Sunday, September 10, 2006

 

Commies at the NC Art Gallery?

The other night at the NC Art Gallery, the group Paperhand Puppet Intervention presented four short stories in their puppet show "As the Crow Flies: Tales from Four Directions". The show was fun to watch and very well executed, but I'm not sure I agree with the political message behind their interprutation of the story of John Henry and the Machine.

As most of you remember, John Henry (a steel driver on the rail road) is confronted with the prospect of losing his job to a machine that can drive steel more cheaply than he can. So, to save his job, he challenges the machine's owner to a contest of who can drive the most steel. At the end, John Henry wins, but dies in the process.

In the program, the group describes this as a story about regular people overcomming others that would "opress" them for "profit and progress". Apparently, a lot of people agree this interprutaion because they all cheered when John Henry beat the machine. But I don't see how John Henry was being oppressed at all. He was going to lose his job because a machine could do it better. How is that opression? Would John Henry be oppressing the rail road owner if he had quit his job for a better one? Was John Henry, himself, oppressing other people by building a rail road? Once it's completed, all kinds of carriage and wagon businesses will be put out of business. Isn't that just as bad as the machine putting Henry out of a job?

It's very sad he would have lost his job, but the alternative of never firing anyone can lead us to some awkward conclusions. Personally, I prefer to live in a dynamic world where I can ride exciting waves of change. I think most of the people in the audience would have agreed if the issue were phrased that way. If we really want to help people that are left behind by "progress" (yes, they do exist), we should help them obtain skills that will help them move between jobs and even between careers. Isn't that a large part of what college is about?

Comments:
Most renditions of John Henry carry the same message: people are better than machines, and damn the Man. I've listened to Johny Cash's version recently, and its the same. There's that whole class envy thing going on, and bad economics.
 
However, if we see it in the proper light, we notice that the opportunity cost of beating the machine is way too high.
 
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