Guests Si, Workers No

Our most delicate thinkers have a problem with hard work


President Bush's semi-bold immigration reform plan is occasioning a fair amount of political controversy and complaint from the nativist side of the immigration debate. The anti-immigration right thinks that anything that allows any more immigrants to soil our soil is a nation-destroying disaster in embryo, even if it has the (doubtful) benefit of pulling some Hispanic support from the Democrats for Bush.

While Bush's plan brings praise from many would-be immigrant workers themselves and their would-be employers, it also has a substantial political downside for another body of American opinion-makers, who object to the notion of immigrants as guest workers (with options to continue renewing the guest status apparently indefinitely.)

There are also influential forces who have problems not with the "guest" part of Bush's expanded guest worker program but with the "worker" part. I was familiar with this mindset from any number of party conversations and bar arguments, but a couple of very long magazine articles I've stumbled across recently articulate (silently) this mindset in a particularly vivid and absurd way, and pinpoint the type of audience apt to embrace it: well-to-do urban and suburban elites.

The most prominent is Caitlin Flanagan's long, entertaining cover story in the March issue of The Atlantic, cover-lined "Dispatches from The Nanny Wars." The piece blends just the right amount of personal anecdote and witty observation with some verifiable facts to make a cri de coeur about how Flanagan's generation of professional women have betrayed the values of feminism—hell, the values of humanity—through a shameful vice: hiring women from the Third World to work as nannies.

With the arrival of a cheap, easily exploited army of poor and luckless women—fleeing famine, war, the worst kind of poverty, leaving behind their children to do it, facing the possibility of rape or death on the expensive and secret journey—one of the noblest tenets of second-wave feminism collapsed like a house of cards. The new immigrants were met at the docks not by a highly organized and politically powerful group of American women intent on bettering the lot of their sex but, rather, by an equally large army of educated professional-class women with booming careers who needed their children looked after and their houses cleaned. Any supposed equivocations about the moral justness of white women's employing dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated.

… How these workers became available to middle-class women is well known and amply reported, both in the press and in dozens of fine books, including Rhacel Salazar Parre?as's Servants of Globalization and Grace Chang's Disposable Domestics. But how so many middle-class American women went from not wanting to oppress other women to viewing that oppression as a central part of their own liberation—that is a complicated and sorry story. In it you will find the seeds of things we don't like to discuss much, including the elitism and hypocrisy of the contemporary feminist movement, the tendency of working and nonworking mothers to pit themselves against one another, and the way that adult middle-class life has become so intensely, laughably child-centered…

It goes on in that manner—columns and columns of rueful head-shaking over the crimes of American motherhood, the modern-day equivalent, apparently, of the plantation class of the Olde South—and never once does this smart writer with many thousands of words to play with even offer a hint of an adumbration of a clue that it might not be an unequivocal moral wrong to give someone a job doing your domestic work.

I wouldn't begin to suggest it isn't annoying to have to clean kitchens, mop bathrooms, wash endless loads of laundry, and cope with mewling children day after wearying day; but is it that controversial (in Flanagan's case, apparently unthinkable) to suggest that, in a world where we must, thanks to God's ancient curse, still earn our bread from the sweat of our brow, it might be a blessing for an average Central American woman to be doing those tasks, however icky, in an upscale suburban home rather than, say, seamstressing in a poorly ventilated warehouse, preparing industrial food, or whatever the heck it is she'd be doing if she stayed in Central America (a place from which she has already shown a powerful preference to escape)?

Unquestionably: your nanny is less fortunate than you are. She has less disposable wealth, less security, fewer long-term options. However, she is not your slave and you have not condemned her to hell. The deep disgust with commercial interactions at the root of this feeling on Flanagan's parts would require an Ayn Rand to untangle. Flanagan doesn't try to explain why this moral dilemma is actually a moral dilemma at all—she merely assumes that the average Atlantic reader will surely see just how evil it is to offer someone less well off than you compensation for labor.

That's a common problem with modern quasi-progressive political and cultural writings: The authors are afraid to say what they are really plumping for—either concerned that it will be seen as absurd or, perhaps, convinced by their own propaganda that the ghost of McCarthy will descend for a ghoulish posthumous blacklisting. Their apparent fallback moral ideal, never articulated, seems to be a cradle-to-grave welfare state where nobody has to do anything unpleasant in order to make a tidy living.

This sort of inchoate anti-immigrant-worker feeling inherent in Flanagan's essay isn't just a feminist issue either. The kind of work that typically occupies male immigrant workers is also called into deep moral suspicion frequently. The most severe recent example I've come across is a story in the progressive L.A. Weekly bearing the must-to-avoid headline "Harvest of Pain". It's all about how guilty you should feel enjoying that cool-tangy-crunchy taste sensation, the Caesar salad, because, well, an actual human being had to pick that lettuce—and under conditions and for a salary that we suspect you, ordering a $5 + Caesar salad's, would find inadequate or maybe even miserable.

Conditions often suck for lettuce pickers, no doubt. They have to bend down most of the day; decent affordable housing is hard to find near their work; and some companies are so unscrupulous they take advantage of their legally disadvantaged workers and refuse to pay them their agreed-on due. (Bush's plan, by legalizing workers, could do a lot to help at least that last problem.)

All those downsides are precisely why immigrant "guest workers" tend to get jobs like lettuce picking: Few Americans are willing to do them at the compensation level that allows our food supply to be as miraculously affordable as it is. Yes, plenty of work is still done by human beings (and plenty isn't—at least most of the nannies Caitlin is so worried about exploiting have dish washers and washing machines to help them through their wage-slavery) and it is often so inherently unpleasant and wearying that those human beings demand compensation for doing it.

An end to work for anything but creativity and pleasure is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and the human race is tantalizingly close to it—this is why people like Flanagan and LA Weekly writer Vince Beiser are even able to entertain the attitude that manual labor for low pay (whether in a cushy home or a lettuce field) is a moral evil to be abhorred. The day may come—soon—when the nanobots are making our Caesar salad for us out of any old molecule and the robot is swaddling our infants.

Until then, real human beings want real jobs in America to better their circumstances. Bush's reforms will help them do so, and good for him, and good for them. Attitudes like those in the Flanagan and Beiser stories—which don't think on the surface that they are about immigration policy, but which embody hidden assumptions that help gut political support for increased immigration—play into the worst nativist fears about what mass immigration is really all about: not seeking opportunity by picking up tough jobs, but secretly extending the welfare state.

For there ever to be a political consensus that welcomes more unbridled immigration into this country, it will have to be one that openly embraces the reality of crappy jobs. It's what they are coming here for, after all.