Happy Labor Day, Gentle Readers! Remember that today’s holiday – the capper to the long, end-of-summer weekend – is meant as a celebration of the American worker, and specifically as a tribute to the achievements of American unions, and the labor movement they spearheaded. As we barbeque, binge-watch, and enjoy our last beach day, we should also remember the sacrifices that have been made to guarantee the rights and the dignity of all our nation’s workers, in whatever field they toil.
Which brings us, obviously, to the story of Geoffrey Owens.
The whole story has been going viral all through the last few days, so you’ve probably heard it by now, but here’s a brief overview. Two women were shopping in a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey, and realized that the cashier was Geoffrey Owens, who had been a series regular on The Cosby Show back in the day (he played Elvin). Here in New York City, there’s an unspoken etiquette that you never make a fuss when you recognize an actor, but that’s clearly not the case out in New Jersey. One of the women made a point of broadcasting this sighting on the various social media platforms, which led to a story in the Daily Mail, which led to the usual breathless coverage on Fox News. The tone of this initial coverage was, of course, mean-spirited and mocking; look at the once-famous man bagging groceries! Oh, the humanity!
Thankfully, there has been a healthy show of support for Mr. Owens in the aftermath of this initial story. People have pointed out that he’s still a working actor, and by most standards a successful one, still popping up on tv and on theater. He also teaches Shakespeare, and has been doing workshops with special needs children. So here is somebody with a productive life in the arts, taking another job to ensure steady income – like just about every creative artist in America, self included. And plenty of people have pointed this out, in coming to Mr. Owens’ defense, doing so in everything from detailed think pieces to celebrity tweets of support.
None of these defenses, however, really get at the rot of what’s going on here. In the minds of many Americans, the fact that Mr. Owens is no longer a famous person on a Big TV Show constitutes a failing in and of itself. To them, there is no option that wouldn’t incur shame. If he were collecting unemployment instead? They’d call him a lazy bum. If the income from guest star gigs and teaching were enough for him and his family to live on? There’d still be “where are they now” stories, still people who’d think “how the mighty have fallen.” And if he happened to be a series regular again, and rich? Then he’d be expected to shut up and be grateful that he didn’t have to work like the rest of us – even though that’s precisely what he’d be doing.
See, this isn’t the typical actor’s complaint that creative work isn’t valued – it’s all work that’s being viewed with contempt here. One thing that hasn’t been pointed out in most stories about this gentleman is that, here in the Northeast, grocery workers tend to be unionized. So if income from creative work is unsteady, this unglamorous job is nonetheless a terrific way to maintain health benefits. (One of the many things unions have provided – like, y’know, today’s holiday). But the same people mocking the man for bagging groceries also tend to become incensed when those very jobs provide benefits. It’s the argument you hear against minimum wage increases, when we’re all supposed to be insulted that people flipping burgers are making the same money as the rest of us. None of those folks ever seem to stop going to burger joints, so they expect that labor to be provided, and yet they can’t help holding the people providing that labor in contempt. It’s a contempt that extends to all sorts of jobs that we need for survival – we need people to drive our mass transit, for instance, to to cart away and treat our waste, yet how often have we heard “bus driver” or “garbageman” used as a pejorative?
So of course Mr. Owens is in a no-win situation. We all are. Because for all of our nation’s hard work ethic, we’re living in a society that seems to hold work in contempt.
Steinbeck once wrote that socialism would never take root in America, because we all view ourselves as temporarily dispossessed millionaires. Assume that those imaginary millionaires inherited all their wealth, or somehow willed it into being like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus, and I think you’ve got an idea of what’s going on here. If that’s how you see the world, then any job, no matter how important or fulfilling, represents failure on the part of the person who has to work it. And rather than deal with the self-loathing such a warped mindset must induce, the people who hold it are projecting it onto the rest of us.
Onto Mr. Owens. Onto me. Onto you.
It’s exhausting to deal with. And we’re going to have to work hard to overcome its effects on our society, and reassert our basic rights and dignity. It’s a long, hard road ahead.
It’s a good thing we have today off.