. Pepper-drinking loser.

  • You lost me on this one. To say that economic freedom is the most important and most meaningful freedom (and on that I agree with you) is not to say that other freedoms are meaningless in its absence. There is a value to free speech, and free association, and freedom of religion, even living in abject poverty. The freedom to look down on the serfs doesn't seem like much, but the freedom to starve in Chicago instead of starving in Peoria is preferable to being forced to starve in Peoria.

    Some freedoms are more valuable than others, but some non-economic freedoms are quite valuable even without the economic freedom.

  • "We have a country in which you can buy as many guns as you want but can't count on having a job beyond the end of business today. We can refuse to bake cakes for gay people but we can't decide where and how we want to live. Freedoms are not all created equal, and we content ourselves with the ones that do us the least good."

    Ed, this is one of your best posts ever. Cuts as deep as any Op-Ed I ever read, or any think piece in Atlantic, Harpers, or Tiger Beat. I don't know why reprints aren't being solicited, at least via Huffington Post or someplace that pays cash money. There's not even any profanity in this one.

  • Great. thanks. Work in some sex and 'new yorker' might publish?

    I agree with upstream comment on it needs to be reprinted or reposted or something.

  • Joining the chorus here. Perfect encapsulation of of things I have been saying (far less eloquently) for some years.

    I know a lot of these people, and it's clear that they know, even if they won't acknowledge, that they have been losing ground for a generation. The knowledge is just to painful to face squarely. I suspect that the roots of their increasingly virulent racism also lie here: when the pie shrinks it is quite natural to fight over what remains.

  • Awesome connection of dots. Have I told you lately how brilliant you are?

    And Death to the .1%, who are the other side of this wooden nickel.

  • 10000 workers?!? Hope they move the corporate headquarters otherwise they'll be spending a lot on new windows and security.

  • Steve in the ATL says:

    Well said, Ed. I remember "churlish" from SAT prep, but hasn't it made a comeback since the Key and Peele "Substitute Teacher" sketch?

  • This could very well be your best non-Ivars post ever. "possessing the freedom of the upper classes but without the economic means to take advantage of it" is the perfect description for how life is for most Americans. If you live in a city like San Francisco or New York, there is a chance you can still get a decent paying that will allow you to at least keep up with your rent and student debts. If you live outside of easy commuting distance to a major city, then you are screwed. There are no jobs there any more and haven't really been since farm work got consolidated in the early 20th Century and then manufacturing got outsourced in the late 20th Century.

  • And not a chance that the Peoria chamber of commerce will have meaningful access to Caterpillar's board to complain.

  • Remember this?

    It was only 4 years ago.

    Mark Thoma today:

    What we are opposed to, or what I am opposed to — guess I should speak for myself — is growth where all the benefits are captured by those at the top. Imperfections in economic institutions along with changes in the rules of the game pushed forward by those with political influence have caused those at the top to be rewarded in excess of their contribution to economic output, while those at the bottom have gotten less than their contribution. It's not "taking" to increase taxes at the top and return income to those who actually earned it, to the real makers who toil each day at jobs they'd rather not do to support their families. It's a daily struggle for many, a struggle that would be eased if they simply earned an amount equivalent to their contributions. That's why it's so "politically unattractive", people explicitly or implicitly understand they have been, for lack of a better word, screwed by the system. The blame is sometimes misplaced, but that doesn't change the nature of the problem. They don't want "free stuff," they want what they deserve, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

  • "Hope they move the corporate headquarters otherwise they'll be spending a lot on new windows and security."

    Probably not. I think the prison industrial complex has done a pretty good job of instilling fear into any churl who might be thinking of attacking the property or possessions of the 1 percent. Good luck getting even a fast food job once you have to check the yes box for "Have you ever been convicted of a crime".

  • Mike at 11:55 upthread: not all freedoms are the same as Ed said, but their priority depends on what you're asking.

    Freedom to make a living is the precondition of meaning for any of the others. (The point of the post, if I understood it right.) If you're starving, freedom of speech isn't going to mean much to you.

    The other freedoms, movement, belief, speech, and all that good stuff, make life something more than survival. Slaves have three square meals a day, but nothing else. Which, I think, is your point.

    Both ends of that range of freedoms are vital to a good life. One of the universal declarations of human rights (FDR?) had the right to adequate livelihood in it.

    But then, I guess, they couldn't figure out how to fit that into our corporatocracy so it's been ignored a lot.

  • Any time someone tells you they're free, ask them if they'd like to hop a plane and go to Havana for a long weekend.

    Then, you will be subject to a stream of bullshit that is beyond belief.

  • I worked my entire career at the VA hospital in San Francisco. At the height of the first tech boom (we called it back then) a good friend of mine got an ancillary position in a start-up. Suddenly he was living in a way that made my civil service life look like Airstrip One. I'll admit that I was envious.

    Then the boom busted, all the tulip bulbs turned into onions, and he was suddenly not only broke but massively in debt. And my iron rice bowl was still there. He eventually recovered after years of hard work and frugal living. Capitalism is a harsh mistress.

  • @anotherbozo…

    It's good. It's really good. But is it Tiger Beat good? Surely not.

    But definitely better than The Atlantic.

  • Rural Resident says:

    Thank you for this post. I will chew on it for a long time, too.
    To tie into your Pope post, as I listened to the President and the Pope, I heard the word "liberty" used when I expected to hear the word "freedom."
    What would you say is the difference, if any, between freedom and liberty?
    What significance is there to last week's speeches use of the word liberty?

  • Only tangentially connected, but in the not-too-distant past I either read or listened to something discussing the changes in our understanding of anti-trust over the decades since it was passed that connected to this piece and the comments for me.

    Essentially the claim was that our modern understanding of the problem with a monopoly is that it restricts consumer choice by decreasing the number of products available while increasing price, so only when those conditions are met do we intervene. It's about protecting the freedom to consume what you want. This jives with what I recall learning in school and hear as "common sense" today.

    Originally, however, the goal behind anti-trust was not to keep prices low and shelves stocked with a variety of products, but rather to keep the power of the monopoly from curtailing people's freedom to engage in commerce in the manner they choose – it protected the freedom to create what you want. In other words, a handful of huge companies dominating an industry – say, grocery stores – prevents individuals who feel their purpose in life is be a grocer from doing so. Their only recourse is to put cans on a shelf as a low paid employee, hardly the same as owning and operating a business.

    This is why the government used to intervene when mergers would create a single entity that owned as little as 5% of a given market, whereas today an industry can be dominated by as few as one entity and still escape anti-trust provided they can't be proven to be restricting product availability or artificially inflating price. The freedom to open and run the type of business you want as an individual is no longer considered relevant.

    So the old school "downtown" the olds talk about when waxing about the glory days before big daddy gubmint ruined our lives are entirely a product of big daddy gubmint distorting the market to allow regional and local economies to flourish. When that intervention ended the market pretty quickly consolidated, leaving vast swaths of the country with no industry.

    Anyway that's a long post only sort of related to what Ed wrote. But if anyone also read/listened to this and can tell me where to find it again I'd appreciate it.

  • @NYD3030: Great point! In Econ 101 terms, I think what you're referring to is "free entry," or or the ability of new producers to enter/exit the market at will. This is a basic assumption in capitalist theory; it's a big part of the "free" in "free market."

    Of course, as you said, our modern era of consolidated mega-corporations and oligopolies has pretty much erased anyone's ability to enter most markets. So much for capitalist theory.

    And I love the irony you pointed out in which some people blame the gov't for ruining the old arrangement, when in fact gov't intervention is actually what allowed that old arrangement to exist. It shows how strong these political narratives are in people's minds. Once someone's dominant narrative is "gov't regulation ruins the free economy," that person is likely to view every negative economic event that occurs as somehow the fault of gov't.

  • Nicely done…everybody and terrifyingly accurate.

    I'm told it was Napoleon that said religious faith is what keep the poor from murdering the rich. No doubt it's older but it fits in perfectly today.

    We have the freedom to shop at the company store and entertain ourselves to death but not much more.

  • You're probably on to something.

    Going with whatever they've got an calling it a plan does seem to be the fashion of the day – pity it's often the really irksome and self-destructive ones that are seized upon most enthusiastically.

    You've given the impression Peoria was doomed before, but I suppose it just goes to show things can always get much, much worse.

  • Sad, but beautifully written. Thanks.

    Coincidentally, Dick Gregory shares his thinking on a related topic in an interview now up at Salon.

  • BOOM, drop the mic, Sister Ed. You naileth it.

    A teeny thing I'd change in one sentence:

    "if you can't find work that pays enough to live a life that gives you real choices and options"

    after "enough to" I'd say "survive"

  • "It shows how strong these political narratives are in people's minds." @Heisenberg, a certain segment of the population has been brainwashed to completely distrust anything the (Democratic) gov't has to say. The same people who were howling and spewing out death threats to girl country groups for saying the President;s views embarrassed them, are now the ones spewing out "Second Amendment" death threats to the POTUS.

  • To my mind that's half of the smartest critique of gun and gun control politics in the US I ever read. (I don't mean that as faint praise by any means.)

    Mark Ames nailed the other half back before NSFWCORP went bust. Won't spam your comments with links, but "From "Operation Wetback" To Newtown: Tracing The Hick Fascism Of The NRA" also worth reading.

    I wish it weren't so, but you got to the heart of something seriously rotten here.

  • Think about the oldest Caterpillar employees, the 20 and 30 year people. With their middle class incomes, a lot of them probably bought homes in Peoria.
    Those homes represent their life savings.
    With their new jobs at Slushy-Creme they won't be able to pay the mortgage, and without Caterpillar, the houses are worthless anyway.
    There will probably be steady jobs at the suicide hotline.

    Wonder if Caterpillar ever considered buying the homes of the long term employees who they have left high and dry?

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