By Dennis Soron
In the documentary film The End of Suburbia, American social critic James Howard Kunstler makes a pointed quip about how new housing tracts today are so often named after what is destroyed in the process of building them. Thus, the very forests, wetlands, and bird and animal habitats plowed over by the developer’s bulldozer give way to suburban estates with specious names like “Poplar Ridge”, “Fox Hollow”, “Pine Knoll”, “Quail Run”, “Turtle Brook”, ”Deer Meadow”, and so on. In a rather duplicitous manner, such developments attempt to craft a unique brand identity for themselves out of romanticized images of what was ruthlessly sacrificed in course of their own creation.
In many ways, the same interplay of callousness and sentimentality can be seen in our society’s conflicted relationship to blue-collar workers. At a time when their livelihoods are routinely sacrificed in the name of the free market and fiscal austerity, their political interests are systematically ignored, and the pillars of their traditional community life are rapidly eroding, superficial markers of working class identity persist in a strange symbolic afterlife. Much of today’s so-called hipster culture, for instance, can be seen as an extended exercise in working class impersonation, shot through with a heady mix of nostalgia, irony and outright condescension. Hence the unexpected vogue for flannel, trucker hats, lumberjack beards, handlebar moustaches, overalls, tattoos, PBR, Carhaart workwear, monogrammed bowling shirts and mechanic jackets, chavvy track-suits, and upmarket make-overs of déclassé fare like doughnuts, hamburgers, and fry-truck grub. Much like the gentrified parts of industrial cities, where factories and warehouses have become high-end retail, residential and art spaces, such faux-letarian props allow middle-class people to vicariously experience the flavour of working class life without the danger of encountering anyone or anything outside of their own safe, self-enclosed social bubbles.
In recent years, this type of downscale affectation has also been used to enhance the street cred of right-wing politicians whose economic platforms are anything but worker-friendly. Wealthy, self-serving frat-boys like Rob Ford and George W. Bush built their political careers upon refashioning themselves as down-to-earth, workaday schlubs in tune with the needs and concerns of Johnny Sixpack. Throughout his 2008 US presidential campaign, John McCain attempted to justify his opposition to progressive tax policy and other wealth redistribution mechanisms by referring compulsively to personal conversations he had shared with “Joe the Plumber”. More recently, we’ve witnessed the troubling spectacle of Donald Trump, the “people’s billionaire”, selling himself as a champion of the common person, even as he proposes policies that would further enrich his fellow billionaires and disenfranchise the most vulnerable sectors of US society. As thinkers such as Tom Frank have emphasized, contemporary conservatives have attempted to give a populist veneer to their elite-driven economic program by rhetorically linking it to traditional working class interests and values, and by stirring up resentment against the supposed cultural snobbery of latte-drinking, chardonnay-sipping, arugula-eating, French-speaking and gallery-going progressives.
Closer to home, the same strategic appeal to blue-collar authenticity has been adopted on a smaller scale by local politicians who can scarcely be counted as champions of the working class. After spending years at the local Chamber of Commerce advocating single-mindedly for the economic imperatives of employers, newly elected St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik began his inaugural State of the City address in January of last year by carrying his grandfather’s weathered lunch-box onto stage and placing it conspicuously on a table in full view of local dignitaries. Until being ousted from office this past fall, local Conservative MP Rick Dykstra was (with Sendzik) co-chair of the local task force charged with creating a public memorial for the 137 workers killed during the construction of the original Welland Ship Canal. While few could fault Dykstra for wanting to associate himself with this unambiguously worthwhile project, it is rather striking that he could dissociate his concern for the fallen workers of yore from his own party’s ongoing anti-worker policies – which included, among other things, amendments to the Canada Labour Code that weakened the existing rights of workers to refuse dangerous work.
One way to square this contradiction, perhaps, is to regard the memorial not as an acknowledgement of the often brutal ways in which ordinary working class people are and have been exploited and carelessly discarded, but as a tribute to their ongoing readiness to sacrifice themselves at the altar of economic progress for the benefit of others. Without a more dynamic awareness of how the present is connected to the past, such memorials risk becoming much like the disingenuous branding strategies adopted by the suburban housing developments criticized by Kunstler. Beyond the specific issues surrounding the fallen workers memorial itself, this lesson bears onto the larger challenges faced by struggling industrial cities like St. Catharines, as they attempt to navigate the uneasy transition beyond the familiar sign-posts of their blue-collar past, and toward a future that is more socially and economically uncertain.