I love this song.
I love this song because I used to go to work with my father. And occasionally I’d go upstairs get a brief meeting with a really important physicist. Like Martin Perl, who discovered the tau lepton. But most of the time, I spent time downstairs. In room after room, rickety falling-apart rooms where you could see the pipes in the ceiling and you could tell that what money went into the place was not going into making the buildings look pretty. And there would be technicians running around making and repairing stuff, and engineers and technicians alike designing stuff, and making stuff run, and it always felt like that was where the real magic happened. Not in the blackboards and minds of the physicists, but in the pliers and wire-cutters and shovels of the technicians, who generally got a wide variety of jobs from designing and building electronics, to digging ditches and post-holes.
(My father tells of a time he was digging outside, and he saw a physicist walking by. And he yelled, “I’m a genuine Ph.D. now.” And the physicist looked confused. And my dad said “Post Hole Digger!”)
I have a talented engineer friend who would have thrived in the job my father had, and I only wish such jobs were available today. But at any rate, I loved the place. I loved the rooms where you could tell that whatever budget they had went into the real stuff and not the decorations. I loved the people who were down-to-earth and friendly. I loved walking along the two-mile-long particle accelerator. I loved seeing an entire wall full of electronics and hearing my dad say, “I made that.”
I think our culture has a very lopsided and distorted idea of how these things happen. Certainly you can’t do without the hotshot astronauts and Nobel-prize winning particle physicists of the world. But they could get nothing done without the technicians and assembly line workers and Mission Control and engineers and cooks and machinists and secretaries and ditch diggers and janitors and all the people who do the actual, physical work to get things done. It’s not so much that I mind that we revere the people we currently revere. It’s that I mind that we don’t revere all the people who have made their accomplishments possible. We see our cultural heroes in isolation, and we act like they did it all as individuals divorced from everyone who made that happen. It even happens in music, with singers and lead guitarists getting revered more than bassists and drummers.
(I don’t know quite why I’m saying ‘we’, other than habit. I’m always thinking about everyone that goes into making things happen, and I’m seriously disturbed that they don’t get the credit they deserve.)
Any time you hear of a hero who accomplished some major feat like that, think of all the people who never get made into heroes even though they’ve accomplished at least as much if not more. The people who made it possible for the heroes to do whatever it is that heroes do.
This is tied to a wider cultural myth of independence. This myth is toxic to all of humanity, but it’s especially toxic to the poor and working-class people who do the bulk of the work that allows other people to be ‘independent’ and ‘amazing’, and to disabled people, for whom recognition of human interdependence is vital to our survival. For the people doing all that work, this bias isn’t just reflected in not getting the glory, it’s reflected in the way we pay people. The people doing the hardest and most dangerous work get paid the least, and somehow people see that as fair. If pay were in any way equitable, coal miners would be paid a small fortune to make up for the work they do and the risk they take.
Sometimes I think the fear of people cheating on welfare and disability, is partly a fear of what would happen if we had to pay people what their job was worth. Because if people could escape dangerous jobs and get welfare instead, then few people would want to do the dangerous jobs unless they were paid what the job was worth. So people would rather yammer on about the purported financial cost of people cheating the system, than fix the immeasurable human cost of a system that forces people to work in jobs that are horrible and dangerous without being compensated for the risk and the damage they undergo.
And not paying people what their job is worth, is directly tied to not recognizing how important their job is. We value people in higher positions, even when they’re not actually doing much, so they get paid more than people in lower positions, and most people see that as just an inevitable thing, just the way things are.
So any time you hear of some great hero of science or space flight or sports, remember all the other heroes that got them there. And think how things would be different if we all recognized that, really recognized it on a deep level and acted on that recognition.
I wish Esperanza Valdez could hear this… but unfortunately she’s a deceased fictional character.