On Listening

Years ago, before many of you were born (good lord!), I would show up, every week, at the Minneapolis Unemployment Office to sell copies of the Bulletin (paper precursor to the World Socialist Web Site).  Many could not afford the .25, so “sales” tended to be poor, but more important than sales was that it provided an opportunity for political discussions with people collecting unemployment checks or seeing what work was available for them.  It was the early 70s, and the economy was struggling.

That was one of the places I learned about listening.  I also learned about listening critically.  In politics, it is vital to listen to the working class, but it is also vital that, when listening, you don’t turn off your brain and simply accept what you’re told at face value.

Slicked-hair guy came by.  I’d never seen him before, but from his age and hair-style I figured him for a Korean War veteran.  I was cautious, because some of those guys bought into the McCarthy thing, and occasionally got violent.  He didn’t get violent, but when I spoke to him about the conditions facing working people, he dismissed it.  “I’m just here cuz I got laid off.  I’ll be working again by next week.”  And off he’d go.

Two weeks later I’d see him again.  Same thing.

Two weeks later he’d be back, and this time, maybe, we’d talk a bit about how frustrating it was to be without a job, and how determined he was to work again, and he’d listen when I spoke about this being a systemic problem, not just a personal issue with him.  I’d learn that he’d been working for Whirl Air Flow, manufacturing parts for heating and cooling systems until the economy forced a reduction in new buildings, which led to them laying off half the work force.  I’d learn his name was Jeff, and he’d tell me a bit about his family.

Two weeks later, we’d talk in more detail, and he might agree with me on some things, disagree on others, but the bottom line was that he was determined to get back to work, and confident he would.  Any manufacturing job would do; he was sure he could learn whatever they needed in no time.

Two weeks later, he’d still be determined, but now he’d be scared.  However much something like unemployment is a general, social problem, it feels personal to everyone it hits.  Often, it feels like failure.  We’d talk about that.

Two weeks later he’d be terrified, miserable, and pretty much unable to talk about things.  He was now ready to take any sort of job he could find.  I’d get the feeling that he had to fight depression just to bring himself down to see what jobs were available, knowing that there would be nothing for him.

Two weeks later, he’d show up to collect his check, and there would be a fake smirk on his face, and a contrived jaunty step, and he’d say, “Hey, fuck it, man.  Who needs a job?  I’ll just collect unemployment.  This is great!  They pay me for doing nothing!  Ha ha!”

And then I’d go home and some reactionary bastard on the radio would talk about how people are unemployed because they don’t want to work, and for proof, he’d just spoken to someone like Jeff who loudly proclaimed how he’d rather collect unemployment than find work.

How many times did I see that pattern repeat?  I don’t know.  Scores, maybe hundreds.

So, yeah, listen to what is said.  But that doesn’t mean taking it at face value.

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I play the drum.

6 thoughts on “On Listening”

  1. One of the ways they win is by divorcing everything from its context. And sending all history down the memory hole.

    Did Jeff ever make it?

  2. I was never able to learn. (I mean, you understand Jeff is a mash-up of many people, none of whom I remember beyond the general type.)

  3. This is also why the thoroughly cooked “unemployment” percentages are next to worthless. They do not count people like Jeff, once they are demoralized to no longer beat their head against the employment wall, as unemployed.

    The “historic” unemployment lows are revealed to be a sham when one looks at an objective measure, the civilian labor force participation rate, which dropped by over three percent after the 2008 crisis, and has made no significant recovery since.


  4. I’m sure most people with the slightest bit of experience or empathy for the working class can say this, but it’s likely we all either lived this or watched a loved one live it.

    My father worked thirty years at a manufacturing job, got laid off, and was out of work for eleven months and applied at over 500 places before he got work again 500 miles away. Then two years later he was laid off again and had to live on family support for two years and apply to over 1000 places to find work again 500 miles in a different direction.

    He’s not the free market fanatic that I grew up with.

  5. skzb–

    I did not understand that. You made Jeff seem so real. My heart went out to that down-on-his-luck tough guy. I guess that is one of the things that makes you such a good story-teller.

    And agreed about the unemployelment figures. What a propaganda tool they are! Like Twain said: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

  6. I’ve seen this both ways in the UK; I was a teacher for 9 years. I was once faced with a girl who, completely honestly, planned to leave school and sign on as we say, and have a baby. I asked her if that was really what she wanted and/or any kind of existence. She told me it was fine for her mum. It took a lot to come in the next day.

    Equally I’ve seen disenfranchised kids who don’t see themselves as having a single option in real terms shut down and use the whole, “I’ll just sign on” as a smokescreen for the terror they feel facing their future. And they’re also ripe pickings for someone spinning the story that the welfare state is nothing but bloated leeches, feeding on the “free money”.

    The truth is always more complicated, more nuanced and more challenging to come to terms with. Ironically in the UK it’s actually the stigma attached to a lot of manual work that is to blame. Many kids are taught it’s demeaning to work a low paid manual job. This has actually led to the UK almost mass importing Eastern European labourers who are hard-working and will take ANY job- which in turn feeds into a right wing narrative that they’re “taking all the jobs” and that the REAL problem is immigration…

    I find that bit strangely fitting for the venue… some English cities are Draegara right down to the disdain for the “Easterners”…

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