Firemen and the Gnostic Economy
Sunday Night Journal — May 30, 2010
Friday night when I went for my usual walk to the bay with the dogs there was a car, a dark red Ford Explorer, parked in the turnaround at the end of the street. It’s not unusual for teenagers to come down here on weekend nights and have a party on the bit of beach or in the woods, and although they really shouldn’t be there and may be doing things they shouldn’t be doing, I generally ignore them as long as they don’t seem to be doing any damage and don’t leave a bunch of garbage behind. They must have been in the woods, because I didn’t see or hear them, though I did catch a whiff of smoke, which always concerns me a little. One group that I did eventually chase away had been there repeatedly, camping overnight in the woods and making big campfires during a long dry spell, and I was worried about the fires.
Saturday morning, again on my usual walk, but somewhat later than usual because it was the weekend, I saw that the car was still there, and I noticed that the license plate indicated that the owner was a member of a fire department. There’s a point where the direct path to the water branches off to the left toward where a tiny creek empties out into the bay, and where there is usually the biggest stretch of beach. Taking that path, I found that three or four young people were fast asleep on the sand, though it was after 9 and they were in the full heat of the sun. I figured that if they were sleeping that soundly they probably had not only stayed up most of the night but had sedated themselves with alcohol or drugs. Again, I left them alone, and although the dogs and I made a certain amount of noise, none of them seemed to have moved when we left.
Late Saturday afternoon, around 5:30, having completed some other chores, I was about to give the larger of the two dogs, Lucy, a bath, and decided to take her outside first, as she had been sleeping behind the chair in my study for some hours. I remembered the kids on the beach. The car had been gone for some time, though I hadn’t noticed them leave. I thought I’d go take a look and see if they’d left a mess.
Only a few steps into the woods toward the water, I heard an odd rushing sound and wondered what it was, thinking at first that someone must still be down there. When I reached the point where the path branches toward the creek, I was astonished to see flames climbing a dead tree on the other side of the creek, and all the underbrush around it ablaze.
For a second I was stunned. For perhaps another second I considered whether I should rush back to the house for a bucket, but it was immediately obvious that this fire was well beyond anything I could cope with. A storm was coming from the west, and a strong wind was blowing off the water, whipping the flames furiously—I could see that they were spreading quickly, even in the few moments I stood there. So I ran—something I have not done since I had back surgery in 1992—the hundred yards or so back to the house and called 911.
An hour or so of excitement followed. I heard the police dispatcher describe the fire as “a grass fire,” which I didn’t think quite did it justice. Fairhope has a volunteer fire department, and apparently many of them were out of town for the Memorial Day weekend. When a small truck with a small crew arrived fifteen or twenty minutes later, the fire was that much bigger. The truck was too big to get down the path and close to the fire. And after making a brief attempt to go at it with portable fire extinguishers, the crew called for assistance and more equipment to combat what I heard them describe now over the radio as a major fire. It had the potential to be a serious disaster: the fire had started on the northwest corner of a patch of woods maybe six or eight acres in size (that’s really just a guess), and the wind, which had increased, was pushing it south and east, toward houses.
In another ten or fifteen minutes another truck arrived with a portable pump, which the crew fed from the bay, and a long hose which enabled them to reach the forward point of the fire. And then the thunderstorm finally arrived, first with a light rain and then a drenching downpour, and between the rain and the work of the firemen the blaze was extinguished.
My guess is that the kids who had spent the night on the beach intended to put out their fire and thought they had, but had left something smoldering until the rising wind of the approaching storm blew it into flames again. I described the car to the firemen, and they showed a sort of pained amusement at the fact that it had displayed a firefighter’s license plate. They said there was no one in the Fairhope department who drove a dark red Ford Explorer and guessed that it must have come from some nearby municipality. I suppose it’s possible that they weren’t telling me the truth, not wanting to get some colleague into trouble, but if they did recognize the car I’m sure the owner will hear about it.
This adventure left me feeling pretty appreciative of the fire department, and got me thinking about all the work of the world that requires straightforward physical labor, often difficult or dangerous or both. (Of course fighting a fire requires a lot of knowledge and skill, but in the end it’s a tough physical job.) We don’t value it as we should. Perhaps it’s appropriate, since it is the mind that sets men apart from animals, that mental labor should be more prized and more rewarded than physical labor—but up to a point only. Those kinds of work which are primarily mental have meaning only in and because of the more physical labor of others. My own job in information technology, for instance, in which the mental labor is demanding but the physical labor consists almost entirely of typing, would be utterly useless apart from its role in supporting the organization that employs me. It does not directly produce or accomplish anything in the world outside the computer, but rather manages information about that world. And I would not be able to do it without the support of people laboring with their hands, doing everything from assembling the computers I work with to cleaning the building in which my office is located.
I grow impatient with hearing about “the information economy,” about “knowledge workers” and their privileged position in our economic life. Pundits seem to have a sort of gnostic view of the economy, speaking as if it were a totally incorporeal thing consisting only of financial transactions. They recognize that there must at some level be actual goods and services, but these don’t seem to really matter in themselves. What is important about them is that they be produced as cheaply as possible; it doesn’t matter where, or by whom, because they are only the raw material of the real economy, which consists of marketing, investment, banking, and so forth. And even most investing, which in theory involves placing one’s money at risk on an enterprise that one believes worthwhile, is only a form of gambling, in which the real investment is brief and abstract and based only what “the market,” meaning other gamblers, will do.
There is a practical disdain in the upper reaches of our society for anybody so slow-witted and naïve as to make a living with the actual work of his hands, a disdain that is independent of political categories. (If anything the active disdain is stronger in the “liberal” camp, which may give more lip service to the lower-class laborer but doesn’t actually think very highly of him—but that’s a topic for another day.) And there’s a presumption that the end point of social development is for everyone to be a “knowledge worker.”
But nobody calls for a knowledge worker when the woods are on fire. And I doubt that if Jesus had been born in our time he would have been a banker or a stockbroker or a computer programmer.
There is a growing gap between the people who run the gnostic economy and those who have no direct role in it and are seen as existing only to serve and support those who do. I think this is one of the many forces pulling our country apart. It isn’t very visible yet, and the effects are slow to develop, but they may prove to be very powerfully destructive, especially if a strong wind begins to blow.